Sounds ominous, but Dark Social is merely the sharing of content from social channels that is not easily tracked, and so often hidden from the light of analytic tools that record sharing and inbound clicks to your website. The impact is significant: depending on the research study, it represents anywhere between 32-75% of sharing, and 91% of Americans share this way. At the same time, Facebook has experienced a 21% decline in personal sharing (but with measured growth in work-related professional sharing). This hidden sharing activity could represent 3X that of Facebook, so well worth understanding. In a 2014 study by advertising platform RadiumOne, close to 70% of all online global referrals were found to come from dark social. Imagine investing in social and—at best—being only able to measure 30% of your investment. Here is research data from RadiumOne that explores regional differences:
We tend to think of the social graph (that connects us in social networks) as an open highway where sharing spreads content, but increasingly, consumers are taking side roads that circumvent traditional tracking mechanisms.
The purpose of this post is to help digital and social strategists understand this phenomenon and—where they can--plan accordingly.
Marketers design social content to be shared, and so increasingly rely on tracking tools—often found in the URL of the post—to measure impact. If you look at a Google Analytics report for inbound traffic to your website, you’ll see a big bucket called “Direct Traffic” because these visits lack the tracking tags/cookies that provide an audit trail of how the visitor ended up on your site. When I directed a big brand social team, I remember seeing this bucket and wanting to know more. The standard answer—at least then—was that visitors were either typing in the URL (highly unlikely), accessing a bookmark (again highly unlikely) or coming in through some other means (likely). Dark Social is how we shared content pre-social web era, so it’s not too surprising to see this phenomenon. Factors that are driving it include:
We’ve spent years convincing business leaders that social media is the platform that can shift brand perception and action, primarily through peer-to-peer influence. There’s no doubt that peers trust each other, but if the limited research on Dark Social is any indication, brands are possibly missing insights into a treasure trove of peer sharing that occurs outside social media’s walls, and usually outside measurement ability. To make matters worse for brand managers, because it is more personal, this type of private peer sharing is the most valuable, trusted and likely to lead to action.
Private social messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and legacy platforms like email and SMS are increasingly the preferred method of social sharing.
If we care about the how peers influence opinion and action, our focus on social media represents a small portion of sharing activity that shifts mindsets. Social and digital strategists need to consider dark social on par with social, in terms of strategic importance and measurement.
There are some opportunities to peek into dark social, but don’t expect to solve this challenge completely. As per the drivers above, consumers will (rightly) find a way to share in ways we can’t track. They are always one step ahead.
Here’s a sampling of case studies for how brands are addressing dark social:
Here are a few tactics I would think about to address Dark Social:
Lastly, don’t sweat it: private sharing is human nature, and people will find a way to share digitally outside the lens of analytics. Use the sharing you can record as an indicator for what you can’t in dark social.
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