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What Is Dark Social? (+ 3 Tools to Help Measure It)

In an era of likes and social sharing, it may feel safe to assume that everything happens in mass publicly. Every person shares every article, meme, and video over trackable social media, right?

Your best performing blog post is only being spread through public tweets and Instagram stories. Duh.

If you believe that, then dark social is definitely working outside of your radar.

What Is Dark Social?

It’s not the Death Star’s Twitter account, that’s for sure.

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Dark social refers to any social shares that don’t contain any digital referrer info about the source of the content.

Alexis Madrigal, former deputy editor of The Atlantic, gave it its name in 2012.

Website analytics have a tough time identifying where links shared through private messaging channels come from, creating a black hole of data. That gap keeps companies from effectively tracking traffic and their marketing efforts.

If you observe your analytics dashboard, you’ve probably noticed “direct” traffic, but have never been able to place where it’s coming from.

More than likely, it’s dark social working.

Where Is Dark Social Hiding?

Private channels aren’t typically at the forefront of a marketer’s mind. Nevertheless, 84 percent of shares happen via private or dark social channels.

Some of the most common dark social traffic channels are:

  • Messaging Apps: Direct DMs, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger
  • Email: Gmail, Yahoo!, etc.
  • Native Mobile Apps: Facebook, Instagram
  • Secure Browsing: When a user switches from HTTPS to HTTP, referrer data isn’t passed on

All of those channels omit one incredibly important piece of data: tags in the metadata. Without the source tag, marketers aren’t able to identify exactly where their traffic is coming from.

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And when you’re performing analysis and audits on your strategies, you need to know what’s working and how.

It’s even more prevalent on mobile devices. RadiumOne found that 62 percent of dark social traffic comes from mobile sources, while only 38 percent comes from desktops.

The Impact Dark Social Has on Your Business

Ok, so now you know about the mysterious gap in your metrics. What exactly does that mean for your business? You’ve been operating around it for this long, haven’t you?

Maybe, but there’s a lot of insights you’re missing out on if you’re not keying into that traffic.

Messaging Is Overtaking Social Media.

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Between 2017 and 2018, dark social traffic increased by 115 percent. With the rise in messaging apps, namely WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Viber, global activity counts are higher than those compared to social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Private channels are becoming increasingly more popular, which means that content sharing is happening through dark social.

It can be a bit of a headache for marketers since many are only just getting their social marketing strategies to take off. That’s not to say that those campaigns should be abandoned. There are plenty of leads that can come from social platforms.

But neglecting your dark social traffic means you’re neglecting the 2.52 billion people using messaging app this year. Instead, start tapping into the potential of dark social as it continues to grow.

There’s Intel on Your Audience.

Dark social data has a lot of insight into who your visitors are and what they mean for your business. By analyzing that data, you can start planning more targeted marketing that will have a greater impact on your audience.

The two primary insights you can mine for growth opportunities are your demographics and their interests.

Demographics

Do you know which consumers are sharing via dark social? Do you have a true understanding of your consumers’ behaviors?

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Forty six percent of consumers age 55 and older share only via dark social, while only 19 percent of those in the age group of 16 to 34 do.

Interests

By learning how and what your consumers are sharing, you can learn more about what their true interests are. Which articles are they privately sending to their friends and family over Facebook Messenger or email?

Do they prefer the dog gif article or the kitten one?

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That’s a silly example, but you get the point. You might think that you already know what it is your leads like, but gathering more data to back your assumption will never hurt.

How To Measure and Convert Your Dark Social Traffic

Tapping into those insights can make a world of a difference for your business. Dark social is hard to track, but it isn’t impossible.

There are best practices to help you measure and combat your dark social traffic.

Perform a Direct Traffic Audit.

Looking into your direct traffic will actually reveal a lot to you about your visitors and their watering holes.

With analytics software like Google Analytics, you can filter your data and observe your metrics over different time frames. Perform a full audit of your traffic sources and identify how much direct traffic you’re pulling in.

If you create a filter that will exclude traffic sent to your main landing page, then you can get a rough estimate of just how many hits you’re getting from dark social.

Shorten Your Links.

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Shortened URLs are useful for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they just look so much cleaner. Both in the address bar and on social platforms.

But in relation to dark social, you have a bit more control over the structure of the URL and can track real-time clicks. You can even add your own custom tags or UTMs to make tracking your content easier.

Make Sharing User-Friendly.

Every marketer knows that shares are a huge asset to any content marketing strategy. Through social proof and word of mouth, your established leads can spread brand awareness to others through social shares.

And, as we’ve now learned, dark social.

You can make it dramatically easier to earn those shares by providing your viewers quicklinks on your website. Strategically placed share buttons and a short call to action can entice viewers to comment, share, and further engage with your content.

Make them easy to spot and be sure to distinguish the difference between a “share” button and a “follow” button, assuming that your business has social accounts.

Which, of course, push for a follow also if it’s appropriate.

Keep an Eye Out For Traffic Spikes.

Any unusual link traffic spikes from an unknown source is a pretty good indicator of dark social activity.

Even though you might have a tough time identifying where the traffic came from through your analytics software, there’s still a way of finding a source.

Dig into user agent data and identify the line of code that a user leaves behind after visiting a site. It’ll fill you in on their operating system, browser type, and, on occasion, details about the referrer.

The 3 Best Dark Social Tools for Marketers

Keeping up with dark social can be pretty involved, but, thankfully, dark social isn’t such a foreign anomaly anymore. Developers have come up with new ways to key into “stealth” traffic and help you improve your business.

Here are some of the best tools that every marketer should keep on their belt if they’re ready to start leveraging dark social:

GetSocial

getsocial-homepage

GetSocial tracks your content performance, traffic, and social media for you. You can measure, promote, and automate content and conversion through the platform.

All you need to do is paste a short snippet of code into your website header and then you’re good to go with tracking your dark social shares. 

In addition, GetSocial has designed a Dark Social Calculator to work in tandem with your Google Analytics. It pulls data from your Google account and does the math to assess how much dark social traffic you have coming in.

Pricing starts at $9/mo. for a single domain.

Po.st

po.st-homepage

Developed by RhythmOne, this tool makes content sharing easy. Its primary focus is to increase organic traffic and provide social insights to users.

There’s a unique deck of dark social analytics tools that can help you identify how to optimize your content.

Po.st is free to use.

ShareThis

sharethis-homepage

ShareThis allows users to share any form of digital content through email, direct messaging, and texts with ease. It infiltrates the nature of private channels and dark social, measuring copy and shares of your site’s URL.

It also offers a variety of button types, an email list builder, and WordPress plugins.

As much as we all would have loved to have found out that dark social was Darth Vader’s Instagram, we can still get excited over the fact that we can start accounting for more traffic.

Measuring the ROI of your strategies will be even more comprehensive than ever, which, in turn, helps you see the whole picture in how you're driving results.

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Micah Lally

Micah Lally

I’m a Content Writer at Bluleadz. I’m a big fan of books, movies, music, video games, and the ocean. It sounds impossible to do all of those at the same time, but you’d be surprised by the things I can accomplish.