What Is Dark Social? Why Does It Matter?

Here’s how marketers should think about untrackable traffic.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Oct. 20, 2021
What Is Dark Social? Why Does It Matter?
Image: Shutterstock

Sometimes, when I’m feeling more pedantic than usual, I’ll delete the referral code at the end of a link before texting it to my friends. I find this oddly satisfying, on par with tidying a spreadsheet or crisply parallel parking a car. But with this particular, URL-chopping quirk, I unwittingly participate in a phenomenon called dark social.

What Is Dark Social?

Dark social is a term used to describe web traffic that comes from sharing links that don’t contain tracking codes, typically through private messaging platforms. This traffic is indistinguishable from other direct traffic sources when looking at it with most analytics software. The term was coined in 2012 by journalist Alexis Madrigal.

Dark social is not as insidious as it sounds. It simply refers to traffic that comes from social sharing links that don’t include any referral data about the source. Because of this, the origin of the traffic is unknowable, invisible — dark. And it’s a thorn in the side of marketers who want to know exactly where their website’s traffic comes from.


What’s the Origin of the Term ‘Dark Social’?

While the phenomenon of dark social has existed as long as we’ve been able to measure web traffic with software tools like Google Analytics, the term itself was coined by journalist Alexis Madrigal in a 2012 article for The Atlantic.

In the article, Madrigal describes noticing a sizable chunk of the magazine’s web traffic having been identified as direct traffic in Google Analytics. He figured there weren’t that many people who actually bookmarked or manually typed the URL in their browser’s address bar. They probably came from a variety of other sources — instant messaging services, private chat apps and email. He termed this category of traffic dark social.

Dark social should not be confused with “dark web,” which refers to the hidden underbelly of the internet, or “dark participation,” a term researchers use to describe when people rely on private channels to coordinate antisocial behaviors, such as rioting and harassment, or spreading misinformation.

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How Does Dark Social Compare to Other Traffic Sources?

To get a good handle on the implications of dark social traffic, it’s helpful to understand where it fits in the larger scheme of things.

When people visit a website or web page, they arrive there through one of any number of different avenues, or channels. These sources include:


Organic Search Traffic

Organic search traffic comes from people who click on links from a search engine results page.


Paid Search Traffic

Paid search traffic comes from people who click on paid advertisements listed above the top results on a search engine results page.


Referral Traffic

Referral traffic comes from people who click on links shared by third-party websites. These sources may include press releases, directory listings and blogs that link back to your website.


Display Traffic

Display traffic comes from people who click on digital display advertising, such as banner ads.


Email Traffic

Email traffic comes from people who click on links you shared in your email campaigns.


Social Traffic

Social traffic comes from people who click on links you shared on your owned social media accounts.


Direct Traffic

Direct traffic comes from a variety of sources. It includes people who type your URL into their browser’s address bar or click on a previously saved bookmark of your site, as well as people who click on untagged links on dark social channels (text messages, personal emails, WhatsApp, WeChat, Snapchat, Messenger, etc.) and any other traffic whose origin can’t be determined by analytics software (such as non-web documents and redirected traffic).

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How Much Traffic Is From Dark Social?

As far as direct traffic is concerned, numbers vary.

Roughly 29 percent to 53 percent of website traffic originates from direct traffic, depending on the business category, according to Alexa, the web traffic analytics company owned by Amazon.

Researchers at London South Bank University found that the direct channel accounted for 37 percent of all website traffic on average.

In the same paper, researchers also estimated that around 17 to 18 percent of total website traffic is from dark social sharing. In other words, about one in six website visitors arrive on websites through messaging apps and other private communication channels.


Why Do People Share in ‘Dark’ Places?

People increasingly rely on messaging apps to find, share and discuss news. It allows them to better curate their information flow and talk about weighty topics with a closer, more trusting social circle.

There’s an uptick in content being shared through dark social more broadly, too, in addition to the news.

“We have seen a shift in the ways people share content on social media recently,” Ammarah Marjan, associate lecturer of marketing at London South Bank University Business School, told Built In.

Marjan pointed to a 2016 white paper published by marketing technology firm RadiumOne, which says that 84 percent of outbound link sharing (which happens when people share copy-and-pasted URLs) takes place on dark social channels — as opposed to open ones, like a public Facebook timeline or Twitter.

A primary reason for the increased adoption of closed, private social channels is that people are concerned about protecting their personal data, Marjan said.

“Private messaging platforms allow individuals to control their personal information to a great extent, complete with end-to-end encryption, ensuring that only the conversation recipients can read the messages, which also offers a cheaper, advertisement-free alternative to texting,” she added. “This could also be linked to interacting with existing social connections already using private messaging; therefore, behavior becomes habitual.”

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How Does Dark Social Affect Brands?

The dark social issue presents brands and publishers with three major challenges, according to Marjan.

First, dark social channels make it difficult for marketers to track what type of content is being shared on private messaging platforms, as well as how it’s being discussed.

Second, brands are excluded from the conversations that take place in dark social channels. They don’t have the ability to participate in the discussion or jump in with a relevant offer or promotion.

Third, a brand’s content being disseminated through dark social channels may not reach diverse audiences. The word of mouth gets trapped in an echo chamber of like-minded people who are already connected with each other.

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What Can Brands Do About Dark Social?

Figuring out dark social presents a massive opportunity for brands. But there aren’t many solutions for it at the moment.

A couple of big firms have addressed it by developing proprietary technical solutions, Marjan said, but they are too expensive for smaller companies and have not been widely adopted.

“There are no perfect solutions yet to effectively track dark social in Google Analytics,” Ricky Reeves, technical director at Brandmovers Europe Limited, told Built In. “And there is unlikely to be one that is free to all.”


Try to Measure It

Brands who want to measure their dark social traffic may want to take a page out of the playbook Madrigal, the Atlantic journalist, was taught when he consulted the analytics firm Chartbeat back in 2012. Chartbeat showed Madrigal a way to estimate dark social traffic by splitting inbound traffic that didn’t contain any referrer data into two categories. One includes people going to the homepage (theatlantic.com) or a subject landing page (theatlantic.com/technology). The other includes everything else, which you could call dark social. This, of course, is imprecise.


Join Consumers in Dark Social Spaces

Some big brands have ventured into dark social spaces to spark or join brand-related conversations.

Adidas, VaynerMedia and Starbucks have used Facebook Messenger chatbots and WhatsApp Business API solutions to conduct market research, such as interviews and focus groups, with participants in group chats, Marjan said.

While this adds a brand touchpoint — and provides an opportunity for feedback-oriented marketing — it may not be effective, Marjan added. People don’t always communicate freely, malfunctioning chatbots can negatively impact customer experience and data protection is still a looming concern.


Encourage Site Visitors to Use Social Sharing Buttons

Brands can try to encourage more trackable ways of sharing. They can do so by featuring share buttons prominently on web pages. These buttons provide a referral tag to outbound links that might be shared on dark social channels — and can therefore be picked up by analytics software.


Focus on the Bigger Fish to Fry

Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and anti-ad-fraud consultant, told Built In that there are lots of other problems that make measurement inaccurate, such as spam bots and ad fraud.

“[Dark social] may be the least of a marketer’s worries,” he said.

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