The Dark Social: see no evil, but learn to Trust and Measure It

You may or may not have heard of ‘dark social’, but I can guarantee if you use social media, you will have created ‘dark social’ visits. That is, if you have ever seen an interesting news story and grabbed the link and sent it to a friend on Facebook Messenger, or texted your mum asking if she still wants those tickets to see Mumford & Sons for her birthday and included a link to the venue’s website.

What Is Dark Social?

If you work for a social brand and have ever needed to dig into a traffic source report using your favorite web analytics tool, you may have noticed a giant bucket of ‘direct’ traffic and thought to yourself what is this?The phrase originally coined by Alexis Madrigal from the Atlantic, ‘Dark Social‘ simply means the sharing of content through channels other than social media, whether by email, private message or even SMS. By definition, dark social traffic can’t be attributed to a known source, as the referring source lacks the tags required by analytics software that provide information about the site it was seen on. Unlike other ‘direct traffic’ sources such as from social media, which comes from links shared, contains tags that tells your analytics software where the link was shared originally and how visitors have ended up on your website.

Times Have Changed

In the early days of the web, everything was link-based, so we either discovered something via search, via link, or we went to the site directly by typing it into the browser or via bookmark. So if a site visitor arrived at the site without a referrer s/he had to be a direct visitor. But this was in the time of a simpler, smaller web, and before the rise of mobile.Unlike those early days, there are now many ways a visitor can arrive at a site without going to the site directly. Here are a few:

  1. Native Mobile Apps. Mobile apps either fire up a browser instance in-app (like Facebook) or force safari/chrome to open a new browser window (like Instagram) with the URL in question in the browser. In both cases, the browser itself is going to directly to the site and thus it looks like direct traffic when viewed in GA.
  2. Email. Most email-providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook don’t pass a referrer when a user clicks the link to protect privacy and security for that user.
  3. Chat. This can be in the form of chat-based native mobile apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat or web/desktop based chat like Google Hangouts, IRC, or Slack. Chat clients of all kinds do not pass referrers either!
  4. Secure browsing. If you’re browsing on a site using HTTPS and click a link to a site using HTTP a referrer won’t be passed.
  5. Organic search. In some browser configurations, google won’t actually pass a referrer when a user clicks a link from an organic search.

We only consider the first three of these to be dark social, but the point here is that most direct traffic is actually far from direct. If you’re measuring your web traffic using only standard web analytics, you’re missing key insights about how people are actually discovering your content and products

So, why do I care?

Dark Social is getting bigger and bigger. As you can see from the following pictures, a number of different researches from Radium One, ChartBeat, SmartInsights are estimating Dark Social to accounts for 70% of social sharing , up to 82% for mobile sharing!dark socialThink about that for a second. As a social marketer, social sharing is the lifeblood that sustains and amplifies your efforts, and it turns out you can’t even see that it’s happening in most cases. Imagine if the paid search didn’t know about 70% of their effective keywords!The dominant sharing paradigm of today isn’t actually posting articles to Facebook (though that’s obviously hugely important). The use cases for dark sharing are so plentiful:

  • A wife texting a husband about a concert she’d like to attend
  • A group of friends on a group email chain sharing content about their favorite sports team
  • A friend WhatsApp’ing a pair of shoes she’s going to buy
  • A colleague Slack messaging a recent industry announcement

There are so many places where it makes more sense to share 1:1 instead of 1:many, and many times when a private forum is more appropriate. That doesn’t mean this sharing isn’t social! It absolutely is and you need to be able to understand it to both prove and improve the total efficacy of your efforts.

Let’s Make It Clear With An Example

I have an ecommerce site selling ‘Pet Rocks’. I get 60% of my traffic from organic search, 10% from paid search, 25% from ‘direct’ and 5% from social media. My site has a 1% conversion rate (I sell 1 pet rock per 100 visitors) and on each pet rock I sell I make a £10 profit. I get 10,000 views a month, so that means I make £600 per month from people coming from organic, and only £50 per month from those coming from social media.example chart dark social If I currently spend £200 per month on outreach and £200 per month paying a freelance copywriter to write content for my sites blog, I can conclude that I’m making a tasty profit of £200 per month on my organic traffic (£600 revenue – £400 spending). However if I currently spend £100 per month on social media campaigns and only get £50 in revenue from social media then it looks like I’m wasting £50 per month on social media and it isn’t worth the money I’m spending on it. I’d better cut down by on my social media spending or wind it up entirely.Although the available data seems to back this up, I would actually be wrong to make this conclusion. If I analyse the traffic that comes to me direct, I find only 5% of it is going to my home page and the vast majority goes to various product pages and blog articles which have long URLs that people can’t possibly be typing in direct (unless it happens they have them bookmarked). It turns out these people have been coming to the site via ‘dark social’, and so I’d be wrong to write off my social media efforts.It turns out 4/5ths of the traffic that was being counted as ‘direct’ was actually ‘dark social’ and only 1/5th was people actually typing in the URL. This means if Dark Social is counted under the social section, social as a whole is making £250 in revenue from the 2,500 people it brings in, and thus my £100 social budget is more than justified. In fact, it might be worth trying out spending more to generate more buzz around buy pet rocks to generate further social traffic, both visible and dark.

Ok, This Is What You Can Do

The good news is that there are new tools that allow marketing professionals to correctly understand traffic origins and therefore study their behaviour and conversions. In this post, you’ll find 5 tools to help you track dark social sharing.Plus, as Chartbeat has identified, native mobile apps will pass an identifier in the UserAgent field even when they don’t pass a referrer. For example, Facebook passes FBIOS as a UserAgent string for a user accessing content from Facebook’s mobile app.Questions? Other way you know to track dark social?[Sources: Digiday, SmartInsights, Simply Measured, Huffington Post]

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