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Dark Social: What it is and why you should care!

By Kate Ellis

Never heard of dark social before? We’re here to break it down for you, with special guest Ross Quintana.

Dark social isn’t as ominous as the dark web, despite its name. It’s merely recognizing a known phenomenon that’s happening with social sharing and web traffic. Moreover, it accounts for traffic to your website you’re not even aware that you’re getting.

What is Dark Social?

First reported on in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic, dark social is a form of social sharing through private channels that makes it hard for websites to track. It often happens in emails, instant messages, and mobile apps. It describes any web traffic that’s not attributed to a known source.

Here’s an example: someone sends you a link via text message. You click on the link and visit the web page. However, Google Analytics and other tracking software don’t know you came from a text. They can’t track that, so they mark it as referrer traffic. That implies to you that people had your website saved or they typed the URL into the search bar directly. However, as you see, that’s not quite the full story. Someone shared the link with you because they thought it was relevant to you.

Why are we talking about this today? Well, it is one of the largest growing ways people are surfing the web. Dark social has been reported to be responsible for 84 percent of outbound sharing. It’s a big deal!

Ross Quintana is CEO of Social Magnets and, according to him, how we are marketing is becoming increasingly personalized and data-drive. “With dark social, if all these conversations are moving out of that public broadcast section, even the private ones, and moving into a private scenario, how do we get the attribution?” he said.

“This creates a big problem for marketers,” Quintana said. “If you can’t see those conversations, if it’s not showing in your native analytics, it creates a real problem.”

When this happens, you can end up seeing dwindling numbers in the analytics. However, it’s not necessarily the case since you could be missing a whole chunk of traffic acquisition. So therein lies the big problem. How do you know if the stuff you’re creating is working? How can you prove you are getting people interested?

“Especially when you’re trying to sell a campaign to a client or to your manager,” Quintana added.

Why does this matter to brands?

Dark social is not just about analytics or attribution.

“The herd has moved, right?” Quintana said. “We have to figure out as marketers, how does that affect us? How do we utilize that in a genuine and authentic relationship?”

When it comes to marketing in dark social and through messenger, you have to take a different approach. The game has changed because dark social is a scared space. It’s a private conversation.

“It’s going from broadcast to bestie,” Quintana said.

How to accurately measure social traffic moving forward

You can use short links for web pages you want to track, either through bit.ly or built-in tools like GetSocial (which advertises its dark social analytics capabilities). But, Quintana said, there’s no great way or a catch-all way to track this kind of traffic for the time being. Eventually, AI and deep learning may help. Until then, he said that if 84 percent of your outbound traffic really is dark social traffic, all it means is you’re doing three times as well as you think you are. “I just can’t track that in any meaningful way, because I don’t know” Quintana continued.

You can think through your analytics and start to recognize when dark social sharing is happening on your website. You’ll have a lot of referrer traffic. Especially to blog pages that most people wouldn’t have saved in the browser or be able to type in through memory alone. That indicates that it was shared privately between people.

Ultimately, that means even more than a share on Facebook, Quintana said.

“If you can make that content so high-quality, so compelling, and targeted,” he explained. “Then guess what, you can now without having a feedback signal that you’re getting a lot of exposure.”

Quintana compared dark social to public comments. “A comment requires me to think and stop and say something, and then I’m publicly saying something, so it has to be something that—people are self-conscious of all those things,” he said. “The cool thing about dark social is that copying the link and sharing it with a friend tells me that post is quality.”

The discussion and attention gained through dark social sharing are incredibly valuable. So, be aware that this is happening and it’s growing. One-to-one conversations are still many peoples’ preferred way of communicating. How can you use and apply this knowledge to your brand and help facilitate some of those conversations?


Have you seen a lot of referred traffic on your website? Your brand could be seeing a lot of traffic from dark social sharing. Now that you know, how can you foresee yourself trying to increase this traffic and take advantage of this valuable way of communication?

If you have a topic you’d like to learn more about (or follow-up questions about dark social), reach out and let us know! We’d love to feature your question on our next #TrainingTuesday Facebook Live.

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