Shedding Some Light on Dark Social

Dark Social

Web analytics are supposed to provide marketers with accurate data points that can be used to build a marketing program, right? Right. However, “accurate” seems to be somewhat misleading when you take into account the traffic that occurs outside of that which analytics programs can accurately track. What? There is data that analytics programs can’t analyze?

Yes. It’s been labeled “dark social.” And, the inability to collect data from this traffic tends to mislead marketers about the effectiveness of their social marketing campaigns/content.

Where Does Dark Social Traffic Come From?

According to Alexis C. Madrigal, who coined the term dark social, it is social traffic that occurs outside of what analytics programs can measure. Why is it invisible? There is no referrer data from the user that lands on the webpage. The user received a URL from someone else, whether via email, messaging apps, text or mobile apps, and went directly to a site via that link. The traffic records as “direct” in the analytics program, but it is highly unlikely the user typed in the URL. So, some traffic that is getting buried in “direct” is not actually direct, but social traffic, since a link to the information on the site was shared socially. But, since it comes from a source that doesn’t use referrer data, it doesn’t record as a social share.

For example, let’s say a wife is trying to decide which restaurant she and her husband should go to tonight to celebrate their anniversary. As she is researching online, she comes across a new restaurant with a menu that appeals to her. She copies the URL and sends it via text to her husband. She has just participated in social sharing, but it will record as direct traffic on the restaurant’s website. That data is now considered dark social.

Why Does It Matter?

Madrigal found that almost 69% of social referrals are dark. That is a lot of data being misconstrued by analytics programs. You might be led to conclude that social marketing programs are not working, while they may, in fact, be surpassing your expectations.

Dark Social

What Do I Do About It?

There is no way to completely prevent sharing of content in ways that would be considered dark social sharing. And, you shouldn’t want to because any type of sharing is a boost for your content and your business. But, part of a marketer’s job is to know and understand the traffic from content marketing efforts. Social shares via email, text and messaging apps make this difficult. There are some solutions presented across the web for methods and tools that can help marketers identify dark social shares in analytics programs. But, strategically planning content marketing and social marketing campaigns to optimize for social sharing will increase the odds of your content being shared in a way that can be tracked by analytics programs. Some tips to keep in mind when planning for social sharing of content are:

  • Understand the definition and impact of dark social. There is a lot of research out there that shares similar conclusions, that the majority of direct traffic can be attributed to dark social. Make that clear in any social marketing plans.
  • Highlight the distinction between social media sharing and social sharing. Social sharing encompasses social media sharing, but is not limited to it. Social sharing also accounts for emails, text, social media mobile apps and messaging apps.
  • Create content worth sharing. All shares are good, which means all traffic is good, no matter the source. To understand user behavior, you must create content that people want to share. If your data shows a low amount of traffic from any source, the content may be the issue, not the way the data is being shared.
  • Make content easy to share in a way that can be traced back to the referring source. For example, include a “share this article” button on all blog posts and web pages that provide original content. Another example is to incorporate email marketing campaigns, and encourage receivers to forward the information.
  • Build detailed analytics monitoring and evaluation into content marketing plans. Don’t just look at the surface data. Dig deeper to find consistent, similar referral sources. Look for trends and patterns that can be measured and explained beyond lumping into dark social.
  • Optimize content for social media channels so users share through those channels, instead of copying and pasting links into texts, emails or messages.

Dark Social

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

There is no magic formula for executing the “perfect social marketing campaign.” The best way to ensure success is to plan for it. Don’t let dark social traffic hinder your ability to measure the effectiveness of content marketing efforts. By shedding light on the issue in the planning phase, you will eliminate the headache of explaining the missing data points at the end of the campaign.

About Bonnie McDonald

Bonnie is an experienced marketing professional who excels in marketing strategies and tactics execution. She spent seven years in the private sector before migrating over to the agency side. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University and a Master’s degree in the same field from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is also Google AdWords Certified. A little lagniappe about Bonnie: • Played tennis at LSU • Can’t get enough of Jane Austen • Endeavors to read all the “classic” novels in both American and British literature • Likes to eat sweets until her teeth hurt (literally) • Thinks “Clueless” is a classic ode to ‘90s teens that will endure forever
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