Inside the Mysterious World of Dark Social
Content sharing via social media is really important, right? It’s the ultimate voice of confidence from your audience. But have you heard of “dark social?”
A share is a good thing first because an audience member read and liked your content enough to interact with it. But it’s a good thing again because the recipient of that share will consider your content far more seriously than if you advertised it or shared it with them. They trust their friend, after all … usually more than they’ll trust a company.
This is the sort of trust advertising cannot buy. It’s one of the reasons content marketing can be so effective.
So yeah, sharing is great. That’s why we track it, and study it, and try to push the psychological levers that make people more likely to share. We read detailed reports about sharing, and we assign a quantitative value to it.
But we’re missing the bulk of what’s going on.
Yep. We can, and do, track how and when people access our content from links we send them in email or make available in social media, and so forth. But once those people share our content with their friends, and if their friends visit our website, then those visitors – and the paths they took to get to us – are unknown.
And for most of us, these unknowns are the majority of our traffic. It’s about 69% depending on which country you’re in, or which industry you’re in, but generally all our fancy analytics reporting is missing about two-thirds of what people share. It’s called dark social.
What, exactly, is “dark social”?
Fortunately, dark social (unlike the “dark web”) is more benign than it sounds. It’s basically whenever someone privately shares a link – usually by cutting and pasting. For example, they decide to share this blog post (thanks!). So they copy the URL of this page, then paste it into an email and send it to their friend. That’s one incarnation of dark social. Compare it to if that person publicly shared this post on Facebook or Twitter. If they share that way, we can track the share.
The reason all this matters is probably already clear to you: We’re getting a seriously skewed view of which content assets people are sharing. This affects how we evaluate our content (at least in part) and, in turn, how we plan and budget for it.
Yikes. Or as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your analytics.” Or something like that.
That 69% stat comes from multiple sources, including a report from RadiumOne published back in 2014. It’s pretty much regarded as the official measure of how much of this invisible sharing is going on.
If you just looked at that chart and thought, “They’re wrong – I don’t believe this data,” consider this other chart from Rumble.me’s Mobile Content Engagement Study. It shows what portion of the article shares they tracked occur across different platforms. Notice how email shares (a dark social channel) take up 76% of the pie.
There’s more dark social sharing going on than most of us realize.
How does dark social sharing happen?
How are all these clicks and shares evading our tracking system? There are a bunch of ways, actually:
- Instant messages (like Facebook messenger or WhatsApp)
- Text messages
- Links in any chat application
- Links in PDF documents
- Viewing a page via a bookmark
- Clicking from a non-secure site (http:) to a secure site (https:)
- Clicking a link in a Word doc or other document format
- Clicking links pasted into forum posts
This list goes on, but I think you get the idea. Many of these begin as trackable links; you send an email with a link, your prospect clicks, you can track that. But your prospect shares the link with 20 people and they all click. You cannot track that.
With all those dark social channels available, it becomes less surprising how much dark social sharing is happening. But I’m still blown away that there’s three times as much sharing going on via dark social than is going on via all of Facebook. That’s a major perspective shift.
Facebook is typically known as dwarfing all other social platforms when it comes to sharing. And yet dark social – lurking in the background, kind of like dark matter – is actually far larger.
It’s no wonder we don’t talk about this dark social stuff very much. It’s kind of embarrassing. But it doesn’t have to be so humbling. Once we understand the scope of dark social, and where the shares are likely coming from, we’ll actually have a far more realistic view of what’s going on.
So what to do? Are we just going to give up? Miss out on tracking most of the sharing going on? Heck no. There are ways around this.
How to track dark social – at least better than you have before
1. Set up your site so if someone does a cut and paste of your content, they’ll automatically add a link to your site.
You’ve probably seen this before. You go to copy and paste something from a website to save for later, and there’s a link automatically tacked on at the end. Like this: there are a couple of ways to do this.
- Add some coding to your WordPress site.
- Add a plugin to a WordPress site. (Alas, all the plugins I found that have this feature are not well reviewed.)
- Use one of the services that offer this feature as part of their tracking tools. 33Across (previously known as Tynt) is one option.
Take note: Some people find these added-on links annoying. They’ve created workarounds to disable them.
2. Use link shorteners like Bit.ly to track specific links.
These are ideal for tracking traffic to a page that’s not on your site – something Google Analytics doesn’t do well. They’re also great for links in PDFs, Kindle books, and email signature files. If you upgrade to a paid version, sometimes you can get vanity URLs. Those can be extremely helpful with offline campaigns like business cards or conference giveaways.
The screenshot below is an example of a simple report from a free version of the link shortener Bit.ly. The link being analyzed shows quite a bit of “dark” traffic. It also shows some activity from Twitter. All of that makes sense – I’m using this particular link in my email signature file and in the bio area of my Twitter account.
While Bit.ly can’t tell me exactly where the dark traffic is coming from online, it can show me when the clicks occurred and which country the clicker was in.
3. Get suspicious of your analytics reports.
Hey – I love analytics reports. Really. It’s essential to have some kind of grasp of what’s going on. And it’s fun to find out which tactics and projects actually worked.
But analytics reports are often flawed. Badly flawed.
Here’s an example: This is the Google Analytics report from a page on my site. It shows the most active source to this page is “direct.”
Don’t believe it. There’s no way people are manually typing in that full URL. They’re coming to that page from somewhere, but Analytics can’t tell me what the source is.
So if you look through your analytics data and see some suspiciously high “direct” traffic sources, scrutinize them. Where do you think the traffic might be coming from? Can you set up a shortened tracking link to measure even some of this traffic? Could you trick your Analytics account into revealing more about these visitors?
4. Get smart with Google Analytics filters and UTM parameters.
Setting up a few Google free URL builder. It’ll require you gain an understanding of how Google Analytics tracks campaigns, but there are lots of tutorials here, and here on the subject.
It’s humbling to realize we’ve been ignoring up to 69% of the sharing that’s been going on via dark social. It raises issues about how we evaluate our content, and our content marketing.
Blame it on the rise of mobile if you want, but this is just the nature of tracking. It’s never going to be perfect – even if we have great tools – because the Internet continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. Case in point: There’s more activity going on now in messaging apps than there is on social media apps.
So all this discussion about dark social is actually a great reminder: Blindly following analytics reports and tracking tools can get you in trouble.
We marketers still need to think. A lot.
Portrait of Grumpy Cat by Mickey Destro, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
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