If the term “dark social” sounds ominous to you, especially in these days of massive Facebook data breaches, don’t be alarmed. It’s actually quite innocuous. Coined by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, in his 2012 article, “Dark Social: We Have The Whole History of the Web Wrong,” dark social refers to users who share content (i.e. links) with one another via channels that can’t be tracked by Google Analytics or other web tracking platforms.
So when your mom emails you a link for a sweater she’s thinking of getting you for your birthday, she’s doing so via dark social. Ditto for your friend who texts you a link to the restaurant to meet up at.
A good bit of the traffic that shows up in your Google Analytics as “direct channel” comes from dark social, and if you’re responsible for managing the user experience on your website, you’ll need to shed some light on it ASAP. To begin, you’ve no doubt noticed that dark social represents a sizeable (and still growing) way for people to arrive on sites and to discover content. And according to RadiumOne’s research, 46% of consumers age 55 and older share via dark social exclusively.
Of course, not all of your direct channel traffic can be classified as dark social. Visitors may have a specific section of your site bookmarked, or their browsers may complete the URLs of pages they’ve previously visited. Dark social applies only to the portion of your direct channel traffic that stems from social referrals you can’t track.
There are a few ways you can get a handle on your site’s dark social channel, which is to say, get a better understanding of the user behavior of people who arrive on your site via links they’ve received from friends, families or colleagues. Keep in mind, none of these strategies are 100%, but combined they can help provide a roadmap to better engage people on your site whose origins are a complete mystery to you.
Begin by looking at your direct channel by landing page, and weed out any pages that are so specific that you can safely assume no one typed it in directly. For instance, it’s not unreasonable for a consumer to type “zappos.com/frye” into a search bar, but it’s highly unlikely they’d type in the specific URL for, Frye Ally 2 band Sling sandals, which is: https://www.zappos.com/p/frye-ally-2-band-sling-white-multi/product/9010107/color/2927.
Once you create and apply the segment, you can then begin to look at it by user type. Specifically, separate first-time visitors from returning ones, which you can do by going to Audience Type/Behavior/new vs. returning user in Google Analytics.
Of your returning customers, it’s safe to assume that 10 – 15% originated from a saved link or via a link they’ve previously visited and that their browser automatically completed. The rest should be considered dark social, and should be watched over time. To do that, either create a custom channel grouping in Google Analytics, or build out another segment to use whenever you perform a channel-based analysis.
How to make dark social work for your site
Whether you manage an ecommerce or a straight content site, it’s important for you to understand which content resonates with your visitors, and what they’re willing to share. If, for instance, you’re an ecommerce brand and you notice a sizable number dark social shares for the same landing page, then you’ll know to optimize that landing page for people who share it via dark social.
BuzzFeed has embraced dark social sharing in a big way. The site’s editors view the URL as a tool to pique interest in the articles its readers might share. At times the URL bares little resemblance to the article itself. For instance, this article:
Had this URL:
Another tactic is to create content that’s designed to be shared, such as the BuzzFeed story, “18 Exhaustingly Funny Tweets From Parents With A LOT Of Kids” (URL: https://www.buzzfeed.com/mikespohr/tweets-for-parents-with-a-lot-of-kids?utm_term=.erBadl6g8#.ubVoGRVLl).
If you notice that a large portion of your users share your content, use the opportunity to identify why it appeals to specific users, or to optimize it for more shares based on other behavior insights you may have about your site. At the end of the day, optimizing your site for dark social is all about discovering who your users and how you can better target to them. It’s about identifying, creating and serving your visitors with content they’ll find relevant and shareable.