Everything You Need To Know About Dark Social

By Olsy Sorokina


Logos courtesy of Design Modo
Logos courtesy of Design Modo

Imagine this scenario: You’re at work, hitting the 3 o’clock wall. To revive your spirits, you go on BuzzFeed, angling your monitor slightly more towards you to avoid being seen by your boss. You find an listicle depicting 25 delicious burgers, and, wishing to share some inspiration for this evening’s dinner with your partner, you copy the URL in the browser and paste it into an email message.

Congratulations, you’ve just engaged in a “dark social” act.

We have all done it, shared articles one-on-one through a means other than social media: whether it was done to sidestep the social network ban at work, via text message while browsing on mobile, or through private messages on major social networks when you don’t want your entire network to know you’ve secretly enjoyed an article titled “These 10 child celebrities will make you feel really old!”

Thanks to the universality of the act, dark social has been reported to be responsible for up to 60% of overall referral traffic for various websites. 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.

What is dark social?

Dark social describes any web traffic that’s not attributed to a known source, such as a social network or a Google search. In simple terms, 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: “%2F&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.

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—all methods that 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 code 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/scaling-social-media-toolkit-social-center-of-excellence” into a browser window. It’s labelled “direct” in Google Analytics, but it’s really traffic from dark social.

The origins of dark social

In 2012, Alexis C. Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Dark Social: We Have The Whole History of the Web Wrong” In this piece, Madrigal tells the story of questioning the existing analytics about web traffic, and the fact that they don’t seem to account for sharing links over instant messaging, a communication tool that precedes social networks.

Madrigal turned to data experts at Chartbeat, a tool that provides real-time analytics to publishers, which led them to discovery of a mysterious source that accounted for nearly 60% for traffic on The Atlantic’s site—something Madrigal goes on to call “dark social,” similar to dark energy, a term that’s used to describe a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all space and accelerates the expansion of the universe. (Quite poetic if you apply the same idea to the social web, isn’t it?)

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.

Seeing dark social in a new light

We’d be happy to leave it at that, but like many other things in the world of web analytics, the story of dark social is a lot more complicated. Just this week, Madrigal wrote a new article, where he revisited the metrics surrounding dark social referrers. His new theory around dark social involved a very much familiar player—Facebook, or more specifically, Facebook’s mobile app.

Since Madrigal’s discovery in 2012, Chartbeat has been trying to narrow down the sources of dark social. Chartbeat’s chief data scientist Josh Schwartz told Marketing Land that Chartbeat set up a test site to eliminate some possible dark social sources, and discovered that some major social networks are not consistent with attaching referral information. Links that come from Reddit on desktop and mobile browser, for example, are trackable; but Reddit links that come from top mobile Reddit apps don’t always contain referral data.

It also turned out that Facebook doesn’t always attach the referrer to the link when a user engages with it on Facebook’s mobile app, or when a desktop user opens the link in a new tab. Given Facebook’s permanent spot at the top of mobile apps, and an established position as a leader in news sharing, this source of “dark social” makes a lot of sense. Madrigal concludes the article by posing a new takeaway: “A story’s shareability is now largely determined by its shareability on Facebook, with all its attendant quirks and feedback loops.” Madrigal and Schwartz’s new findings also mean you are probably underestimating the desktop/mobile traffic split for your website.

What dark social metrics mean for your engagement strategy

The latest updates to the nature of many dark social sources don’t exclude the habit of private link sharing. For anyone who publishes content online, it’s important to know where the majority of their readers come from, so whether dark social accounts for sixty or sixteen percent of web traffic, it helps to know how to use it for your advantage.

Before Chartbeat and Madrigal broke the news about the newly found origins of dark social, RadiumOne has released a helpful report outlining some trends seen in dark social sharing. For example, they found out that 32% of surveyed people only share using dark social: emails, text messages, IMs, or forums. Furthermore, some information tends to be shared privately more than others; top categories for dark social sharing are arts and entertainment, careers, travel, science and education. Plus, the study finds out that clickback rates, or the number of times someone clicked on the link you shared, are very high on messaging shared via dark social means.

In light of recent discoveries, 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.

You can also use shortened URLs for outbound links in your content to get a deeper analysis of the engagement rates. Shorter links also save your readers some characters if they intend to post it on a social network like Twitter.

Recent revelations about the origin of a large portion of dark social traffic emphasizes the importance of keeping up with Facebook algorithm updates, to make sure you reach the largest audience possible on the social network. Since much of that traffic also came from mobile versions of various social networks, it may also be a good time to give your mobile strategy some attention.

Finally, as Madrigal pointed out two years earlier, “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 create content that is guaranteed to be shared is by writing interesting, informative, original material.

So you know, if you want to share this blog post with your friends on WhatsApp, I won’t be opposed.

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