Dark social: an introduction

Ever read a really great article online and absolutely had to share it with a friend or colleague? So you quickly copy the link in your web browser and email it? I do this often. We all do. Congratulations, you’ve just participated in dark social media.

But dark social isn’t as sinister as it sounds though. It’s just a bitch for marketers and brands.

What is dark social?

Dark social is basically content that is shared via private channels like email, SMS and messaging apps (WhatsApp, FB Messenger, WeChat etc.).

If you’re using Google Analytics, you’ll notice the various traffic sources. You’ve got Search, Referral, Social and Direct. Dark social is traffic that is not attributed to a known source.

Most marketers use UTM tags (if you don’t, you should). But if someone copies a link on your website and sends it to a friend on WhatsApp, there are no tags associated with that link. The usual referral tags are missing. And you lose all tracking on those links that are being shared on private channels.

Why is it important?

Instant messaging apps are surpassing the top social media apps in terms of downloads. In South Africa alone, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are the most downloaded apps across both the Google Play and Apple iOS store. (Source: The SA Social Media Landscape 2018 report by World Wide Works and Ornico)

Messaging apps might not be overtaking social media apps in terms of monthly usage yet, but they may soon. In July 2017, Facebook reported 2 billion active users while WhatsApp reported 1.3 billion.

In 2016, a study run by RadiumOne (a digital marketing company) showed that 84% of content shared from a website is done via dark social. And of the resulting clicks on those shares, 62% come from mobile devices.

Dark social does have its benefits though. As a result of all that sharing, your content is potentially being read by an entirely new audience. An audience that’s different to the one you usually market to. You are also able to see what content people really want to read and are truly interested in. Because no one shares content they’re not interested in.

So how do you measure dark social traffic?

Dark social isn’t completely untrackable. It’s just harder and not entirely a 100% true reflection of your web referral traffic. The bad news is that dark social is pretty much dumped into your Direct traffic. But the good news is that you can tell what traffic is coming from the private social and sharing channels.

When in your Google Analytics dashboard, navigate to the Acquisition section and view the Direct channel. Under Landing Pages, you’ll see a list of all the URLs that have been tracked and are commonly accepted as a result of someone directly typing in the link. It’s highly unlikely that someone will type (or even remember to type) https://medium.com/@megankakora/insights-to-go-69c0bcff8f34 into their browser window, though. And that’s your dark traffic. All the long-string URLs that us humans aren’t likely to memorize.

You can set up custom reports to group these URLs so it’s easier to report on them, but there are other things you can do as well.

1. Make sure the sharing buttons on your website are placed strategically. They need to be prominent at the top and bottom of the page. You can also float them along the side of the page or place them near important phrases you think your audience might be tempted to share.

2. Increase your share buttons to include mobile sharing. ShareThis have sharing buttons for email, SMS and WhatsApp. They make it easier for your audience to share your content with their friends on the channels they prefer, but it’s also easier for you to track those shares.

Dark social was a term first used by Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012. So it’s been around for a few years. But other than track it, no one really knows what else to do about it. At least now you know what dark social is as well, and can start shining a light on it in your reports.

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