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What exactly IS 'dark social'?

Blog Post Author – Fi
7th August 2020
what is dark social

This blog was written by Fi Shailes for ContentCal.

We've taken to sharing many URL links between friends, family and colleagues - often on a daily basis - and without a second thought. 

According to a report from RadiumOne in 2016, around 84% of sharing activity can be classed as 'dark social'. This figure has risen since 2014, where the estimated percentage was 69%.

What is it?

It was Alexis C. Madrigal, then a senior editor at The Atlantic (media / news site), who first coined the phrase ‘dark social’. It’s an increasingly-used term in the digital and social media marketing field, but it’s not as sinister, or even as exciting, as it first sounds.

It’s basically the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs (e.g. Google Analytics).

It refers to traffic reaching your site from shares via any of the following: • Texts and mobile apps (e.g. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp...) • Email • Organic search (sometimes) • Secure browsing (browsing on a site using HTTPS and clicking a link to a site using HTTP)

The challenge is that web analytics programs can’t categorise the real source of the links we're sharing through social apps, text and email, so they’ll usually lump it into a ‘Direct traffic’ category for you by default (you could say these links should be classed as referrals though). Techopedia says:

“In analysing traffic to The Atlantic, a web analytics firm dug into traffic that came without a referrer…they discovered that more than half of The Atlantic's social traffic came from untrackable sources, or dark social.”

If you’re a digital marketing bod, then you probably like to have an overview of each digital marketing activity and a detailed social media plan, end-to-end, with the ability to drill down into the detail of stats to identify how successful that last campaign was (for example). You'll also be looking for trends and behaviours. ‘Dark social’ hampers your ability to do this though. dark social 65 Source: RadiumOne social data, 2016

Is this really a problem for a digital marketer?

Basically, yes. I’ve tried to find some answers, and I’ve looked at many different articles which, in the main, seem to only half-cover the subject. In truth, there’s currently no reliable way to track 100% of dark social traffic. On the face of it, dark social threatens to have an impact on measuring your social media marketing efforts. How do you truly know how effective your posts have been on LinkedIn and the like? How good is your social media sceduler Beyond the native insights areas of social media sites and centralised recording in programs like Hubspot and ActOn, how can you ensure you're trying your best to capture any referrals which would otherwise fall into a dark social black hole?

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Some actual advice

Digital marketing agency Montfort have published an article which is really helpful - here's their guidance, verbatim:

"An easy way to start measuring Dark Social traffic is to use URL shorteners, such as, to track outbound links. Shorter links also save your readers some characters if they want to post your content on social networks where space is limited, like Twitter. "All is not lost for your analytics, as most platforms (Google Analytics, Adobe Omniture, Chartbeat) have a section in their reports called “direct,” which counts all those apps that users use to click on links “direct to a site”, including Facebook, Reddit, Gmail, and Instant Messaging apps. "Twitter, on the other hand, has a special “” URL shortener, which means Twitter referrals are always easily trackable. In the Twitter Analytics dashboard, there is a handy “Link Click” report that shows how many times links were clicked in your tweets."

For more about dark social, check out this excellent article from Alexis C. Madrigal.

Fi Shailes works at creative agency twogether as a social strategist, with previous digital marketing experience in financial services, fintech, IT and not-for-profit. She freelances on the side (and writes a blog) at Digital Drum.

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