Dark Social and What It Means for the Future of Digital Marketing

Dark Social and What It Means for the Future of Digital Marketing

One of the major digital marketing trends for 2017 involves the growth of “dark social.” The term refers to the private sharing of articles and other forms of media on a one-on-one basis through email, text message, or private messaging apps. This type of sharing is “dark” because it involves sharing via non-social means.

According to recent estimates, dark social accounts for about 70 percent of all sharing activity, which means that marketers need to start paying attention to this phenomenon if they want to engineer effective campaigns.

How, exactly, is dark social defined?

text messagingFirst, it is important to understand exactly what dark social is from a technical perspective. Typically, referral traffic has a tag attached that identifies the source of the link. If the click came from a certain social network, Google search, or another attributable source, then the tag identifies this source.

Dark social is traffic generated from an unknown source, such as an email or text message. Marketers who use Google Analytics can track the dark social attention a particular page is getting by looking at the “direct” clicks. Typically, this represents people who typed the exact page address into a web browser, but it is also how dark social sharing gets categorized.

Alexis C. Madrigal coined the phrase “dark social” way back in 2012 in an article in The Atlantic. At this time, most dark social was attributed to emails and desktop instant messaging platforms. However, in the years since, mobile devices have facilitated significantly more dark social sharing.

According to a RadiumOne study, more than a third of all dark social sharing is through mobile devices, and this figure has likely only increased since that study was conducted. Mobile devices are a major source of sharing through email, text messaging, and mobile apps, such as WhatsApp. The situation becomes even more complicated because popular mobile apps like Facebook and Instagram do not always include referrer tags when users navigate away from the app to a webpage.

Why should marketers care about dark social?

The increase in mobile sharing has major implications for many marketers, especially as a greater number of campaigns target mobile over desktop users. In-store proximity marketing and other techniques are simply not possible when individuals use a desktop computer, yet marketers cannot rely on traditional analytics to track mobile link click-throughs.

This issue can leave marketers in the dark as they try to figure out the most successful parts of a campaign. If they cannot determine with accuracy where visitors came from, then they do not know exactly what kind of engagement their efforts are producing. This engagement data is important for understanding where more money should be invested in the future to get the greatest returns.

Some marketers who have previously ignored dark social may be surprised by the findings of the RadiumOne research. Some findings make sense, such as the fact that most sharing of personal finance content occurs via dark social. People generally do not want to broadcast their financial situation. However, other findings aren’t so obvious, such as the fact that dark social is the primary means of sharing arts and entertainment, technology, real estate, and travel content. Marketers in these industries need to become much more diligent about tracking engagement if they want to stay relevant.

What options do marketers have to track dark social?

iphone textingTracking dark social is much more complicated than traditional social media since organizations are unable to see when something has been shared via email, text message, or other private forums. However, understanding that your current tracking may not be complete is half the battle. From that point, it is important that marketers follow developments in the field of dark social to take advantage of improved tracking techniques as soon as they become available. For example, apps like Instagram are proactively trying to improve their internal analytics to account for dark social and help individuals more fully understand how traffic is generated.

In addition, organizations may be able to better track sharing by including sharing buttons directly on their content. These buttons should be easy to find so that users are reminded to share. If users have to seek out the buttons, they’re much more likely to just copy and paste the link into an email or a message. Organizations can also include a “share by email” link among these buttons to get a better idea of how often people are emailing content to other people.

Another strategy that marketers can use involves comparing spikes in “direct” clicks with spikes in sharing from other platforms, such as Facebook. If the spikes align, then marketers can assume that much of the direct traffic involved dark social sharing of the same link that people were sharing with their Facebook networks.

While the best strategies for tracking dark social are still being developed, it’s certain that following advancements is critical for improving performance. For example, the RadiumOne report shows that Universal Music Group’s exploratory tracking of dark social resulted in a 300-percent increase in marketing effectiveness.