The Dark Side of Analytics – What is “Dark Social” Anyway?

Here’s a heartwarming story about dark social…

My housemate and I, like millions of others, share a slightly shameful love of watching videos of people popping giant spots. If either of us find a real doozy, we share it on Facebook messenger. We would never in our right minds publicly share a spot popping video on our social networks, so we keep things safe with our private stream of oddly satisfying grossness.

I recently found an excellent spot popping video on the Huffington Post and copied and pasted the link onto Facebook messenger straight away. My housemate clicked, watched and replied “OMG ONE OF THE BEST”, meaning my good deed was done for the day.

Now imagine a data analyst at the Huffington Post trying to see where that click came from. It hasn’t come from a traditional, trackable channel, such as a search engine or a tweet. It was shared on Facebook, yes, but I didn’t click a share button.

What I did with my spot popping video is what a lot of us do every day. We copy and share links on IM services such as Skype and Slack, we email links, we share links on Whatsapp or via text. This is all sharing and social activity that currently can’t be tracked, analysed and accurately quantified.

This data is what is known as “dark social”.

Possibly one of the coolest terms in social media marketing, “dark social” was coined by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic way back in 2012. The phrase stuck, and is now one of the top talking points rattling around the social media circuit, and something to consider when looking at your content and social media strategy and its impact.

What Dark Social Means for Content Marketing.

Social media on a small budget can be at times disheartening, and not every piece of content you create is going to whirl the internet into a frenzy. Sometimes, despite best efforts, the data you get after a content campaign will be slim pickings. For many brands, social media will not be a huge driver of web traffic, or recorded conversions.

However, with the identification of the “dark social” phenomenon, we can reasses this impact.

“Dark Social” are numbers that are difficult to identify and apply to your bottom line and ROI. The 2012 statistic from the original Atlantic article –  “69% of social referrals came from dark social…” is shocking, but easy to believe. This is a lot of data that can’t be tracked properly. With social sharing buttons (particularly the recent Whatsapp share button, which is now more popular than the Twitter share button on Buzzfeed mobile), the internet is trying its hardest to track social shares and clicks, and yet dark social is still growing. A recent report claims that 74% of sharing is now dark social.

The Huge Potential of Dark Social

One of the appeals of internet marketing is that you can see the impact of your work, and use data (referrals, visits, conversions) to shape your future strategies and routines. This is how we now know the perfect time to send an email or a tweet for a certain market – I call it ‘playing detective’, and it can be incredibly useful for the marketer and effective for their clients.

However, dark social numbers cannot be ignored and they need to be considered and accounted for when looking at content. Dark social sharing also arguably higher value traffic. What are you more likely to click – a link in a tweet that randomly appeared in your timeline, or a link sent just to you via your friend (maybe a spot popping video)? If someone recommends a brand with you via dark social paths, you are also more likely to purchase from them, as it has been recommended by someone you know, with you in mind.

I would argue that dark social referrals are stronger, will keep the user on your site for longer and are more likely to convert. Yet they won’t be part of the data that helps you form your content strategy.

Dark social is also prevalent in some markets more than others. People are more likely to share links about careers, finance and property through dark social. While public publishing (and if you have a social network profile, you are a publisher!) is still growing, private sharing is still a huge factor to consider. It harks back to an older age of word-of-mouth marketing. If you have posted a link to your site on a social network, or posted a piece of content on your site, data suggests that a large portion of the traffic as a result of this work will not be click throughs you can find on analytics programmes, but through dark social.

Never underestimate the power of the dark side!