Dark Social Episode II: The Analytics Strike Back

Last week, we explained what dark social is. We also explained why marketers see dark social as a threat, why dark social can’t be tracked, and why dark social sharing is rapidly increasing and shows no signs of slowing down.

This week, we promised a solution. To quote my last-week self, “the solution to tracking dark social is an entirely different beast that goes back to the construct and inception of the Internet’s earliest days.” Because, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

So, what are our options for combatting dark social? What tools can be used to give Google Analytics the information it needs to provide us, as marketers, with the information that our campaigns depend on? There may not be a quick fix, but there are certainly loopholes that you can use to your advantage.

1.) Make multiple landing pages, one for each channel driving traffic. Are these efforts duplicative? You bet. But these pages, and the analytics on these pages, will at the very least give you an idea of which channel is driving visitation and sharing, even if that sharing is coming through dark social. For example, if RP3 creates identical landing pages for this blog post with a different hyperlink for the Facebook promotion to link to, for the Twitter promotion to link to, for the email blast to link to, and for the LinkedIn promotion to link to, we’ll be able to look into Google Analytics and measure that direct traffic on each of those landing pages. If the direct traffic in Google Analytics outnumbers the recorded clicks from Hubspot or our social platforms, we’ll know which platform is driving the most dark shares and dark social traffic.

2. ) Using UTM codes and link shorteners to track traffic. A UTM code is a code that you can attach to a URL in order to track a source. UTM codes are long, complicated, and don’t look great on paper. Here’s a UTM code linking to last week’s blog post: https://rp3agency.com/blog/episode-rise-dark-side/?utm_source=RP3link2&utm_medium=RP3blog&utm_campaign=DarkSocial&utm_content=Episode1. If you were to click this link, our Google Analytics would know that you came from this blog post in order to get there. We’d know this because this blog post, the page where you are right now, is the only place where this link exists.

By shortening that complicated link with a link shortener like bit.ly, you can hide the crazy and the complicated so that the link looks like this: http://rp3.io/2piG11Q. It’s the same link as above, but looks less spammy and is more inviting to click on. Bit.ly also works to track clicks so that you can compare how many people clicked on the bit.ly link with Google Analytics findings.

In keeping with the pattern of dark social, the issue arises when this link is shared. If you were to click the above link with the UTM code, go to my previous blog post, and want to share that blog post with your friends, you’d copy that link in the address bar. That link will contain the UTM code, and is tailored to communicate with Google Analytics that whoever clicks on that link came from this page, Episode II: The Analytics Strike Back. But your friend who clicks the link in their text messages or in their email will not be coming from this blog post. This will throw your metrics off, unless you adjust your KPIs from Google Analytics.

3. ) Take a portfolio approach to metrics. Speaking of adjusting your KPIs, you may have to do just that. Instead of rigidly measuring channel attribution, try a portfolio approach to metrics. Use those general engagement metrics where channel attribution isn’t as important, like time on site or pages per visit, to measure the engagement your content is getting. Creating a more general, overall impression of your website audience using metrics like pages per visit, repeat page visits, etc. can more readily contribute to your overall business strategy.

You can also make some basic assumptions about direct traffic that might let you attribute some traffic to dark social. Traffic that comes directly into a long URL – pretty much any URL that isn’t your homepage – is most likely the result of content being shared through dark social channels. You can create an advanced segment in Google Analytics to help approximate this audience by filtering for direct traffic that arrives at deep links beyond the homepage.

4.) Last but not least: create great content. And just accept that you won’t be able to answer all of the questions that you want to answer.

Yes, being able to prove results from advertising efforts is the foundation of this entire industry. But as technology and communication continue to evolve, we must adapt and adjust our views of success. Just as coupon scans and phone calls have moved down the KPI totem pole over the last 60 years, marketers need to customize success metrics based on how people interact with their content. Even when it isn’t trackable, sharing is sharing. The tools that people use to share are simply shifting. Clients want people to talk about their brand. Agencies want people to talk about their client’s brand. Something that has not changed in the sharing economy is quality of content. And with the right content, conversations will continue to happen, whether it’s in front of their social media friends or in the shadows.

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Becca Marshall is a Social Media Strategist at RP3 Agency with a knack for extending brand identities and multimedia marketing efforts into authentic social media personas.

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