It all starts when someone reads an article on how to bathe kittens the safe way. As they peruse, they think, “Hey, my friend has a kitten, and he/she doesn’t know how to bathe it properly.”
Discreetly, then — because they’re at work and they’re not supposed to be reading about kittens — they copy and paste the link into an email and send it to their friend.
The friend receives the email and visits the article, saving the world from one more dirty kitten.
Little do the two friends realize, they’ve just engaged in the world of dark social media sharing.
Not dark in the Jedi and Sith sense. Dark in the sense that the content sharing happens ‘off the grid’ and away from prying eyes.
What does that mean?
Read on to find out.
What is ‘dark’ social?
“Dark social is when people share content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email,” as described by Sydney Parker from Hootsuite.”
That’s not the only instance, though. For example, all of these qualify as ‘dark’ social, too.
- Visits from mobile apps — Many apps, such as Facebook, either open your website on their own separate browser or force your phone’s website browser to open a new window. Both of these situations are counted as direct traffic to your website.
- Visits from email forwards — Imagine that someone forwards you an email with a piece of content they thought you might be interested in. You click on the content and visit the website. You’ll also be lumped into the direct traffic category.
- Visits from chat platforms — Sharing URL’s to any private chat platforms like Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or text messaging channels removes the tracking tag. Clicks will be counted as direct traffic.
The name, “Dark Social,” was coined by Alexis Madragal in the Atlantic in 2012. She explains that not only is dark social sharing invisible to the public, but, more importantly, it’s invisible to website analytics.
That means Google doesn’t see it. Analytics doesn’t track it. And you don’t report it. It’s there. It happens. But it’s flying under the radar. And you don’t get the credit you deserve for generating or inspiring it in the first place.
Jack Simpson at Econsultancy elaborates:
“Dark social is essentially the traffic that gets lumped into direct traffic in your analytics platform but actually comes from untrackable referrals.”
In other words, when someone “goes dark,” sharing your website with their friends via a private messenger, traditional analytics can’t track the source of their visit.
“But,” you’re wondering, “does that really matter?” Why should you care about dark social media traffic? Surely, it’s not a significant portion of online traffic, right?
That’s where you’d be wrong.
According to a study from 2016, a massive portion of online traffic is driven by dark social media.
That number continues to climb with the rise of instant messengers like Slack and Facebook Messenger.
So the percentage has increased significantly over the last three years.
For example, back in 2014 it was a lot less:
In other words, the worldwide average of traffic driven by dark social media has risen from 69% to 84%.
Think about that. 84% of all shares to websites across the internet are untracked. So, like all of them.
That gives a whole new meaning to the word, “metrics.”
But even though dark social drives a huge amount of traffic, how can you measure all of that opportunity?
After all, the term “dark” refers to the un-measurability of it.
Is all lost?
Thankfully, the answer is “not really.”
Here’s how you can track dark social media using Google Analytics, three other noteworthy tricks, and then four tools that will measure it for you.
How to Track Dark Social in Google Analytics
“Dark” traffic is dark. So Google Analytics won’t pick it up out of the box.
Unless… you make a few tweaks.
Years ago, Groupon de-indexed their site from Google to figure this out.
They found that about 60% of their search traffic was being improperly categorized as “Direct” traffic.
How’d they figure this out?
In a perfect world, Direct traffic would only include the people typing your website URL into the address bar and hitting Enter. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.
Instead, Direct acts more like your junk drawer at home. If you can’t decide what to do with something or where to put it, you just toss it into the crowded mess to worry about another day.
Same thing happens here with your dark social traffic, too. Social media channels are underreported, and Direct is overreported.
Groupon found that most of their miscategorized traffic happened on their deal pages. They figured this out because those URLs are long and hard to memorize. Nobody in their right minds will truly go directly back to those pages.
So that’s what we need to do here. We need to segment your Direct traffic to see where the dark social is hiding in plain sight.
Here’s how to do that inside Google Analytics.
Click on “Audience” on the left side of your Google Analytics dashboard.
Click on, “Overview.”
On the top of the screen, click “Add Segment.”
From the list of options, choose “Direct Traffic” and unclick any other boxes.
Doing this will apply the “Direct Traffic” segmentation to all of the stats you view until you remove it.
In other words, you’ll only see metrics that fall under direct traffic.
And since Google Analytics counts all dark social media traffic as direct traffic, you’re moving in the right direction.
But still, you need to narrow that traffic number down further to find your dark social suspects.
On the left menu, click on “Behavior.”
Then, click on “Site Content.”
Finally, click on “All Pages.”
On your dashboard, you’ll see all the metrics based only off of direct traffic to your website.
To find likely dark traffic, near the search bar on the right side of the screen, click on “advanced.”
Change “Include” to “Exclude.”
Make sure that “Page” is the chosen dimension.
Then, in the search box on the right, type in all of your website’s slugs that would be easy to remember.
Once you’ve excluded a fair portion of these easy-to-remember URLs, click “Apply.”
What you will see is only the data for a series of hard-to-remember URL’s. And this segment of traffic is now likely to be the majority of your dark social media traffic.
Here’s the logic.
Since these URLs are more difficult to remember and thus type into Google — true direct traffic — they were likely copied and pasted from somewhere and then clicked in a dark sharing environment, such as a private messenger.
Unfortunately, doing this won’t permanently change your Google Analytics to track dark social traffic. But you can use this method to at least determine what percentage of your traffic is driven by private sharing.
Then, look to the following tips for a more permanent solution.
3 Alternative Ways for Tracking Dark Social Traffic
The first step above will help you start tracking your dark social media results inside Google Analytics. But it’s reactionary.
Meaning: You’re still going to get dark traffic. You haven’t done anything, yet, to solve the root issue.
Thankfully, there are a few preventative measures to employ.
Here are three initiatives you can take to bring all of that dark sharing back into the light.
1. Include share buttons
Start by including share buttons on your site.
This sounds obvious at first. But the point here is to control what you can control.
You want people to use your social sharing buttons because you can tag your social sharing buttons. And if you can tag them, you can track the activity that spawns from them.
For example, the share buttons on this very post will scroll down with you as you read. That makes it easier for readers to share at any point in the content.
Otherwise, your audience has to go looking for the buttons, and they’ll be more likely to copy and paste the URL.
2. Put a copy-and-paste button at the bottom of your content
This one is really simple.
Put a copy-and-paste button at the bottom of all of your content. Similar to what bitly does with their copy-and-paste button.
Here’s what it might look like at the bottom of your content.
But here’s the trick.
When they hit “Copy,” instead of copying the normal URL to their clipboard, it copies a UTM URL that you preloaded into the bar.
There’s no difference to your audience. But when they share it with their friends, you’ll be able to track where the click came from.
Plus, you’ll be encouraging your audience to share your content privately. Since around 85% of shares happen through dark social media, taking advantage of the trend is a must.
3. Tag all of your links with UTM’s
So far we’ve been talking about tagging links, without really explaining what ‘tagging’ means.
UTM codes add little extra parameters to the end of a URL. And those are designed to tell Google (or any other tracking software) exactly where your content came from. That way, whenever someone clicks on your promoted piece, it will be counted under the correct traffic category.
The more accurate your data, the more results show up under your name. The better the ROI, the more money and prestige you get. Simple.
Unfortunately, this method isn’t foolproof. The UTM can still be lost at the hands of in-app web browsers and forced mobile browser opening. But UTM’s will decrease the amount of untrackable traffic overall.
You can go to GA Tools to create a tracking tag for your links.
Here are the basics you’ll want to include on each link:
- Website URL: Obvi.
- Campaign Source: The source is the original destination or channel, like your website, that this link will sit on.
- Campaign Medium: The medium refers to the marketing method, like a blog post, banner ad, or email newsletter.
4 Dark Social Tracking Tools
The easiest way to continually track dark traffic is to use a tool that does it for you. Or at least, one that helps you prevent the problem from popping up in the first place.
So here are four tools to check out.
Po.st from RadiumOne has two parts.
First, it has a social media sharing tool. This tool places social media share buttons on your website and tracks all of the engagement from those buttons.
As discussed earlier, social share buttons help avoid dark sharing by giving visitors an easy method to post your content without copy-and-pasting the URL.
You can control the link source and add the appropriate UTM codes prior for each.
Second, Po.st has a link shortener. But it doesn’t just shorten the link, it tracks it. Simply choose any page’s traffic that you’d like to track, use their link shortener to get your new URL, and promote that link on all of your social channels.
This is especially useful for Twitter because of the limited character count for each tweet.
Po.st will then provide you with all of the analytics from the shortened link, classified into campaigns so you know exactly which activities drove which visits.
ShareThis has three useful tools.
First, ShareThis provides social sharing buttons on your website. All with just a single line of code.
The most noteworthy aspect of these social sharing buttons is that they include buttons for private messengers, such as email, SMS, and WhatsApp.
That means, instead of visitors copy and pasting the URL into their phone, they can send a text straight from the web, which further means that all of that private sharing is trackable.
You can even customize where you want the share buttons on your website: inline or sticky.
Second, they let you A/B test your Facebook posts. So not only will you see the traffic sent from each post, but you’ll also be able to optimize posts to squeeze out a better ROI.
And third, they’ll alert you when your website’s content is trending. So you can watch in real-time when your content is being shared.
GetSocial.io is a platform with downloadable social media apps. Their platform sports apps that help with everything from brand awareness to leads and conversions.
To use their platform, you can either sign up on their website or download their Shopify App or WordPress plugin.
In the case that you use either a Shopify or WordPress website, the easiest route will be to download the appropriate software. Otherwise, visit their website and create an account.
The most valuable tool that GetSocial.io offers for dark social media tracking is its social share buttons, flexible for any viewing device, and its private messenger tracking.
To use, just copy and paste the code they provide into the header section of your website.
Then go to the “Address bar tracking” app and activate it.
By activating, GetSocial.io will measure any content of yours that is quietly going viral via dark sharing. Easy, peasy.
Similar to the other tools, AddThis creates social share buttons for your website and copy-and-paste code that will track dark social media shares.
To use AddThis, go to their website and create an account. Then, select “Header” or “Inline” for your social share button placement.
Fill out all of the appropriate account information on the following screen and then select your website’s platform.
To start tracking dark traffic, download the corresponding code, plugin, or app and apply it to your website.
AddThis will do the rest for you.
In the end, people will always find a way to share things privately. They don’t do it intentionally. Sometimes, a quick copy-and-paste from the website browser into a text message is simply the easiest choice.
But that doesn’t mean that your business should stay in the dark about how and where people are sharing your content.
An enormous portion of your website’s traffic is from dark social media — somewhere between 70% and 80%. The worst thing you could do is submit to those high percentages and track nothing.
After all, if 70% of your sharing happens privately, you don’t really know all that much about your audience unless you’re able to analyze that traffic.
And “direct” just doesn’t cut it.
The best thing you can do is include UTM’s in your links, always include share buttons, and when appropriate, choose a tool to help you track dark social media traffic.
Otherwise, use segments inside Google Analytics to measure what percentage of your traffic is driven by private sharing. That way, you can keep an eye on how it trends over time. (Ideally, down and to the right).
The more accurate your social referral data, the better you will look at the end of the day.
And more important than vanity is the trust that leads to additional resources from clients or bosses.