Dark Social: Why it matters to data-driven marketers


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What comes to mind when you think of dark social? Given my own initial thoughts the first time I heard the term, I won’t even hazard a guess at yours! Whatever it may be, scrap your imaginative thoughts. Dark social can be as ominous as it sounds, but mostly just for marketers who’d like to keep track of where their traffic is being generated from (which they should!).

So what is dark social? Dark social, as it is defined by Simply Measured, is “traffic that originated from the share of a URL, but is marked as direct traffic in analytics tool”. Say for example, you’re shopping for the perfect shoes to match your upcoming gala dress. You think you’ve found them, so you hop on Facebook Messenger to send the link to your mom, coworker, and brutally honest best friend, just to make sure everyone is in agreeance that these are the perfect shoes for you… This is an example of the use of dark social.

Whereas marketers would like to know exactly where the link was shared to be able to determine which channels are optimal for them to target, your fashion entourage’s actions will be measured as direct traffic for the brand through their analytics platform. Is it plausible that everyone viewing those shoes knew the exact website address by heart?… I think not.

A study by RadiumOne found that 84% of sharing is dark social — that’s a lot of “direct” traffic.  But what makes dark social worse is that marketers spend an average of 10% of their budgets on social media, however, 40% of CMOs report below average performance — could this be because marketers aren’t able to accurately attribute all of their social results to brand traffic?

To recap, Dark Social is any privately shared content that can not be traced back to its source and is therefore classified as direct traffic. It can come from any of the following sources:

  • Messenger apps: Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, Whatsapp… or SMS
  • Email: due to privacy concerns, emails do not tag referral links
  • Secure sites: HTTPS websites
  • Native mobile applications: Facebook & Instagram

Fighting back

Dark social, the word-of-mouth of the digital world, it is essentially named so because it is able to fly under the radar, undetected by analytics tools. Therefore making it unmeasurable, and your reports less reliable, which is a real problem for data-driven marketers. Without accurate metrics, how are you supposed to back budget allocations and prove that what you’re doing is having a positive impact on strategic company goals?

So what can you do to fight back? Although there is no cure-all solution, marketers can attempt to weed out social from direct traffic to get a more realistic picture of their efforts by trying a few tricks:

Advanced Segmentation: taking Google Analytics, for example, marketers can apply their own common sense to determine the true amount of dark social traffic. Segment your direct traffic data by excluding easy to remember links to your site from the long-form URLs that are less likely to be typed into a search bar. Although there is no real guarantee, long-form URLs can most likely be attributed to dark social shares.

Share buttons: make it easier for your users to share your content, and for you to measure it with trackable social share buttons. Be sure to make the buttons easy to access, by allowing them to scroll or by placing them at the beginning and end of your content.

Short links: make your links more aesthetically pleasing while intelligently keeping your tracking parameters intact. Services such as or are great tools for shortening your links while allowing you to keep an eye on their whereabouts.


Has dark social affected the accuracy of your reports? What did you do to fight back?

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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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