Dark social

There’s no need to fear dark social:

Digital brand marketers live by data – data is something that a we can quantify and neatly graph. Strategic decisions are based on quantifiable data and rightly so. Measuring user engagement in digital marketing however may be a little trickier than we think.

We spend all kinds of time measuring traffic and related patterns based on whatever form of analytics that we can get their hands on. The dirty secret of web analytics however is that the information gleaned is, at best, limited and, at worst, grossly inaccurate.

If you wish to determine how an individual arrived at your website it was traditionally easy to do so. Typically when someone clicks on a link on Facebook, for example, a snippet of tracking code hitches a ride and updates your analytics software. Most analytics programs track organic traffic, direct traffic, referrals and social media and then aggregate all of the data. By this means, we determine whether a digital marketing campaign has been a success (or failure).

But what if your largest source of traffic has not been tracked? What if you are not even paying attention to it? What if your biggest source of traffic is incredibly hard to track?

Say hello to ‘dark social’.

So, what is dark social?

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal coined the phrase ‘dark social’ (‘Dark social: we have the whole history of the web wrong’) last October – while everyone is busy tracking Twitter and Facebook, Madrigal argues, the vast majority of social traffic emanates from difficult-to-track sources.

‘Dark social’ refers to traffic which comes from sources such as instant messaging, links shared on email, links shared via bookmarks, etc. The phenomenon may also occur when individuals move from secure to non-secure websites. Sometimes your analytics software will be unable to accurately identify and report a referral (analytics suggest that a visitor has typed in a URL).

A recent Business Insider study, for example, concluded that eighty-two per cent of shared content is achieved by the copying and pasting URLs (as opposed to using social media buttons) while a whopping seventy per cent of that content is shared by email. Mr Madrigal asserted, for instance, that up to sixty per cent of the traffic attracted to theatlantic dot com could be categorized as ‘dark social’.

Why does dark social matter?

A vast amount of traffic is invisible to most analytic programs and subsequently to marketers. Therefore the impact of ‘dark social’ can often outweigh the influence of social networks on a given digital marketing campaign. Of course the problem is compounded by the overwhelming market shift to mobile devices.

We spend our time designing digital marketing campaigns based on the quantifiable results we expect from social media networks like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. But if more than half of our visits arrive at a website via sources which we cannot track accurately then we need to be factoring this issue into every decision that we make. Just because we can’t quantify the traffic does not mean that we should ignore it.

So, what now?

There is no easy answer. The key to ‘dark social’ is to understand and appreciate that the phenomenon exists, but to also understand, as BuzzFeed so wonderfully explained, that “all dark social traffic is direct traffic” and “not all direct traffic is dark social”.

The key takeaway from this is that measuring user engagement is difficult, but irrespective of the existence of ‘dark social’ the key to success in digital marketing remains the creation of great content which individuals will be prepared to share with others. So, if you are creating shareable content that interests your target market then there is no need to be afraid of the dark!

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