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Enter the World of Dark Social: Part 1

Lately I’ve been seeing the phrase “dark social” a lot. It sounds a bit ominous; like an invite-only underground club. The more rational explanation is that it’s a reference to dark social media – specifically obscure online traffic sources & data. In this three-part guide, we’ll discuss what it is exactly, why it’s important, and what you can do about it.

What is dark social?

Dark social is the sharing of content (website links, articles, etc.) that web analytics programs are not able to correctly trace or measure. Online traffic sources are usually measured by analytics tools. However, web analytics are unable to accurately track web traffic that occurs through private digital communications tools.
Normally referral traffic – that comes from a shared Facebook post or Google search, for example – is identified by “tags” that are attached at the end of a link (known as UTM codes). For example:
You can see from the text in orange that the link was directed from a tweet that was scheduled in and posted by Buffer. Dark social links, on the other hand, don’t have this automatic referral data. Instead, in your analytics program, they’re labeled as “direct traffic” (bookmarked or manually typed into the browser address bar); but most of the time, that’s not the case.

Real-life examples of dark social sharing

Here are some common scenarios that would count as dark social traffic:

  • Sharing content by copying & pasting it into an email
  • Sending a link to someone through an instant messenger program
  • Accessing an article from a forum post
  • Clicking on a link from within a mobile dashboard app (like TweetDeck)
  • Texting your friend a link
  • Even two people viewing a website on one computer!

The history of dark social

The term “dark social” was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012. In the context of some research by a real-time web analytics firm, he introduced this invisible social traffic – which has in fact existed long before any of the major social networks were born. Around two years later, he revised the concept as new findings had come to light: most of the recaptured dark social data has been coming from Facebook’s mobile app!
With the proliferation of the mobile web, a huge proportion of dark social visits are made by FB mobile app visitors. Madrigal also noted that person to person dark social seems to be less prevalent on mobile devices.
So online sharing is inherently a dark social activity, but what implications does this have for online marketing, digital habits, and social media? We’ll take a look at that in Part 2!

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