Angela Southall
Angela Southall 26 July 2016

Dark Social - Guide to What It Is and How to Measure It

Word of mouth is an obvious challenge for marketers, not just in terms of generating it, but in tracking it. But there is a growing trend in marketing, something known as dark social, which can equally cause headaches for your marketing metrics.

Never heard of dark social? You’re probably not alone, but it’s not new. It was a term coined in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal in an article for The Atlantic.

So what is Dark Social?

It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon and you’re still in the office. A pop-up drinks venue has just opened around the corner. So you WhatsApp your friends with a link copied from the website. Congratulations - you’ve just shared using dark social.

Referral traffic is usually identified by the tags associated with a link. For example if you see an interesting Tweet and click on the link it will normally include something like“&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter” to signal that the traffic has come from Twitter. However dark social is any social traffic which is not attributable to a known source, and it will be lumped in with your “direct traffic”.

So if you have witnessed a growth in “direct traffic” and excitedly thought that your brand awareness was leading to a hike in people directly typing your URL into the browser; it might be time to think again.

In addition to WhatsApp, other inherently dark social channels include messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Viber, vKontakte and Weibo.  A report by RadiumOne suggests that dark social can now account for as much as 69% of all social sharing, and that almost third of people will only ever share by dark social.

So why the sudden growth in Dark Social?

As I mentioned before, it’s not actually new, but the changes in the way we communicate are fuelling a rise.

In particular, the growth in messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger mean that people send links to each other all the time, with no referrer tag being passed. In fact, Facebook Messenger has just reported hitting the one billion users a month mark.


In addition with secure browsing, if you move from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer will again not be passed on.

As little as 2-3 years ago, posting on public newsfeeds was the main way internet users engaged with social media but people have drifted into the more private messenger channels as they seek to avoid the feeling of social pressure / being judged that comes along with public sharing.

How can you measure Dark Social?

First, try and reduce the amount of traffic which falls into the dark social bucket in the first place by prominently displaying social sharing buttons, with trackable links, throughout your site and in all communications. Ensure you understand which social channels your customer base has a preference for.

Next take a look at your “direct” traffic in your analytics programme, and filter on the landing page of this traffic. You can probably assume that anyone landing on your homepage or top content pages are direct traffic.

But take a look at those long URLs. It’s highly unlikely that someone has actually typed” into their browser. So there is a good chance that these could be categorised as dark social.

This useful article by Robert Allen at SmartInsights gives some great advice on configuring Google Analytics to pull out your dark social traffic.

How will Dark Social impact referrals?

If you don’t run a formal referral programme, chances are you’ll still be benefiting from referrals from brand advocates.  However, without offering trackable links to customers, these referral sales are likely hidden in your “direct traffic”. To try an understand your referrals better though, ensure you follow the tips above on measuring dark social. In particular, encourage users to share by offering trackable links in all your communications. Your brand advocates are your most precious resource, so trying to mine this data could reap rewards.

Those with formal refer-a-friend schemes should be at an advantage in ensuring referrals don’t fall into the dark social bucket. Provided that you are offering something of value to your customers for referring, then it is in their interest to utilise the trackable sharing options you provide; otherwise they’d miss out on their reward. Just be sure to offer the right sharing options for your market to maximise this.

At Mention Me we work with many clients on their referral schemes. We support dark social sharing via all the popular messenger apps so our clients can correctly attribute these referrals.

Overwhelming though, we see that customers are still more likely to refer in a conversation. We built the option to “refer by name” in a conversation for this very reason, and this now delivers between 30-40% of referrals. Without this option our clients would still be in the Dark.

This post was previously published on the Mention Me Referrals Blog.

Angela Southall
Angela Southall

Thanks for the feedback Jackie.

Jackie Balchin
Jackie Balchin

This is really interesting, thank you for sharing. I really liked the insight into looking at your URL links, as you are completley right, most direct traffic wouldn't go further than your top content pages. Very Smart, thank you

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