Why You Can’t Ignore Dark Social | Hootsuite Blog

Why Your Business Can’t Ignore Dark Social

Blog   /   Social

Imagine this scenario: You’re at work, hitting the 3 o’clock wall. To revive yourself from the slump, you navigate over to BarkPost, angling your monitor slightly more towards you to avoid being seen by your boss.

You find an amusing listicle—18 Signs Your Dog Has A Secret Second Family—and, wishing to confer with your dog co-parent, you copy the URL in the browser and paste it into an email message. Congratulations, you’ve just engaged in “dark social.”

We’ve all shared articles one-on-one through a means other than social media. Whether it was done to sidestep the no-social-media-for-personal-use policy at work, or because you don’t want the whole world to know you enjoy an article titled An Open Letter From a Corgi to the People Who Laugh at His Butt.

Thanks to the universality of the act, dark social has been reported to be responsible for 84 percent of outbound sharing. So what is this mysterious power, where does it come from, and—most importantly—how can your business harness it? Here’s everything you need to know.

Table of contents

What is dark social?

5 reasons why your company can’t ignore dark social

Why you should start measuring dark social (and how to do it)


Bonus: Download our free guide that shows you how to 10X your social media performance and beat your competitors. No fluff or tired tactics—features the tools, daily routines, and advanced techniques used by three world-class industry experts.

What is dark social?

The term “dark social” was coined in an article written in 2012 by former deputy editor of The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal. Dark social is when people share content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email.

This private sharing is harder to track than content shared on public platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, so many social media marketers don’t realize how big of a slice dark social has of the social media sharing pie.

Some of the most common dark social traffic channels are:

  • Messaging apps—such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger
  • Email—to protect users’ privacy, referrers aren’t shared)
  • Native mobile apps—Facebook, Instagram
  • Secure browsing—If you click from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer won’t be passed on

In other words, dark social describes any web traffic that’s not attributed to a known source, such as a social network or a Google search. Referral traffic is usually identified by certain “tags” attached to the link whenever it’s shared.

For example, if I want to share this blog post on Twitter using the “Tweet This” button on the side, an action window will open, with the following tag attached to the end of the URL: “percent2F&source=Shareaholic&related=shareaholic”. This tag signals that the referrer of the article was a social sharing tool directly from the post’s page.

If you’re curious about a headline in a Tweet and click on the link, you will often be directed to a link with the following tag “&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter”, signalling that this referral originated on Twitter. This is a more common referral tag that you have probably seen in the past, it’s called a UTM code or parameter.

Dark social links, however, don’t contain referrer data. Common examples of dark social include links copied and pasted into emails or instant messages, or shared via text message. These methods don’t automatically attach any tracking tags, unless the shared link was copied with the tag included (for example, if I were to copy the URL of an article that I originally found on Twitter, including the UTM parameters attached to it).

If you’re watching your website’s analytics closely, you’ve probably wondered what all that “direct” traffic is. Well, at Hootsuite, we’re pretty sure thousands of people didn’t type “https://blog.hootsuite.com/quick-tips-for-creating-social-videos/” into a browser window. It’s labelled “direct” in Google Analytics, but it’s really traffic from dark social.

5 reasons your company can’t ignore dark social

Aside from the fact that The Atlantic article is a highly interesting and relatively easy read, no matter your level of familiarity with different engagement metrics, it also makes two very important points about dark social.

The first is the fact that the most important shareability factor in a piece of content is the content itself. No good content = no sharing, however sophisticated your optimization efforts may be.

The second point Madrigal makes is that the emergence of social networks didn’t create the social web, but only structured the existing channels by the act of publishing—and tracking—our social interactions.

If you’ve got the great content piece covered, read on for why you need dark social marketing to maximize its reach.

1. Dark social is everywhere

For the past year-and-a-half, the majority of responses (clickbacks) to dark social shares have come from mobile devices. Clickbacks on dark social shares coming from mobile devices are up from 53 percent in August 2014 to 62 percent in February 2016. The other 38 percent of clickbacks on dark social shares come from desktops.

2. Dark social has a huge impact on traffic

According to marketing firm RadiumOne, in the last year-and-a-half, dark social shares as a percent of on-site shares jumped from 69 to 84 percent globally.

Compare those numbers to Facebook traffic. RadiumOne’s research in February 2016 found that only 11 percent of site-originated mobile shares and 21 percent of mobile clickbacks happened worldwide via Facebook. In the same month, seven times the number of site-originated mobile shares and more than three times the number of mobile clickbacks happened via dark social.

3. Dark social is a spectacular marketing opportunity

Dark social data gives a detailed representation of consumers’ real interests. Familiarizing yourself with this information will allow your business to access a targeted audience of connections.

4. Dark social reaches unique demographics

According to RadiumOne’s research, 46 percent 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 percent do so.

5. Dark social sharing is prevalent in many industries


For example, if your business is in personal finance, food and drink, travel, or executive search, more than 70 percent of social sharing is done through dark social.

Why you should start measuring dark social (and how to do it)

For anyone who publishes content online, it’s important to know where the majority of their readers come from. Whether dark social accounts for 60 or 16 percent of web traffic, marketers need to be able to track it.

Indeed, measuring dark social should be an essential part of your social media ROI framework. In this section we’ll look at some of the tactics and tools you can use to do it.

Shorten URLs

Use shortened URLs for outbound links in your content to get a deeper analysis of the engagement rates. Shorter links also look cleaner on platforms like Twitter.

Hootsuite’s built-in URL shortener ow.ly can be accessed via the Hootsuite dashboard or on the ow.ly site. This link shortener allows you to upload images, track real-time clicks (not including clicks from bots), and have the ability to post to your various social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Why You Can’t Ignore Dark Social | Hootsuite Blog
Image via ow.ly.

You can also use the shortened URL in emails or on your website and use Hootsuite’s URL click stats to track how many clicks those links receive.

Make sharing easy

Thoughtfully arrange the share buttons on your website so that they are easy for visitors to spot. On some sites, users have to scroll to find the share buttons. Other sites don’t quite distinguish which are “follow” buttons and which are “share” buttons.

The sophistication of your share buttons should match the quality of your content.

Use dark social tools

There are many tools that allow marketing professionals to track dark social traffic origins and analyze their outcomes.

Po.st is a product of RadiumOne. The tool allows users to share content and provides publishers with revenue opportunities and unique dark social analytics tools.

ShareThis is an excellent tool that enables people to share any piece of content on the web through e-mail, direct message, or text message. The tool can be customized to measure copy and shares of your website’s URL.

GetSocial.io is a social media app store. You can create an account through their website or download their WordPress plugin or Shopify App. After you’ve created an account, paste the snippet of code provided into your HTML <head> section (the code is highlighted in red on top of the page). Once you’ve successfully inserted the snippet of code in your website, you’ll be one click away from tracking dark social shares. Find the Address Bar Tracking app, click Activate and you’re good to go.

Watch other social platforms

One of the things you can do to unmask the origin of dark social traffic is to check for a simultaneous spike in link traffic coming from Facebook or Reddit.

Major websites have also reported digging into user agent data, which includes a line of code users leave after visiting a website, which identifies their operating system and browser type. User agent information, while not always translated correctly by analytics software, can provide more details about the referrer.

Finally, as Madrigal pointed out, “There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand.”

The best way to ensure your content gets shared is to create interesting, informative, original material.

Now that you know all about dark social and the tactics to measure it, you’re ready to truly prove (and improve) your social media ROI. Use Hootsuite Impact and get plain-language reports of your social data to see exactly what’s driving results for your business—and where you can boost your return on investment.

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