A beginner’s guide to dark social

What do you picture when you hear the term “dark social”? Portraits of nefarious networks of rogue computers might spring to mind. (Or maybe even Darth Vader scrolling through his burner Instagram account).

Dark social isn’t as scary as it sounds.

But, if you don’t pay attention to it, your brand could be missing out on measuring – and reaching – some key audiences.

What is dark social

Dark social is any channel that your business can’t track through traditional means.

In most cases, businesses can use Google Analytics (or another tool) to see what’s directing traffic to their website.

That’s not the case with dark social.

Let’s say you’ve come across a link on Reddit and want to share it with a friend. Rather than posting it to your Facebook or Twitter feed, you decide to copy and paste it into an email.

Your analytics tool won’t be able to see the source of where it’s coming from.

Instead it will get lumped in with a whole bunch of other unattributed traffic. (In the case of Google Analytics this will show up as “Direct” traffic).

That means that, anytime you share a post with a friend via email, you’re participating in dark social.

How prevalent is dark social

It’s not just email.

Dark social applies to any sort of application that involves direct person-to-person sharing, as well as a host of mobile applications.

In general you can group dark social around the following categories (list courtesy of Hootsuite): 1) Messaging apps: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, We Chat; 2) Native mobile apps: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; 3) Email; 4) Secure browsing: Browsers that have secure browsing enabled (possible with Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome etc.).

Think about how frequently you use these tools to like and consume content and you’ll begin to get a sense for how big it is.

“84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now takes place via private, Dark Social channels such as email and instant messaging”, says RadiumOne.

That’s a significant amount of activity to be defying your businesses’ measurement tools.

Why you need to pay attention to dark social

It’s an old saw. But in the case of dark social it’s particularly true.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

If a significant amount of what your audience is doing is outside your tracking ability, you won’t get a true sense for how to reach and sell to them.

Instead you’ll be left in the dark (pun intended, I guess?) about what has or hasn’t worked in trying to engage them. You’ll just have a bunch of traffic that you can’t attribute to any particular source.

The problem then becomes: How are you supposed to replicate your success if you can’t measure what caused it in the first place?

Or, conversely: How are you supposed to diagnose a problem if you don’t even know what created it?

Why dark social is more than just an analytics problem

The problem with dark social is that exists (almost) entirely outside your control.

Let’s illustrate this with a more traditional example.

Say you’re a recently-opened restaurant. You have a busy few weeks to start, but then traffic all of a sudden drops off.

You check the box at the front where you request customer feedback, but there’s nothing there. You go online to check your reviews on TripAdvisor – nothing. Even Google is bereft of reviews.

Instead you’re left to wildly speculate about what went wrong. Was it the food? The service? The lack of parking?

Without the right data, it’s impossible to know. Perhaps even the smallest tweak could have turned your fortunes around.

So it is with dark social.

When people are posting about your company publicly on Twitter or Facebook, you can use the data about what they’re saying.

You can also figure out how many people are discussing your brand and how frequently.

These are, for marketers, important data points about “filling the top of the funnel”.

But with dark social – like our woeful restaurant example above – all of that is hidden.

Dark social is on the rise

Dark social is a natural response to the decisions many social media platforms have been making in recent years.

Facebook, for example, has been pushing its Messenger app a lot recently – to the point where it removed the ability for users to message each other within the traditional Facebook app. Instead users had to download the separate Messenger app if they wanted to send direct messages to each other on Facebook.

A lot of social media apps have gone a similar route. When you click on a link from with the Twitter and Facebook apps, it now opens directly in the app. Then, if you click on a link from that page, you still stay in the app.

Similarly, applications like WhatsApp have also grown in popularity. In more than half of countries around the world, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging tool.

These are all links which analytics tools won’t necessarily be able to track.

How do I track traffic from dark social?

There are certain techniques you can use to measure how dark social affects your marketing efforts.

Check your “Direct” traffic in Google Analytics

Most of your dark social traffic will just show up as “Direct” traffic. This designation is reserved, in most cases, for users who typed the site into their browser and hit enter.

Look at any blog posts with lengthy URLs that have a significant amount of “Direct” traffic. Chances are users weren’t typing lengthy URL addresses into their browsers.

In this case it’s fair to estimate that these posts were popular on dark social.

Use UTMs and other tracking tools

Have you ever seen a funny looking link like this one before?

Building UTMs is one way of helping your company address dark social challenges.

All of that extra “baggage” on the end – “UTM_campaign=”, for example – are for tracking particular campaigns in Google Analytics.

It allows Analytics users to track the success of particular campaigns in driving traffic and hitting key conversion goals.
UTMs can help track your dark social traffic.

Say someone clicks on a UTM in Twitter. Then they pass it onto a friend via email.

This will allow you to track the original source of traffic.

(Even if it shows up as coming from Twitter, not email).

Give website visitors better sharing buttons on your website

This is a great way to encourage users to use a means of sharing that you can track.

Good social sharing buttons mean users will be more likely to share directly from the page instead of grabbing the link and dropping it in an email.

What dark social means for your business

The fact of the matter is that dark social is an issue that no business has yet to master.

This post from Econsultancy probably put it best: “Conclusion: let’s be honest, nobody really knows what the hell to do about it.”

Have you heard of any successful marketing or branding campaigns that have managed to “hack” into the phenomenon of Facebook Messenger?

Me either.

The field of dark social is ripe for an enterprising brand to develop an ingenious way to attract and retain audiences through one-to-one communication.

Mark Brownlee is a Digital Marketing Strategist with Banfield Agency.

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