Oct 23, 2018

The Rise of ‘Dark Social’ and Using It Effectively

by Digital Marketing Institute

One of the reasons social media marketing is such an effective tool is because it’s so measurable and transparent. Every interaction, engagement, share, comment, and other action taken on social media can be tracked and analyzed, and this provides digital marketers and brands with a wealth of invaluable insights about their audiences. It also allows them to accurately gauge the success of their social media marketing campaigns.

But what if everything that happened on social didn’t stay on social? Put another way, what if there were things that started on social media but were then removed from the realm of the platform, making them invisible to the watchful eyes of analytics programs?

This is something that is in fact happening, and it’s a phenomenon that’s been termed dark social. This article will focus on what dark social is, the impact it’s having, and how you can use it to your benefit.

The Basic Tenets of Dark Social

Dark social refers to online actions that can’t be tracked. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal – who came up with the term dark social – describes it as ‘social traffic [that] is essentially invisible to most analytics programs'. It occurs when people come to a webpage by directly typing in a URL, using a bookmark, or clicking a link that lacks a referral tag (rather than clicking a link that can be traced). In other words, you’re in the dark when you try to figure out where the social traffic came from.

For instance, say your friend shares a news article on Facebook, and you decide you want to read it. You click the link and are redirected to the BBC’s website, and to that article specifically. If you were to examine the BBC’s site analytics, it would show that you were referred from Facebook.

But now let’s say that instead of sharing the article on Facebook, your friend instead copies the URL, pastes it into an email, and sends it to you. This link now lacks a referral tag. When you want to read the article, you click the link and are taken to the page. This time when you look at the BBC’s analytics, it will say the traffic was typed, direct, or bookmarked, which essentially means it doesn’t know where you came from.

Despite how much information you can garner from analytics, these platforms don’t see everything, such as that your friend’s email was the referral when you landed on that article. This is dark social, and if you don’t have a strategy in place to address it, then you’re missing a major piece of the puzzle.

Dark Social is Much More Prevalent Than People Think

The problem with dark social is that while many people are completely unaware of it, it actually accounts for as much as 84% of all web traffic. Moreover, this is up from 69% back in 2014, and there’s likely a correlation between this increase and the growing number of people using third-party platforms and apps to share content. A dark social referral happens any time people share links through private channels such as:

  • Facebook messenger
  • Email
  • SMS
  • Snapchat
  • WhatsApp and other messaging apps
  • Social media native apps

The Dangers of Not Addressing Dark Social

The information gleaned from analytics platforms is invaluable because it can tell you where your prospects are coming from, how they’re finding you, what they’re interested in, and so much more. Furthermore, you can then use this information to determine where to invest money in terms of advertising, marketing budgets, and other resources to drive further growth.

For example, if your analytics reveal that the majority of your traffic comes from Twitter, then you might want to consider putting even more time and money into your marketing efforts on that platform.

With dark social, you have no idea where your traffic is coming from, and this gap in your data can make it difficult to allocate resources for marketing and advertising efforts. Moreover, you could also be missing major opportunities to reach and engage audiences.

Dark Social is an Opportunity to Build Brand Awareness and Boost Sales

The important thing to realize about dark social is that it represents word-of-mouth sharing among friends, families, and associates. Say, for example, that you’re on your lunch break, scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, and come across a funny cat video. However, you only have a limited amount of time, and you’ve seen a hundred cat videos already this month, so you keep scrolling instead of watching it.

But now let’s say that instead of coming across the video in your newsfeed, your friend emails it to you with a note saying you’ll love it. This time, you watch the video. So what’s the difference? The referral is from a trusted source.

Finally, let’s say that the cat video was actually a product video: there’s a much higher chance that you’ll convert after watching the video because dark social is essentially a word-of-mouth referral. Brands can take advantage of this to build awareness, increase conversions, and drive sales.

Incorporating Dark Social into Your Digital Marketing Strategy

Using dark social to drive brand awareness and sales requires some finesse because you’re imposing on your audience’s personal space. Remember that dark social represents private conversations among friends, family, and other people who know and trust each other, and you can’t just barge in on the discussion and expect people to listen.

The best way to leverage dark social, therefore, seems to be through influencers. The great thing about influencers is that people already recognize and trust them, so they can act as intermediaries between you and your audience. Micro-influencers may be your best bet because they have fewer followers and tend to communicate with them on a more personal level.

Once you get an influencer on board, you can ask that person to spread the word about a brand by sending links to your audience through apps, messaging apps, emails, and other platforms where dark social messages get shared. However, when creating content that’s designed to access dark social spaces, there are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Create custom and personalized content for this purpose
  • Use content to engage in conversations
  • Avoid being overly promotional
  • Focus on interactive content that will encourage sharing
  • Emphasize the value you can provide rather than trying to sell

Identifying Your Dark Social Numbers

Dark social, by its very nature, is nearly impossible to track, but you can use Google Analytics to get a good idea of what you’re not seeing. Once you know how to do this, you can keep an eye on your dark social stats to see if the numbers are growing or shrinking (more on reducing dark social later). Here’s the process to follow to discover your dark social stats:

  1. Go to Audience – Overview – Add Segment
  2. Select Direct Traffic and deselect other segments, then click Apply
  3. Click Behavior – Site Content – All Pages
  4. Click Advanced
  5. In the drop-down menu, select Exclude
  6. Select Page for the dimension
  7. Use the field to input the URLs of your easy-to-remember pages, such as: www.funshoes.com, www.funshoes.com/blog, and www.funshoes.com/about*

*These are fictional URLs.

Once you go through these steps, you’ll have taken all the traffic Google lists as direct (which includes your dark social), and then excluded pages that site visitors could have reasonably typed directly into an address bar (such as funshoes.com). What you’re left with is longer URLs such as www.funshoes.com/catalogue/blue-suede-shoes-open-toe/123456. It’s highly unlikely somebody actually typed all that into an address bar, so it’s probably an example of dark social. Therefore, doing this will give you an idea of how many visitors are referred to your site through darks social.

Tips and Tricks to Reduce Dark Social

Although there are ways to use dark social to your benefit, it would be even better if you could also get access to the referral information. The good news is that there are a few things you can do to reduce dark traffic and gain more insight into your audience’s behavior.

One of the easiest tricks is to include moving sharing icons on all your content, because this will increase the likelihood that readers will click share (which is trackable) rather than copying and pasting the URL. Another thing you can do is assign Urchin Tracking Modules (UTMs) to all your custom URLs because Google can use these codes to track sources.


Dark social is a major issue that digital marketers have to face because too much web traffic out there is quietly lumped into the direct category. Without knowing your referral sources, it’s impossible to create a fully informed digital marketing campaign, and it leaves you open to spending marketing resources in the wrong places.

But dark social also provides an opportunity to connect with audiences on a more personal level, and the key is locating micro-influencers who can get your foot in the door. There are also things you can do to track your dark social numbers, and steps you can take to reduce the amount of traffic you can’t analyze.

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