Dark Social: Uncovering the Hidden Social Media Networks and Their Impact on Marketing
Marketing & Advertising

Dark Social: Uncovering the Hidden Social Media Networks and Their Impact on Marketing

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The term “Dark Social,” was first coined by Alexis Madrigal – a former deputy editor of The Atlantic, in an article. The article clearly suggests that Dark Social is a vast trove of social traffic that is invisible to most of the analytics programs available in the market.

In layman’s terms, dark social pertains to how it is shared on social media channels. When users share content using private channels, including messaging apps, emails and instant messaging, it is termed as dark social. When compared to posts shared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it is quite difficult to track content that is privately shared.


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As a marketer, you may not realize how huge the portion of dark social might be in your social sharing pie, thereby preventing you from gaining a complete picture of your return on investment on your social media marketing efforts. Besides, it is reported that it is responsible for 84% of outbound sharing.

If you are keen on knowing more about this mysterious power and wish to know how your business can harness it effectively, then you are in the right place. Listed below is all that you might want to know –

1- Dark Social Networks

1.1- Description of dark social networks

Dark social is a process of sharing content outside what can be tracked by the available web analytics software. Quite often, it refers to certain social media, online communities and messaging applications. However, dark social is not just limited to online events; it can refer to face-to-face events, too. 

1.2- Examples

Let us break down a few aspects of popular dark social media or networks and determine why they may appear untraceable –

  • Social media – The known and popular way of monitoring social media is through keyword tracking. But, there are times when content shared in video and photo format may also be required. Visual data and content are complex to gather and analyse effectively. Similarly, if a hashtag used represents your product but has no brand mention, then you may find it difficult to analyse the same.
  • Private messaging applications – The data exchanged between private messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Zoom, DM, Telegrams, etc., are private. Even if your brand is mentioned, you cannot collect the data, given the data belongs to a direct conversation. 
  • Content platforms – Unless your brand is tagged in the description of an existing podcast channel like Spotify, Apple podcast, etc., how will you know if your brand is mentioned? 
  • Communities – There are a handful of online social groups like Discord servers, works channels, Facebook groups, etc. But these groups are often private or closed and may require you to apply for membership to access the content. 
  • Events – Media sharing can be done through online conferences and in-person gatherings. For instance, you can share a video through your mobile devices or even quickly disseminate a link through a private chat virtually. 

1.3- Advantages and disadvantages of dark social networks

The negative impacts of dark social networks

You may have already understood from the definition of dark social that it prevents the marketer from determining the origin of the dark social traffic. The dark social traffic will be classified either as “direct traffic,” or “other traffic,” with no added details. 

From a marketing point of view, gaining an understanding of where the users are arriving from your content is crucial. But, the inability to identify the prospects raises various limitations. The issue with dark social then becomes strategic. The data fed to the organization’s decision-making becomes unreliable. The worst part, if the traffic results in a sale, you may not be able to attribute it to an activity or a channel.  

%shares per channel dark social
Source: GetSocial

It is believed that dark social traffic accounts for nearly 77.5% of all searches. If unknown sources result in four-fifths of your data sources, then you may find it challenging to identify what is working and what isn’t for you. 

If most of your content is being shared through dark social, you may have a hard time reaching a wide enough audience base. Most people have small or limited social circles or networks; you may need word of mouth to reach a huge audience group. But, you may have zero knowledge of whether or not these social webs lack diversity

With internet privacy becoming a huge thing, both Apple and Google have decided to end the use of third-party cookies. This means, now more customer intent data will go “dark,” worsening the measurement pains for marketing teams

The opportunities dark social offers your brand

Dark social portrays astronomic amounts of data. Not knowing how to exploit this data would be a loss. Hence, it is imperative that you look into this practice to comprehend your social data in-depth. 

Since social data portrays a huge portion of your company’s data, determining how to gather it, sort it and conclude it with data from other sources will assist your company to –

  • Better comprehend the customer’s behaviour
  • Identify the needs of the customers (thereby making changes in the existing products, services or processes)
  • Revaluate your cross-channel marketing campaigns
  • Boost your social media campaign’s ROI

The biggest differentiator between social audience and dark social interaction is the user’s trust

Compared to the comments shared on social networks, interactions on dark social have a better impact. In fact, consumers are looking forward to sharing information and even emotions with people they know. Hence, brands are prioritizing UGC or user-generated content for their branded content strategy

2- The Impact of Dark Social on Marketing

2.1- How does dark social affect marketing strategies

Typically, brand spend hours, weeks and even months to come up with effective social media marketing strategies. They even scour through multitudes of data to produce an effective campaign. However, the rise of dark social has now presented both brands and publishers with a variety of challenges, including –

  • Dark channels have made it challenging for social media marketers to trace what type of content is shared among customers and determine how it is being discussed. 
  • Conversations that happen on dark social channels are unknown by the brands. This prevents the brands from jumping into the discussion or offering relevant answers or offers. 
  • Brand content that is being shared through dark channels may not reach a diverse set of audience. This is because the shares are being done among like-minded people who already know each other, thereby trapping word of mouth in the echo chamber. 

2.2- Challenges of tracking dark social

The frequency at which dark social sharing happens often results in the loss of referral data. Whenever someone clicks on your links shared through dark social, it works like an incognito direct. They become untraceable. Similar is the case with direct links from browsers that have tracking disabled or from regions that focus on user privacy, such as Canada, EU and Australia. 

And when you have zero ideas of where the dark social traffic is coming from, you may find it hard to work on lucrative marketing strategies. This problem intensifies when you are trying to market to customers who almost share content in this manner.  

dark social

A huge portion of the direct traffic that brands receive is typically from dark social media sharing. And this direct traffic is quite challenging to trace using Google Analytics. 

Although there are multiple ways of tracking direct traffic on social media, there are limitations to that, too. For instance, UTM tracking collects the information in the CRM and Google Analytics. But, when the content is shared without links, such as native videos, statics images or memes, it becomes impossible to gauge the content’s impact. Furthermore, if the users shorten the links of your social media articles before sharing, it will disrupt UTM tracking. 

2.3- Methods for measuring dark social

If you publish content online, you might want to know where the majority of direct traffic is coming from, right? Whether dark social results in 15% or 50% of dark social traffic, you need to be able to track it

Here are some methods you can use to measure your dark social sharing –

  • Google Analytics – You may have heard people mentioning that it is impossible to track dark social traffic through GA, but what if we say it was possible? What you need to do is separate bookmarks and direct traffics from dark social URLs. Start by creating an advanced segment and excluding certain URLs. Type landing pages that have the potential of being bookmarked under “conditions.” Lastly, exclude “user type” and “returning visitors,” given you wish to track unique visits to identify which social media channels are working. 
  • Tracking tools and social media listening – Social listening does more than just analysing social data and tracking mentions to better suggest data for marketing decisions. Dark social tools like AddThis, GetSocial and ShareThis are known for tracking dark social web traffic. Although not foolproof, such a practice will provide visibility into social shares that you might be missing out on. 
  • Referral programs and social buttons – Not always efficient, but social buttons foster sharing when designed and placed correctly. Create an easy way to share through public social sharing and private messaging. Also, don’t forget to attach the relevant tracking link. 
  • Link shorteners – On social media, UTM links are visually unattractive. Using Bitly or Owly, you can shorten the links and use their platforms to track analytics, too. These sites also offer customizing options. 

3- Strategies for Leveraging Dark Social

There are three ways of using dark social to your company’s benefit. They are listed below –

3.1- Tips for creating shareable content

With a well-planned content strategy in place, you can make your social media content shareable. Here are the top tips –

  • Create content for the audience – Keep in mind the content you are creating is for your readers and not the other way around. Hence, produce content that solves the problems your target audience might have. Or perhaps create something that is purposeful, authentic and helpful. Such contents are more likely to be shared. 
  • Choose a relevant platform – Always consider the distribution platform you wish to use. This is because people of certain age groups have preferences when it comes to social sites. For instance, people between the ages of 18 and 29 are more likely to use Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube compared to Twitter. Similarly, people who are above 65 tend to use YouTube more. Hence, use your internet user behaviour data to determine which platform is right and which is a waste of time. 
  • Offer something unique – The content you produce should be unique every day, especially if your aim is to get it shared. Avoid following your competitors. Instead, look for ways to take things a step ahead. Perhaps offer your audience additional information on the original research. 
  • Make your content useful for the users – Even if you don’t know how to produce unique or new information, you can still do a lot to make your content shareable. Invest your resources in useful content. This could mean producing education posts, instructional or how-to articles – whatever works better for you. 
  • Focus on visuals – Visuals have a huge impact on social media shares. They turn on the gold standards of a post, thereby maximizing its shareability. You can either produce your own photos or use stock photos that help in getting the message across. 

3.2- Encouraging sharing

When compared with other types of marketing, dark social is quite persuasive. 

How, might you ask? Well, when it comes to purchasing something expensive, who would you listen to – a random ad on social media or a recommendation from someone you trust?

Of course, the latter!

As a brand, if you can find ways to get your target audience to share and suggest your brand and services to their near and dear ones, you will have high possibilities of expanding your reach

One easy way to encourage sharing on dark social is by offering discounts and offers that entice people to take part in dark social sharing. 

3.3- Utilizing it in marketing campaigns

Using it for enhancing brand awareness requires a bit of creativity, given you will be imposing on your target audience’s personal space. 

Keep in mind dark social portrays private conversations among people who know each other and trust. You simply cannot expect to barge in, start your conversation and expect people to listen. 

Hence, the best way to use it in marketing campaigns is through influencers. The best thing about using influencers is that people know them and trust them. This means they can act as intermediaries between your audience and your brand. Go for micro-influencers, given they have fewer followers, meaning they will communicate on a more personal level. 

Once you have finalized your influencer, ask him or her to spread the word by sending the links to the target audience on dark social channels

Also, when creating content for it, ensure to follow the best practices, including –

  • Create personalized and custom content to attract the dark social traffic
  • Utilize content to engage with the web traffic
  • Avoid making the content overly promotional
  • Instead of selling, focus on the value that you can provide to the direct traffic
  • Make the content interactive, thereby increasing its shareability

By using dark social in marketing campaigns, you can –

  • Save lost sales
  • Monitor user-generated comments
  • Have a fun conversation with the audience
  • Correct myths, misinformation and misleading details
  • Pull campaign winners

Wrapping things up,

The future of digital marketing is evolving. Plus, privacy issues are getting challenging to cooperate with. This leaves you no option but to join dark social and capitalize on services that your consumers may be using already to reach your site.

Although it is challenging to measure dark social traffic, it doesn’t mean you cannot use it to your business’s advantage. It can assist you in connecting with the target audience on a personal level and promoting your content. 

Now, go ahead and put the knowledge gained through this blog to use and truly prove and improve your social media ROI.

And in case you are searching for an expert to assist you with dark social, scan through the archives of Sortlist. You are bound to come across experts in social media who truly resonate with your needs, budgets and expectations!


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