Dark Social first appeared in a 2012 article for The Atlantic and was coined by senior editor Alexis C. Madrigal. It is defined as “the sharing of social content that occurs outside of what Web Analytics programs can track and measure.”
For example, say you found an interesting article on The Globe and Mail or a funny video on YouTube that you want to share with your friends. You decide to share the link for that article or video by attaching it to an email message and sending it to your friends.
By choosing to send the content to your friends through a private channel (i.e. your email) over a public channel such Facebook or Twitter, you have engaged in the act of Dark Social sharing.
But why is this significant to marketers? Why do they need to be aware of Dark Social?
The number one reason is because content shared through Dark Social does not contain any referrer data which makes it very difficult to track and pinpoint its origins.
When you share a piece of content on a public platform, that content is embedded with metadata tags, Web Analytics programs such as Google Analytics and Bing Webmaster Tools are able to read these tags and determine where the content originated from.
This is useful to marketers because if they know that their content is getting shared more on Facebook than Twitter, they can concentrate their efforts on the former to ensure that their content is reaching a larger audience.
When individuals share content through Dark Social avenues, examples of which include email, private messenger apps like Facebook Messenger and WeChat, and secure browsing, the metadata tags are not passed on so analytics programs are not able to track the source. This means that while audiences might be sharing their content, the marketer will be unaware of it.
So what can marketers do about Dark Social sharing?
Despite the multitude of public platforms available, Dark Social sharing is quite a common practice. According to Madrigal, 69% of social referrals comes from dark social sharing. This is a significant number and one that marketers cannot afford to ignore.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that marketers can tap into the Dark Social network.
For example, increasing the size or presence of social sharing buttons on your website could ensure that visitors will use them. If a visitor sees the buttons to share content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. more often they might be more inclined to use them.
There are also a variety of Dark Social tools or add-ons such as ShareThis and GetSocial.io which work to track Dark Social activity.
At the end of the day, marketers are unable to account for all Dark Social activity. It is not possible to search and track a person’s email or messaging app to see if they are sharing your content.
What Madrigal suggests is marketers continue to focus on “the nature of the content itself.” By creating original, interesting, and easily sharable content that audiences will respond to and, with any luck, share on public platforms. Alexis C, Madrigal, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong,” The Atlantic, October 12, 2012, , https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/ (accessed February 17, 2017).  Sydney Parker, “Why Your Business Can’t Ignore Dark Social,” HootSuite, February 6, 2017, https://blog.hootsuite.com/dark-social/ (accessed February 17, 2017).  Madrigal, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.”  Parker, “Why Your Business Can’t Ignore Dark Social.”  Madrigal, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.”
Madrigal, Alexis C. “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.” The Atlantic,
October 12, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social -we-
have-the- whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/ (accessed February 17, 2017).
Parker, Sydney. “Why Your Business Can’t Ignore Dark Social.” HootSuite, February 6, 2017. https://blog.hootsuite.com/dark-social/ (accessed February 17, 2017).
Courtney Rosebush is a marketing and sales professional in Toronto. With a passion for social media marketing, research, and blogging, Courtney seeks to educate visitors on the importance of marketing in both business and everyday life by creating fun and engaging content to share with others. In her spare time, she is having adventures in the form of reading a bestseller, trying a new restaurant, going to the theatre, or spending hours in a coffee shop. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.