Understanding Dark Social


We can track who clicked on a link from sites like Facebook or Twitter, where they’re from, how long they stayed on the site and what they did while they were there. This enormous data stream has transformed marketing from mostly art to mostly science.

But there’s a huge gap in all that analytics goodness. It’s called “dark social”.

The term, coined by Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal, covers the sharing of content in channels that aren’t tracked by normal analytics. It’s bigger than you might think.

So what are these dark social channels? When your Mom sends you an email with a link to a cat video or a blog post about someone you went to high school with, that’s dark social.  When you share a link with a colleague through an instant messenger like Gchat, that’s dark social. Or when you share a link in a text or a native messaging app like WhatsApp or Snapchat — yep, dark social.

According to stats quoted by Madrigal, nearly 70 per cent of traffic is referred by dark social. Dark social links don’t contain referral data. That means brands and publishers don’t really understand where a visitor is coming from, only that their link has been shared and clicked on.

So we are only getting part of the picture of our audience and the reach of our content through analytics.

Social media link sharing is wonderful from an analytics perspective because we know exactly where the traffic is coming from – a link will have a piece of code to say it was referred from someplace like Twitter or Facebook. That’s because social media is really online publishing, and material published online has metadata to make it “trackable.”

Social media didn’t invent social sharing of links – it just gave it structure.

If you’re old enough to remember life before Facebook, you’ll recall frequently receiving emails from colleagues with links to web sites. Some, but (importantly) not all or maybe even most, of that communication has moved to social networks.

The ease of identifying social media referral data has obscured the fact that a lot of social sharing still happens in ways we are not able to effectively track, at least so far. (Bitly does have some coding tips to better track your traffic.)

So as you consider your content marketing program, know that your content has considerable life beyond places like Facebook and Twitter, and plan accordingly.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is the president of Bonfire.