Today, social media has become virtually synonymous with digital marketing. Most marketers understand its role in generating business and traffic, and it has proven time and time again that it offers a positive ROI. What most marketers don’t know is that social media has a lesser-known cousin: dark social. Dark social is the less obvious form of social sharing that takes place millions of times each day.


While dark social can be easy to overlook, it is essential that businesses become familiar with it and develop a plan to manage it. When you do, you stand to harness its energy and make it work in your company’s favor.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is Dark Social?

Typical social media sharing goes something like this: you’re scrolling through Facebook and you see something amazing — a live-stream, cleverly titled “Keeping up With the Kattarshians,” which features four tiny kittens, living in a tiny doll house, with four tiny bunk beds. Adorable, right? You can’t wait to share it, so you click the “share” button below the video and send it to your friend’s timeline.

This is “light social.” It’s easy to track, simple for brands to keep tabs of, and incredibly common.

According to Hootsuite, the phrase “dark social” was first coined by one-time Atlantic editor, Alexis Madrigal. While it sounds ominous and threatening, dark social is actually really commonplace. It’s what happens when people share content through external, third-party, private channels, like messaging apps, text messages, and email. Here’s an example:

You stumble across that same video in the same way. You want to share it with a friend who’s taking a Facebook hiatus, though, so you copy the link, paste it into a text message, and click send. This is dark social.

It even takes place inside native mobile apps produced by companies like Facebook and Instagram. It’s also conducted during secure browsing sessions, when you’re using HTTP rather than HTTPS.

During dark social, sharing can’t be attributed to a known source and the common referral tags attached to standard sharing don’t apply. As such, it isn’t as simple for companies to track, so they don’t. Unfortunately, this is a dire mistake.

Why Paying Attention to Dark Social is So Essential

There’s no getting away from it: dark social is everywhere. And it’s critical to pay attention to it. Here’s why:

  1. Mobile & Dark Social Go Hand-In-Hand

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know how important it is to pay attention to and optimize for mobile platforms. If you’re ignoring dark social, though, you’re not doing your whole job. Mobile and dark social are inexorably linked, and ignoring one means cheating the other. According to RadiumOne.com, 84% of outbound sharing happens on dark social. Further, most of this sharing is occurring on mobile platforms.

  1. Dark Social Likely Accounts for Much of Your Traffic

Marked as “direct” traffic by Google Analytics, dark social is typically responsible for most of the traffic to any given website. The trouble is if you’re not measuring, managing, and minimizing this traffic, it becomes incredibly tough to use it to your advantage.

  1. It is is a Literal Marketing Gold Mine

Just imagine if you could gain the same type of insight into your dark social shares that you do your standard social shares. You’d be rich! Or, at east, you’d be on track to revolutionize your marketing program. This form of sharing offers a wealth of information companies can use to target their customers and streamline their interactions. You just need to access it.

  1. Dark Social Allows You to Access Elusive Demographics

While every millennial and his sister shares on social media, dark social is where some of the harder-to-reach demographics can be found. In fact, RadiumOne reports that 46% of customers ages 55 and older share material this way, compared to 19% of Millennials. As such, tapping into this data is a great way to reach these difficult demographics and make the most of them.

  1. Dark Social Takes Place Disproportionately for Certain Industries

Run a company in business, personal finance, or travel? Dark social could give you access to more than 70% of the sharing that takes place for content in these niches.

So, What Can You Do About It?

 While it’s impossible to eliminate dark social, you can minimize it and track it, to a certain degree. When you publish content online, knowing what happens to it and where it goes is essential. This is why it’s so important to develop a method for getting into the nitty-gritty of dark social, and learn how to use it to your advantage.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Use Tools to Track Dark Social

Innovative companies around the world have seen how dark social can be a problem for companies, and they’ve set out to solve it. Today, products like ShareThisGetSocial.io, and Simply Measured can all help you track this data and stay on top of attribution.

Using Google Analytics:

You can also use Google Analytics. When tracking dark social we want to identify two things: (1) those who visited your website through direct traffic, and (2): those who did not enter through the home page. To do so, you’ll need to use the ‘advanced segments’ within Google Analytics. This is the feature which enables you to specifically filter where your web traffic is coming from based on a defined criteria. So, we will need to create two filters — one to exclude traffic whose destination was the homepage and another to include traffic whose source was direct. Once this is set up, you’re on your way to figuring out just how much of your traffic really is coming from dark social sharing.

  1. Improve Your Share Offerings

When you think about it, sharing through dark social actually takes more work than sharing through more conventional means. This is because the user has to manually copy and paste the link and then drop it into an external platform.

With traditional sharing, however, that person just needs to press a button. To minimize the amount of dark social sharing that takes place in your industry, boost your use of share buttons, or make them easier to access around your site.

  1. Make Your URLs Shorter

Use a link compressor like Bitly to shorten your links. In addition to making them look more attractive on social platforms, shorter links are also more trackable and can also allow you to enjoy a more in-depth overview of your engagement and share rates.

The Case for Prioritizing Dark Social

Today, more than 70% of online referrals come through dark social. If you’re not measuring it, you’re not collecting enough data to get the full picture of who your audience is, where they come from, and how they’re interacting with your site, services, or products. When you take into account the rise of platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp, it becomes clear that the use of dark social is going to continue to increase. Tapping into it is more important right now than it’s ever been before.

Fortunately, there are proactive steps you can take, like using different tracking tools and shortening your URLs.  This will help you measure your dark social interactions without losing track of them in your “direct” traffic catch-all.

As people continue to switch devices, channels, and platforms on a daily or hourly basis, tracking engagement becomes more difficult and less linear. Fortunately, brands who use trackable, short links and advanced traffic measuring tools can gain access to valuable data. They are then at an advantage to using it to enhance their marketing strategies, from beginning to end.

This, in turn, makes for a more comprehensive approach to content in the modern world, and a simple way to track the journey of every piece of content through the web.