Shedding light on 'dark social'

Analysts reveal how marketers can unlock untapped analytics

Shedding light on 'dark social'

Tracking Web traffic through search engines or a social network, like Facebook or Twitter, is pretty straightforward. Through methods like cookies marketers often can tell from where their Web traffic is coming.

"It's important for marketers to know the source of traffic and referrals because of two things," says Niels Kvaavik, director of paid media services at Sprinklr, a social management platform. "One, we need to be able to attribute which traffic source is leading to the best results. Two, knowing the source of traffic referrals helps us figure which sources drive longtime customer value."

There is, however, one major blind spot: under-the-radar social sharing, i.e. dark social.

Dark social, a term coined by The Atlantic in 2012, is traffic and information that's hard to measure because it's information that's shared on chat, via messaging apps, and in email; it's outside of that basic core of the social ecosystem, and 36% of the time, it's on mobile. The Atlantic reports that most social referrals are done via dark social and, as a result, are downright difficult to measure.

In fact, recent data shows that about 72% of all shares happen when users copy, paste, and then share a link through email, apps, and on chat. Compare that to 25% of sharing that's happening on Facebook and Twitter—combined. Flat out, dark social is a major obstruction for many companies trying to understand their entire audience.

"The largest impact that dark social is having on marketers is that it's skewing their results," says Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly, a popular URL-shortening service. Josephson says that analytics tools too often report dark social as either unknown or direct traffic—erroneous reports that can cause marketers to dump resources into the wrong channels.

"It can cause marketers to put too much emphasis on some channels that they mistakenly believe are working better than others," Josephson continues. "If you know where your traffic is coming from—and what channels work and which don't—inevitably you will do more with the channels that work; you will test different creative; you will refine your spend; you can change your landing pages; you can tweak your messaging because you know one channel's performing over another."

However, is the goal of measuring an entire audience realistic?

"Absolutely," says Sprinklr's Kvaavik when determining if marketers can activate dark social for their campaigns. "The good news is that technology is getting better. It's also about data accuracy in addition to attribution. As data accuracy gets better and as marketers hone their techniques—in other words, figuring out what tools to use and how to attribute value to each of the channels—we'll have much better data visibility and transparency."

Kvaavik says that the value of Web analytics is diminishing and the value of app analytics continues to rise. He insists the reason for that is simple: "People spend more time inside apps than they do on the Web."

Josephson says that to activate dark social, marketers must start with an aggressive plan to measure everything. Already, some marketers are getting around these in-app, private chats by adding trackable codes to short URLs that are copied and pasted into messages shared on dark social.

"Start by tracking what you do know. Then learn what portion is coming from places that you either don't know or simply can't explain," Josephson concludes. "Then use third-party, independent tools to troubleshoot, fix bugs, and follow every link back to its source. If you're not measuring performance then you can't unlock anything; you can't improve anything or grow. Start innovating, and that's when you'll be able to activate dark social."

This article first appeared on

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