by Cydney Hatch April 9, 2019

Come to the Dark Side: Explaining Dark Social’s Impact

It’s easy to think the term ‘Dark Social’ refers to some kind of diabolical digital place to avoid, let alone a #starwars reference, but Dark Social is less sinister than it sounds!

In reality, Dark Social is when people share content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email. This private sharing is harder to track than content shared on public platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, so many social media marketers don’t realize how big of a slice Dark Social has of the social media sharing pie.

In fact, 84% of consumer outbound sharing from a business’ or brand’s website happens via private, Dark Social channels.

So, like Darth Vader once said: “If only you knew the power of the Dark Side”, well, in this article you will! We will cover why you need Dark Social media marketing and how you can use it effectively for your business.

What is Dark Social and Why Do I Need It?

The term “Dark Social” was not created by Star Wars nerds but actually written by the former deputy editor of The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal as “social traffic that is essentially invisible to most analytics programs.” This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform that is not as easily controlled nor tracked.

Some Dark Social traffic channels are:

  • Messaging Apps: Direct DMs, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger
  • Email: Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc
  • Native Mobile Apps: Facebook, Instagram
  • Secure Browsing

In other words, Dark Social describes any web traffic that’s not attributed to a known source, such as a social network or a Google search. Referral traffic is usually identified by certain “tags” attached to the link whenever it’s shared.

For example, typically when you follow a link from Facebook to Disruptive Advertising’s blog, a little piece of metadata hitches a ride that tells our servers, “Hi, I’m here from”

The metadata you can see at the end the source of the URL is “”:

With meta tags like that, you can easily track those numbers and see how many people came from Facebook that month, etc. However, Dark Social makes it so there is no referrer data.

For marketers, this is frustrating because people show up at your website doorstep but you have no idea how they got there.  The main reasons this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site.

What’s the Big Deal About Dark Social?

Although this is frustrating, Dark Social is becoming a huge traffic source for brands! So, if you already have great content to share there are many benefits to using Dark Social to maximize reach.

Dark Social is the New Thing

Last year, we found that Dark Social traffic more than doubled (+115%). This is largely due to the rise of the top four messaging apps: WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. These four messaging apps currently have a higher global monthly active user count compared to social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

As more users switch to private messaging, it is no wonder why most content shares happen on Dark Social. Companies are therefore missing out on a significant amount of data that could be tracked, which instead remains sitting, unused in the black hole of ‘direct’ traffic.

Dark Social is everywhere and being used by everyone!

Dark Social Explains a Lot of Your Traffic

According to marketing firm RadiumOne, in the last year-and-a-half, Dark Social shares as a percent of on-site shares jumped from 69-84% globally.

Compare those numbers to Facebook traffic. RadiumOne’s research in February 2016 found that only 11% of site-originated mobile shares and 21% of mobile clickbacks happened worldwide via Facebook. In the same month, seven times the number of site-originated mobile shares and more than three times the number of mobile clickbacks happened via Dark Social.

Dark Social Shows Your Audience’s Interests

Dark Social data gives a detailed representation of consumers’ real interests.

By that I mean, it shares how people like sharing content as well as what type of content they secretly and frequently share with their friends, family and associates. Familiarizing yourself with this information will allow your business to access a targeted audience of connections.

Mobile Traffic is Heavily Dark Social

Mobile devices are a major player in the Dark Social world just like most things in marketing.

In fact, RadiumOne’s study reveals that as much as 36% of all Dark Social sharing takes place on mobile devices! This includes everything from email to text messages to native mobile apps, even such popular ones as Instagram and Facebook, none of which provide referrer links when users navigate away from the app onto a new page.

This means that a significant amount of mobile traffic to sites gets inappropriately labeled as direct traffic, therefore you are missing out on important data!

Regardless of the why, you cannot dismiss the fact that Dark Social is a huge part of how people share and communicate information amongst each other. As a marketer looking for a cutting edge to focus on in 2019, Dark Social might be one of the tactics to look at.

In the next section, I will share with you ways in which you can measure your Dark traffic and how you can improve it.

How to Measure Your Own Dark Social Traffic

So, if you are interested in seeing how much Dark traffic your business generates, even just to see if it’s worth your attention, there are a few ways you can check out your Dark Social numbers:

  1. Use a Dark Social Calculator (via Google Analytics)
  2. Do a quick audit of your direct traffic
  3. Append tags/UTMs to private sharing buttons

Let’s take a look at those ways in a bit more detail below:

1. Use the Google Analytics Dark Social Calculator

GetSocial made an amazing Dark Social Calculator that works with your Google Analytics that pulls data directly from your google account to assess how much Dark Social traffic you may have! (tracking 100 million private & dark social shares each month, GetSocial is a content performance analytics platform that helps marketers & publishers measure, promote and amplify their best content).

Cool, huh?

To use it follow the below steps:

Step #1: Visit and log in using your Google Analytics Account

Dark social Calculator

Step #2: Analyze your total estimated Dark Social traffic and top pages affected by it.

Dark social calculator results

Although this is an estimate, it’s nice to get a ballpark answer as to how much traffic is coming your way through dark channels.

2. Look at Your Direct Traffic

Another option to get a glance into your Dark Social numbers is to use your analytics software, like Google Analytics or Pathmatics, and filter some of the data on it.

So, if you were using Google Analytics looking at your last 30 days you would want to:

  1. Get your total sessions for the last month (Reports > Audience > Overview). This will serve as the basis for this exercise.
  2. Analyze your traffic sources (Reports > Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels). Find how much direct traffic you had.
  3. Create a filter that ignores traffic to the main landing page.

By doing this, you can also make an estimate as to how much Dark Social touches your marketing numbers!

3. Append Tags/UTMs to Private Sharing Buttons

Last but not least, you can ask your IT team to add some UTMs to private sharing buttons which can better track your marketing content.

How to Better Track Dark Social Traffic

So, Dark Social is a bit sneaky, but you can cut down variances with some tricks to better track it:

  • Shorten Links: Cut down raw links and use a service like or to add trackability to everything
  • Make Things Sharable: if you’re looking at the way your content is laid out, take time to optimize the style and placement of the share button—make it easier to do it your way than via Messenger.
  • Look For Unusual Traffic Spikes: If you see that there are significant traffic numbers that cannot be allocated, most likely this is dark traffic coming right for ya!

There are no guarantees you can nap these numbers perfectly, but by better understanding and being aware of your Dark traffic, you can get to understanding your audience in ways you never thought possible!

So, to best work these tactics into your marketing, let’s look at ways you can implement Dark Social in your social media marketing!

What Can You Do to Increase Dark Social Traffic?

If you are interested in ways you can implement Dark Social strategies into your social marketing, let’s take a look at some tactics you can consider below:

Create Informal Content

Think about purpose and place when it comes to content. Social media is informal, but Dark Social takes informal and makes it that much more personable.

It is important to understand that when you are marketing in this space, you are entering a private, less formal forum where people share intimate details, content and ideas. Avoid content that is formal or used in your other campaigns and this is not the place for that.

So, look to share content like:

  • Ask a question
  • Share a poll or survey
  • Share a promotional code
  • Share an interactive GIF or video

Dark Social platforms like Instagram DMS, Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp aren’t a publishing platform for “selling” content. Dark social platforms are a way for businesses to start a personable conversation, so use interactive content that has a life beyond the initial share will have a long tail value and create momentum.

Don’t Try to Sell Here

What once was reserved for TV is now bombarding social media: ads!

People are bombarded all over social media with ads from influencers, direct from businesses, etc. Consumers today are totally familiar with sales and ads so to make Dark Social work, you need to have a reason for being there, beyond a sales pitch.

So, ask yourself as you plan your marketing strategy in this space:

What value can I bring to users outside of a sale that might end up leading to a sale eventually?

Dark social is a great way to create a social community, give exclusive content and give people previews of products and services, therefore adding value.

Get creative, personable and helpful and you will see benefits!

Mobile is Important

Like anything in marketing, mobile is important and the future of marketing success.

According to Mary Meeker’s 2018 internet trends report, digital media usage grew 4% in 2017, to a total of 5.9 hours per day per adult user. More than 55% of that time is spent on a mobile device!

In the digital news space, the Reuters Institute reports that the importance of smartphones shows no sign of slowing down. On average, 62% of their sample say they use the smartphone to get their news, every week.

In today’s world, mobile experience must be flawless. You don’t want to disrespect your audience’s preferences (Google and Facebook), so everything must be extremely optimized for mobile: widgets, share buttons, plugins included!

Influencer Reach Outs

As we discussed already, social messaging is personal.

Think about it: Who do you generally talk to over a private messaging platform? People, you trust, right? It can be family, friends, your dog sitter or a work associate.

Since you trust these people, you will hardly hesitate to open a link they send you from YouTube video about a dog waterskiing. Just like this, influencers can be another person people feel comfortable with getting content from within the Dark Social space.

Believe it or not, influencers can leverage dark social to spread awareness amongst their followers!

When an influencer sends a link from your business to their followers through a messaging service, there’s a good chance that link is going to get a lot of opens. So, if you have an influencer strategy in place, look to use some Dark Social magic!

Shorten Your URL Links

Like most things social media, the shorter the better, and URL links for sharing are no different.

Use shortened URLs for outbound links in your content to get a deeper analysis of the engagement rates. If you do not think this makes a difference, take a look at some of the benefits that can come from just making this small change:

Some URL shortening services include:

In simple terms, shortening URLs make things work better and look better which therefore help the cause for people to share your content!

Make Sharing Content Easy

A lot of times people feel shameless asking for shares but you can totally do that and it’s socially acceptable. (If your content brings value)

Thoughtfully arrange the share buttons on your website or landing page so that they are easy for visitors to spot. When using social media links, be sure to use a short call to action to inspire people to comment, share or tag people into your posts.

It is not a social media “no-no” to blatantly ask people to do something with your content. You should encourage it always!

Welcome to the Dark Side

Social media marketing is key to the success of any business in today’s economy.

Of course, you want to continue to maximize likes and follows on Facebook and Instagram but you cannot ignore the trend of people sharing content outside of these platforms.

Word of mouth is a social traffic metric you should be looking at.

Dark social sharing is a great source for marketing success and with a little effort, it can pay big dividends as you focus your efforts in more intimate settings with your audience!

If you need some more help with social media marketing or want some more ideas to bounce off with Dark Social, reach out to me here! I would be happy to oblige!

What do you think? Have you tried dark social? What did you think of it and how did it work within your #marketing strategy? Comment and share below, join the dark side…

  • Social Media

Cydney Hatch

Cydney Hatch

Cydney is a polka dot wearing business owner, photographer, cupcake enthusiast and writer, who through her work, shares her personal passions about visual marketing, branding and business strategy.

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