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Dark social: what it is and how it’s affecting SMEs

6 minute read

Monique Holtman
Monique Holtman

The term ‘dark social’ sounds pretty sinister and although it’s not actually as scary as it sounds, it still causes a great deal of frustration to small business owners.  

Dark social is social sharing which can’t be accurately tracked by your website analytics. The reason why it happens is because rather than openly sharing the content we see online (for example, by tagging a friend in a Facebook post) more and more of us are choosing to share things privately, such as by email or direct message.  

Private sharing is much harder to track than content which is being shared on public platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Some of the biggest culprits for dark social include:

  • Native mobile apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
  • Email
  • Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger
  • Secure browsing – if you click from HTTPS to HTTP, the referrer won’t be passed on

Why SMEs can’t ignore dark social

One of the biggest problems with dark social is how complex it makes accurately tracking where your website traffic is coming from.

Typically, when someone clicks on a link, there will be a tag in the URL which will tell you exactly how that person came to land on your website. If I click on a link in my Twitter feed, the URL will change depending on whether I visit the website directly or via a PPC advert for example. This tells Google Analytics or whichever other tracking platform you use, where your visitors are coming from.

URL tracking link

If I choose to share this link with some friends via email or a direct message on Twitter, however, your analytics platform has no way of knowing that I did this. What this means is that any traffic coming from dark social will show up as direct traffic. If you’ve always wondered why you have so much direct traffic coming to your website, this is more than likely the reason.

A good indication that this is happening to you is to look at the URL. As you can see from the example above, it’s highly unlikely, near impossible that anyone would ever type that link into their browser – thus proving it’s not actually direct traffic. When the source of your traffic can’t be determined with accuracy, it leaves SMEs in the dark about how people are finding them. As a result, you’re less informed about where and how to effectively use the online market to advertise and expand your business.

Anything that puts a cloud over your data isn’t particularly helpful. If you don’t have the full picture, you could end up wasting your time and energy optimising the wrong channels. This is something that SMEs don’t have the time or money to waste.

Another problem with dark social is that often, the traffic it generates is hugely valuable. If you find a link to a product you know your friend has been looking for and you email it to them, it’s highly likely that link is going to convert. Dark social is effectively the online version of word of mouth so it’s essential that businesses take the time to dig deeper into their data analytics. If you think it’s no big deal to miss out on tracking the odd visitor or conversion, you may want to think again. It has been reported that dark social is responsible for a whopping 84% of outbound sharing. 

on-site shares graph

Image source: radiumone.com  

What can SMEs do about dark social?

The rise of dark social is perhaps evidence of a cultural shift that’s currently taking place online. Internet users – especially the all-important millennials and even the gen Z market – are becoming increasingly conscious about their privacy. It’s not just for the obvious reason that we don’t want everybody knowing our business, however. People are becoming all too aware that virtually every move they make online is being captured to be used commercially. In this context, sharing content privately seems much more appealing.

So how can small companies help to make their business dark social friendly? Especially when it’s unlikely that you have the big budget that larger, more established organisations have. While you won’t be able to fully track dark social traffic, the good news is that there are steps you can take to narrow things down and even benefit from the data you collect to create a well-informed online marketing strategy.

Utilise Google Analytics

If you’re not already using a tool to analyse your website traffic, you really should be. Without this data, you’re left in the dark about which platforms and marketing campaigns are hugely successful and which are delivering little, or even no ROI. 

Google Analytics is a great tracking platform. It’s user-friendly even for beginners, it provides in-depth analytics and best of it, it’s completely free. On the surface, Google Analytics will lump all of your dark social traffic into direct traffic. With a few clever tweaks however, you can work around this to get a more accurate picture of where and how your content is being shared.

Log into your Analytics account and on the left side of your dashboard you will see ‘audience.’ Click on this and then in the drop-down, select ‘overview.’ On the top of the screen, click ‘add segment.’ This will give you a list of options. Choose ‘direct traffic’ and unclick any other boxes. Click apply and you’re done. Doing this will apply the direct traffic segmentation to all of the stats you view until you remove it. This means that you will only see metrics that fall under direct traffic. Now, you’re going to want to narrow that traffic down even further to identify what is coming from dark social.

Go back to the menu on the left side of your screen and click ‘behaviour.’ Then click on ‘site content’ and then ‘all pages.’ Locate the search bar on the right side of your screen and click on ‘advanced.’ Change ‘include’ to ‘exclude’ and select ‘page’ as the chosen dimension. In the search box on the right, type in all of your website’s URLs that are easy to remember. For example, blog, about, meet the team and services. Once you click apply, you will only see data for the difficult-to-remember URLs which means that it’s highly unlikely that anyone manually typed this in. You can therefore assume that this traffic has come from dark social. 

For a more in-depth explanation of tracking dark social in Google Analytics (with images to help), head over to Social Media Examiner.

Look at your long links

Head to your analytics platform and take the time to have a good look into your direct traffic. If you see any long links like the one we mentioned earlier, it’s safe to assume these were not typed in manually and are therefore likely to have originated from dark social.

While this still doesn’t help you to identify where and how that content was originally shared, it can at least help you to get a better understanding of how much of your traffic is coming from dark social.

Make it easy for people to share your content

If you have a blog page, this is a fantastic way of encouraging people to visit your website and share your content with others. If the only way people can distribute your content is to copy and paste the link into an email or private message, however, what happens to your post after this is lost in cyberspace.

Include high visible sharing buttons on all of your blog posts because this will encourage people to share directly from your site rather than privately. Because people tend to favour sharing things privately, you can also include buttons for email, WhatsApp and other dark social channels. Don’t forget to add a UTM code so you can continue to track post activity even after a visitor has left your site. It’s also very helpful to create unique codes for posts on your social media profiles so you know whether traffic has originated from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.

Shorten your URLs

Shortening your URLs has two main advantages. Firstly, it makes them easier to share and secondly, they’re traceable. Most software that allows you to create shorter links such as goo.gl also enables you to track exactly how many people have clicked on the link – even if it has been copied and pasted away from its original source. This is a highly effective way of weeding out visitors who have come from dark social rather than directly or through other sources.

Use dark social tools

Although analytics platforms unfortunately can’t track dark social traffic, there are many tools that allow marketing professionals to identify the origins of this traffic and analyse their outcomes.

  • Po.st is an advanced sharing platform which provides comprehensive analytics and audience insights – including dark social. There is no cost and no contract which makes this tool great for SMEs who don’t have big marketing budgets.
  • ShareThis allows you to put sharing tools on your website through all of the dark social channels including email, direct message and even texts.

Dark social is already a hugely popular method of sharing online content and with the number of people using the likes of Messenger, email and WhatsApp continuing to grow, it’s likely that dark social traffic will too. By implementing the techniques above, this can help you to really understand the true origins of your traffic in an easy and inexpensive manner. Another added bonus is that it will enable you to come to grips with how this type of traffic can actually help to further grow your business.

Monique Holtman

After completing her degree in Journalism, Monique began her career at a digital marketing agency. It was here she discovered a passion for online marketing with a particular focus on content creation for the web. Six years ago Monique set up her own copywriting business, Copyworks Group, which specialises in creating content for websites, blogs, newsletters and social media pages.

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