Dark Social & Its Rise

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Uncover the mystery that is Dark Social. Find out where your online traffic is really coming from. How to adjust your Google Analytics to measure Dark Social traffic.

dark social media

Hearing the words “Dark Social” might have you conjuring up images of shady illegal meet-ups in back alleys! In reality dark social is not nearly as seedy as all that. Dark social is where the action happens in the paid world of social media advertising. It’s grown in importance in 2017-2019 and looks set to continue its rise in 2020. As a business owner or a marketer, you need to be aware of dark social.

What is Dark Social?

Think of all the times you’ve shared something with your friends through some sort of private channel. Maybe you saw a funny video on Buzzfeed and wanted to share it with a friend, so you copied the URL and sent it in a WhatsApp message. So what you actually did there is shared it in dark social!  Instead of sharing it publicly, you moved the conversation onto a private messaging platform. When your friend clicks the link, they are taken directly to the video on Buzzfeed’s website. This would make it seem like ‘direct traffic’ to the website despite the fact that it’s highly unlikely that direct hit was achieved by someone actually typing in the URL. This is an example of dark social.


With the increase in mobile use and related social apps, all signs point to dark social only getting bigger. Mobile devices make private sharing so easy and integrated in mobile apps. It’s estimated that 62% of dark social traffic comes from mobile devices while 38% comes from desktops. If your platforms are optimised for mobile use, you will likely encourage more dark social sharing of your content.

Dark social can be defined as all of the website traffic that comes from untraceable sources. It can be a bit of a pain for metrics mavens, as they no longer have full control of their sources of data, but you’re going to have to get over that! Most of the dark social action happens on messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and these are only set to rise.

Other sources of dark social links can be email, and native mobile apps like Instagram and Facebook. Once you take the conversation off of the public feed and into direct messages on places like Instagram, it becomes dark social.

Dark Social vs. Dark Web

Despite how it sounds, dark social has no relation to the dark web.The dark web is the hidden part of the Internet that can only be accessed through specific software, meaning users can use it anonymously. Because it’s pretty much untraceable, the dark web has a reputation for being a haven for all sorts of illegal activity.

Why should you care about Dark Social?

Human beings constantly change how we engage with technology, and social media. We are moving into an era of increasingly private sharing. This is hardly surprising in light of the abuses of data by the corporate giants of social media. People are congregating and sharing more in ‘walled gardens’ – WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram DM’s. The days of measuring the quality of your social media content on the number of shares on a post are over. When most of the good sharing happens through ‘share this’ functionality on mobiles, you don’t want to be breaking your heart seeing a shares number falling.

Perhaps the number one reason why businesses need to pay attention to dark social is the fact that, according to RadiumOne, it makes up approximately 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites.

dark social stat

If you don’t have accurate information about the majority of your traffic, there’s no way you can know how and where to place your marketing efforts. You can monitor what your audience is saying publicly about your company, but once they move onto dark social, you effectively lose track about how they are engaging. Dark social really shows what the true interests of your audience are because they’re engaging with it in private. Once you find out their interests, you’re in a better position to target them.

Because people share content through dark social to people that they already know and have as contacts, it is a form of word-of-mouth marketing. This private aspect of dark social can be a real challenge because it’s a space where customers don’t want to be sold to. This makes it hard for businesses to even break into the conversation. For businesses that are able to insert themselves into the dark social spaces, it can be a great place to build an engaged and loyal community. This could mean taking conversation with your customers onto WhatsApp – we explain all about this in our WhatsApp Business Guide!

What can you do?

As always, you need to make sure your content is worth sharing. Try not to write in marketing speak. Be genuine and real. When your own name and picture is going out alongside content that is being shared, you’ve got to be sure it’s good. This is especially true on LinkedIn. 

Have you seen our LinkedIn course? It’s 1 hour online training in how to win at LinkedIn.

Make it simple to share your stuff. You could display share buttons prominently on your content and website, but we don’t really believe these are used.  When creating your page titles, shorten the URLs so that they look nicer when being shared, especially on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

How To Measure Dark Social

Dark social traffic shows up on your site stats as direct traffic. Some of this will be people manually typing the unique URL address, and the rest is dark social shared links.

The problem is, how do you measure it?

Here are a few paid options:

  • Po.st – This social sharing tool does all the hard work for you. It uncovers the previously untraceable content of dark social and sheds light on where your direct traffic is really coming from.
  • GetSocial – GetSocial is another tool that does the heavy lifting for you – but it doesn’t come cheap at around €70 per month. If you’re looking to get an all-encompassing tool for understanding and tracking your traffic, GetSocial definitely has a lot to offer.

Google Analytics is a pretty solid free option. You need to tweak your set up a bit to track dark social. Follow along with these steps to uncover how…

How To Measure Dark Social With Google Analytics

Go to your Google Analytics Dashboard and select Audience then Overview from the left hand nav.

google analytics

Click Add Segment at the top of the screen.

dark social analytics

Check off the box marked Direct Traffic making sure all of the other boxes aren’t marked.

dark social direct traffic

Click Apply at the bottom.

Now you will only see statistics for the Direct Traffic going to your site. It will stay this way until you remove the segment. Now we have to find out how much of your Direct Traffic is actually direct and how much is really dark social in disguise.

Next, head back to the left side of your screen and click Behaviour, Site Content and then All Pages.

dark social google analytics

On the top right of your Dashboard, click Advanced.

dark social advanced

Then change Include to instead be Exclude.

dark social GA

Next, type in website slugs that are simple and easy to remember. The thinking here is that it’s reasonable to believe that someone could have typed these URLs in. The more complicated URLs are most likely to be from dark social.

dark social website slugs

Once you’ve typed in all of the simple slugs, click Apply.

You should now be able to see all of the ‘direct traffic’ to your website, excluding the URLs which could easily have been typed.

This leaves you with traffic that probably comes from dark social.

While this isn’t a surefire way to measure dark social, it’s free and fairly simple to do. If you’re looking for a more accurate way to measure, try one of the paid tools we mentioned earlier, Po.st or GetSocial.

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If you’d like to discuss any of the issues that arise – tracking dark social, adjusting your social media metrics to take account of it, or even just creating and planning quality content, get in touch, we’d love to talk to you.

We’ll always get back to you within one business day.

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