Monday, April 9, 2018

Advertising Question of the Week: What Is Dark Social?

It sounds sinister. Like someone lurking in a corner talking smack about you. (Popularly known as high school.)

But dark social refers to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what web analytics programs are able to measure. And it often gets a bad rap. Especially from seasoned marketers

Dark Social Is Traffic That Comes from the Share of a URL 

Yet analytics tools like Google view it as direct traffic. So companies that are measuring their web traffic solely through old-school web analytics are missing key insights about how folks are really discovering their content and products.

Back in the dark ages of the internet, arriving at a site was predominantly a straight shot. If you wanted shoes, you went to Zappo’s site. If you wanted to start raising chickens or alligators (or both because you have issues), you went… to some other site. 

But now there are multiple ways one lands on a site:

Native Mobile Apps 

Mobile apps either fire up a browser instance in-app (such as Twitter), or force your current browser to open a new browser window with the URL in question in the browser. Either way, the browser goes directly to the site and looks like direct traffic to Google.


For the (perceived, at least) sake of privacy and security, most email-providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook don’t pass a referrer when a user clicks the link.


Whether it’s web/desktop based chat, or through chat-based native mobile apps, chat clients of all kinds don’t pass referrers either, leaving Google in the dark about their true origin. 

Even texting is considered dark social.

Many estimates state that 84% of social shares are dark. And this is precisely why it falls out of favor with those of the marketing ilk who rely on analytical insights to structure their social media strategies.

As such, dark social is often given labels such as ‘challenging’,  ‘worrisome’ and ‘terrifyingly horrible’. The last one is an exaggeration. And frankly, all of these words are restrictive in their scope.  

Marketers who want to achieve success with their social media marketing are approaching dark social from a new - and necessary - angle. And it’s this:  

Dark Social Is An Opportunity

Dark social has a huge impact on traffic. It reaches unique demographics; particularly the 55+ crowd, over 40% of whom share only through dark social. Dark social is
everywhere. And we mean, everywhere. It’s especially prevalent in industries like personal finance, food and drink, travel and executive searches. 

It’s an amazing marketing opportunity in that its data gives a detailed representation of consumers’ genuine interests. Getting familiar with this information allows marketers to access a targeted audience of connections for their clients.

“How do I get the data though?” you might be asking. “Didn’t you just say that dark social can’t be measured by web analytics?”

Settle down. 

Dark Social Is Getting Integrated into Digital Marketing Tactics

So far it’s slow-going, because it’s relatively restricted. And it should be. Sharing is often private for a reason and it would be rather callous of brands to hunt for insights among private conversations between friends. Or alligator and chicken breeders. 

But there are some tactics and tools marketers are employing to tap into some of this valuable information. For instance, they’re:

  • Shortening URLs for outbound links in content and emails, then tracking how many clicks those links receive.

  • Making sharing easier with thoughtfully placed, sophisticated share buttons that match the quality of content. 

  • Watching other social platforms by checking for a simultaneous spike in link traffic coming from sites like Reddit or Facebook.

And as time marches on, the tools and tactics will become more defined and elaborate. But dark social will probably always defy algorithms. And as long as ethics are in play, there will be no way to game email or people’s instant messages or texts. 

Which, even as marketers, we see as a good thing. There really is such a thing as too much information. 

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