dark social

The Ultimate Guide to Dark Social

This is likely to be one of the few times, if not the first, that you’ve heard the term Dark Social. A newly emerging phrase in the realms of digital marketing, it’s been causing a helluva lot of head scratching. But with 84% of sharing happening outside of social networks, but 90% of social marketing funds being channelled inside, it’s a phrase you will be hearing more and more. So without further ado, here’s our ultimate guide to Dark Social and how to leverage it for your business.

Dark Social Tracking

What is Dark Social?


The Birth of Dark Social

The term was originally coined by Alexis C. Madrigal – a senior editor at The Atlantic – in his article, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong”, to describe the social sharing of content that happens outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs – hence the word “dark”. Madrigal found out a lot of pretty interesting stuff back in 2012 actually. If you can’t be bothered finishing the source above, then here’s a TL;DR:


1. The sharing you see on sites like Facebook and Twitter is the tip of the ‘social’ iceberg. We are impressed by its scale because it’s easy to measure.

2. But most sharing is done via dark social means like email and IM that are difficult to measure.

3. According to new data on many media sites, 69% of social referrals came from dark social. 20% came from Facebook.

4. Facebook and Twitter do shift the paradigm from private sharing to public publishing. They structure, archive, and monetize your publications.”


Dark social as a concept mostly occurs when a link is sent via email or online chat rather than being shared over a social media platform where referrals can be measured. Madrigal described how he’d been questioning the existing analytics about web traffic for some time and how no one seemed to account for sharing links over instant messaging, which precedes social networks.

After close consideration and realising all he had behind him was a memorable experience of 90’s instant messaging, Alexis turned to Chartbeat, a tool that provides real-time analytics to publishers and it led them to the discovery of a mysterious source that seemed to account for almost 60% for traffic on The Atlantic’s site.



Then, in 2014 he revisited the topic for Fusion. Things had changed a lot in two years, here’s a summary of the developments of his research:


dark social madgral


The mobile web has exploded. This is due to the falling cost and rising quality of smartphones. As the above slide from venture capital analyst Benedict Evans shows, people spend about as much time in apps as they do on the desktop and mobile webs combined.

Back in 2013, Facebook made changes to its algorithms that saw media fan-counts increase at all kinds of media sites. The Atlantic began to notice a huge rise in their dark social traffic. We’re talking on the order of millions of visitors—and it was all coming from mobile devices. This was in addition to the rise in Facebook traffic. Alexis began to question if everyone was just Whatsapp-ing links to each other. He began to suspect that Facebook was responsible for not only the influx in traffic but also for the boost in Dark Social traffic as well.


The Experiment



Alexis decided to test his theories about Facebook’s true influence in Dark Social. The outline for his experiment is stated as follows:


“I created a post deep in the sands of time, so that no one not in the experiment would find it. Then I posted a link to that story on my Facebook page and told my friends only to click on it if they were using the mobile app. Then I looked at the referrers for that page, a page where I knew 100 percent of the traffic was coming from Facebook. A few people did show up as coming from Facebook.com, but the rest showed up as “Typed/Bookmarked,” which is the analytics package Omniture’s misnamed category for dark social.”


Through further research he realised that people who clicked the link a second time would then show up as being referred through Facebook and Facebook mobile.


“I figured that these numbers would be tightly correlated with the overall number of Facebook mobile visitors we had. So I took them and compared them against the dark social traffic we were getting.”


dark social facebook


As you can see above, the correlation is pretty good. When Facebook referrals increased or decreased, dark social seemed to follow. According to Alexis, this is standard across all medium to high levels of web media.


Summary of Developed Research

“These days, dark social accounts for about a third of external traffic to sites across our network,” Chartbeat’s Josh Schwartz wrote to Madrigal in an e-mail. “That number is dramatically higher on mobile, with upwards of 50 percent of mobile external traffic lacking a referrer.” To seal the deal on Chartbeat’s evidence that Facebook is the big fish in Dark Social, they identified three main sources:

dark social sources


“A careful analysis of a particular story is likely to be able to turn up the source of the majority of its dark social,” Schwartz said. “Of course, there are also person-person shares (IM, e-mail, etc.), shares on apps with no corresponding website, etc. that account for a chunk of dark social.”


During the course of their research, the Chartbeat team discovered that while Facebook visitors don’t shout to the analytics programs, “Yo I’m from Facebook!” they do wear a sort of name tag. A name tag with what you would refer to as the “User Agent” which tells analytics software the operating system you have and the browser you use.


The Main Takeaway

There is one main takeaway from his 2014 research:


“Social networks have only structured the experience of sharing on the web, not created it. Facebook was not only just a subset of sharing, but one that antedated many other forms. That is still true, but the social networks—by which I mostly mean Facebook—have begun to eat away at the roots of the old ways of sharing on non-commercial platforms. Mobile is becoming the dominant way people access the Internet. And true person-to-person dark social appears to be less prevalent on mobile devices. Because what people like to do with their phones, en masse, is open up the Facebook app and thumb through their news feeds.”


With a focus on mobile, that leads us onto our next topic…

Dark Social Stats

Mobile Dark Sharing as a Percentage of All Sharing by Advertiser Category

dark social stats


Mobile Dark Social Clickbacks as a Percentage of all Clickbacks by Advertiser Category

dark social stats


The US sees Dark Social clickbacks from mobile devices account for the majority of all clickbacks in 7 categories, including the highly popular Sports category. In Sports, 62% of clickbacks happened on mobile devices via Dark Social.

In Europe, slightly closer to home, DS clickbacks from mobile devices account for the majority of all clickbacks in 5 categories that include: Health and Fitness, Arts and Entertainment, Food & Drink, Sports and Technology and Computing categories. The largest percentage of clickbacks happens via Dark Social using mobile devices in the Food and Drink category at 72%.

In the UK, Dark Social clickbacks from mobile devices also accounted for the majority of all clickbacks in 7 categories including Food and Drink, Arts and Entertainment and Sports categories. In the Food and Drink category, 78% of clickbacks happened via Dark Social channels on Mobile Devices. In the Arts and Entertainment category, 72% happened via Dark Social on mobile devices. 58% occurred in the Sports category.

Further out in Southeast Asia, Dark Social clickbacks from mobile devices account for the majority in popular categories such as Food and Drink and Hobbies and Interests. 78% of clickbacks are coming from DS for Hobbies and Interests. Food and Drink saw 74% of these.

Australia has a majority clickback for 10 categories some of which include Arts and Entertainment, News, Sports and more. In Sports for example, 72% come from DS. Arts and Entertainment see 55% of these.

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Dark Social Tracking

direct traffic google analytics

Source: Popcorn Metrics


Now for the information you’ve really been waiting for. How to track Dark Social:


1. Google Analytics

Google analytics allows users to create specific filtering of traffic according to a defined criteria. So make your own “Dark Social” advanced segment. You can find out who is Dark Social by tracking the visitors who, 1, came to your website through direct traffic and, 2, didn’t go through the homepage.

To do this the creation of two conditions on the segment builder is essential. Here’s how to do it:

  1. In Audience Overview, click on the dropdown “+ Add segment”.
  2. Click the “+ New segment” button in the left corner.
  3. Name your segment (e.g. ‘Dark Social Traffic’).
  4. Create two conditions. Exclude traffic whose destination page was your homepage. Include traffic whose source was direct.
  5. Exclude sessions where Landing Page exactly matches “/”.
  6. Include sessions where Source contains (direct).
  7. Click save to create your Dark Social Tracking filter.


2. GetSocial.io

This is an app store for all your social media needs. You can create an account through their website or download their WordPress plugin or Shopify App. Once you’ve made an account you’ll need to paste a snippet of code into your HTML <head> section. That code is highlighted in red on top of the page:




Once you’ve done that all you’ll need to do is find the “Address bar Tracking” app and click ‘Activate”. It’s a free, so enjoy.


3. AddThis

AddThis provide social engagement tools, services personalising websites for engagement, traffic boosting and more. After creating an account with them, select your platform – Web or WordPress – and look for a feature that you want to install on your website. You don’t really need to install a feature to track dark social sharing but we’re taking a shortcut. Look for AddThis’ library code. Choose the Sharing Buttons tool and click on Get Code, which will prompt this:




On the bottom of the menu you’ll find the code you need, which installs AddThis code on your website:



Now get this code onto every page you want to track. Then all you need to do is go to their documentation and find the Address Bar sharing analytics support section.




On the configuration level you’ll find the simple code (shown above) you need to add in order to activate dark social tracking. Done.


4. Sharethis

This offers a sharing tool that enables people to share any piece of content on the web with friends through text, direct message or email. After you’ve selected your target platform, you’ll be able to choose among style and features. On the customisation menu, you’ll find a CopynShare table on the bottom right. Here you’ll be able to choose the option to track dark social URLs. For that, just click “Measure copy and shares of your website’s URLs” like this:




Then you simply get the code, create an account, install the code on your website and complete the process.


5. Po.st

This tool is owned and operated by RadiumOne who we mentioned before. It allows users to share content and also provides publishers with comprehensive analytics tools and new revenue opportunities. Head to their website and click the ‘Customisation Wizard’ button. From there you can quickly configure your social sharing bar like this:




You’ll be given instructions to activate the feature which is another simple snippet of code that you’ll to add to every page you want to track.




Install it and you’re ready to go!

How to Decrease Dark Social


If for some reason you want to decrease the occurrence of dark social on your website analytics, then here’s three low-tech ways to gain a clearer picture of the source of Dark Social traffic. These will require that you create ‘dark social URLs’, so you will likely need a developer onboard to help you do this.


1. Add Trackable Codes to the URLs shared on Social

The most common referral tag is the UTM Code. Using UTM parameters is a way to track the performance of a custom campaign from the origination point (tweet, email or website). A link with a UTM parameter looks like this: http://yourdomain.com/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=Facebook&utm_campaign=SPRINGPROMOTION. Of course, this relies on a reader to copy and paste the entire link.


2. Create Shortened URLs

When sharing content outside your site, mask the link with a link shortener. When combining trackable codes (such as in step 1) and a short URL, you will have a barrier of protection. The short URL is short enough to paste into an email, chat, and text. When the link is clicked, you will know where the link originated from because you have the UTM parameter enabled. This code will then register with your analytics program.


3. Track Copy and Paste Activity

A huge chunk of Dark Social traffic comes from readers copying and pasting content from your website. Services like Tynt have been trying to solve the copy and paste tracking issue for some time. Tynt is code that can be added to a website manuall or via a WordPress plugin. Without copy and paste tracking, when a reader copies a portion of a page, the text alone is pasted into the destination. No other metadata is attached. With Tynt installed, now when the user copies a portion of a page, the copied content is automatically wrapped with a URL. Nice one.

Dark Social Trends


A lot has changed since the concept of Dark Social first cropped up online. Dark social has become an even bigger part of consumer’s outbound sharing activity from marketers’ and publishers’ owned and earned assets. Consumers are increasingly responding to sharing from their mobile devices and as a result of this trend, there’s a growing number of advertisers who are finding increasing opportunities at the intersection of mobile and Dark Social.

So what are the trends?

Dark Social Activity is Too Big To Ignore

The shares that happen over Dark Social – instant messaging and email – have now began dominating how content is being shared online. In the last year-and-a-half alone Dark Social shares have jumped from 69% to 84% globally. You simply cannot ignore Dark Social because it’s how your prospects are recruiting your future customers.

Consumers Respond Most to Dark Social Shares via Mobile

For over a year, the majority of responses to Dark Social have come from mobile devices, which are quickly becoming the preferred devices for content consumption and interaction. Strangely enough, clickbacks on Dark Social shares that come from mobile devices are up from 54% back in August 2015, to 62% in February 2016. So 38% of Dark Social clickbacks come from desktop – mobile is dominating.

The Importance of Mobile in Dark Social


Customer engagement on mobile devices has surpassed that of desktop devices across a number of global measures in the last year-and-a-half:


Mobile Advertising Took the Lead in Digital Ad Expenditures – In April 2015 eMarketer predicted that the global mobile advertising market would account for over 50% of all digital ad expenditure in 2016.

Mobile Searches Took the Lead in Search Queries – Back in October 2015, the Senior Vice President of Search at Google, Amit Singhal, said that worldwide, mobile searches were expected to exceed desktop searches.

Mobile Traffic Almost Equals Desktop Traffic – As of May 2016, mobile traffic is nearly as large as desktop traffic, with smartphone and tablet devices driving 47% of traffic, while desktop devices are driving 52% according to StatCounter Global Stats.


These facts all point to the increasing influence of mobile engagement, so now more than ever before, marketers must engage with mobile audiences. But how?

Leveraging Dark Social


Marketers are spending 10% of their budgets on social media and plan to double this in the next 5 years, yet 40% of CMOs report a below average performance. Why’s this? Because not a lot of marketers know about Dark Social, or how to use its data to connect with mobile audience.

What Impact Does Dark Social Have on Referrals?

Chances are you’ll still benefit from referrals from brand advocates even if you don’t run a formal referral programme. But without offering trackable links to customers these referrals are likely hidden in the “direct traffic” section of your web analytics.

You should encourage users to share content by offering trackable links in all of your communications – your brand advocates are your most precious resource and mining this data can reap great rewards. Brands with refer-a-friend schemes should be at an advantage, provided that you’re offering something of value to the people who refer. If you do then it’s in their interest to utilise the trackable sharing options you provide or they’ll miss out on their reward. Just make sure you offer the right sharing options. Although, customers are still more likely to refer in a conversation, and this delivers between 30-40% of referrals, so built the option to “refer by name”, if you can’t somehow make trackable links.

Using Dark Social Channels

As traditional advertising’s power continues to decrease and social media prevails, it’s worth considering how you can utilise Dark Social by channel. The Drum helps us explain.


They recently announced that they’re scrapping the paid advertising approach and are encouraging businesses to contact their customers directly. This option was previously prohibited in its policies. The move is probably inspired by its parent company Facebook Messenger, which is used by companies like Uber to interact with users.

Whatsapp is a powerful promotion channel in B2B marketing since it offers higher delivery chances and less restricted formatting than email or SMS. This could be beneficial for sales teams to follow up via WhatsApp instead of a phone call. A recent study found that you’re 40% more likely to receive a response this way.


Since it stormed onto the scene in 2011, it’s not until recently that the platform has truly taken off. Most marketers don’t know how to leverage its potential, but there’s a few stats that show it’s worth:


– 60% of US smartphone users are now on Snapchat
– Snapchat ads are viewed up to a million times per day
– 60% of users are between the ages of 18 and 34
– Users aged between 18 and 29 spend an average of 20 minutes per day on the app


Snapchat offers several ways for brands to engage with its audience, from video ads to articles and dynamic content on the side bars or even geo-filters for location-specific events. “Behind-the-scenes” opportunities are useful in B2B for educational campaigns and thought leadership, such as showing customers how to use products or promoting conferences and trade shows.

Snapchat recently announced that it’ll be opening up its API and working with more measurement partners. Therefore, potential return on investment with this channel will be much easier to measure. The key to using this platform successfully is to develop a strategy complementary to the channel’s core appeal and purpose: storytelling. Many brands choose an employee to act as a brand ambassador and promote their account via other social channels. By doing this you can communicate without encroaching on their audience’s personal lives in a potentially irritating way.

Creating branded content that feels ‘native’ or authentic that is relevant and compelling has an exceptional impact, and the key to producing shareable (especially via dark social) content is to make it worthwhile and high quality.

If you’re considering incorporating these classically “Dark” social media platforms into a B2B marketing or social media plan then maximising their potential benefits in line with your overall plan is essential. If you don’t have the strategy, resource or tracking abilities to maximise your return then it’s not worth dabbling in these platforms just because they’re hot right now.

Using social media channels, particularly Dark Social, requires a balance between reaching your audience directly, giving them something interesting, fun or useful and on their terms. Whatsapp and Snapchat reveal more diverse ways of delivering this content.

Ultimate Guide to Dark Social: Case Studies


Here are some case studies of Dark Social in Action to give you some inspiration on how you can make it work for you. With thanks to RadiumOne.

Luxury Retailer Beat CPA Goal by 71% Using Dark Social

Seventy-four percent of all on-site shares and 42% of clickbacks on shares in the shopping category happen via Dark Social, so when a luxury retailer began to build custom audience segments based on the people who shared and clicked back on their content, they started to tap into the power of Dark Social on mobile and desktop devices.

The custom audiences of people sharing and responding to the shares were much more likely to purchase from the retailer. These custom segments and the results of a data-driven ad campaign will always be beneficial but the retailer in question went one step further. They also scaled the segments by finding more people across the Web connected to the sharers. Then, they reached all the segments: their sharers, sharing recipients and the ‘amplified segment’ with relevant creative designed to convert. The results of this were that traffic to the luxury retailer website tripled.


iFlix Converted 56% of its First 1 Million Subscribers Using Dark Social Data

Ninety-three percent of all shares and 61% of the clickbacks in the entertainment category in Southeast Asia all happen via Dark Social. So, keeping this in mind, the region’s newest subscription-based internet TV service iFlix built the campaign for its initial product launch on gathering and activating live data about how entertainment lovers share content with their close social networks of family, colleagues and friends.


“We knew entertainment lovers shared high volumes of digital content with each other but, we also knew a lot of sharing was occurring outside of public social networks.Harnessing Dark Social means we are covering all bases; no blind spots in our view of consumers’ sharing behaviour across all channels and devices.”

Mark Britt, the Group CEO of iFlix


They initially targeted entertainment lovers who had no relationship with the brand and to do this, RadiumOne formed strategic partnership with large entertainment publishers who deployed their sharing software. As iFlix acquired customers rapidly, the customer generated their own first-party Dark Social data and leveraged this new customer interest by tracking all sharing of their content and offers across all devices and channels. This enabled them to convert prospects to subscribers effectively.

The results? Since May 2015, the ‘Always On’ automated iFlix campaign has seen 56% of all new subscribers converted through targeting based on dark social sharing data.


Boots Increased ROI by 10 Times at Christmas with Cross-Screen Campaign Fuelled by Dark Social Data

Boots implemented a plan to identify, amplify, target and optimise data-driven ads for the “Christmas gifter” segment of consumers who are most likely to buy health and beauty gifts for their friends and family.

In order to identify this group, they conducted an analysis of both online and app data. It revealed that “Christmas gifters” were extremely active in sharing holiday content such as videos, recipes, photos, wish lists and gift ideas via social, email, IM, websites and apps. To amplify this audience Boots UK extrapolated the “Christmas gifters” on its own website to a much larger group of over 10 million UK consumers using RadiumOne’s ShareGraph algorithms. These algorithms considered variables such as frequency of sharing holiday content, the recency of sharing and the directionality of sharing.

Lastly, to optimise and target paid media for this audience they used RadiumOne’s buying platform. The results of this included a 10x return on Boot’s campaign investment. Consumers from Dark Social channels drove a cost per acquisition 12.3 better than average.

So there you have it – the ultimate guide to dark social. If there’s something you want to add, or a question you wanna ask then why not tweet us @spotstudiouk? 

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