Monday, August 1st, 2016 | 7 min read
The term ‘dark social’ has been around for a few years, but it has recently broken out of the geek world into more mainstream business circles.
Most explanations are too technical and likely to confuse people who just want a basic grasp of what dark social is and why it’s so important. So here’s a simpler overview – without a single mention of meta-data.
In a nutshell, dark social is digital content that is shared between users on a platform that isn’t a traditional social network.
This includes links shared via email, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Skype, and Slack – anywhere you can copy a link from a social network and paste it into another application and send it to someone else. It’s called ‘dark’ because this sharing happens in places where standard tracking software can’t ‘see’ it. Some of these platforms can host trackable campaigns of their own, of course, but dark social refers to content that originates on social networks.
By contrast, social media that tracking software can see is considered ‘light social.’ This includes any public engagements such as liking and sharing within a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram feed – as well as video views, purchases within the platforms, and clicks on your content.
Such engagement is ‘light’ because tracking software can log all user engagement on these platforms and track users when they click through to other owned properties – such as your website.
If a brand posts about a product on Facebook, for example, tracking software can log engagements with the post, clicks that lead to the brand’s website, and any sales generated by the post.
The difference between dark and light social can be subtle. If a user copies a link from their browser and shares it with a friend on WhatsApp, and the friend clicks and buys the product, then the sale can’t be tracked and attributed to Facebook – even though it was a direct result of the post. The result is dark social, as tracking software will only show that the friend was a new customer who went to the website and purchased the product. The same principle applies for content marketing – views gained from dark social shares are not attributed to the correct marketing channels.
If, as expected, the trend of sharing on dark social channels continues to grow, even more customer actions will get lost in the dark.
If sharing on dark social channels was an irregular phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a particularly notable trend. Research has shown, however, that around 70% of all social sharing happens this way.
For some brands and sectors, the figure is over 90%. If your company doesn’t account for dark social, it’s almost certain that your social campaigns are more effective than you realize – and that you’re optimizing campaigns based on incomplete data.
Dark social also reflects users’ propensity to discover content on social and share it privately on other platforms. We’ve already known that most people don’t share items on Facebook, but dark social tells us that many of the people who aren’t leaving a footprint are actually actively engaging with and sharing content.
Dark social changes the way we think about social networks and chat apps. The conventional wisdom has been that chat apps are replacing social networks, but in reality the two different platforms are often used together. People discover content on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, then share that content on private channels like WhatsApp and Snapchat.
If you drive traffic from social networks to deep linked content on your website, then you can use website analytics to see how much of your traffic arrives at these pages. Normally the pages have long, hard-to-type in URLs that make it unlikely for people to just turn up on these pages.
To find out how much of your traffic is coming from dark social shares, look at the stats for these pages. If a page on your website that you shared yesterday in a social media post has 1,000 views in the last 24 hours, the percentage of those visits that are marked as direct traffic can be attributed to dark social. If the number is 20% then it’s not so much of a problem, butand if it’s upwards of 50%, you are misattributing the majority of your inbound traffic that comes from social networks.
URL shorteners like bit.ly aren’t just for fitting long URLs into Twitter or making them look tidy, they can also help you track dark social shares.
The wrong way to share a link on social networks is to just copy the URL from your website and share it across all platforms. Analytics software can tell you whether traffic came from Facebook or Twitter, but as you now know, dark social sharing strips out this information.
Instead, use a URL shortener to create a unique short URL for every platform and post. This provides every post with a distinct identifier that allows you to measure effectiveness on a case by case basis.
Then you can attribute traffic to the correct source. Of course, this means that if you were missing 50% or more of your traffic for social media, then suddenly your campaigns will look twice as effective.
That’s the basic overview of dark social, but for big brands that want a deeper understanding of their audience, there are more layers to explore. Seeing a more complete picture of how a post performs is valuable, yes, but it’s far more important to see how people are sharing your content across dark social in real time so that you can optimize campaigns on the fly.
Only by building a picture of dark and light social together can you start to understand the true impact of your social media activity.