Dark Social

Is this social media's opportunity to move beyond the social networks? Image: Shutterstock.

Four steps to build a Dark Social strategy

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Is this social media’s opportunity to move beyond the social networks? Image: Shutterstock.

From responsive social marketing to viral videos, Dark Social is one of the developments to occur in social marketing that I have been most optimistic about in recent years. I’m optimistic about Dark Social because it could expand social-led thinking from beyond the social networks into the sphere of Customer Experience.  By doing so, social media marketing can have a greater (measured) impact on the path to conversion.  In particular, the consideration phase.

What is Dark Social?

Dark Social is the “social sharing of content that occurs outside what can be measured by Web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured.”

Dark Social first appeared in The AtlanticAlexis Madrigal from The Atlantic defined the term in his article.  Pulling together examples from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Facebook, this post highlights four steps agencies and client-side social media teams can follow to build a Dark Social strategy.

Step 1 – Embrace the premise of social media’s role in Dark Social.

The underlining premise behind Dark Social is that if a brand published a web page that is not profiled on the home page, the web page could receive limited to no traffic.

Social media plays a significant role in facilitating Dark Social because brands use social media networks to distribute non-home page content to audiences, with (critical) mass reach on a frequent (daily) basis.  People’s exposure to non-home page content from social media helps facilitate Dark Social sharing.

“The New York Times Innovation Report (published 2014) highlights the opportunities and challenges for the New York Times within the media industry. Although the report does not address Dark Social, it does highlight the premise supporting the notion of Dark Social.

Corporate marketers and agencies can learn a lot from the experiences of the media industry.  One lesson is the perception/feeling the brand’s homepage is compelling enough to pull consumers through like it was center stage at an outdoor music festival.

This same mindset also hindered the New York Times. In the “Innovation” report, it states “we published stories on our home page and assumed that most people would come to us” (page 23, New York Times Innovation Report).

What the New York Times found was “only a third of our readers ever visit it” (NYT home page). Upon the report going public, Mashable stated, “and those who do visit (NYT home page) are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digital percentages last year“.

Decreasing NYT Home Page Visitors

While traffic to the home page was declining, the NYT was observing an increase in referral traffic from social media.  Take a look at the chart below from the New York Times Innovation Report that highlights the positive impact social media is having in referring traffic.

An invaluable capability if social media is to become a key player in positively influencing the Customer Experience.

New York Times Innovation Report Social referral traffic is growing

Step 2 – Understanding the dynamics behind Dark Social

The NYT Innovation Report makes numerous mentions of the disruptors entering the marketplace. Buzzfeed is one of the primary disruptors mentioned. In finding opportunities to disrupt journalism, Buzzfeed has taken considerable efforts to understand the science behind Dark Social.

Over 75% of Buzzfeed’s 200M monthly users come from Social or Dark Social sources. Buzzfeed has developed its propriety tech, called Pound (Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion), to understand Dark Social.

BuzzFeed can go beyond what we typically see in standard analytics reporting.

BuzzFeed profiles its Pound technology through highlighting how The Dress post was disseminated.  The BuzzFeed image below used Pound to track the performance from BuzzFeed’s original six The Dress tweets.


From the six tweets, we can see that considerable downstream activity occurred. Roughly 15% of the downstream activity was generated by Dark Social.

Through Pound, BuzzFeed can get an a view how the content was shared.  BuzzFeed thought the sharing data would be structured in the shape of a ‘tree’ diagram, as shown in the image below.   BuzzFeed realized that every post has hundreds or thousands of initial sharers, each the root of its own tree. The Pound graph for each story thus looks more like a forest than a tree. And in this forest, the trees can look radically different. Some are fat (lots of downstream nodes), some are thin; some are deep (lots of sharing cascades), some are shallow; some have cross-network propagations, some do not. The structure of the forest and its trees tells us in great detail about how each post spreads.”


Step 3 – Tracking Dark Social

BuzzFeed used Bitly to shorten and track the URLs that it shares on Facebook. BuzzFeed recognised a discrepancy in the reporting between Bitly’s analytics and Facebook’s analytics. Bitly discovered there was traffic to BuzzFeed that wasn’t attributed to Facebook, even though the Bitly generated BuzzFeed URLs were only shared on Facebook.


Bitly worked with Facebook to segment the devices used to access the platform (iOS, Android, and Desktop). When reviewing iOS traffic, Bitly found that 12-13% of traffic from within the Facebook web view lacked referrer information.

Dark Social was a significant issue for Facebook. At a time when Facebook is pushing hard to capture more of the brand marketing budget, leaving 12-13% of attributed visits unaccounted for is highly regrettable.

As you can see from the chart below, it didn’t take Facebook long to correct the problem.


(This is a chart for the past six Facebook iOS app versions and the percentage of clicks that did not have referrer information. This data is based on two billion measurements across the Bitly platform in November and December.)

Step 4 – Optimising for Dark Social

Steps one through three is giving internal stakeholders a reason to believe and establish a business case for Dark Social.

Step four is a framework for a Dark Social internal capability launch strategy.  It could set the foundation for social media to transition from a comms channel to a customer experience channel.

Establish your content/audience fit

While startups are seeking to achieve a product/market fit, brands and agencies need to nail down the content/audience fit.

Five ways to establish content/audience fit:

1.  Social (distribution and engagement) and content (alignment to the path to purchase) must be worked upon simultaneously.
2. Understanding the rational and emotional needs of the target audience is important.
3. Develop content that supports the consumer along each phase of the path to purchase. That includes optimising your opportunity to create relevant evergreen content for the awareness phase.
4. Ensure the evergreen content is regularly maintained. The content calendar needs to shadow relevant external stimulus (ex: iPhone launches).
5. The more refined and accurate the paid media targeting, the greater the likelihood of it resonating with a critical mass. This gives you a greater opportunity for generating the downstream Dark Social traffic.

Understand your Industry’s Propensity for Consumers to Engage in Dark Social

All industries should be aware of events that spike consumer interest and engagement. In telco, the yearly iPhone launch activates weak tie connections through networks like Twitter. Consumers use Twitter to short-cut the process of assessing the plans offered by telcos. With so much information being published and shared in a period of a week, encouraging Dark Social activity could be a viable strategy for telcos operating under strict PR/marketing guidelines.

This is what Twitter based iPhone chats looked like in 2013.  The largest spikes are likely the announcement of a telco's pricing plan.
This chart highlights iPhone tweets in 2013. The largest spikes are likely the announcement of a telco’s pricing plan.

In financial services, the purchase of most financial service products is a private affair. It’s likely that a financial services consumer is tapping into the wisdom of their strong ties (think of the friends/family on your speed dial). Dark Social could be a strategy that supports financial services brands that are developing and publishing evergreen content (ex: how to buy a home, how to save for my retirement).

The Power of the Paid Social Ad Impression

The Datalicious report titled Media Attribution: Optimising Digital Marketing Spend In Financial Services showed that Facebook impressions were 900% undervalued when using a last click attribution model (ex: Google Analytics and Omniture). A lot of brands use Google Analytics and Omniture, which could mean a lot of brands are not correctly assessing the value generated by a Facebook impression.

By using Paid Social Ads, brands can immediately generate mass impressions to targeted audiences (user behaviours, life events, and custom audiences) to kickstart Dark Social habits. The ability to share content privately on a social platform, rather than on a traditional publisher’s website, is easier for the user.

Tracking and Reacting

Content that is shared becomes ‘dark’ when the UTM code (UTM code highlights where the traffic was referred from) gets stripped out. As a result, analytics reporting (such as Google Analytics and Omniture) categorise this traffic as ‘direct’. Social media teams that distribute content to generate referral traffic may not be fully recognised for their efforts.

To ensure that the social team can claim full attribution on the Dark Social, it is important to check if other channels (for example, eDM) have published the link to the web page. Here are some links that can help you to begin an assessment of the impact of Dark Social.

Omniture: http://blogs.adobe.com/digitalmarketing/analytics/shedding-light-dark-social-adobe-analytics/

Google Analytics: https://www.google.com/analytics/gallery/#posts/search/%3F_.term%3Ddark%20social%26_.start%3D0%26_.viewId%3D8QRp25NtSFSoltp7rxYIZA/

Blogging plugins: I’m trying this WP plugin (https://wordpress.org/plugins/selection-sharer/) after seeing it in action on the Globe and Mail newspaper (see image below).  Highlight a section of content and a box appears over top prompting the user if they wish to share it via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Experiment with Dark Social.  Making it easy for consumers to share.
Experiment with Dark Social. Making it easy for consumers to share.

By grasping real time tracking of Dark Social, brands can react by immediately developing the additional content on the topic and re-sharing the original content that received the Dark Social traffic. It’s also an opportunity to learn why the Dark Social activity occurred, and work out how to enhance the Content strategy/calendar.

Feeling Optimistic?

By taking the internal lead on Dark Social, social media teams could have a positive impact on the customer experience.  Therefore, social media could grow in prominence for brands working to improve how it influences consumers.  Especially at the consideration stage of the path to conversion.

It also is another opportunity for social teams to further integrate into the day-to-day activities of the other digital advertising and content teams.

If you have any stories how your brand or agency has implemented Dark Social, please share your experience.

If you wish to contact me to talk about your social media strategy or public speaking needs, enter your details in the contact form below.

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