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Illuminating Dark Social

I stumbled upon this statistic the other day and it completely stopped me in my tracks: 70% of social shares are considered darkAnd that percentage is from last year; now it’s up to 80%.

But what does that mean? What is a dark social share?

“Dark Social” may sound like a Goth dance party or maybe a magic class for the overly outgoing witch or wizard but really it’s a term that all marketers should familiarize themselves with. In a recent blog, I discussed dark posts (also referred to as unpublished posts). Don’t get these two terms confused; while both are part of the dark web, unpublished social posts are different than dark social.

Dark web, dark posts, dark social…when did the internet get so spooky?


Let me shed some light on this dark social topic. (Yes, I will be trying to work in as much light/dark word play as I can throughout this post.)

Dark social is actually a type of website traffic. Have you (or your company’s Digital Marketer) ever checked the traffic source report in Google Analytics (or whichever web analytics tool you prefer) and noticed a huge number of direct traffic hits? Sometimes the number is ludicrously high. I mean, it can’t possibly be that that many people are typing the direct URL to your blog post from four years ago about obscure Swedish candy. So where is this traffic that is being measured as direct actually coming from?

A term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, ‘dark social’ refers to the “social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs.” Basically, any website traffic that originates from a shared link but doesn’t pass a referrer will show up as direct traffic in your analytics report. *See end of this blog for a vocabulary refresher crash course*

A long, long time ago, before the rise of mobile, in a simpler smaller internet world (can you remember this time?) everything was link-based. This means that things were discovered via search, links, or going to a site directly by typing it into a search browser (or by following a bookmark). If a user arrived at a website without a referrer, that was clearly a direct visitor. But things have significantly changed, haven’t they? Don’t ask me why this particular convention has carried over but it has.

Because such a significant amount of traffic is dark, it’s something that should be measured and reported on by companies. Dark social happens in social media apps (e.g. Facebook and Pinterest), mobile apps, chat platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, as well as email and SMS/text. Dark social is becoming more pervasive in part because people don’t want to share everything publicly. There are many topics/photos/articles/videos which people choose to share privately with their closest friends and/or family. People do so via peer-to-peer channels (think texting). The content they share in this way is indicative of the things they most sincerely care about or are honestly interested in. Knowing what your audience truly cares about is valuable data, right? Dark social is definitely having an impact on social media marketing.  In order to begin to paint the bigger picture of the success a social marketer is driving, he/she will need to measure (and understand) the impacts his/her efforts are having.

How to Measure and Report Your Company’s Dark Social

Look at attribution. What is driving site visits, signups, and sales? This is all valuable information that will make execs oh-so-happy. Simply Measured reports that more than 50% of social traffic is dark and more that 50% of social sales are dark.

User Agent Analysis will tell you what browser and device a user is on. Facebook, Twitter, and other mobile applications leave clues that help identify a traffic source. Make sure to set this up in Google Analytics.

To measure dark traffic from a brands’ posts, start with link shortening. Remember, though, that clicks don’t equal visits and per-post attribution is difficult. You will likely gather incomplete data.

Real attribution comes from appending UTM parameters to the links in your social media posts. You can do this in your social share buttons (make sure to include a brand mentions, e.g. “via @dowitcherdesign”). It is important to note, however, that social shares do not account for the largest type of sharing. That award goes to Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V. That’s right, the number one way people share is simply by copy and pasting a URL. So, I can’t stress it enough – add UTM parameters to all URLs.

You can also use hash fragments, aka fragment identifiers or hash URLs. These track social sharing and will attribute dark social traffic conversions and shares. They have no impact on SEO. And! they play nicely with UTM parameters so go ahead and use both at the same time. That being said, Analytics ignores fragment URLs but not UTMs.

The explosion of mobile messaging will continue. It’s growing faster than social channels plus, pretty soon down the road, ads and commerce will be coming to messaging apps. As the importance of mobile grows, the importance of dark social will too. The first step in your game plan should be to teach your colleagues about dark social. Then, start in on the measuring and reporting. Lastly, illustrate your (and your team’s) larger impact by illuminating dark social.

Social media marketers, start measuring and reporting on your dark traffic to illustrate your value and the success you are driving. Don’t let all the credit go to Direct!


  • Dark Social: any website traffic that originates from the share of a URL but doesn’t pass a referrer will therefore show up as direct traffic in any analytics reporting.
  • Referrer: the URL a user visited most recently before clicking over to the page in question
  • UTM parameter: when your link is clicked, tags are sent back to Analytics. UTM parameters are tags you add to a URL/link to gauge the effectiveness of a particular campaign.
  • Hash fragment: identifiers added to a URL
  • Social sharing: taking URLs via social media platforms (e.g. Facebook) or text
  • Social traffic: the action taken on those shared links

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