Dark Social: What It Is and What to Know



No, it’s not what you think. Dark social isn’t some never-seen-before place on social media where the bad guys reside. Unlike the dark web, it’s also not a haven for illegal activities. Indeed, dark social poses no threat to social media users or the information they choose to share on these platforms.

Unfortunately though, for digital marketers, dark social might have a significant impact on your campaign. So, here’s what you need to know;

What is Dark Social?

The term dark social was coined by social media guru, Alexis Madrigal, in 2012. It describes social media activities that cannot be tracked by web analytics tools. Primarily, it refers to the content shared via email or private messaging apps. Though vital to social media measurement, such information is impossible to trace using analytics software.

Picture two friends sharing a website link on, say, WhatsApp. The first person (A) comes across a beautiful site with products that she feels her friend (B) would appreciate. So, friend A copies the site’s URL link and pastes it in a WhatsApp message to friend B. Upon coming across the link, friend B clicks it to visit the website.

This is an excellent example of dark social. Links shared in this manner don’t have referral tags. Thus, when the recipient clicks on them, analytics tools will list the visit as “direct” traffic when, in truth, it’s referral traffic.

Platforms and channels notorious for fueling dark social include;

  • Some native mobile applications: e.g., Facebook and Instagram
  • Messaging applications: e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat
  • Email: Email referrers aren’t passed because of privacy laws
  • Secure browsing: When you shift from HTTP to HTTPS

Why Does it Matter?

In the grand scheme of things, dark social doesn’t really matter much. In any case, all the marketer wants is traffic, right? As long as it’s good traffic (where the visitor is genuinely interested in buying), we count the marketing campaign as successful.

What may not be so pleasant to marketers, however, is the lack of clarity. The ever increasing costs of marketing combined with the competitiveness of today's market mean you need to account for every dollar spent. You can't afford to put money in areas that don’t promise as many returns.

Dark social takes away some of that clarity, which can make it difficult for marketers to allocate campaign budgets accordingly. It misleads marketers into thinking that they are getting more direct visits even when most of the direct visitors are actually referral traffic. In the end, marketers may incorrectly allocate more resources to direct traffic campaigns at the expense of referral campaigns, potentially leading to poor ROI (return on investment).

According to Statista, around 60% of all referral traffic comes from dark social, so you can see how this confusion can be costly for digital marketers.

What You Can Do

It’s impossible to do away with dark social completely. However, there are steps you can take to get a better understanding of your direct vs. referral traffic.

One such measure, according to e-Consultancy, is redefining what direct traffic means in your analytics software. To avoid confusion, e-Consultancy, for example, says they only treat and searches as direct traffic. Searches with additional parameters are treated as referrals with the assumption that very few people would type extra long URLs in a search engine.

Aside from that, make it a habit to include sharing links in your content so that visitors don’t have to copy-paste your URLs. Email and WhatsApp links are particularly important as these are two of the most notorious channels for dark social sharing.

Looking for help? Tired and believing there has got to be a better way?

Let’s talk about life, leadership, and business coaching. With over a decade of experience leading companies and transforming lives, and a Master’s degree in Org Development and Leadership, Mike can help you find the best way forward!

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