The Rise of Dark Social & What It Means for Your Business

The Rise of Dark Social & What It Means for Your Business

So-called ‘dark social’ describes the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be tracked by web analytics software.

In summary: Dark social refers to untrackable content sharing via private messaging platforms, complicating traffic origin tracking and content marketing optimization. This trend, prevalent in Asia, hides valuable referral data, lumping it into direct traffic. To address this, businesses should enable traceable sharing methods and use UTM tracking to better manage dark social traffic.

This stops you from gaining a true picture of how your content is being used and as a consequence it prevents you from optimising your content marketing to achieve the best results.

Dark social also results in inbound traffic to your site that you can’t determine the origin of. This is likely to be because new visitors have been sent links to your content from another user via a channel you can’t track. It increases the share of direct traffic as it isn’t always possible to separate dark social out from other kinds of direct traffic such as saved bookmarks in the user’s browser.

Dark social is considered to be on the rise because of the growth of private messaging platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

Other users share content by pasting links into email or via SMS. When traffic comes into your site from email, referral data isn’t passed on in order to protect the email account holder.

On the one hand, your content receives more traffic thanks to these untrackable shares. On the other hand, you’d really rather understand how the new users have arrived at your content and that journey isn’t traceable. This means you can’t identify your advocates. Dark social is ultimately a strategic problem because the web data informing your organisational decision-making isn’t as reliable as it could be and if this traffic results in a sale – it’s not possible to attribute to a channel or activity.

The direct traffic problem

Your web analytics platform will lump all dark social’s referral traffic into the ‘direct traffic’ metrics. This leaves you flying blind when it comes to optimising your content. Without solid data you can rely on, your optimisation strategy looks increasingly like guesswork.

What’s especially annoying is that the data the dark social trend conceals is the kind that’s particularly valuable to your business.

Marketers are well aware of the value of word of mouth referrals. Your customers are far more inclined to purchase if they’ve been advised to do so by friends or family.

Dark social sharing tends to be from one person to another in a private exchange. This means the shared content reaches a much smaller audience compared to content that’s shared publically – for instance via retweet to all followers, or by someone sharing it to all their business contacts on LinkedIn.

Even though the scale of the sharing is much smaller when it’s sent via private exchange, it’s likely to be far more powerful in terms of impact. A personalised message tailored to an individual from someone close to them is far more likely to pique their interest compared to a scattergun approach that delivers the same message to all your followers.

Dark social in Asia

Private messaging platforms have recently been growing vigorously, and that’s a trend that’s been seen worldwide. With this growth expected to continue, it’s likely that the dark social trend is not going to be reversed any time soon. It’s thought that dark social is a trend that’s particularly strong in Asia.

A report last year by RadiumOne speculated that dark social shares may be as high as 90% of total shares.

In markets such as Hong Kong, it’s possibly even higher. Private instant messaging apps are particularly popular in Asia with messaging apps such as WeChat, KakaoTalk, and LINE particularly popular across this huge region.

Chat apps are more likely than social media sites to be used on a daily basis by Asian consumers. According to research by TNS, 61% of Asian web users are on chat apps daily, compared to only 43% who use social media platforms every day.

How to fight dark social

It’s tough to know what to do about the growth of private messaging apps, which frustrate attempts to track shares in the channel. If you’re concerned about dark social, you can however implement some measures that help go some way towards tackling it.

Firstly, make it easy for your users to share your content in a way that’s traceable. The most obvious way to encourage social sharing that works for your tracking is to make it really easy for users to share content in the way you want it shared. This means enabling all the channels that your users would want to share content on.

If you’re offering Facebook and LinkedIn share buttons but your audience are using Tencent QQ, then you won’t see your preferred share buttons being used. Add the full range of options to your site including email and you’re more likely to get users sharing the way you want them to share your content i.e. in a way that’s trackable. If you’re using Google Analytics – add UTM tracking parameters to URLs so that you can track these links successfully no matter how they are shared.

Arguably it makes sense to consider removing share buttons for Facebook and Twitter because you can track traffic from these platforms whether the share button is used or not. The counterargument to removing them is that it makes it a bit less easy for your users to share the content.

It is possible to get a rough idea what proportion of your direct traffic is coming via dark social.

Take a look at your direct traffic measurements in the web analytics platform you’re using. If you see a lot of long links that would be tricky to type out directly, then it’s quite likely that you are seeing referrals that came in from link shares in dark social. Shorter links are more likely to have been typed directly.

None of these measures make you immune to the dark social trend but they will help encourage users to share your content in a way that works for both you and them. It’s worth keeping an eye on developments, particularly in Asian messaging apps, in case new tools and techniques evolve to help combat this frustrating trend.

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