Agency + Industry / digital

Off the Radar: What to Do With ‘Dark Social’ Traffic

Social sharing platforms are a rich source of data and insights for brands, illuminating their audiences’ preferences, behaviors, attitudes, and interests to better inform the brand’s digital strategy. But there’s a layer of activity happening below the surface, unmeasured, that has been described as ‘dark social.’

The term was itself coined in 2012 in a piece by Alex C. Madrigal in The Atlantic. A hunch he had about the way users share content was confirmed by theatlantic.com’s own site traffic metrics, which showed that less than half of the site’s page visits could be attributed to specific sources.

The rest were all “direct,” meaning the visitor bypassed all traceable paths to arrive at the destination page.

Blogs like this one usually have linked buttons built in to enable readers to easily share the content to their social networks or by email. The social sites themselves have features like Share and Retweet that generate a data point each time someone uses them – convenient for both the user and the marketer.

‘Dark social’ describes the way some users evade the easy option and find other ways to share things with their networks, like copying & pasting a plain URL into an email, instant message, text message, or forum.

A recent study of 9,000 consumers that showed that up to 60% of referral traffic is unattributable, generated by these ‘dark’ interactions.

What to Do With Traffic that Falls Through the Cracks

In a perfect world, all web content would be thoroughly tagged with tracking code. But the world isn’t perfect and online analytics are still evolving. So it’s likely that some of the activity attributed to dark social is actually happening out in the light, but just not properly tracked. It ends up camouflaged as direct traffic.

There are steps you can take to make this realm of your analytics less opaque. Here is what we do at Mason:

  • To combat and segment as much dark social traffic as possible, ensure tracking codes/numbers are on all online and offline efforts. If all of your efforts start with tracking codes, then emails or IMs forwarded on by users will maintain the tracking information; people typically copy the entire link, including utm tracking codes, before sending it.
  • Visitors that originated from dark social can often be identified in analytics. We do this by looking at the URLs that get segmented as “direct” traffic. When the URL is long, such as http://masonagency.wpengine.com/specialties/healthcare.html, we can assume it’s unlikely the user remembered that address off the top of their head and typed it in, but rather was linked to it from somewhere.
  • Complete a regular backlink report. This shows us the links on blogs, forums, or elsewhere on the web that may have the wrong tracking codes on them, and allows us to segment this traffic out and attribute it to the correct tactic.

Dark Social Isn’t the Boogeyman

As social sites like Facebook make it trickier for brands to gain reach without paying for the privilege, marketers are eager to capitalize on the insights they get from their web analytics.

While the moniker sounds grim, there isn’t really anything shady about dark social. In some ways, it’s a throwback to the days before the social web, when one-to-one messages were the easiest way to spread something around. Old habits like that will persist even when new habits, like retweeting, take hold.

So when should you be concerned about dark social? Pay attention if it’s directly affecting the completion of your goals for your website. One warning sign might be a large percentage of visitors bouncing or dropping off before completing a desired action on your site.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Even putting dark social aside for a moment, there are still bumps to be worked out in the tracking of social activity as marketers work to integrate mobile, desktop, and social analytics for a fuller picture of their audiences’ evolving behavior.

(And it evolves fast – all it takes is the sudden rise of a disruptive new app like Snapchat to have a ripple effect on communication trends and habits.)

Dark social sharing will happen whether you pay attention to it or not. The best thing you can do to get value from your analytics is be diligent and consistent about employing tracking codes at every opportunity and looking closely at the segmentation of your web traffic.