Explaining “Dark Social” and 3 Interesting Things About It Marketers Should Know



Not to be confused with the more sinister Dark Web, Dark Social Media, or Dark Social for short, is a concept of great importance for anyone involved with online marketing and advertising.


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Not to be confused with the more sinister Dark Web, Dark Social Media, or Dark Social for short, is a concept of great importance for anyone involved with online marketing and advertising.

When it comes to online marketing, be it a paid advertisement, an email newsletter, or sponsored native content, the emphasis is on conversions: if the content doesn’t convince the user to click on it and head to the respective site, then that marketing is effectively useless.

To that end, marketing experts are constantly combing over the analytics on their marketing content to see which forms of advertising have been most effective in converting customers.

This is where Dark Social comes in. As it turns out, there’s an extraordinary amount of link-sharing that doesn’t get picked up properly in analytics. Indeed, a very high percentage of sites (more on that later) are reached via private sharing, be it email, text messages, or social apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

These shares, because they occur on private, secure communication channels, do not have a referring link—that is, the URL that the user most recently visited before arriving at the destination site—whereas, say, an ad on your Facebook News Feed is a clear referrer to the site.

These referring links are what marketers use to track the success of their efforts, so if there is no referrer, marketers can’t track their different campaigns and understand which ones are succeeding. Hence the term Dark Social; people are sharing with each other behind the scenes, mostly via copy and pasted links, a phenomenon very difficult for analytics tools to track and label correctly.

So, now that we’re becoming more aware of Dark Social, a term first coined in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic, what can social marketers do to tap into all this data concerning users’ sharing activity?

Why should we care about Dark Social anyway? Does it make a difference which avenue customers use to get to the desired destination? The short answer? Yes, it does matter. Here are three surprising and interesting facts about Dark Social Media that might make you rethink some of your marketing strategies.

Dark Social Makes Up A Huge Portion of Online Sharing

According to two different studies by RadiumOne and Tynt, both social media engagement firms, Dark Social represents around 70% of all sharing activity. That’s right, according to the data, over two-thirds of all link sharing gets grossly mislabeled by web analytics tools.

While these tools can detect a user clicking on the link to reach the site, unreferred links from Dark Social simply fall under the category of direct traffic, which, as Brewster Stanislaw explains, is effectively the same thing as a user directly typing in the URL to the page they’re visiting.

Obviously, this isn’t what’s happening on Dark Social, because most people are not accessing sites directly but are instead visiting them secondhand, meaning that web analytics tools are really falling short on picking up on the nuances of link sharing. As a result, marketers could be missing out on some very crucial insights that could affect the success of future marketing campaigns.

Mobile Devices Are A Growing Source of Dark Social Media

Upon initial inspection, many trace the source of most Dark Social sharing primarily back to email and certain instant messaging platforms, that is, mostly desktop-based applications. In reality, though, mobile devices are a major player in the Dark Social world.

The previously cited RadiumOne study reveals that as much as 36% of all Dark Social sharing takes place on mobile devices.

This includes everything from email to text messages to native mobile apps, even such popular ones as Instagram and Facebook, none of which provide referrer links when users navigate away from the app onto a new page.

This means that a significant amount of mobile traffic to sites gets inappropriately labeled as direct traffic. Given the way mobile is becoming the focus of marketers’ attentions more and more, especially with the potential of such developments as in-store proximity marketing that isn’t possible with desktop computers, finding a way to more appropriately track mobile link clickthroughs could become hugely important to the success of a marketing campaign.

Dark Social Is Incredibly Pervasive

If there’s one thing that’s clear from RadiumOne’s great research on Dark Social, it’s that Dark Social is not occupying just a small corner of the internet. Far from it.

The data shows that Dark Social is the leading sharing method in 19 major content categories. Some of these make sense; people are far more likely to share links about personal finance privately than they are to do it publicly.

Others, however, are more surprising. For example, the study reveals that 67% of news-related shares occur via Dark Social Media. Other categories whose shares are dominated by Dark Social include arts and entertainment, careers, travel, technology, real estate, and business, just to name a few. In short, Dark Social casts a very wide net among internet users.


It may seem like Dark Social is simply an inconvenience or necessary evil that we will just have to tolerate in our marketing analytics, but already people are exploring options of accounting for this enormous swath of mislabeled data. As apps like Instagram improve their analytics engines, marketers will continue to get a more specific, clearer picture of their link breakdown.

These insights can help more accurately pinpoint the location and demographic of who’s engaging with what marketing, so professionals can target their campaigns to a specific audience as much as possible, even if a good portion of that audience still shows up as direct traffic.

As our means of tracking Dark Social continues to improve, it’s clear that it will be a huge boost to marketers. RadiumOne’s report on Dark Social cited the example of Universal Music Group, whose early exploratory use of Dark Social data allowed them to improve the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns by 300%.

While people are still trying to find perfectly precise means of tracking Dark Social, the numbers clearly show that it’s time to take Dark Social seriously. Think about the numbers at stake here, and start planning a full-court press on tackling your site’s Dark Social data.

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