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In an age where even the most trivial and inconsequential data can be collated and catalogued with a degree of surgical precision, it’s baffling that a realm of information still exists just out of our reach. What we’re referring to, of course, is dark social.

Dark social, also known as dark social media and dark traffic, are shares that carry no digital referral information about the source. Could such an expanse of unquantifiable data inhibit your brand’s potential? Let’s take an in-depth look at the enigmatic world of dark social and its effects on the current state of business.

What is Dark Social?

First and foremost, it’s absolutely crucial that we separate the term dark social from its morally ambiguous homonym, ‘dark web’, and all the illicit material that may or may not be attributed with it.

Coined by American journalist Alexis Madrigal, dark social describes shares that are unquantifiable – having occurred via private IRC channels such as in emails, text messages and other online messenger applications.

We’ve all copy and paste an interesting link and sent it to one or multiple friends via the Facebook Messenger app. This would pertain to dark social sharing.

The copy and paste link contains no referral tags within private messaging apps, meaning the site owner would have no idea how or where your friends’ visit was referred. As your friends had most likely clicked the link directly, the referral would be attributed to a direct share; thus indicating an incorrectly assigned channel.

So, What’s the Issue?

RhythmOne, a digital advertising company, suggests that a massive 84% of ALL shares are dark (emails, IM, SMS).

What this means is that you’re essentially basing your entire marketing budget on just 16% of all quantifiable data. The rest might just be guesswork. If alarm bells are ringing, that’s okay: the data collected by RhythmOne isn’t an accurate representation for every single company.

The prevalence and usage of such private channels – which also happens to be growing at an annual rate – means dark social will not only continue to exist, but thrive. Stringent privacy laws combined with an active user base in the hundreds of millions are a marketer’s worst nightmare!

We have to accept that there are some things we’ll simply never know, or have access to.

The Psychology of Dark Social

1. The Comfort of Privacy

Regardless of whether you view privacy as a right or a construct, I’m sure we can all agree that it’s still something to be celebrated and cherished.

Let’s face it: there are times when we prefer to share content with our close friends or other like-minded individuals. These private moments allow us to freely express ourselves without having to worry about the judgment of strangers.

2. Relationship Building

Sharing content directly with people you know is an effective form of relationship building; made greater by the instant nature of the messages. Sharing content directly onto your social accounts just doesn’t have the same personal touch and intimacy that a direct message does.

3. Social Currency

In the digital age, link sharing is perhaps the most common form of social currency used daily by the coveted millennial and Gen-Z consumer groups. People share links with their friends as an entertainment source, to feel helpful & knowledgeable, and to stay up to date with current affairs.

Is it Measurable?

There are tactics and tools available that can help shed light onto dark social. For starters, simple optimization adjustments to campaigns and content can help provide insight into the percentage of traffic that’s being assigned an incorrect source.

This can be done with the help of Google Analytics, where you’ll need to create a new dark social segment in conjunction with your other measurable traffic sources. Tangible data from social metrics such as mentions and social shares are easily definable and measurable, and will give you and a solid understanding of how your content is being shared.

If you’re looking for accuracy, it’s possible to delve even deeper:

  • Bitly or Owly link shorteners can provide you with measurable data for up to 30 days upon link creation. These links can track and compile live click data, geolocation, where the link was created and much more.
  • Optimize your native share buttons with the availability of various online tools such as sharethis to help manage and track whether people have shared your content in private channels.

Wrap Up

As marketers, we feel compelled to stay informed and updated about every inch of our campaigns, but the inconvenient truth is this: there is a gulf between what we know and what we don’t know.

Rather than dwelling on this fact, we should strive to make incremental changes through a range of deployable tools and tactics to make up for lost data. We can’t know everything, but we can know enough to help us succeed.


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