What is Dark Social and why does it matter?

Dark social refers to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured. – Techopedia

Have you noticed that big amount of traffic that is labeled by web analytics programs as “direct”, but you suspect that’s impossible because you’re sure nobody typed that super long URL?

Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, shared your concerns and started looking into the issue. With the help of Chartbeat, he compared The Atlantic’s traffic with other media sites. The results he shared in his 2012 article were already surprising: almost 69 percent of social referrals were dark! Facebook came in second at 20 percent. Twitter was down at 6 percent.

But later, in 2014, he discovered something new: some mobile apps don’t always attach the referrer to the link when a user engages with it. So a good part of what we call dark social visits are actually Facebook mobile app visitors in disguise.

Dark Social today

Today, these are the main channels responsible for dark social traffic:

  • Some native mobile apps – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. Twitter, with its new Message button, could soon be joining them.
  • Email – to protect users’ privacy, referrers aren’t passed.
  • Messaging apps – WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, etc.
  • Secure browsing – If you click from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer won’t be passed on.

RadiumOne has developed a helpful report outlining some trends seen in dark social sharing. Among other things, they found out that 32% of surveyed people only share using dark social – which is not so surprising if you think about your own sharing habits.

dark social sharing habits chart

With a rise in this messaging culture, dark social is becoming increasingly significant. While social networks (like Twitter or Instagram) work hard to make it easier for users to share privately, let’s hope for tracking systems that allow brands and publishers to understand what users want – and measure how they engage with the content we create.

Twitter message button