Here’s why you need to account for dark social in your marketing campaigns

When you visit a news or current affairs site, you might have landed there from any number of places – Facebook, Twitter, email, a forum you frequent.

Where you came from may not be the first thought on your mind as a reader, but it matters to publishers and their advertisers, who need to be able to track traffic to understand who’s viewing their content, and where they’re coming from.

This is a phenomenon known as ‘dark social,’ where people sharing content online do it through private digital communications, like over email, instant messaging, and within forums. Unlike social sites like Facebook or Twitter, these don’t carry metadata – so if readers are using these as vehicles for their content, publishers will have no way of knowing how someone got to their page.

So how many Internet users are sharing content through dark social, in that untrackable, fuzzy region? The answer is about a third of them, or 32 per cent, will only share content when they can send it via email, instant messaging, and forum posts, according to new research from RadiumOne, an enterprise advertising platform based in the U.S. A third of this thing we call the Internet? That’s a pretty hefty chunk.

In October, researchers from Tpoll and RadiumOne did an online survey of 9,000 people from around the world, as well as analytics on one month’s worth of data on global and regional sharing from, a URL shortening and sharing tool by RadiumOne. What they found was 84 per cent of consumers will share content online, with that number being pretty evenly distributed across age groups and in geographic regions.

However, among consumers who do share content, 93 per cent of them tend to use dark social channels, and 69 per cent of all sharing activity online actually takes place through dark social – again, a huge number, compared to the 23 per cent of content posted on Facebook. The other eight per cent represents all of the other social sharing platforms combined, with some of the top content categories being shared through dark social being related to entertainment, careers, and travel.

Nor is dark social limited to desktops. As mobile devices become more important to consumers and advertisers alike, more Internet users are sharing their content through dark social on their smartphones and tablets, with 36 per cent doing this globally.

dark social
Among consumers who share content online, the majority will use dark social channels to do it. (Image: RadiumOne).

Credit for the term ‘dark social’ goes to Alexis Madrigal, an editor at The Atlantic. In a 2012 post explaining dark social, Madrigal reported 56.5 per cent of The Atlantic’s traffic came from dark social channels, with the next biggest channel being Facebook at 21.6 per cent, thanks to data from Chartbeat. And among the other media sites Chartbeat was tracking, the number of dark social referrals was even higher.

“There are a couple of really interesting ramifications of this data. First, on the operational side, if you think optimizing your Facebook page and Tweets is ‘optimizing for social,’ you’re only halfway (or maybe 30 per cent) correct. The only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself. There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand. This is pure social, uncut,” Madrigal wrote.

“While it’s true that sharing came to the web’s technical infrastructure in the 2000s, the behaviors that we’re now all familiar with on the large social networks was present long before they existed, and persists despite Facebook’s eight years on the web.”

So why do people seem to feel more comfortable sharing things in the vacuum of dark social, away from the social networks that have permeated into many aspects of our lives? One explanation is that people might just feel more at ease with sending a link to a few trusted contacts who will find it interesting, without broadcasting their post to hundreds of their friends and followers. And given the online debating that can often take place against the backdrop of controversial linking, maybe it’s more prudent to avoid posting everything to social.

dark social
Consumers who only share via dark social channels. (Image: RadiumOne).

That ties in with the notion of privacy. As some consumers become more privacy-focused, and as they wonder what advertisers are doing with their data, there is the implication that perhaps some of them try to avoid sharing too much about themselves on social networks, especially Facebook, which basically collects as much data as possible on its users.

On the other hand, there’s some evidence to debunk that – there are users out there who purposely share links on Facebook to maintain an archive of what they’ve shared, and they’re fine with sharing personal data if that’s the tradeoff, Madrigal writes in his piece.

Still, dark social isn’t necessarily a threat to advertisers, according to the authors of RadiumOne’s report. There are a few ways of using dark social to track what readers are doing, and while it may not be as complete a picture as social sharing, it can still be handy.

For example, one thing dark social will generate is clickback data, which is basically when someone clicks on a shared link. By accounting for clickback data, advertisers and marketers can plan ahead in their social campaigns, or so the logic goes.

The RadiumOne authors also suggested implementing short URL sharing, where advertisers and publishers can help their readers trim down links of unsightly length – but where they can also collect data based on where those links are shared. That can work for social posts, emails, blogs, video embedding, text messages, press releases, and so on.

Ultimately, for publishers and advertisers, understanding that social sharing doesn’t grant a full picture is key – and that matters, as digital content housed on the web is only going to keep growing.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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