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Dark Social: What You Need to Know

Dark social has significant implications for marketers, brands, and creators, as it represents a substantial portion of social traffic, often accounting for the most valuable interactions, such as product purchases and link clicks.  Here's what you need to know about it.

Feb 5, 2024 6 min readSocial Media Marketing
Photo of Tamilore Oladipo
Tamilore Oladipo

Content Writer @ Buffer

A significant portion of our social interactions occurs in a realm unseen and untracked: welcome to the world of Dark Social. Chances are, you’ve copied a link and shared it in your group chat a thousand and one times. Or a friend has asked for a restaurant recommendation, and you share a link with them.

That’s dark social.

Despite its ominous name, dark social is just a fancy way of referring to untrackable conversations in online spaces. And the ability to understand and harness it dark can provide valuable insights into what’s driving engagement, referrals, and what your audience wants out of your content.

In this article, we’ll dive into why dark social matters, exploring its impact on analytics and its value for everyone who creates on the Internet.

What is dark social?

Dark social, a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in a 2012 article for The Atlantic, refers to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics. 

This includes sharing links over private channels such as direct messaging, email, and SMS, which are not visible to the public, search engines, or marketers.

Alexis’ article shed light on the fact that a significant portion of social sharing was unaccounted for by traditional analytics, with 69 percent of The Atlantic's social referrals classified as “dark social” at that time. And since 2012, the skew of traffic that isn’t accurately measured has only increased as Internet users have become more privacy-conscious and moved to closed apps.

Alexis’ discovery showed the importance of the quality of content as its own thing, as well as the limitations of relying on and optimizing for social platforms alone.

Examples of dark social channels

Dark social encompasses a variety of communication methods that are not publicly visible or trackable by standard analytics tools. These include:

  • Private messaging apps: WhatsApp, Discord, Slack, and traditional text messages are prime examples where users share content with one another in a one-on-one or small group setting
  • Emails: Personal and professional email exchanges often contain links and recommendations that are shared privately
  • Private social networks: Facebook Groups, Discord servers, and forums where communities engage in more intimate conversations
  • Content platforms: While platforms like YouTube and Apple Podcasts are public, the sharing of content from these platforms can often happen through untrackable means
  • Employee communications: Tools like Zoom and Slack Channels, where employees may share information within a company
  • Word of mouth: Direct messages, calls, and in-person conversations are the most traditional forms of dark social.

Dark social has significant implications for marketers, brands, and creators, as it represents a substantial portion of social traffic, often accounting for the most valuable interactions, such as product purchases and link clicks. 

Why is dark social so important?

Dark social is a significant force in the digital landscape, influencing consumer behavior, shaping demand, and impacting how social media affects SEO and a brand's overall online visibility. 

The last time we got any real figures on the percentage of online sharing activity that was dark social was in 2016 – it was estimated at 84 percent. The prevalence of this number has likely only increased as privacy concerns have grown and regulations on social media activity have tightened.

Most analytics tools attribute dark social as “direct” traffic, making it an iceberg that obscures where your content is being shared. You’re probably misattributing traffic sources as a result. This elusiveness makes it difficult to work effectively, hinders accurate data collection, and conceals valuable insights into audience preferences.

However, dark social also presents unique marketing opportunities. Once you crack how to track it, you can fully view its impact on your content and marketing efforts and use it to enhance your traditional, social, and digital marketing strategies.

5 tips for using dark social for marketing

Dark social, despite its elusive nature, offers many opportunities for enhancing digital marketing strategies. By understanding what dark social is and its impact on marketing, marketers can leverage it to enhance their traditional, social, and digital marketing strategies. Here are some strategies to harness dark social and make it work for you:

  1. Use trackable links: Using UTMs and link shorteners, you can better track where your content is being shared and gain better insight into the behavior of your audience. Check out our guide to UTMs and start building your own.
  2. Encourage private sharing: As a natural follow-up to trackable links, take control of the private sharing of your content. Wherever you can on your website or blog, provide a "share via WhatsApp," "share via email," or "share via SMS" button with the trackable link. This way, you can see which channels people share to the most, know where the traffic is coming from, and harness the power of personal recommendations, which are known to significantly influence purchasing decisions.
  3. Optimize social sharing based on contextual signals: Tap into visitors’ natural inclination to share by optimizing social sharing based on contextual and behavioral signals. This could involve presenting shareable content at the right time or context to encourage sharing. We keep a host of sharing options on every article on the Buffer blog.
  1. Create infinitely shareable content: Ensure your content is worthwhile to your audience. If people don’t want to share your stuff, there’s nothing to monitor. It is, therefore, only essential to keep track of what your audience cares about.
  2. Build private communities for targeted engagement: By establishing private groups or forums, brands can cultivate a space for enthusiasts and loyal customers to share experiences and offer feedback. This can be a powerful avenue for generating leads and driving demand, as it enables targeted and personalized engagement.

Of course, beyond tracking, you must also use the knowledge from tracking dark social to identify what resonates with your audience. Modify your content based on what is most frequently shared on dark social. If a particular topic, format, or content style gets more dark social engagement, incorporate it into your strategy.

The goal is to make it easy for anyone who comes across your dark social content to follow, sign up, or make a purchase.

How brands and creators can use dark social to their advantage

Brands and creators are finding innovative ways to tap into dark social channels to foster authentic engagement and drive brand awareness. Even the platforms are getting in on the action (see: Instagram broadcast channels).

The most obvious instance is the trend towards creating private communities, which is gaining momentum, as marketer Isabella Muggeo predicted it would. Big-name influencers and brands are curating more personal experiences through private profiles, blogs, and stories. 

A prime creator example is Tamsin Wong, who has successfully leveraged her 500K+ TikTok following to launch a paid newsletter and private community to interact with her audience more intimately and enable their interactions with other like-minded people.

Another standout is Topicals, a skincare brand that has harnessed the power of private communities to build a loyalty-driven group. With 9,500 members in its Spottie Sphere, Topicals has created a "friends with benefits" atmosphere with its audience, as their Director of Community, Natalie Browne Holmes, described in an interview with Rachel Karten

Topicals’ approach exemplifies how brands can create an atmosphere away from traditional social channels. The Topicals community not only engages in challenges but also enjoys perks such as early access to product launches, discounts, and exclusive events, showcasing the brand's commitment to rewarding its most enthusiastic supporters.

Some brands, recognizing the value of authentic consumer insights, engage in dark social listening. It’s not hard – from subreddits to Facebook groups, you can find a niche community for almost any topic under the sun.

You might be hands-off while taking notes like Dyson might with the (unaffiliated) Dyson Airwrap community or Gymshark with the unrelated r/gymsnark subreddit to see what your customers say about your product and other brands.

Or you can just create the community yourself and let conversations happen organically while you watch. Canva runs a Facebook group with over 375,000 members, and Coachella has a Discord server for attendees to come together and discuss/plan for the festival.

This strategy enables brands to enable and tap into the unfiltered conversations of their audience, gaining valuable insights and encouraging word-of-mouth sharing naturally.

Keep a close eye on dark social channels

While dark social may present challenges in measurement and attribution, adopting the right tools and methodologies can help marketers gain valuable insights and optimize their strategies. 

So instead of burying your head in the sand, take steps to make it work for you. By tapping into dark social, you can better understand their audience, optimize your content, product, or service, and win them over consistently.

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