Dark Social is a term created in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal. And while it sounds like a cold, scary type of social media dark magic, it really is not. But it’s not rainbows and butterflies either. Simply Measured defines dark social media as “the traffic and conversions that happened on your website when someone arrived via social share, but did not pass a ‘referrer’.” Basically, dark social is where someone copies and pastes a link from a social media platform and sends it to someone else in a private messaging platform. Then that person clicks on the link back to your website without any indication of where that link originated from. This makes social media analytics much more difficult to track – and yet another obstacle to overcome when proving that social media is an investment and not a cost.
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How Dark Social Works
Email, instant messenger, mobile apps, and messenger apps are all examples of channels responsible for dark social traffic. 69% of all content is shared via Dark Social. For example, someone might find the content you’re sharing intriguing and want to share it. But they don’t want to share it with everyone. So, they resort to copying the link and pasting it in a private messaging platform to a friend. Now when the friend clicks on that link, Google Analytics tracks it as a source of Direct Traffic rather than Social Media traffic – taking away from your social media efforts.
Skewing Google Analytics Reports
Typically marketers are required to provide a social media performance report. And if Google Analytics is one of the tools used during the reporting process, some of the information can be misleading due to Dark Social Media. A majority of site traffic comes via Direct Traffic, which is where someone manually types in the entire URL. When you’re looking at the Direct Traffic links in Google Analytics, you might see lengthy links (i.e. http://marketingincolor.com/maximize-search-engine-optimization-website/). These long links are most likely culprits of Dark Social, where they should be listed under a different traffic source, yet show up as a Direct link in Google Analytics. And if you think about it, not too many people type in the entire URL, word for word. So these lengthy links should draw a red flag when you see them listed under the Direct Traffic category in Google Analytics.
Misleading Target Audience Behavior
Not only does Dark Social skew your Google Analytics reporting, it also makes your target audience’s behavior more difficult to understand. You could easily assume that your target audience isn’t on social media if the majority of your target audience is sharing your social media content through private messaging platforms. As a social marketer, you don’t know where every link is shared. And without knowing, your understanding of your target audience’s social behavior can be inaccurate. And as a result, there could be a decrease in the social media budget. Because if your target audience isn’t on social media, then why would you keep throwing money into it? That’s a major reason why Dark Social is causing problems for marketing strategies.
But Wait, There’s Hope
Tracking efforts for Dark Social has improved since first introduced in 2012. There are marketing platforms that can track Dark Social Media like GetSocial.io and Po.st. These platforms even have plugins that can work with your WordPress site. Ahh technology. UTM codes can also help reduce the Dark Social confusion – you just can’t track where exactly the link was shared after you’ve posted on a social media platform. But you will know where the link originally came from. There are also ways you can filter the Dark Social links from the Direct Traffic report in Google Analytics. There is still a lot that can be done to monitor the Dark Social world, but for now social media marketers must make a strong effort to ensure their work is not being undervalued.