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Why Marketers Need to Care About Dark Social

Danielle Howson
Written By
Danielle Howson
Published On
Jul 24, 2020
Close up of a website URL shared through dark social

From amusing articles on “18 Signs Your Dog Has A Secret Second Family” to Instagram’s trending “What X You Are” posts to TikTok videos of the #NicerToMe challenge, the internet is full of shareable content.

If you’ve ever copied a URL and pasted it in an email, iMessage, text, or another form of private messaging, then you have participated in “dark social”. Don’t worry, this isn’t as sinister as it sounds. Dark social is simply another way to measure web traffic—an increasingly significant metric too.

But why? And how can marketers and brands capitalize on it? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Dark Social?

Dark social isn’t a new concept. In fact, the term was coined in a 2012 article by Alexis C. Madrigal. In this article, he described any social traffic that is basically invisible to the majority of analytics programs as “dark social.”

What does this mean? Copied links shared with friends and family through various private messaging channels (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, text message, email, etc.) are significantly harder to track than content that’s shared on public platforms.

Marketers are faced with the challenge of identifying the source of their traffic garnered through dark social media.

The Rise of Dark Social Media Sharing

In the last year or so, interest in dark social has been gaining more and more traffic online. There has been a significant increase in the amount of content that is shared through dark social media. In fact, a study from 2019 found that 84 percent of outbound sharing is done through private messaging apps. This is a notable amount of web visitors arriving as “dark traffic”.

So… how do you analyze dark traffic when it can’t be measured?

How to Measure Dark Traffic

Analytic tools track referrer data through the metadata that is retained by your website’s links. This means that you can find out where site visitors are coming from based on the links they’re clicking. However, when links are shared via dark social media, it can make visitors to your site appear as if out of thin air. The metadata that is typically attached to the link isn’t there.

But wait—there’s no need to panic!

Dark social isn’t completely lost or secret traffic. Google Analytics tracks dark social through direct traffic. So while you may have noticed that your social media referrals have decreased, your direct traffic should have increased in turn. If this is the case, you can use these metrics as an indicator that your content is still accessible and being shared.

Overall, you have to play the role of Sherlock Holmes in order to track dark traffic, spending a little more time in Google Analytics in order to deduce where your traffic is coming from. If you can get to the bottom of your data, you should be able to clearly see who is sharing your content when and where.

If you want a more thorough breakdown of how to measure website traffic from dark social, check out this blog.

Why You Can’t Ignore Dark Traffic

It’s as simple as this: consumers’ dark social activity is just too large to ignore.

Messaging apps are vastly outpacing social media platforms in terms of the number of active users. Everyone from Gen X to Gen Z is using the most popular messaging apps on the market, with Facebook, Snapchat, and WhatsApp taking the lead.

Statistic: Most popular mobile messaging apps in the United States as of September 2019, by monthly active users (in millions) | Statista

Attributing where your social traffic is coming from is only growing more and more important. Brands want to be able to measure how their dollars are going to use in order to ensure they’re getting the most out of their social media strategy. Marketers can only make informed decisions about where to allocate budget spend if they know what isn’t working and what is.

How Brands Can Leverage Dark Social

When it comes to dark social, take your own interactions on social media into consideration. Retweeting a Twitter post, commenting on a Facebook post, or sharing a YouTube video are all very public activities that are visible to people’s entire online networks. Not everyone wants to participate in this kind of engagement.

This isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t mean people will stop sharing content they find interesting, funny, or sometimes just plain ridiculous with their friends, family members, and coworkers. But instead, they’ll be sharing it through private messages.

So what do you need to create dark traffic? Shareable content.

Specifically, shareable content with sharing button options. If a visitor on your website uses a button to send a blog post to their friend over WhatsApp instead of copying and pasting the link, you will be able to utilize the link’s metadata to track traffic.

The true value of dark social lies in its ability to create genuine, one-to-one brand interactions. Many brands have begun to notice that dark traffic converts considerably better than traditional social media. So while you may be thinking that your lowered engagement rates on Instagram or Facebook mean you’re losing your audience, pay attention to dark social.

A button for sharing content

Capitalize on Shareable Content Today

The Influence Agency provides comprehensive digital marketing services to brands and businesses all over the world. If you’re looking for a boutique agency that can take your social media presence to the next level and increase traffic, contact us today.


  • Danielle Howson is the Content Manager at TIA and self-proclaimed word nerd. She spends her time writing, thinking about writing, and coming up with creative ideas to write about. When not writing, you can find her online at @howsdani

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  • Danielle Howson is the Content Manager at TIA and self-proclaimed word nerd. She spends her time writing, thinking about writing, and coming up with creative ideas to write about. When not writing, you can find her online at @howsdani

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