Dark social sounds like some ominous place hackers roam and illegal transactions happen, but this is not the dark web. Dark social has to do with social sharing of brand content that's hidden.
Five years ago Alexis Madrigal coined the term dark social in The Atlantic. Some sharing of brand content is public and can be tracked, while other times sharing happens privately. In 2012 Madrigal estimated that around 69% of social referrals were 'dark' - this was 44% of The Atlantic's social traffic, and 18% of total referrals. And today dark social is growing.
What is dark social?
In basic terms, dark social is web traffic with no referral data because the link was shared through unmeasurable social media.
This can happen when direct URLs are copied and pasted to be shared through email, via text message, through secure browsing, direct messages, and messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, or Facebook Messenger. Dark social can also happen in native app content like Facebook Instant Articles, or Snapchat, which doesn't have clickable links.
Why is it dark?
In analytics programs like Google Analytics this traffic appears to be direct traffic, as if the exact URL was manually typed into the browser - yet that's highly unlikely when you have complicated URLs such as the one for Madrigal's article (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/)
How much is in the dark?
Radium One research has shown that dark social is increasing.
In 2014, they estimated that dark social shares as a percent of on-site shares to be 69% globally. By 2016, this number had increased to 84%m - eight out of ten consumer's outbound sharing from publishers' and marketers' websites happens in private without referral data. That would mean only 16% of sharing is happening via public social.
Marketers should note that these percentages can vary significantly depending on country, age group, and industry.
How do you track it?
The good news is that once you're aware of dark social, there are steps you can take to start measuring its impact, including the options below.
One way to start tracking dark social is to use shortened URLs. This enables brands to share unique links in social networks, in emails or on websites, through which they can then track clicks, moving them out of the dark. Shortened URLs can even be inserted into Snapchat images to track.
For brands that use Hootsuite, they have a built in URL shortener called Ow.ly. Other URL shortening options include Bitly.com, Goo.gl, TinyURL.com, and Po.st.
Social Share Buttons
Another way to move hidden social referral traffic out of the dark is to make sure websites have easy to find and use share buttons. When visitors use share buttons, instead of copy and pasting the direct URL, you can track this referral traffic.
Some considerations for website sharing tools include SumoMe, ShareThis, AddToAny, AddThis, Hootsuite Social Share, Po.st, and Buffer. Whatever share button tool you use make sure it includes all top messaging apps like WhatsApp and Slack so visitors will use the sharing tool instead of copy and paste.
While there is no dark social traffic report in Google Analytics, there is a way to narrow the direct traffic to referrals that are most likely dark social.
An article by Rachel Moore on Social Media Examiner explains that marketers can create a new advanced audience segment within direct traffic and narrow by behavior, one-by-one filtering out all easy to remember web pages including the homepage. What's left is, theoretically, the dark social traffic.
Another way to measure dark social with Google Analytics is to create unique UTM parameters for specific links the way you would use shortened URLs - for a detailed look at how to do this see Kristi Hines' article on the Sprout Social blog.
Dark Social Tools
There are also tools made to track dark social traffic. GetSocial.io can track share buttons, but also copy and pasted shares in dark social channels - just install html codes on your site and activate copy paste tracking. A similar service is Tynt (now part of SiteCTRL) that adds a trackable code when users copy your URL or part a webpage.
AddThis also installs code on a site to measure address bar copy and pasting, and ShareThis does the same with options to measure copy and shares of page content and/or copy and shares of URL's.
Finally, Po.st (owned by RadiumOne), offers analytics tools that add code to your site to track address bar shares.
Why measure dark social?
You may find out that social media is driving a lot more activity than you thought - this new data could improve social ROI and justify additional resources and budget for social media marketing. It may also help optimize your social media strategy and budget when you realize the majority of your focus may be going to a small part of your total shares.
What difference can this make? At Social Media Week, Kevin Shively, Head of Content Marketing for Simply Measured, explained that one of their clients started tracking dark social and found that 78% of that client's purchases were not being properly attributed. Their social media channels were selling a lot more than they were getting credit for.
Of course all of these methods to start tracking dark social are meaningless if no one is sharing your content. The most important factor contributing to sharing is the content itself.
As Sydney Parker from Hootsuite points out:
"No good content = no sharing, however sophisticated your optimization efforts may be."
How much of your good content is getting shared in the dark?