Dark Social – What is Dark Social Media and How Does it Impact Digital Marketing?

Dark social, dark traffic, or dark social media is the name given to content shares that occur through private channels, making them invisible to marketers. Often lumped in with direct traffic in analytics tools and website backends, the actual origin of dark social shares is difficult to determine. This is because links shared privately do not contain tracking or referral tags. As a result, plenty of social sharing is going on without brands knowing about it, significantly skewing the data used to assess campaign performance and ROI.

Squarebird are a digital marketingdesign, and development agency based in Bristol. We create innovative digital solutions that drive business growth, and therefore have plenty of experience when it comes to tracking traffic, understanding data, and interpreting ROI.

In this blog, we explain everything you need to know about dark social and its implications for digital marketing.

What is Dark Social?

The term ‘Dark Social’ was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in a 2012 article for the Atlantic. Convinced our understanding of the internet was wrong, he set out to disprove the idea that social media platforms created a social web. Instead, he believed that the web was social from the very start.

Working with analytics firm Chartbeat, he discovered that direct traffic could be split into two categories – people visiting the homepage or main landing page, and people visiting any other page. They hypothesised that it was unlikely users were actually typing in the longer, more complicated URLs for these pages. For example, we’re guessing you didn’t type in: [https://www.squarebird.co.uk/dark-social-what-is-dark-social-media-and-how-does-it-impact-digital-marketing/] to get here!

Instead, they decided that this traffic surely had to be via a link referral, but a link referral that didn’t bring any tracking data with it. This amounted to a 56.5% of the Atlantic’s social shares – significantly more than other methods. Across a broader range of sites, this figure rose to 69% (compared to only 20% from Facebook, and 6% from Twitter!). Clearly, dark social is not a niche phenomenon, but the principal way people interact with content online.

Read next: What Are Pillar Pages?

Sources of Dark Social Traffic

  • Emails – user privacy is protected meaning tracking data is not passed on
  • End-to-End Encrypted Messaging Apps – e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger
  • Other Mobile Apps – e.g., Facebook, Instagram
  • Secure Browsing – when you move from a HTTPS address to a HTTP address, referrer data is not passed along

How is Dark Social Affecting Your Brand?

Brands and marketers need to know where their traffic is coming from. Why? Because without accurate data about traffic sources and engagement, it’s impossible to make informed decisions when it comes to future campaigns and where to invest marketing spend. Representing 69% of worldwide traffic, tailoring content to this invisible majority is key.

Dark social reveals that optimising content for Facebook and Twitter isn’t actually optimising at all. As Madrigal points out in his article, you can’t use tricks and tactics to fool the dark social bots and algorithms – there aren’t any there to beat. Instead, you have to write, and write well. You have to create content that people want to talk about and share with their friends and family.

Social Media Marketing >

The Importance of Dark Social for Marketing

Skews Data
Social sharing on public feeds is declining, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t engaging with content. Instead, concerns over data protection have led people to share links privately via messaging apps. This private communication is likely to form a significant part of your traffic, but it’s much more difficult to measure. And, failing to take the data into account is inevitably going to result in a distorted view of your engagement.

Consumer Interests
Figuring out how to track and measure information about dark social sharing will provide a detailed overview of your target audience’s real interest, values, and opinions. This data can be leveraged to boost the effectiveness of your future marketing projects – but most businesses aren’t even trying to collect it! In fact, a 2018 survey found that only 4% of marketers regard dark social as a top challenge (source).

Learn more: Creating a Buyer Persona – Digital Marketing Strategy >

Brand Narrative
Dark social sharing excludes brands from the conversation. Not only do marketers not know how much something is being shared, but they also don’t know what people are saying about it, or how brand narratives are developing. Unlocking dark social provides a greater deal of control, helping businesses make sure they’re cultivating a positive brand image.

Find out more about how we develop brands >

Marketing Opportunity
Dark social is a challenge for marketers, but it also represents a real opportunity. People communicating privately are more likely to engage and interact with the links shared because they trust the people sharing them. That means figuring out ways to harness the power of dark social will significantly boost authentic engagement and make conversions more frequent.

Why Your Website Should Drive Conversions and How to Monitor Them >

What to Do About Dark Social

Create Content Worth Sharing
Want to know how to market for the dark? Essentially, you need to create compelling content that users can’t help but engage with; content that doesn’t set out to sell, but content that starts a conversation and prompts interaction. There are no sneaky tricks for success here, and no hacks to beat the bots. Words have power, and great writing gets shared. It’s as simple as that.

Encourage Social Sharing
Making sure your social sharing buttons are prominent is a great way of encouraging content sharing in a way you can measure. Shares via these buttons do contain referral data, which means encouraging their use is a great way to ensure campaign trackability.

Optimise for Mobile
Over 90% of the global internet population use mobile devices to go online (source). When you consider the fact that dark social shares often occur via mobile messaging apps, it quickly becomes clear how vital mobile tailoring is. Fundamentally, content that provides a negative UX on mobile just isn’t going to be shared.

Mobile-First Design – How to Do It and Why >

Interact with Consumers on Their Terms
Many brands are already formulating strategies to access and leverage dark social. AI is proving a popular solution, with Adidas, Starbucks, and others using bots on private messaging apps to hold two way conversations with consumers and conduct market research. It might also be worth creating highly sharable content tailored dark social channels such as branded GIFs and videos.

Try to Measure Dark Social
Measuring private sharing is tricky, but there are some online calculators out there that work alongside Google Analytics to reveal dark social statistics. This can also be done manually by reviewing data about how people land on your website. Do exactly what Chartbeat and Madrigal did, and separate direct traffic into main page and all other traffic.

There are also plenty of nifty tracking tricks marketers use to better understand traffic. From UTMs to tag manger, there are many ways to get the data your business is interested in, just ask the experts!

Whilst this isn’t an exact science, it will provide a good sense of your content’s effectiveness, particularly if you do this around the time of a new marketing campaign.

Bristol’s Leading Digital Marketing Agency

Dark social has power, so why not make the most of it? Our team of talented designers, copywriters, and digital marketing specialists can help you create an original marketing campaign destined to get talked about. Head turning, eye catching, memorable, unforgettable. Get in touch with our friendly team today and we’ll help you join the dark side.

Get a free consultation call with our team.