Fifteen Logo

The Rise of Dark Social

April 27, 2017

You’re trawling Airbnb’s collection of holiday homes in Sorrento and come across a beauty! Metres from the sea, with its own pool, BBQ area, WiFi and air conditioning, your other half needs to see this. You copy and paste the URL into an email and hit send. Unknowingly you have just been involved in the dirty world of dark social.

Now, don’t worry the police are going to come knocking there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this act, despite what the name might have you believe. Dark social isn’t some sort of underground meeting involving anything questionable. It’s essentially sharing stuff you come across online – just through certain platforms and in a particular way.

That hilarious BuzzFeed article you sent over to your work colleagues or that amazing festival happening this summer that your friends needed to know about immediately through WhatsApp – that’s dark social.

It seems people aren’t using sharing buttons or posting directly to their social channels as much as we first would assume. It seems they don’t want ‘the world’ on their social media know what they like or have been digesting this week … ironically.

What is Dark Social?

The term ‘dark social’ was first used in a 2012 article written by Alexis Madrigal, former deputy editor of The Atlantic. He referred to the sharing of content that was happening through private channels. That is the social activity which cannot be accurately tracked or analysed.

When you click through to your website from social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter your activity is tracked by tags of code, meaning this type of sharing can be logged by the various analytics packages. URL’s which you copy and paste into private messaging platforms such as WhatsApp or Snapchat don’t possess the tracking code that analytics need to track this share.

Now you understand what is meant by dark social you will have realised just how many times you have taken part in this type of social sharing. The pure amount of activity can present a problem to marketers when viewing their traffic analytics. It would appear that direct traffic is surprisingly high when in fact the majority of this will be dark social traffic. Analytics platforms cannot tell the difference between the traffic coming from a copy and pasted link and the traffic coming from a directly typed-out URL.

Why does dark social matter?

Why do we need to take notice of dark social I hear you ask? Well, this is because of the sheer quantity of it going on. The image below shows the breakdown of all social sharing activity and where this sharing is happening.

dark social

According to research conducted by RadiumOne 84% of all outbound sharing is done through dark social channels such as private messaging apps and emails. These figures are just too big to ignore! In line with the growth and popularity of private messaging platforms, more and more content will be shared in this manner so marketers need to be aware and look to take action.

It’s not only the volume of this activity but the value of it also. Think of your own experiences; you would be more likely to click through and/or possibly take action as a result of a shared link from a friend or family member. In marketing terms, a link shared through dark social will generate more traffic, leads and conversions. Dark social is the new ‘word of mouth’ bringing with it a sense of trust.

What can marketers do about it?

The first problem that presents itself with dark social is measuring the traffic and engagement it brings to your business. There are some ways in which you can look to tackle this. Looking at the direct traffic you will notice some URL’s are pretty long, too long perhaps to type out directly into your address bar. The assumption could be made here that these links were not typed manually and therefore are (could be) dark social traffic.

Of course, this doesn’t allow you to explain in depth as to what platforms were being used to share the content or even where the link originally came from. However, it does give you a somewhat reliable metric to measure your dark social traffic and explain where all this ‘direct traffic’ is coming from.

Another way to react to dark social is to ‘fight’ it. Make your content easily shareable by using highly visible sharing buttons which do include a referral tag – meaning you can track any activity from this. It’s about making the user experience as simple as possible so they don’t take the steps to share your content dark socially. The share options on offer must be easier and quicker than hitting copy and paste. Remember to represent all social channels appropriate to your audience including email.

Another way is to ‘disguise’ your content’s URL with a shortening tool like or  Google URL Shortener. Encourage your audience to share these short and trackable links.

Future of dark social

One thing is for certain, the amount of sharing done through dark social is only set to increase. Although there is no accurate tracking of this activity yet techniques may be developed in order to do so. The man to first use the term Alex Madrigal points out “There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand”

For now, the general consensus is that the ‘narrowing down’ method provides us with a satisfactory result for dark social traffic. It is power in itself to stay up to date with the ways in which content is shared and how common they are. Dark social is the big player here, she’s here to stay and growing at an alarming rate. Don’t be intimidated, you are aware of her presence even just by reading this article.

That age old saying ‘content is king’ comes to mind here. If you create interesting, informative and engaging content the links will be shared and the traffic will be generated.  Some could argue it doesn’t matter where it came from!




Stay on top of your digital game with our blog updates.

More posts