| Sep 28, 2017 | | 13 min read

Dark Social: Why 80% of Your Social Results are Missing (and How to Find Them)


Sometimes even the most basic concepts can elude us, the ‘marketing experts’.

Up until recently I thought I understood how social sharing worked. I was supremely confident in my ability to analyze social sharing stats in Google Analytics.

But I was wrong! Very wrong in fact.

The reality is that most marketing agencies, publishers, and really any business or organization that produces sharable content are probably blind to as much as 80% of their social results.

In fact, later in this post we’ll dig into the story of a publisher who had no clue where 90% of their social referrals and 46% of their traffic were coming from!...and this publisher was getting about 2-3 million views per month.

How is this possible in the age of analytics? It’s due to the ‘dark social’ phenomenon.

Never even heard of dark social? You’re not alone! It’s eluded many marketers’ radars (myself included) just as it evades most Google Analytics reports. Let’s take a deeper look and see if we can change this...

Table of Contents

What is Dark Social?

3 Mind-Blowing Dark Social Stats

How People Share Today

The Origins and History of Dark Social

How to Track and Measure Dark Social Sharing

5 Dark Social Tracking Tools

Publisher’s Case Study: Gay Star News

Garmentory Case Study

Why You Should Make Content More ‘Shareable’

What Should You Do With Your Dark Social Insights?

Stay aware of trending topics.

Evaluate where to invest your marketing budget.

Maintain top quality content.

Share your insights

4 Easy Wins

The Future of Dark Social

What is Dark Social?

Dark social is all the social media activity that analytics can’t track. Dark social includes cut and pasting links into messengers and sharing content via email, text messengers, and other web apps. Links and visitors from these private channels don’t include referrer data, which is why analytics can’t track the source.

Instead, it’ll show up in the broad bucket that is Google Analytic’s ‘direct traffic’.

Direct traffic has 3 main sources:

  • typing a URL into the browser’s address bar
  • clicking on a bookmark, or
  • the dark social sources I’m discussing in this post

When you look through your website’s list of direct traffic, you’re going to see a ton of posts with long URLs. At Vendasta, one of our top direct traffic results is https://www.vendasta.com/blog/top-100-online-business-directories. The URL really isn’t that long, but I just can’t see many people taking the time to type that all out. Can you?

They’re almost certainly getting there another way.

3 Mind-Blowing Dark Social Stats

  • 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now takes place via private, dark social channels such as email and instant messaging. (RadiumOne)
  • 46% of consumers age 55 and older share only via dark social, as opposed to those in the 16 to 34 age group, where only 19% do so. (RadiumOne)
  • Messaging apps are now bigger than social networks (Business Insider)

chat apps vs social networks

Image Source: Business Insider

How People Share Today

The answer becomes even more obvious when you think about how people share content today. I mean, how do you share content?

If you’re like me, you probably share links periodically on your favorite social platforms. Places like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and other channels.

However, I’ll also frequently share interesting links with my wife, family, friends, and coworkers on Facebook Messenger, Email, Slack, and via texts.

And that’s just the tip of the private sharing iceberg. There’s an ever-expanding universe of channels and apps that people are use to share links, including WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Skype, Viber, WeChat, Telegram, Tango, Snapchat and many more. They’re rapidly gaining popularity, and new ways to share are appearing all the time.

I personally share links via dark social way more than any other method. Most of the time I’ll share links via mobile, and I’m not alone; Cathy Boyle of eMarketer reported in January of 2017 that,

"The average US adult will spend 3 hours, 17 minutes each day consuming media on a mobile device in 2017, an increase of over 1 hour since 2013. Meanwhile, time spent with all other major media has declined."

The reality is that people are distributing your content via dark social, and this isn’t likely to change.
[clickToTweet tweet="The reality is that people are distributing your content via #darksocial, and this isn’t likely to change." quote="The reality is that people are distributing your content via #darksocial, and this isn’t likely to change."]

You just need to find the best way to illuminate this traffic.

The Origins and History of Dark Social

Alexis Madrigal was the one who coined the term ‘dark social’ back in his 2012 article for The Atlantic . He was shocked to discover just how much of The Atlantic’s social refferals were dark at that time: 69%, while Facebook was 20% and Twitter made up only 6% of social sharing.

He immediately saw the ramifications of this new information, noting that,

“...if you think optimizing your Facebook page and Tweets is "optimizing for social," you're only halfway (or maybe 30 percent) correct. The only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself.”

So the content has to be fantastic to compel people to share it. But how do you know which of your content is fantastic if you aren’t tracking it? Let’s explore why you need to start tracking dark social and what you can do with your data.

How to Track and Measure Dark Social Sharing

The question now is how to turn all that ‘direct traffic’ into trackable traffic.

Let’s dive in and take a look at a few of the top tools you can use, and the shocking results that are possible once you start illuminating your hidden social results!

5 Dark Social Tracking Tools

1. GetSocial

GetSocial makes it easy to increase social traffic and followers and identify which articles and products are generating the most interest. Adding GetSocial’s responsive social share and follow buttons make it easy for readers to share over 30+ networks. Plus they’ll send you alerts on Email or Slack when the engagement on a given page reaches your alert criteria, such as number of shares, virality score, social traffic and share rate.

In the Marketplace: Track dark social and private messaging shares on social

Here’s a look at the dark social insights the platform provides:

GetSocial screen showing detailed stats on one post

2. Google Analytics

People use a number of ways to track dark social within Google Analytics. Many of them involve using UTM code, which actually isn’t best practice anymore.

Why not? Adding UTM codes can distort data rather than organize it due to the evolving nature of dark social sharing. Buzzkill!

For those of you blanking on this particular acronym, I’ll elaborate. UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) codes are commonly used by marketers & social media managers to track and attribute traffic to specific sources or campaigns. They allow you to discover where searchers came from and the campaign that sent them to you.

They’ve helped us understand our data for a long time, but they have a fundamental flaw: They’re inflexible. As we’ve outlined above, they way people share content has changed to such an extent that UTM codes just can’t tell you the true path your content takes.

This SocialMediaToday post covers a way in which you create an advanced segment to filter out dark social traffic from your overall traffic.

3. AddThis

AddThis is a social bookmarking service that can be integrated into a website, allowing visitors to bookmark pages using services, such as Facebook, Google Bookmarks, Pinterest, and Twitter and more. The platform is used to increase social sharing, improve engagement and drive conversions.

They provide a simple snippet of code for you to add in order to activate dark social sharing tracking.

4. Po.st

RadiumOne’s dark social tracking solution, Po.st, enables your content to be more easily shared, thereby increasing your organic traffic. The Po.st sharing platform offers in-depth social analytics and audience insights help you to optimize your content and drive user acquisition.

5. ShareThis

ShareThis is an all-in-one widget that lets people share any content on the Web with others via e-mail, AIM, or text message.

The site’s customization menu allows you to choose the option to track dark social sharing initiatives. You’ll just need to select “Measure copy and shares of your website's URLs” and add the code to your website.

Publisher’s Case Study: Gay Star News

Dark social tracking in action yields some interesting insights. GetSocial client Gay Star News is an international media website focused on publishing news and events related to and concerning the global LGBTI community.

They were generating about 2-3 million views a month, but their social referral traffic data showed stagnation for such an active, vibrant site. Just like any publisher, they were hungry for accurate information on which stories their readers found the most compelling.

They suspected that something was awry and approached GetSocial hoping to get some answers as to why their social campaigns seemed to be falling so flat.

After about a month of using GetSocial’s dark social tracking software, the results started pouring in.

Not only most sharing was occurring through copy paste sharing but it was actually generating about 90% of social referrals. More importantly, social referrals (only 3.3% of the readers) were accounting for 46% of all monthly traffic!

Three months in, the numbers only further highlight the impact of dark social on overall social referrals:

 impact of dark social on overall social referrals
Image Source: GetSocial

Plus, they discovered that copy-paste sharing was blowing away Facebook and Twitter in 1992 Dream Team style:

Bar graph showing social copy paste vs facebook vs twitter

Image Source: GetSocial

With the ability to finally track and analyze dark social sharing, Gay Star News was able to:

  1. Quickly discover that cut and paste is the preferred sharing method (by far).
  2. They were then able to use GetSocial’s 30+ social widgets to encourage this sharing.
  3. Finally, they utilized their new information, tools and insights to produce more content that their viewers cared about.

Garmentory Case Study

Garmentory is a leading online retailer for emerging and contemporary fashion. The team at Garmentory curates a marketplace of clothes, shoes, and accessories from boutiques all over the world.

Like many other businesses, Garmentory understood the power of social media, but couldn’t specifically calculate the value.

“Social has always been an important part of our strategy, but we had a hard time quantifying its impact at multiple points in the buyer’s journey,” said Elisa Kosonen, VP of Communications at Garmentory and head of the company’s social program.

“There was no way to put together a cross-channel story from impressions, to engagement, to purchases, to revenue. And, perhaps even more important, the data wasn’t teaching us anything new. We wanted to find out which products our audience cares about most, and we just weren’t getting that from other tools.”

The Garmentory team determined that they needed a better way to define what success meant for social and how to build a strategy to drive those outcomes. They ended up using Simply Measured tools to track social analytics, content sharing, and conversions.

“The first thing I noticed was how much of our social traffic was coming from private messaging [dark social]. We had been looking at Google Analytics for a long time, asking ourselves, ‘Is that really all of the traffic from social?’” Kosonen said.

The results were similar to data we’ve seen throughout this post.

Traffic from URLs shared through private messaging apps accounted for over half of the earned social traffic to garmentory.com.

[clickToTweet tweet="Traffic from URLs shared through private messaging apps accounted for over half of the earned #socialtraffic to garmentory.com." quote="Traffic from URLs shared through private messaging apps accounted for over half of the earned #socialtraffic to garmentory.com."]

This is a staggering among of hidden data! Imagine making strategy and budget decisions without this information.

With dark social results illuminated, Garmentory was able to evolve, adjusting content and social strategy based on their audience’s social sharing preferences. Plus, they are now able to look at which pages are shared most through private messaging and apply that insight when promoting posts.

Why You Should Make Content More ‘Shareable’

You’re might be thinking that there’s no need to cover this. You already optimize your content to look great and tempt your readers to share.

You probably do have the most recognizable players covered, with share buttons ready to roll for Facebook, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn and email. This is important, but like we’ve demonstrated, your audience is now sharing via a whole slew of channels and mediums.

You’ve got to make it even easier to share across as many of these channels as possible.

Which ones? These for starters!

GetSocial supported channels

Getting set up with a more comprehensive set of share buttons is key. Making your content easy to share will encourage your audience to share it across these now trackable channels!

What Should You Do With Your Dark Social Insights?

It’s easy to make a case for getting new and more detailed data on your marketing campaigns.

It’s the next step that trips a lot of people up. What do you do with the information? How do you analyze it? How do you apply it?

Looking at your dark social results as just another aspect of your current social media campaign should help.

I asked Matt Tesmond of Simply Measured what insights he looks for when analyzing the dark social results they track for clients:

“Just as you would analyze your social channels, you can analyze dark social traffic similarly. What are the links being shared through dark social most? Does that line up with what we've been promoting or what our influencers have been promoting? You can then tailor parts of your strategy to better optimize your paid and organic strategy.”

Note: Check out Matt’s post on the difference between dark posts and dark social.

If you’re already analyzing your social referral information, evaluating dark social shouldn’t be a much of a leap. However, Alex DeLeon, Social Media Account Manager at Portent, Inc. notes that many businesses haven’t even taken the first step:

“I think that the biggest realization for my team over the last year is that clients – particularly those in eCommerce – are still struggling mightily with social media attribution even when it comes traffic that’s properly tagged and sorted....

...With that in mind, most clients don’t even have the time needed to dig through the referral traffic they’re getting from sources like Facebook, and try to make sense of what’s coming in as “dark.” They know they’re making money, they know it’s coming from somewhere, and they’re content to let that situation stand until they get a better handle on attribution as a whole.”

Note: Check out Alex’s marketer’s guide to dark social

That may be working for some, but for those who want to dig deeper here are a few ways that dark social data can help you market your business successfully:

Unlocking dark social data will allow you to see that your audience is obsessing over right now. You’ll better understand what to write about and you’ll understand your audience better. Grasping your target audience’s needs makes you a better marketer and business owner.

Recommended Reading: B2B Audience Targeting Tips for LinkedIn and Facebook

Evaluate where to invest your marketing budget.

Armed with this data you’ll be able to strategically publish or promote your content so it can ride a wave of virality.

A better idea of where to invest on post promotion will help you get more reach for less $$. With paid distribution, you can discover which pieces do you should promote , and where to promote them.

Maintain top quality content.

We all want to weed out the content that isn’t working. Content that no one cares about wastes time, budget, and energy.

Your dark social insights will help you understand the qualities of high-performing content, plus the topics and titles that get more shares.

[clickToTweet tweet="Your #darksocial insights will help you understand the qualities of high-performing content, plus the topics and titles that get more shares." quote="Your #darksocial insights will help you understand the qualities of high-performing content, plus the topics and titles that get more shares."]

Share your insights

We’re still in the early days of understanding dark social sharing. You could get some unexpected results that lead your business down an exciting new path. If you’re tracking (or about to track) dark social shares please comment on this post and let us know what you’ve learned!

4 Easy Wins

Now you know what dark social is, why you should track it, who can help you track it, and what to do with your data and insights.

Taking action on this advice can be daunting, so here are 4 steps to help you get started:

  1. Look over your current social results. Where do you see traffic coming from currently? How much ‘direct’ traffic do you see? (Hint - in your Google Analytics account look in Acquisition>Source/Medium).
  2. Try one of the dark social tracking tools I listed earlier, or find one of your own choosing. Get a demo or sign up for a free trial to get a glimpse of your true social data.
  3. Identify which of your posts and social channels are most popular.
  4. Brainstorm ways to create more quality posts that are sharable on your top channels.

The Future of Dark Social

Private social sharing is becoming more prevalent every year. Social media makes everything public. Too public for many. This is one of the main motivating factors in the trend towards sharing across private messaging apps.

In the Guardian, Josh Sutton, global head of data and AI at Publicis Sapient notes that, “The responsibility of brands is changing. Historically, the goal of advertising was to make people aware of a product and its merits. Today that is shifting to providing people with hyper-personalised information about products that might be useful to them at a specific time.”

This is actually good news for marketers.

When people share with an individual or small group, the chance that they know their audience is much better than when a person blasts out a post to their entire following. The recipients of dark social sharing are much more likely to trust the sender and be receptive to the content.

Once you have those dark social blinders off, you’ll be able to hone your relationship with your audience, and create content they can’t help sharing!

About the Author

Patrick Liddy is a former Content Strategist for Vendasta. Prior to Vendasta, he earned his Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Management and was a Marketing Specialist at a digital marketing agency in Maine.

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