Dark Social Media: What it is and Why Marketers Should Care

The term “dark social” was first created by Alexis C. Madrigal in a 2012 article written for The Atlantic. Which in digital life means 14 years ago and therefore ahead of his time.  His instincts were that, to a large extent, we share links with each other using IM, email, and forums and that when this happens and the link is clicked, it’s invisible to most analytics programs and ends up falling into the “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic.

This traffic, the “dark traffic”, is essentially misdiagnosed and the analyst misses a big piece of truly what happens during a user’s journey to their digital frontier.

Fast forward to 2014.  Again, the digital landscape has changed and three important trends are worth noting to provide more context.

  1. Mobile usage and app usage have increased significantly.
  2. Homepage traffic in most cases is on the decline as that volume shifts to users coming in the side door.
  3. There are so many more ways to be social including new applications and new social networks.

All adding complexity to the dark social conundrum.  To what extent?

According to Chartbeat, dark social accounts for about one-third of external traffic to sites (these are sites across their network).  They broke the data down further and the number increased when looking at mobile-only traffic, where 50% of traffic lacked a referrer.  In a report by radiumone on the subject, they revealed that dark social accounts for more than 69% of all online social sharing.  In addition, a large portion of those who share, about one-third, only share using dark social.

If the sheer mystery of it all doesn’t make you care, then what should make you care are the letters R, O, and I.  Because essentially, the contribution of social activity in a digital environment that is leading to discovery, exploration, and purchase of products and services isn’t captured correctly and therefore not getting its rightful credit with respect to ROI.

What to do About Dark Social Referrals – How to get credit where credit is due

  1. Be cognizant that this exists and that standard tracking alone isn’t likely to provide a complete picture without addressing dark social
  2. Web patterns including social, apps, mobile are going to change again so do your research and invest in tools that do a better-than-average job tracking your efforts and measure results
  3. Write your congressperson.  Okay, no don’t do that!  But do be the voice that advocates for uncovering dark social sources, it will be important to address and implement accordingly.


Ignite Social Media