What is Dark Social and how do you bring it to light?

What is Dark Social? The terms refer to private sharing in instant messaging and email that is a bit tricky to uncover. This post is a "what is" and "how to" article all at once.

When digital marketers talk about “dark social” and “dark posts” – they must mean the same thing right? But no. Nothing is supposed to be easy in the world of buzzwords.

The term “dark social” was first used in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal in an article in The Atlantic. and refers to the 69% (back in 2012) of the social sharing of online content that is done in private channels like instant messaging and email – and therefore hard to measure.

Dark posts, on the other hand, are a type of ad format. Dark post ads that look like regular social media posts, but they don’t show up in a brands organic social media feed. This ad format makes it possible to show different messages to different audiences, without the recipients for a specific ad message knowing about the ones others get. (However, we don’t talk about dark posts as much after organic reached has dropped dramatically on many platforms. There’s a much smaller need for dark post ads since no one sees a brands organic posts anymore anyway).

What is Dark Social?

Dark social has nothing to do with ads. Instead, it refers to private sharing of links in channels that don’t reveal themselves to web analytics platforms. Instead, content is shared “in the dark” through channels such as e-mail, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Text messages and WhatsApp. There’s also a social component to dark social – every share is a social interaction between two or more people. So, if it makes it any easier to wrap your head around, think “private sharing.”

Suppose a customer visits your website and find a pair of shoes she thinks one of her friends will love. Instead of clicking on the share icon, she copies the URL to the page and opens up Facebook Messenger, pastes the link into a message and send it to her friends. She might add a comment, but either or, her friends can now click and explore the link. This is a classic example of  “dark social.”

You can compare this way of sharing content with “open sharing” – when you post a link to your website on your Facebook page. You want these posts to be seen by as many potential customers as possible and for them to take action that suits your business goals. The post shows up (well, they used to) in users’ feeds and they can like, comment, and share it – on Facebook or elsewhere.

The challenge with “dark social”

“Dark social” is challenging for most marketers due to its nature – it takes place in private channels – and this makes it harder to uncover and understand. According to ambitious estimations – around 80% of all shares of content are done over “dark social”, but this traffic shows up as direct traffic (when someone types in your URL in their browser directly) in your web analytics tool. That’s a lot of traffic stemming from somewhere you don’t know.

The simple reason for the darkness is that when a user shares a URL by copying and pasting instead of sharing a link you’ve created, there are no campaign indicators at the end of the URL. And without campaign indicators, or a referral webpage, your web analytics tool is blind and can’t tell from where a user comes.

Doing marketing in the dark is very often less successful than the alternative. If you’re able to uncover this type of private sharing, and what results come out of it, you’d have some essential keys to improve and increase your results. It might be time to start viewing Dark Social as a marketing channel of its own…

Who’s sharing in private?

Most users share content in private for different reasons than they do openly. While you might post publicly on your Facebook page or in your Twitter-feed to recommend something to your followers – you are also adding to the story about yourself. Open shares are often done by 90% to make you look good, and 10% because you believe you’re doing someone else a service. It’s very much “Hey, look at this 20-minute New Yorker article about the immigration reform I just read two paragraphs from – I’m such an ambitious human being, reading articles like this one”.

Dark social, or private sharing, have swapped these numbers. Most likely a private share is 90% about the receiver. The people who share privately are often consumers who are at the bottom of your marketing funnel or committed advocates of your brand. They are sharing your links to their friends, families, and co-workers almost exclusively because they believe they are relevant.

And, since people love to recommend things to others, uncovering your dark social data can be a gold mine. Optimising your content for private sharing can be much more lucrative than optimising for SEO or open shares. But this opportunity — like most other things that can improve your business results — takes some effort.

Why you should care about “Dark Social”

With messaging apps outpacing social networking apps when it comes to active users, dark social becomes an essential part of your marketing strategy. Many messaging services are also continually developing new features to improve the experience of instant messaging making users investing even more time on these platforms.

And if you are blind to 80% of all the shares to your site – it’s evident that you’re missing the whole picture on the social activity hidden among your direct traffic. By using this data, you can learn a lot about your business – about the products, content or pages on your website that are most important to your audience. Insights that help you transform your emails, social content and ads.

There’s also an aspect of personalisation to dark social. If you know someone who lands on your page is likely sent there through a personal recommendation from someone, they are probably not as high up in the funnel as it might seem at first glance. Giving these users an experience that is more focused on conversion than you might want to provide users arriving from other channels, could be an interesting idea.

How to track “Dark Social” with Google Analytics

If you want to uncover traffic from “dark social” or private sharing in Google Analytics, there are several things you can do to at least get a better picture than if you do nothing. But until there’re better methods for tracking website shares through messaging apps, we’ll need to use workarounds to find the hidden data we treasure in monitoring tools like Google Analytics.

How do you set up Google Analytics to get a hint of your dark social traffic?

  1. When you visit Google Analytics in your web browser choose “Audience –> Overview” in the left sidebar. Click on “Add Segment” in the upper middle of the screen.
  2. From the list of segments pick “Direct Traffic”. Make sure there’s no other segment from the list picked but Direct Traffic. Scroll down and click “Apply”.
  3. Now you want to narrow the traffic down even further – to find out where on your site your dark social traffic lands. Go to “Behavior –> Site Content –> All Pages”. This page displays a list with all the pages on your site to which people have arrived directly. Some of these pages might have been reached directly by someone manually typing the URL into their browser bar. But it’s also pretty unlikely that someone types in a long URL to a specific landing page when they visit your site directly. So, now you want to filter out the URLs that are memorable enough for users to do this.
  4. Click “Advanced” in the bar just above your list of pages to create a new filter.
  5. Choose “Exclude” in the drop-down list and select Page as your dimension. At the end of the row, type in the directory of one of your simpler page URLs – things like “/contact”, “/blog”, or “/about”. (Tip: When you type in a forward slash “/” in the box you’ll get suggestions for pages you can enter.)
  6. Add more pages to the filter by selecting “+ Add a dimension” and doing step 5 over again until all the pages you want to list are listed.
  7. Click “Apply” to activate the filter and get a list of the harder-to-remember URLs from your site that don’t have any referrer data. These visits are probably a result of dark social traffic.

Other clever ways to uncover Dark Social Traffic

Now that you’ve identified the pages people share in email, messages and texts, there’s a couple of nifty moves to gain even more insight.

If you add better sharing buttons for your content and include messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Slack and WhatsApp among the options you can hope that people use the buttons instead of copy–paste. If they do, you can get the referral data you need to track from where your visitors arrive.

Another way is to ask them, for example by adding “lead magnets” to your page. Lead magnets are high-value content that you lock-in behind an action that you want your visitors to take. So, to unlock the content visitors might need to answer a question about how they found your site.

Some final takeaways

Back in 2012 already, 69% of all social referrals came from dark social. Today, that number is even higher. Still – the interest among most marketers to understand this traffic segment is negligible.

With our existing web analytics tools, most of us can find out a lot about how and when visitors share or content in private, and what content they share. A small investment to get a lot more out of our marketing efforts and create better user experiences.

Or, you can listen to those who claim it’s Better in the Dark.

And, finally – what do you think? How much traffic are you’re getting from “dark social”? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll get smarter together.

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