Shine a Light on Dark Social Traffic Hiding in the Shadows

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dark social traffic

Online marketers tend to overlook dark social traffic. It’s a category of social sharing that escapes their attention because web analytics and social media measurement systems can’t track it.

Marketers need to work outside these systems to generate dark social insights. If they do, they can improve a wide range of strategies in areas including social media, content marketing, audience planning and customer acquisition. So we asked Luis Aguilar, Senior Manager, Business Development, RadiumOne to share his insight on this important topic.

Dark social is a common part of online life. It happens when people copy and paste content or URLs into private messages, such as emails or IMs. Surprisingly to marketers, this everyday activity has been shown to make up over 72 percent of all social sharing.

A Dark Social Share Takes Just Three Quick Steps:

1) Copy a web page’s content or URL.

2) Paste the content or URL into a private message.

3) Send it.

On most websites, dark social accounts for the majority of social sharing. It’s a “wow” moment for marketers when they learn the exact percentage of dark social sharing on their own sites.

The first person to investigate this type of social sharing was Alexis C. Madrigal, who coined the term “dark social” in 2012 when he learned that it was accounting for 57 percent of social sharing on The Atlantic’s website. Since then other brands and publishers have started tracking their dark social through specific code included in social sharing widget code HTML to uncover their own private sharing activity.

For example, this year San Francisco based chocolate manufacturer Ghirardelli found that dark social accounts for 84 percent of social sharing on its site. Business2Community saw that dark social accounted for 72 percent of sharing, while Smithsonian Magazine realized it was 82 percent of their shares. With the simple addition of specific code to your website, you can track your own dark social insights.

The second “wow” moment for marketers happens when they apply social sharing insights to their social media, content marketing, audience planning or customer acquisition efforts. The insights need to be inclusive of dark social traffic and show what content is being shared, when it’s shared, what devices it’s shared from, and what keywords are being copied and shared.

Refocus Social Media Efforts

To focus social media efforts, marketers need to know how much of their content is shared across public and private channels. This should include sharing across public channels like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+ and a long tail of other social networks. Sharing reports should include sharing across private channels like email, IM, and copy-and-paste activity. Since, on average, public channels represent 28 percent of social sharing and private channels represent 72 percent, it’s possible that marketers who overlook dark social traffic are focusing their social media efforts on the wrong thing. The best way to foster more sharing is to understand the full social engagement of their articles in order to continue to produce popular pieces of content and publish it to their owned media.

In content marketing, the best insights are those that reveal what people find worthy of sharing. Sharing metrics are the best indicator of content success, more so than Likes or Retweets, because the reader found the content worthwhile to spread it to others ensuring they consume it. Marketers need to know this so they can publish more of it. Content insights from a service like BuzzSumo can help marketers pinpoint their most shared content across five social networks.

However, without dark social insights, this type of data is limited to what people find useful of sharing in public, which could be markedly different from what people find useful of sharing in private. Marketers should plan content that appeals to all their sharers, public and private.

Dark social analytics can improve a marketer’s audience planning by helping them understand a new audience of users who receive and click on shares of their content. Dark social sharing mostly happen between close networks of friends, families, and colleagues. When people choose to privately share a marketer’s content via dark social, they are matching it directly to the needs of people they know. With such targeted, specific sharing, the marketer’s content is already likely to resonate with sharing recipients — the next step is to find additional ways to reach these composed audiences. This changes the whole paradigm of audience planning. Instead of planning top down to reach men 18 to 24, for example, marketers can plan bottom up, based on their own viral success, to reach similar audiences to those who found them through private, targeted recommendations.

Since dark social is such a powerful tool for audience planning, this also allows it to be a powerful tool for customer acquisition. Marketers should take their dark social-informed audience profiles and buy media on an impression-by-impression basis to reach people that are very similar to sharing recipients that click. This can be done with an integrated platform that collects the dark social data, turns the data into an addressable audience segment, and then can deliver real time advertising to the segment.


Dark social is happening whether or not marketers use its data and insights. Overlooking dark social can skew the actions a marketer takes to favor the audiences they see on social media, without considering the audiences they don’t see. This can affect where they focus social media efforts, what content they publish, how they define their target audience and how they use paid media to acquire customers. It’s really up to marketers to answer, “What the heck is dark social?” for their own sites and then put their new insights to action.

Marketers now have the ability to pull themselves out of the dark social ages of sharing. Enlightened by this realm of hidden information, true content popularity will emerge where the benefits will be felt by social and editorial teams alike.

Space Photo via Shutterstock

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3 Reactions
  1. I have seen people send URLs via private message for contests. It is a great way to get more likes on your page without advertising. It is a good way to get some extra traffic. Wouldn’t call it dark though but it is still a type of traffic that’s worth looking into.