The Power of Dark Social

September 1, 2016

What is Dark Social?

Dark social is any web traffic that results from unidentified sources (as first coined by Madrigal here) e.g. if you emailed an interesting link to your friend and he posted it to his social media profile vs. sharing it directly from the source you found the link on (former is dark social and latter is traditional social media sharing). You end up at a site but there is no referrer information as to how you got there; eventually, your visit is lumped into the category titled ‘direct traffic’ on analytics software.

Why is dark social on the rise?

“Younger audiences are increasingly using these more ‘private’ channels because of the amount of advertising on regular social media channels – and to avoid their parents’ prying eyes” (Catalyst Magazine 2016). It would seem that it is a way of sharing, without actually looking as though you are sharing. With the rise of offline conversations such as on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, it is ever more vital for brands to track these links to accurately report on ROI.

Why should digital marketers be aware of it?

The job of an analytics tool is to find out where visitors are coming from; however, there are obvious limitations if the sources are unidentifiable. This leads to difficulties in proving efficacy of social reach as showing high ROI is essential in securing budget for social advertising and social marketing plans; however, if 70% of social sharing is dark as research estimates, than efficacy becomes much more challenging to prove.

How should we deal with it?

It is a big challenge for brands and many promises to understand the complete user journey and channel mix that users go through but in practice there isn’t a specific answer. At agency:2 we believe marketers should continue asking the challenging questions around dark social and source out the best channels to gain high value conversions.

These are some examples of how brands have utilised dark social to their advantage:

Marketing Week highlights that O2 have run dark social campaigns which have enabled them to identify key insights into their customers. Moreover, they have been able to profile “audiences to see how the behaviour of people who share content is different to those who click on the shared content”. As a result, this strategy has helped improve their marketing campaigns and furthermore, fed into their content strategy too.

Adidas are also running a dark social campaign on WhatsApp, providing exclusive content to users in order to track personal conversations in their chats. As a result, Adidas have been able to optimise their strategy and consumer engagement. In setting up this campaign, it allows them to be perceived as a more personal brand communicating both offline and on WhatsApp. They will also be able to further develop the metrics to understand the full impact of dark social.

4 best practice tips towards gaining a foothold on dark social:  

  1. Create a small test budget to explore if dark social works for your brand and audience.
  2. Be disciplined in use of trackable URLs e.g. links.
  3. Dig deeper into Google Analytics and don’t accept face value statistics.
  4. Be mindful that you are moving the conversation into a very personal space and adjust the message and frequency of posting accordingly.



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