Shining a light on dark social

Dark social might not be as sinister as the name suggests but, as it’s said to be causing businesses to misattribute the majority of their social traffic, it’s caused an understandable flurry of concern among the digital marketing community.

Shining a light on dark social

Dark social refers to the sharing of links to web content outside of the easily trackable and attributable channel reporting used by popular web analytics solutions. Examples of this are when someone shares a link by pasting it into an email, an instant messaging app or a text message. As these shares occur outside the parameters of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, they contain no easy-to-track referrer data or cookie and therefore typically fly under the radar of analytics programs (hence the term ‘dark’) as social sharing.

The result is that businesses are seeing an inflated volume of inbound traffic marked simply as Direct in their reports, for example, when users type the website name straight into a browser or if they arrive at the site via a bookmark.

However, many of these visits go to deep webpages and it seems unlikely that such a high proportion of users would manually type these long, complicated URLs into their browsers.

The term was coined in 2012 by Alexis C Madrigal, a senior editor at US magazine The Atlantic, who had long suspected that the social traffic metrics reported by standard programs like Google Analytics were only the tip of the iceberg. Some research proved him right, and challenged the pervasive idea that we can accurately track and report on every action that people take online.

So what are the implications for brands?

Accurate reporting is a huge challenge

It seems the metrics on which we’ve been basing our assumptions, forecasts, budgets and resourcing decisions have not been telling us the whole story. With research from RadiumOne suggesting that dark social accounts for around three quarters of online sharing activity in the UK, accurately tracking social data is a much bigger challenge for brands than previously imagined. Businesses need to find a way to customise the parameters of their analytics programs to provide greater visibility of the value of social.

Social sharing is as old as the internet

Social sharing is not the new phenomenon we had been led to believe – people have always used the internet to share information – it’s just that the creation of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have added the ability for businesses (and the platforms themselves) to structure, archive, search, track and monetise it.

Quality as well as quantity

It’s not just the sheer volume of inbound traffic theoretically generated by dark social that’s impressive, but also the potential quality. These are users who are arriving on your site after being privately recommended by someone who knows them and has personally matched the content of that web page to their interests. This makes them valuable, highly qualified targets. This type of recommendation is arguably as powerful as wordof- mouth marketing.

Content marketing needs to go back to basics

The ubiquity of dark social referral forces marketers to gain a better understanding of their audience and how they consume content ‘in real life’, without over-reliance on metrics and analytics, then focus on producing the type and quality of content that resonates and makes it shareable. This in fact provides an opportunity for more accurate social listening and for greater optimisation of both content and of social media strategy.

Rethinking ROI

Businesses that invest in content marketing as part of their SEO strategy need to be able to accurately calculate their ROI. Without an understanding of dark social, they could be overlooking a huge proportion of the value that their content is driving.

Chris Norton, organic search director, Click Consult

Tel: 0845 366 7586



Twitter: @ClickConsultLtd

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