Dark Social Episode I: Rise of the Dark Side

What is Dark Social?
Dark Social, a term coined by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, is one-to-one social sharing through direct communication: email, text, instant messaging programs like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, What’s App, or even direct messaging on Snapchat or Instagram (to name a few).

We’ve all copy-and-pasted a link from a website and hit send in a text or an email. Maybe we don’t want to post the content publicly on Facebook or Twitter because we don’t want the world to know we’ve been taking Harry Potter Sorting Hat quizzes, so we paste the link in an email. Or maybe your friend is in the market for a new blender and you’ve come across an online coupon. First off, the rest of your Facebook friends don’t care about this blender. And second, texting a link to the coupon may be the quickest way to get it to them. Whatever the reason, congratulations! You’ve made it to the dark side.

Why is Dark Social Threatening to Marketers?
Because the website visits from dark social can’t be tracked. And not only website visits, but all of the social sharing and engagement resulting in those website visits can’t be tracked. At the end of the quarter when your boss asks, “Where did all of this direct website traffic come from?” a shrug of the shoulders and an educated guess (Email forwards? What’s App? Facebook Messenger?) doesn’t help to prove CPA, ROI or any other acronyms that next year’s marketing budget depends on.

Google Analytics and dark social are like oil and water. Private sharing is exponentially harder to track than content being shared publicly on social media. And when 84% of outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites comes from dark social, it’s frustrating, to say the least, when the resulting website traffic can’t be attributed to social media, or anything at all.

Why Can’t Dark Social Be Tracked?
Google categorizes website traffic into a few buckets:

  • Direct Traffic: Someone types http://rp3agency.com/blog in the address bar and off they go (bookmarked pages also put traffic into this bucket)
  • Search Traffic: Someone types RP3 into Google and then clicks on the RP3 Google recommendation
  • Social: Someone coming to RP3’s website from social sources. If I see and click on last week’s RP3 blog post in my Facebook newsfeed, my click would register in the “social” bucket. Other familiar social sources include Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Other: This reports link clicks from other sites. If someone saw the article about RP3’s Gold ADDY win at the American Advertising Awards DC on The Capitol Communicator and clicked on “RP3 Agency” in the body of the story, RP3’s analytics would count this website traffic as “other”

Dark social links, however, don’t contain the referrer data that Google needs – and it’s where all of the tracking trouble begins. Allow me to explain in yet another example of shameless (yet informative!) self-promotion:

If I were to email my dad a link to my previous blog post, https://rp3agency.com/blog/whats-next-influencer-marketing/, his page visit would be registered as “direct.” Did he come from Facebook? Nope. Did he search Google to find the post? Nope. Was he linked to the post from another website? Nope. To Google, it looks like my dad typed in the exact hyperlink, dashes, backslashes and all, because poof, he just appeared on that page without a source.

Why is Dark Social a Big Deal?
Because marketers need to know what content is working, which pages gain traffic, and which channels lead to results, acquisition, or conversion. As mentioned above, a whopping 84% of social sharing takes place via private, dark social. This number has shot up from 53% in August 2014 and 62% in February 2015 with no signs of slowing down. As social media continues to evolve and people become more and more aware of how they are being perceived on their social profiles, dark social will continue to flourish in efforts to avoid judgment from peers based on the content they share publicly.

At the end of the quarter, convincing your boss that social media promotional budgets are in fact generating interest and awareness, despite only 11% of site-originated mobile shares happening via Facebook in 2016, is no easy task when there aren’t cold, hard Google Analytics to back you up.

So, What Do We Do About It?
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. Did that sound dramatic? Because it actually is that dramatic.

Next week, I’ll have some answers to this question. Why can’t I answer it now? Because I honestly don’t have all the answers yet. On Friday, April 21, I’ll be discussing social sharing, dark social, and more on a panel of social media experts at the Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit in Washington, DC. With our powers combined, we may finally be able to identify the light at the end of this dark (social) tunnel.

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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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