The rise of dark social: Everything you need to know
You’d be forgiven for thinking the term ‘dark social’ refers to some kind of demonic get-together during which attendees feast on blood to please their overlords.
While potentially irksome to social media managers, dark social is somewhat less sinister than the above.
It simply refers to social sharing that can’t be accurately tracked, i.e. the stuff that isn’t picked up by web analytics platforms.
In this post I’m going to further explain what dark social means, why it matters, and whether there’s anything marketers can do about it.
What is dark social?
If somebody clicks a link to your site from an open social platform such as Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, your analytics platform will tell you exactly where that referral came from (in theory).
But people are increasingly sharing links through private messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Snapchat, and continue to share through platforms such as email or SMS.
Think about it: you find an interesting article, you simply copy and past the link into a messaging app and hit send.
Millions of people do this every day, sending lots of traffic to publishers. But links shared in this way lack referral tags, so when the recipient clicks on it their visit will show up as ‘direct’ traffic.
Which is kind of unfair, because it’s not really direct traffic, i.e. it’s unlikely that somebody would type 'https://econsultancy.com/blog/67108-is-sms-the-most-underrated-and-overlooked-dark-social-channel' into their browser.
But you can’t rightly expect an analytics platform to tell the difference.
Dark social is essentially the traffic that gets lumped into direct traffic in your analytics platform but actually comes from untrackable referrals.
Here are some of the channels responsible for dark social traffic:
Some native mobile apps – Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Email – to protect users’ privacy, referrers aren’t passed.
Messaging apps – WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, etc.
Secure browsing – If you click from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer won’t be passed on.
Why does it matter?
According to a RadiumOne study, almost 70% of all online referrals come from dark social globally. For the UK, this figure increases to 75%.
Granted it’s a study from 2014, but if anything I would argue the issue could only have become even more prevalent since then with the increasing usage of private messaging apps.
This means an enormous chunk of referral traffic is extremely difficult to track accurately, and anything that puts a cloud over your data isn’t particularly welcome.
If you don’t have the full picture, you might end up wasting your time and energy on optimising the wrong things.
But you also have to consider the value of this kind of traffic.
If I find a link for a product that I know my wife is looking for, and email that link to her, it’s fair to say she’s likely to convert.
Dark social traffic is therefore extremely valuable. It is effectively word-of-mouth between people who are likely to know each other well (it is safe to assume this if they’re communicating via something like private messaging apps or SMS).
What can you do about it?
You won’t be able to fully track dark social traffic, but there are some steps you can take to narrow things down.
If you look at your direct traffic in whatever analytics platform you’re using, it’s fair to say that any long links like the ones below – which are lumped in with our direct traffic on Analytics – were not typed in manually.
It is therefore safe to assume, at least with some accuracy, that most of those links are actually from dark social.
You could set up a segment in your analytics that takes into account all direct traffic links with parameters, so for us it would be links that aren’t econsultancy.com, econsultancy.com/blog and so on.
This enables you to get a reasonably accurate picture of much traffic is coming from dark social.
It still doesn’t help you in terms of where and how that content was originally shared, but it will help you explain the situation when your boss is barking at you to explain where all your traffic is coming from.
You should also include highly visible sharing buttons on your site (including UTM parameters so you can track them) to encourage people to share content using these rather than copying and pasting the link.
This comes down to user experience. Make the share buttons the quicker and easier option, and why would anyone not use them?
But make sure you include sharing buttons for email, WhatsApp and other dark social channels.
It is arguably more important to include these than buttons such as Facebook and Twitter where you can track traffic even if the link is copied and pasted.
Conclusion: let’s be honest, nobody really knows what the hell to do about it
I am being slightly facetious with that subheading. There are some really interesting conversations going on about the future of dark social.
But whatever you read or hear the consensus seems to be the same: you can narrow things down and be aware of roughly how much dark social traffic you’re getting, but so far I haven’t seen a convincing solution for accurately tracking it.
Now that dark social seems to be on everyone’s radar, however, I imagine some better tools and techniques will begin to materialise. When they do I’ll be sure to write about them.