Dark Social – A Definitive Guide

Ian HancockAnalytics, Industry News, Social Media, Stuff

If you’ve noticed an increase in your direct traffic to your website when comparing traffic sources year on year, you may be tempted to put it down to your business’ PR strategy and an increase in brand presence. After all, more people are coming straight to your website…right?

Before making any snap judgements, it’s probably best you understand what ‘Dark Social’ is, and what it means for your customers and stakeholders.


What is Dark Social?

The phrase ‘Dark Social’ was coined by Alexis C Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic to refer to the social visits to your app or website which can’t be tracked by out-of-the-box analytics tools. These tend to be visits from links in online chat platforms such as SnapChat, WhatsApp or email threads.

According to RadiumOne’s report, 69% of all sharing activity takes place via Dark Social globally, with Facebook accounting for only 23%.

The report also revealed that 32% people will only ever share via Dark Social, and that 36% of all people who share via Dark Social at all are using a Mobile.

Some examples of Dark Social Sharing:

A group of friends on WhatsApp organising a group holiday, and sharing links to various transport or accommodation options
Best Friends discussing a pair of shoes one of them wants via SnapChat
A manager sending a message via Slack to his team about a recent industry development
A wife’s email to her husband about restaurant choices for a celebration dinner


What’s the Impact of Dark Social?

Businesses may not connect the recent growth in the use of online chat platforms with a change in the way that their customers make (or expect to make) business or purchase decisions. The impact on their customer’s buying habits may be gradual, but it is significant.

Customers on the other hand often don’t realise that they are still giving away huge amounts of personal data via chat platforms in return for being part of the social aspect of the web. As customers we’re ignorant of what data we’re sharing.

The introduction of new online chat platforms has started to overtake traditional social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with 3 out of 5 of the top Social Media apps used on a regular basis including WhatsApp, QQ and Facebook Messenger. WeAreSocial set out their findings of usage and popularity in the chart below.

Social Platform Users

We Are Social

Inevitably, we’re moving towards the new functions that online messaging platforms offer, such as the ability to discuss things within a small group, or a more user-friendly interface.

Often we as consumers will use a platform because the majority of our friends do, and because it’s convenient. This creates trends based on demographic or lifestyle, so if you’re using segmentation to target consumers it’s worth knowing what platforms they are using.

The below chart shows growth from each of the top social platforms in the second half of 2015, with SnapChat coming out on top.  This means you’re likely to see a continued rise in traffic from Dark Social to your website whether you think your customers use social media or not. With this in mind, it’s important to understand how to measure and manage this change in customer behaviour.

Social Channel Growth



How to measure Dark Social website traffic

First of all, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean the end of measurable traffic sources to your website or online platform.

We’ve listed out a few options you can consider below.

1 – Use UTM parameters on the share buttons on your website to track social shares from Dark Social Apps. And example for Facebook would enable you to track visits from Facebook’s App:


Be mindful though, that if people share by copy and pasting the URL direct from the website, this won’t be tracked by the above UTM tag. SimplyMeasured report that 55% – 70% of sharing is not via social share buttons on websites,but from people copying and pasting the URL.

2 – Native mobile apps for major social channels such as will use an identifier which links the user’s visit to your site with the platform they were referred by. Implementing the Facebook Pixel on your site for example will enable you to track conversion tracking via visits from your Facebook referrals.

3 – Some platforms such as LinkedIn realise the value in marketers tracking user data (as we’ll continue to use their platform if we can measure it properly) and on 20th January 2016 addressed the tracking tags implemented by their user behaviour by adding referrer tags to link data, but it will take time for this to be implemented by the wider range of chat platforms.


So…what can we learn from this?

For businesses it’s important to understand who our customers are in terms of demographic and buying style, and what online platforms they are likely to be using. That way you can tailor your marketing by using the right platform, the right message, and reaching your audience in the best possible way for them to become an advocate for your brand.

With any communications, it’s important to know who your customers are, who you want to reach, and nurture your stakeholders by making it easier for them to engage and identify with your brand online.

After all, you want them to purchase not once, not twice, but multiple times, and you can only achieve that via a personalised and well planned out marketing messages via the channels they are using.

So if you’re finding that your communications to customers are falling on deaf ears, or that your social media efforts really aren’t hitting the right spot, it might be time for a change.


Takeaway Thoughts:

None of this is to be feared.  But it’s worth taking a look at the way you communicate with customers and stakeholders regularly to ensure you’re up to date.  The following should help you to make a start in doing so.

1 – Make sure you understand who your customers are. Are you targeting businesses or customers? Where are you going to find them? What do they expect from you?

2 – Use as many tracking tools as you can to measure Dark Social visits to your website. It’s important to track progress and make any decisions

3 – Consider doing a survey with your customers, and ask them how they’d like to interact with you.  Some people will tell you a lot if you only take the time to ask!

Whatever you do, make sure you have a clear plan and follow it. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed, but something you can work from.  Then, you’ll be able to measure impact, and improve where necessary.

Dark Social is changing the way our customers and stakeholders might interact with us, but their needs remain the same – they just want a good service, at the right time, and at the right price.