What on earth is ‘dark social’ anyway?

Marketing / 06.07.16
Mark Vaesen

Research was released last month showing that a gargantuan 77 per cent of content is being shared via ‘dark social’ channels.

For social media marketers, that’s massive. The huge amount of dark social sharing shows how people are now consuming online media – switching from channel to channel over many devices per day.

But as the title suggests, what the heck is ‘dark social’?

Essentially, it’s visits to your website that comes from the sharing of content on social platforms that aren’t easily quantified. Traffic that doesn’t appear on Google Analytics in the ‘Social’ channel, but instead actually comes under ‘Direct’.

Visit a website, decide to share, copy the URL, and paste somewhere to send to your friends. That’s pretty much the journey for dark social.

Here’s a quick run-down of the main ways that you can get dark social traffic:

Email – say you want to share a link with a client of a particular blog post on your site. You’ll navigate to the post, grab the link, and hyperlink it within the email. Well, when clicked, this visit is classified as being direct! It doesn’t come under the ‘Email’ channel in Google Analytics as, in this example, it’s not been sent from an email service provider (ESP) such as MailChimp that has an automatically tagged URL. Links in emails sent by such ESPs are tagged with the correct UTM tracking parameter that identifies them as such within Google Analytics.

Chat apps – we’re mainly talking WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, as well as lesser-used ones such as Slack and Weibo. Such is their popularity that they’re obviously goldmines for dark social traffic. Like email, they don’t contain an inbuilt tracking code, meaning that once again a link click is recorded as ‘direct’.

Mobile apps – this is when you click on a link off the Twitter or Instagram apps and it opens in a not-quite-Safari-type browser. Directly opening the link in a new browser equals…you guessed it – direct traffic!

Here’s an example from our very own site, based on one of the last blog posts I wrote.

I mean, you don’t really think someone’s gone into their browser and typed in “/blog/cool-facebook-ad-experiments/”, do you?

Of course they haven’t! But, at the time of writing, that post is showing 131 direct hits on Google Analytics.

Where they’ve come from, I don’t know…so that begs the question, what can you do in the future to find out?

Dealing with dark social traffic

How can you proactively seek to track dark social traffic to get a better understanding of the browsing habits of your audience?

Add a tracking code to links

Google URL Builder is your best friend for tackling dark social head on.

For those not familiar with it, it allows you to add in extra pieces to a base URL that slot into various parts of Google Analytics.

If, for example, you want to keep an eye on whether contacts are clicking on links you’re copying directly into emails, you can add a ‘campaign source’ element. If you’ve got a particular campaign you want to specifically track website traffic for, you can add a ‘campaign name’ parameter, and there’s a couple of other parts to it as well.

A common use is to create a vanity URL for each offline campaign, and then redirect that URL to whatever forwarding address you assign to it — most likely your main domain. By creating a separate UTM code for TV commercials and print ads, for example, you can get data on which generates more traffic, conversions, etc. Furthermore, you can track not only the source and the medium (radio, newspaper, coupon, etc.), but even individual campaign names.

URL shorteners

You can throw a link into a service such as bit.ly and make a custom URL. These have the benefits of being a bit more engaging (bit.ly/cool-facebook-ads is a bit better than the original) and you can also track link clicks when signed in to it.

Add custom buttons

Why not integrate sharing buttons, similar to Facebook and Twitter ones, for WhatsApp? You’ll be able to add URL tracking (though use with a URL shortener – no-one wants a massive link in their WhatsApp chat!) and can keep a count of shares via this platform. Similarly you can add a similar button for email sharing.

Keeping in mind the growing prevalence of dark social sharing, taking steps to try and measure it can lead to valuable insights into the online behaviour of your audience. Marketers will have to adapt and use new or different tools to help capture this fragmented behaviour.

If you need some assistance with your brand’s social media, get in touch with Tomango today.