Dark Social: What Is It Really?

Dark Social: What Is It Really?


They can see you, but you can’t see them.

Data from Pathfind suggests 84% of users share links outside of social platforms, preferring direct messaging instead. Like “dark energy”—the term astronomers use for the unknown reason the universe is accelerating—these “dark social” visits tell you little, but may have a disproportionate impact.

What is “dark social”?

Dark social is the web traffic you can trace to popular media platforms without being able to accurately track their source. “Dark social” shares often come through messenger apps, social shares, and other forms of URL sharing.

But even the data from Pathfind might have changed by now. Messaging app usage has gone up significantly. Nowadays, 2.5 billion people use Facebook and WhatsApp alone.

Understanding the true impact of “dark social” can be a major boon for brands that need to know what their audience wants. Here are some ways you should think about dark social sharing, and what it means for your brand:


How Dark Social Affects Brands

Dark social traffic can come from anywhere, but it’s usually from peer-to-peer recommendations. Think Slack, Reddit, Apple Podcast mentions, LinkedIn messages, DMs, text messages, Zoom calls. Or they might come from public recommendations, like someone sharing a URL in a podcast and a listener going to a web browser and typing it in. And while it’s great to draw interest, these “shadow” visits to your website can skew your data and confuse your web analytics. Consider:

  • Attribution challenges. It’s great to have plenty of traffic spreading via messenger apps. But if you can’t track who’s on your website, it’s hard to define the most impactful content drawing their interest.

  • Skewing tracking and targeting abilities. If you don’t know where someone came from—only that they came from a popular messenger app—it tells you little about why your content is getting traction.

Some call dark social the “secret weapon” of B2B marketing. After all, there’s no telling if that dark social visit came from a company doing $100,000 in revenue or $100M. That’s why your ability to manage and track dark social visits could have a dramatic impact on the way you do business.


Where Dark Social Sharing Occurs

There’s no shadowy alleyway where users trade dark social trade links. The truth is, dark social channels are just about anywhere people aren’t sharing thoughts to wide, public audiences. You may have a lot of dark social traffic if you notice these platforms sending users to your homepage:

  • Social Networks: LinkedIn messages, Twitter DMs, TikTok comments, Instagram DMS—the list goes on and on.

  • Content Platforms: YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Twitch, smart speaker skills.

  • Groups and Communities: Slack Communities, Discord Groups, and Facebook groups frequently share links.

  • Employee Communications: Private messaging can occur through Slack Channels, Zoom meetings (and chats), Upwork, and even training apps.

  • Word of Mouth: Texts, Calls, in-person conversations, and DMs.

  • Events & Meetups: Whether virtual or in-person, meetups are where professionals frequently swap ideas—and often links.

  • Messaging Apps: Instant messaging mobile apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Discord private messages.


How to Measure and Track Dark Social Traffic

Once upon a time, the Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) was the way to shine a light on dark traffic. You could create an opt-in form for a webinar, and poof—you turned a lead from dark social into a person with a name and an email address. Cross-reference those private channels with your analytics programs, and you knew who visited your site.

The issue with the MQL is that it creates friction. It requires that too much content lies behind a gateway. This sends users packing—and possibly turning to competitors to find the content they were after.

One way out of this? Gate membership, not content.

To capture dark social data, you first need to shine a light on it. The best way to do that is through first-party data. This means installing opt-ins, subscriptions, and other broad customer gateways that give you permission to track customer data without third-party trackers. And by gating membership into a community, you won’t ask for a user’s information every time you publish a piece of content.

This reduces the need to cause more friction than you already have. It works the same way you only sign up for Disney+ once to watch everything they offer.

This model uses traditional social media as message amplifiers, not lead generators. Social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter use their own analytics platforms. And those analytics are woeful if you run a B2B company and need to identify leads more precisely.

Rather than funneling B2B leads from social media to gated content, you build a community to capture that traffic. You’ll own your content distribution, own your data, and own the ability to broadcast to traffic that had once been “dark social.”

  • Google Analytics. You can create a segment within Google Analytics, naming a subset of “Dark Social” users and hits. While this won’t shine a light on who those dark social visits are, you can use this segment to filter private sharing like dark social shares from the rest of your data.

  • AddThis. AddThis has all sorts of free social tools, but especially important are the share button tools and analytics tools you can customize. By creating your own social sharing buttons—which can appear on your site wherever you want to place them—you’ll have additional control over who shares which URL.

  • AudiencePlus. When the AudiencePlus platform is ready, you can use your content distribution channels to capture more about who your users are—no matter where they came from. Better yet, this will be a sustainable way to access your data, since it won’t rely on third-party trackers or cookies. If you’d like to follow along and get notified when AudiencePlus is ready for you subscribe through the button above.


How to Leverage Dark Social

Embracing owned media will attract plenty of dark social traffic, yes. But it’s also the best way to leverage that traffic.

Owned media as a marketing strategy means controlling not only your content, but also the distribution channels which send it into the world. That’s why companies like HubSpot have purchased distribution-heavy companies like The Hustle.

This strategy has one caveat: you need quality content to distribute. We touched on a few key ways to ensure your content is both unique and compelling, including:

  • Emphasizing authenticity over production value. Both matter, but authentic content will always win out.

  • Rapid iteration. Rather than agonizing over production value questions, instead, put out content—as good as you can make it—and find out what sticks to your audience. What do they find compelling? Rapid iteration means not only trying new things but finishing content and judging its performance. You’ll only learn what content your audience finds valuable when it’s released for consumption.

The Atlantic noticed the dark social media trend all the way back in 2012, saying: “We have the whole history of the Internet wrong.” If anything, that’s more true now—especially with first-party data growing more prevalent.

To turn dark social visits into business value, you need to encourage those dark social visitors into audience members. And in the era of first party data, you have to build content worthy of subscribing. Once you move dark social traffic beyond your subscription gateway, you’ll have all the customer data you’ll ever need.


JK Sparks | About the Author

Head of Marketing, AudiencePlus

JK is allergic to the words “guru, ninja, and hack” when used to describe anything marketing related. Instead of chasing the latest “growth hack,” he’s focused on building sustainable and predictable levers that fuel long term success. By implementing this approach over the last decade, JK has helped organizations in both bootstrapped and well-funded environments scale from <$100K to more than $100M in revenue. You can follow him here.


Dark Social: What Is It Really?

Whether you're tracking it or not, dark social is having an impact on your brand. Learn how to leverage it for audience development.

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