Attribution is an integral part of any digital marketing strategy. But what if your customers are talking about and evaluating your products in a place you can’t track? Welcome to Dark Social.
Dark Social has nothing to do with the Dark Web. It’s about knowing where your buyers spend their time online before you get intent data or they become qualified leads. If you’re a marketer or social media manager, it’s an important concept.
What is Dark Social?
Dark Social describes web traffic that comes from sources your attribution software can’t track. It consists of links, social sharing, and all the conversations people have in private messaging apps, Slack channels, Zoom calls, etc.
It also refers to web traffic generated after prospects listen to a podcast, have in-person chats, or content shared via a link shortener.
The term was coined in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal, writing in the Atlantic. It has since been popularised and expanded upon in several other articles.
If you’ve ever seen an article your friend liked and sent them the URL via Facebook Messenger, then you’ve used a type of Dark Social sharing. If your friend clicks the link, web analytics software counts this referral traffic as your friend punching in the URL. However, we know that’s not true.
Levering intent data has become an essential element of contemporary marketing. Prospects’ intent data is used as the trigger by marketing teams to target specific users. Typically, it uses visible sources like cookies, demo requests, social media likes, etc.
But what if your prospects have been discussing and searching for a solution well before the first signs of intent come across your radar? If they are using private messaging apps and Facebook groups, they probably are.
During this critical stage, you’re not marketing to them. In some scenarios, they’ve completed crucial steps of their buying journey without you being able to influence their choices.
Additionally, you don’t know which of your marketing channels, content, or links receive the most interest. It means you’re only getting partial information about what is working for your business.
This situation is a significant problem for B2C and B2B marketers.
Examples of Dark Social channels
The easiest way to explain Dark Social — and why it’s so challenging to track Dark Social traffic — is by listing a few examples. Once you consider the volume of sharing and communication that happens on these channels, you’ll have a good idea of why missing out on this referral data is a problem for modern marketers.
Here are a few Dark Social examples:
Communities & Groups
Slack groups/channels, Facebook groups, Discord, etc.)
Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube, etc.
LinkedIn, TikTok, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, etc
Direct Word of Mouth
DMs, text messages, Zoom calls, etc.
Third-Party Events & Meetups
VC/PE groups, Conferences, Virtual Events, etc.
Add to this that people can talk about your brand on podcasts, videos, or via social shares without including your name in the title or hashtags. These are public mentions about your brand that will seem dark to you and never make it into your CRM.
Google Analytics counts Dark Social as Direct Traffic
If you use Google Analytics software to track web visitors, you’ll probably have noticed that direct traffic makes up the biggest source of traffic. Indeed, it’s the largest traffic source for most websites. Direct traffic refers to when users manually enter your URL or click a bookmarked link. But that’s not how most people use the internet anymore.
Because web analytics software doesn’t attribute these links correctly, you don’t know where your traffic is coming from. For marketers, this is a problem. Dark social media sharing is happening on a grand scale. But it’s hard to tell how much traffic is down to individual campaigns or channels without referrer data.
The issues with attribution software
Most marketers use attribution software to understand customer intent. However, analytics programs can only tell when you have traffic from a known source. When users share links privately, it’s impossible to know where dark traffic originates. This situation can make it challenging for businesses to understand the effectiveness of their marketing.
Any social link that is shared without referral information is considered Dark Social. Dark Social traffic sources comprise many of the links shared by B2B customers.
This problem is difficult to address because Dark Social channels are challenging to measure.
Dark Social’s measurement problem
Most of the web traffic brands get is from Dark Social sharing. This direct traffic is hard to track via Google Analytics.
Of course, there are ways to track traffic on social media. For example, built-in social sharing buttons have a referral tag for outbound links. But there is only so far that can go.
Another thing to consider is UTM tracking. If you post some content on LinkedIn that a customer clicks, that information can go to your CRM and analytics. But what if you share content without links? Or static images or memes, or native videos? It becomes challenging to measure the impact of the content.
Additionally, if people use link shorteners to share your social media articles, it disrupts the UTM tracking too.
Similarly, if someone reads or watches your content and signs up for a demo at a later date — but does it by entering your name into Google — they might click from an organic search or a paid search ad.
Now your analytics program thinks this conversion was because of Google Ads, and you’re more inclined to invest in PPC rather than the LinkedIn content that won your prospect’s trust.
Why should I care about Dark Social traffic sources?
Why should Dark Social matter to brands? Here is a quick rundown on why you should care.
Dark social sharing is huge
Some resources suggest that Dark Social traffic accounts for around 77.5% of searches. If almost four-fifths of your data sources come from unknown sources, it’s tough to know what’s working for you and what’s not.
Gen Z are using TikTok and Instagram for search
As reported by TechCrunch, about 40% of Gen Z use TikTok and Instagram for search. If this trend continues, it means that some of the traditional ways we measure web traffic and do SEO will be rendered obsolete.
Target different demographics
Depending on which user type your business targets, they might prefer dark social sharing. Statistics suggest that almost half of the lucrative 55+ market exclusively shares links via dark social.
Make an early impact
Once you understand that buying starts in Dark Social, you need to find a way to make an impact in these places. Investing resources in these hard-to-measure channels is essential because they are an influential aspect of the real customer journey.
It excludes your brands from conversations
If people are talking about your brand via YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook, you can engage in the conversation. They might have questions you could answer, which could position your brand as help and carrying. But if these conversations happen in private, you’re robbed of the opportunity.
Worse still, if a customer has a problem with your product or service, you won’t know about it. Instead of being able to address and resolve their issue, they’ll never come on your radar.
You can’t track sentiment
Public conversations allow you to track consumer sentiment. This process gives you a fuller picture of how your customers or target audience sees your brand and gives you powerful feedback to improve your product.
No control over distribution
If most of your content is distributed via dark social, it might not reach a wide enough audience. Many people’s social circles are small, and the network is limited. You want word of mouth to reach as many people as possible, but you won’t know if these social webs lack diversity.
The cookie is dying
Internet privacy has become a big concern. Apple and Google have made separate moves to end the use of third-party tracking cookies. So now, more customer intent data has “gone dark”, enhancing measurement pains for marketing teams.
How to engage the dark funnel
The dark funnel refers to the hidden touchpoints of the buyer’s journey. It comprises in-person social interactions and conversations, social network conversations, and DMs on mobile devices. It also includes podcasts people listened to and other engagement on Dark Social media channels.
So, you might think, what can I do?
Well, firstly, it all comes down to content. It’s impossible to game email or people’s instant messages. If you want them to share your content, you’ve got to make it great.
If brands want to be selected when people are ready to buy they need to start by creating demand. Part of Demand Generation is creating content designed to educate, inform, and persuade people. Your content needs to be optimized for consumption on your users’ platform of choice – in other words, make it native.
They’re on social media. Stop relying on sharing links to your website/blog. Some Dark Social channels that you should consider are:
Organic social media
Paid social media
Conferences & Events
Word of mouth
The idea here is to create a buzz that will lead to lots of private sharing of your content. You don’t need to use each Dark Social channel; just look for what is most effective and relevant to your product or service.
Once you’ve generated enough interest in the Dark Social web, you can use intent-based marketing to capture leads and convert users.
Paid ads on search engines
Conversion Rate Optimisation
Sales & pipeline marketing
Once you’ve captured demand, you can use your typical marketing or customer journey tactics to move prospects into paying customers via demos, 1-to-1 marketing, phone calls, etc.
How to win at the dark funnel?
Use qualitative data
OK, so you can’t use marketing technology to track Dark Social data. That’s a shame. But nothing is stopping you from collecting qualitative data from your customers. The best way to win at Dark Social is through “self-attribution”, aka asking people how they heard about your product.
If you’re mapping out any sort of customer journey, you can’t just rely on a mix of data and assumptions. You need to get out there and have some conversations.
Some options you can use here are to:
Ask customers why they picked your product
Run a win-loss analysis
Incentivize customers to take surveys
Put a “how did you hear about us?” field in your demo request form
For B2B companies, thinking about attribution is important. But if you only measure for intent data, you’re missing a lot of crucial information.
Embracing Dark Social allows you to measure marketing better and optimize your content.
Putting a focus on these channels and directing some investment towards them will help you make a strong impression at an important early stage.
Become more customer-centric
Winning at Dark Social is about a shift in perspective. Marketing teams have embraced data and metrics to power their decisions over the last decade. However, that way of working won’t help you in Dark Social spaces.
The best way to boost your Dark Social share is by engaging your prospects with killer content. And to do that, you need to use real marketing.
Obviously, market research is important here. You need to know what type of content your people are interested in. Additionally, you also need to develop a keen sense of what type of content they’ll share with their network. That’s a subtle but important difference.
So create content that ensures that your target audience knows what you do. Make it helpful, inspiring, and valuable. That way, when they emerge from the Dark Social spaces — and show their intent — you’ll already have built trust, expertise, and authority.
Don’t Measure – concentrate on what you do best
Spending too much time and money trying to measure Dark Social is a fool’s errand. You can never be sure that your readings are accurate or represent reality. It’s too easy to go down unfruitful paths that waste resources.
Instead, look at Dark Social as an opportunity. It’s a chance to establish your brand as a prominent voice or market leader.
Think about the content that you and your network share with each other. What sort of articles are you always interested to receive about the niche you work in? Do you prefer thought leadership? Instructional videos? Articles that are packed with proprietary research and analysis?
Remember, you’re the expert in your niche. You’ll have access to the hard-won insights and opinions that others want to hear. You’ll understand your market, and you’ll have your own customer data to power your insights too.
So, use that knowledge — plus an awareness of the sort of content you and your network share privately — to power your content creation.
Don’t focus on what you can’t do well. Focus on the things that help your brand resonate with your customers.
If a significant source of your web visitors comes from direct sources, you probably have a lot of Dark Social traffic. While it’s challenging to measure, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to your advantage.
Paid social media and search ads are a good way to capture intent. However, buying starts with Dark Social. It’s where demand is generated, not with ads.
Find out via surveys and “how did you hear about us?” forms where your prospects are. You can establish a presence there to speak, educate, and engage potential customers. Being data-driven is good, but if it’s not capturing the full picture, you’re missing out.