Did you know that you may be in the dark about key metrics involving your web traffic? People often talk about products and businesses on open platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But, even more people are sharing this sort of information privately, and out of sight. 

On average, marketers are only gaining insight on about 16% of their publicly shared content. This lack of visibility, or dark social, means you could be missing insight on more than 80% of activity. 

Dark social has a huge impact on the reach of a brand, so it’s important to understand where it’s occurring and take steps to measure it.

Diving into dark social can lead to valuable insights regarding how many people are sharing you, and what content of yours actually interests users (and therefore should keep producing). This can then help cultivate better marketing campaigns and future engagements. 

Let’s dive deeper into dark social, why it’s important, and how you can bring some of this “dark” sharing to light.

What is dark social?

Dark social can be defined as the lack of knowing how you or your content has been shared, and who has shared it via private sharing. Usually, this dark sharing of a brand – or of a brand’s content – takes place via one-on-one sharing channels, such as direct messaging apps, email, and SMS.

The origins of “dark social”

The term “dark social” was coined in an article by Alexis Madrigal, which he published in The Atlantic in 2012. He pointed out that there is a ton of web traffic out there that is essentially invisible. 

He collected data that showed The Atlantic was getting more than half of its traffic from dark social. This revealed to him that dark social can have a much bigger impact on the reach of a brand than expected. And pretty much everyone has shared something via dark social, whether they know it or not. 

Let’s say you see direct traffic come in. This may lead you to believe someone typed in a URL from your site, and came directly to you. But, what if that person was given your link via one-on-one sharing from a direct message on social media, email, or even by SMS?

This shifts the gears and crosses into shared or referred traffic territory. But you have no idea where or how the person actually came to find the URL, leaving you in the dark.

Dark social: Why it’s “dark”

What makes this traffic “dark?” It’s “dark” because it’s typically difficult, and even sometimes impossible, for brands to track this sharing. Brands are literally “in the dark” about its impact. 

Chris Walker, CEO of Refine Labs and prominent speaker about dark social, explains that dark social is a way that B2B buyers are sharing information and content, but that isn’t getting picked up by attribution software or creating intent data. 

So, it’s “dark” because it doesn’t produce data on where it came from. Therefore, you have no record of it, and it can be misattributed. (In other words, traffic comes to your site from the dark social, but you have the wrong data on how the traffic came to your site).

Dark social is:

  • Not attributed to a known source and doesn’t have “tags” (like UTM tags) that properly show the source of the referral traffic. 
  • Often misrecorded as “direct” traffic, but real “direct” traffic is when someone types an exact URL right into the browser – that usually doesn’t happen with content pieces, so that “direct” traffic is probably dark social

Chris mentions that even though it comes from social networks, content platforms, third party events, direct word of mouth via Zoom, Twitter DM, and LinkedIn chats, it’s not always the same as direct word of mouth marketing or direct referrals. It can just be something someone happens to stumble across or see because of a network they belong to (i.e. seeing a post from a company you don’t follow, only because a friend of yours liked it, commented on it, or shared it to their feed). 

Examples of dark social

Now that we understand that dark social refers to untraceable recommendations and sharing of products or content, let’s dive into some examples from popular channels. 

84 percent of sharing happens via dark social

It’s been said that 84% of outbound sharing from consumers now takes place in dark social channels, like email, social networks, and instant messaging. Older studies show that around 63% of consumers receive content or recommendations via dark social. 

With all the data out there, it’s evident how much of a presence dark social has. Here are the most common places where dark social encounters happen.

  • Open social platforms (more trackable sources – very public, but can produce dark social when someone interacts with a peer’s shared content)
    • Facebook 
    • Instagram 
    • LinkedIn 
    • Twitter
  • Closed social platforms (dark social if copy and pasted – but trackable via share buttons)
    • WhatsApp messaging 
    • Slack messaging
    • Direct messaging (Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn DMs, Instagram DMs, etc).
    • SMS (text message)
    • Email 
    • Private social groups and communities
    • Verbal word of mouth (conversations, Zoom, phone calls)

As mentioned, these types of shares are happening a lot. A study by GetSocial found a huge difference between dark social shares vs. public sharing. Just 29% of shares are made via share buttons, while 71% of shares were made on a private channel via copy and pasting. 

Since dark social can produce such a big chunk of traffic, it’s important to try to understand where and how it’s occurring. The key is to find what types of content is getting shared and by whom. 

Why is dark social so important?

Dark social is responsible for lots of brand sharing – one estimate mentions that public social shares only account for about 16% of all share activity, while dark social sharing is in the 80th percentile and seems to be increasing as more statistics come out.

Dark social is how people naturally share exciting things with friends (it’s in-the-moment or conversational sharing). And this dark social sharing is happening regardless of what industry you are in – all brands can benefit. In these instances, no one is thinking about your ability to track their sharing. But, as a business, you probably want to figure out what is being shared, so you can keep creating content or products to keep that momentum.

Dark social brings in lots of targeted traffic and warm leads. Plus, since dark social is one-on-one sharing, it’s highly trusted.It’s been proven, time and time again, that people trust personal recommendations far more than ads. Therefore people are more likely to visit the website they were referred to – and make a purchase. 

So, if you are not tracking all possible ways of how people find you, you may not realize what people like from you. Or worse, you won’t know how well your marketing campaigns are actually doing. 

How to track dark social?

Dark social may be invisible, but there are plenty of ways to bring previously “dark” sharing “into the light” and track it. 

Here are 6 different ways you can track dark social.

1. Create a referral program

Tracking word of mouth does not have to be overly complicated. In fact, one of the best ways to track direct word of mouth is to generate customer referrals through a referral program. Referral software can make this process simple, as it helps automate the referral and sharing process and tracks it every step of the way. 

hustle referral program

Referral programs work in this instance for a number of reasons. Here’s why:

  • Primes sharing. Referral programs incentivizes customers to share with friends one-on-one in a way you can easily measure. Even in spontaneous conversations, people can quickly invite their friend via a referral link. This is especially true if there is an incentive involved (which also makes you highly likely to be brought up in conversation anyway). *The trick is to make the rewards motivating enough to encourage sharing to happen with referral links. 
  • Link tracking. The main problem with dark social is that it’s not traceable. By creating a trackable link, you’re taking away the problem. Referral program software produces unique referral links for each customer. The link traces referrals back to the customer responsible for them. Think in terms of UTM parameters that you trace certain campaigns, content, terms, and so on with. A referral link does the same thing, except it ties the share to a specific person.
  • Automation is key. Every time a referral results in a purchase, the link records the purchase and automatically rewards the customer for a successful referral. So essentially, you won’t have to lift a finger while you gain data.

Perk: Creating a referral program can accelerate word of mouth and make some of the traffic trackable. With the right software and tracking parameters, you can even track page views and events your program members are generating (even if the referral falls through). 

Things to note: Though the referral process is quite incredible and does provide a way to track shares through the same channels dark social is occurring, there can still be organic word of mouth from untracked sources. 

Bonus: Referral programs involve components of each of the other ways we list below for tracking dark social. You can use buttons, shortened links, etc. to get people to refer.

2. Use URL shorteners with social posts

To the average eye, super long links can look overly complicated and messy. A customer likely isn’t going to want to share something like that in a chat or personal email. And someone who knows how to remove the tracking portion of the link will likely dissect the page right out from the tracking parameters. This is where a URL shortener comes in handy.

url shortening tool

Not only do they make longer URLs look cleaner, these tools allow you to add tracking parameters to the links being shared. Customers won’t have to worry about copying and pasting crazy long URLs in their messages, but you still get the chance to track the data. Therefore, they’re a great way to track dark social shares of your specific web pages and content as the sharing parameters stay active if someone copies the shortened link.

Examples of link sharing tools include bit.ly, ow.ly, and Tinyurl. Most link shorteners have free options for a limited number of links per month. So if you’re just wanting to test this type of tracking, you have a little room to play around. 

Perk: Links are made short and sweet which alleviates the possibility of someone either dissecting the URL or simply not sharing the URL.

Things to note: If someone manages to copy a content link directly from your website and shares it (without the shortened URL), that sharing won’t be tracked.

3. Try content “share this” buttons

Another way to easily track potential sharing is to prime the sharing to happen. If you embed attractive share buttons into your blog content (that include tracking links), this is another way to track content shares (like you would in a referral program).

share this social media buttons in content

But there are some things to consider if you plan on just using ‘share this’ buttons.

  • Make them easy to find. Design the buttons to stand out. If the button isn’t easily identifiable, people might miss the button altogether.
  • Placement is key. Buttons should be above the fold. People do not always scroll through an entire page, so avoid putting the CTAs and buttons below the fold (otherwise they might never be found). 
  • Add tracking. Make sure there’s a tracking feature that records the medium people use to share the content. This may mean using separate buttons for email, text, and social media. You can really get as granular as you want. 
  • Consider embedding. You might choose to use an embed tool to create these buttons. Pop-ups, for example, aren’t always given the attention they deserve. But by adding an embedded button right on the page you want to track, you can subconsciously prime sharing to happen through the button if the person decides they want to share. Or, you’ll at least make the motion easy if they come back at a later time to share.

Perk: Share buttons prime word of mouth to happen. Even if someone doesn’t share right away, someone can return to the page as needed and quickly share via the button. This removes the copy and paste step, which makes it a little quicker for them, and adds a level of tracking for you.

Things to note: Share buttons work really well on content pages, but they may not make sense to have on every page. Therefore you may not be able to track everything by using share buttons.

4. Refine your Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a great tool for businesses and marketers to understand many different aspects about their audience and traffic. It also can help you understand what content is being shared via dark social.

By segmenting Google Analytics data, you can get a better understanding of where traffic really comes from. Oftentimes, dark social traffic gets lumped under “direct traffic”. But, as we know, that may not be exactly precise.

Here’s how you can find possible dark social traffic.

  1. Choose the audience option from the left menu, click “overview,” then select “add segment”
    • Select only “direct traffic” and then click “apply”
google analytics direct traffic
  1. With this segment selected, click on “Behavior,” then “Site content,” then “All pages”
    • Find the search bar and click “advanced”
    • Change the “include” drop down to “exclude”
Google Analytics: behavior, site content, all pages
  1. Type in any page URLs that someone could easily remember and type in manually (to exclude)
    • This likely will be your homepage, pricing page, contact us, etc.
    • This way, you’ll only focus on pages more likely to be sent in a referral (largely blog content)
    • Hit “apply” to save all changes

typing in page url in Analytics

By doing this, you’ll be able to exclude direct traffic (traffic where the URL is typed in) and then see all the traffic from dark social. Keep in mind that this won’t show the exact dark social sources – but it will help you quantify the potential volume of all the dark social traffic altogether.

Perk: Google Analytics is freemium, so you have a ton of tools right at your fingertips to gain powerful insights and traffic data.

Things to note: Like other dark social tracking options, this one may not result in 100% accurate results. But, you’ll have plenty of data to learn from (and get a good idea what things are being shared via dark social.) Also, you can opt for more advanced data, but it may cost you more. 

5. Try a “How did you hear about us?” form 

When someone fills out a lead form, that’s a great chance to determine how they found out about you – especially if that was through dark social you may have missed. 

proofhub how did you hear about us form

These types of forms need to be succinct. A simple questionnaire with multiple choice options is probably the best way to go about this. If you keep it simple, people may be more willing to participate (but it doesn’t mean they always will). 

Some things to consider for your form:

  • Placement is key. Add a “How did you hear about us?” form field to your demo, trial, lead magnet, and other content pages where someone becomes a lead.
  • List possible channels. Include all of the channels they may have used to find you. Instagram, your podcast, email, your blog posts, a conversation with a friend, a referral program, or even a web search could all be options.
  • Get even more granular. You can even offer options that help differentiate further between channels. For example, “your Instagram account”, or “a direct social message/text from a friend” if you choose – the fields can be whatever you want.
  • Cover all the bases. Include an “Other” field to cover all the bases. You can even allow an optional text field to pop up when this is selected.

Perk: This report from your leads is usually more detailed than what tracking software can return about dark social. You’ll learn exactly how this person landed on your site.

Things to note: People may or may not fill out the form. But for the ones who do, you can still gain valuable information.

6. Consider dark social tools

You might also use a tool that is specifically made for sourcing dark social data. Dark social tools measure all the shares of each individual page or content piece, and accurately track them by source. It’s important to note, however, that dark social tools like these are only ideal if you produce high volumes of content and you want to track how often individual content is shared. After all, these tools can get pricey.

getsocial dark social tool

  • Choose a popular tool. There are plenty of tools for tracking dark social. Some include, Getsocial, ShareThis, and Po.st. 
  • Add and track. Once you install tools like this on your site, they return detailed data on where you’re being shared (and what your top sharing channels are) so you know the ROI of your dark social.

Perk: These tools are great at identifying which specific content of yours is doing well. In some cases, they can then help you automate social posting based on your high performing content. And they help you with creating buttons and link shortening like we have mentioned above. 

Things to note: These tools can be very expensive – much more expensive than referral program software.

Embrace dark social

As you can see, there are plenty of reasons why you should track dark social. You’ll be able to figure out what content you should focus on and where people are most likely to share. 

Though tracking may not be 100% perfect, you have plenty of options that can bring you pretty close to the correct information and analytics. And if you use a combination of them all, you can produce a ton of data that was once in the dark.

Dark social isn’t something new, and understanding it is achievable. If you are willing to do a little work, you can optimize your marketing strategy and content for optimal results.