Andrew Raso November 23, 2017

For the uninitiated, Dark Social isn’t some sort of Illuminati-type deal; nor does it have anything to do with the Dark Web or Deep Web. In fact, it’s one highly-useful aspect of effective social media marketing.

Simply put, Dark Social refers to social sharing that web analytics platforms aren’t able to accurately track.

What do you do?

You copy the link, paste it into Facebook messenger or WhatsApp, and hit “send”.

Bingo – you’ve just engaged in Dark Social.

Because links shared this way lack referral tags, the traffic contributed via these links typically gets lumped into the “direct traffic” category in publishers’ analytics platforms. As you might imagine, this is pretty problematic for marketers and companies.

If you can’t attribute traffic to various channels accurately, then how are you going to optimise these channels, and increase the effectiveness of your campaigns?

After all, digital success depends on data.

What is Dark Social?

Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack – these are the more obvious sources of Dark Social. That having been said, Dark Social doesn’t just come in the format of links sent via private messaging apps; visits from mobile apps such as Facebook also count as Dark Social.

Here’s how it works: when you click on an article on an app, it either fires up a browser instance in-app, or forces your browser to open a new window.

Either way, the browser goes directly to the site without any referrers, which is why it’s tracked as “direct traffic” in analytics platforms.

On top of that, links which are sent via email also count as Dark Social. Why is this so? The vast majority of email providers including Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook don’t pass a referrer when a user clicks on a link that’s sent to them via email.

The rationale behind this is that it protects the user’s privacy; unfortunately, this also means that your analytics platform won’t be able to determine where these clicks come from.

Why does Dark Social tracking matter for my business?

Oh, you’ll be surprised – Dark Social is a huge phenomenon worldwide, and the amount of online traffic driven by Dark Social is constantly on the rise.

More specifically, back in 2014, Dark Social accounted for between 59% to 77% of online traffic. In 2016, this figure jumped to a whopping 84%.

Now, there aren’t any updated statistics for 2017 or 2018… but bearing in mind that instant messengers such as Facebook messenger and Slack are growing in popularity, we wouldn’t be surprised if Dark Social now contributes to 90% or more of online traffic.

How to measure Dark Social

1. Better Dark Social tracking and optimisation

As mentioned previously, without transparency on where website visitors are coming from, it’s tough for marketers to optimise and fine-tune their content strategy.

Let’s say you’ve invested a ton of effort into coming up with an SEO bumper guide which you’re sure your target audience (small business owners!) will love. You publish the article, post it on all your socials, and cross your fingers.

Sure enough, you get a ton of traffic from your article… but 80% of your traffic is classified as “direct”. This means that you can’t work out whether you should prioritise Facebook or Twitter over the other, and you won’t know where to focus your optimisation efforts. Talk about frustrating!

2. Identifying intent and value

If you consider the fact that Dark Social is a lot more intimate and intent-driven as opposed to normal link sharing, then this makes tracking Dark Social all the more important.

Think about it: people share fairly generic content on their social media channels, including #bucketlist travel listicles and all that good stuff. But when you chance upon a piece of content or a link that’s particularly valuable to someone whom you’re close to, you’re much more likely to send this to them directly (in other words, via Dark Social!)

On the flip side, when you’re looking at a link that someone sent you personally, this will probably carry much more weight than something you chance upon in your news feed.

Dark Social functions as an effective form of word-of-mouth marketing. Since it’s more intent-driven than regular social sharing, this makes it exceptionally valuable to marketers.

How do you track Dark Social?

1. Segment your Google AdWords traffic

Now, this only isolates your Dark Social traffic from your direct traffic – it doesn’t actually break down your Dark Social traffic, and tell you how much of this comes from which channel.

That having been said, it’s still useful for marketers who want to gauge how much of your traffic is driven by Dark Social shares!

Log into your Google AdWords account, and click on “Behaviour” on the left menu. Under the drop-down list, click on “Site Content”, and finally, “All Pages”. Next, look at the search bar on the right side of the screen, and click on “Advanced”. Change the first parameter “Include” to “Exclude”, and check that “Page” is the chosen dimension.

In the search box that’s on the right, type all your website URLs that are easy to remember. (These are the standard ones such as /account, /new, /new-in, /demo, and so on).

After you’ve excluded these URLs, click “Apply”, and you’ll be left with data corresponding to the URLs which are longer and tougher to remember. In other words: the traffic that you’re looking at is likely to come from Dark Social.

2. Sharing buttons

To encourage people to share your content via trackable ways (rather than copying and pasting a link), make sure you’ve got highly visible sharing buttons all the pages on your site.

Of course, these have to come with UTM parameters so that your Dark Social tracking is sound. At the same time, you’ll want these to be formatted in a “sticky” banner, so that they always remain at the top (or bottom!) of the article regardless of how far your reader has scrolled.

Don’t make your reader scroll all the way to the top to find the share buttons – if that’s the case, they’ll probably just copy and paste the link instead!


3. Dark Social tools

Given the prevalence of Dark Social, it’s no surprise that quite a few Dark Social tracking tools have popped up over the past few years. One example is – this social tracking tool allows you to share your content more easily, and track a good chunk of messages which would previously have fallen under the Dark Social category.

With, you get to automatically include a Linkback URL (“Read more at”) for any content which has been copy and pasted from your website.

This allows the recipient to click on the URL and view the original source of the text, leading to user acquisition.

On top of that, also comes with a “ShareURL” feature that allows publishers to “uncover address bar activity”.

Once a reader copies and pastes a URL from an address bar, the publisher will be able to use to track the engagement of other readers who are interacting with the URL.

Last but not least, also features a “Share Text” function that helps expedite content sharing.

Here’s how it works: when a reader highlights and copies 8 or more words, the system recognises an intent to share, and triggers an unobtrusive pop-out (the Share Text widget). Using this widget, readers can easily share their copied text, and the publisher will be able to track all activity on their end.

4. Use opt-ins

Got a whole treasure trove of marketing collaterals (white papers, ebooks, infographics, and the like) at your disposal? Consider using an opt-in to monitor the traffic which you get on your pages which are heavily shared via Dark Social.

This is fairly simple to set up – first, determine which page (apart from your homepage!) has the most direct traffic. This is likely to be the page that has gotten the most Dark Social shares, so you’ll want to offer your opt-in here.

Next, go ahead and add a widget on your page to offer a free white paper. Get users to fill up a short form and indicate how they discovered your website, before redirecting them to the download link.

Next steps

Dark Social is just one avenue to explore as you build a digital presence that drives results — A.K.A. more customers and boosted revenue. Is your marketing going the mile? Cataloguing the quick wins and mapping the long term goals begins with an audit.

Your friendly team of Gurus are offering a digital audit, on the house. We’ll audit your website, tell you how you’re performing in comparison with your competitors, and come up with a 12-month digital success plan for you. All for free.

About the Author

Andrew Raso

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