What is dark social and why does it matter to marketers?

Social media marketing and the analytics that monitor it have proved useful tools for marketers seeking to implement a wide-reaching and fast-paced strategy. Now accepted as a central tenet in a marketer’s arsenal, gone are the days when social media was optional or indeed at times even unnecessary when engaging with specific demographics.

Yet although many brands now have strong social media marketing strategies, how many have a comprehensive approach for tackling “dark social”? The answer, it seems, is very few. This week we’re exploring what is dark social, why it matters to marketers, and what steps can be taken to overcome its challenges.

What is dark social?

Before looking at why dark social matters to marketers, it is important to know exactly what constitutes dark social and what commentators mean by the term. 

First coined by Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at US magazine The Atlantic, the term dark social is in fact less sinister than it sounds. Writing back in 2012, Madrigal argued that most commentators tend to treat the history of the internet as though it can be divided into two distinct phases: the pre-social phase and the social phase, the latter being kick-started by the likes of MySpace, Facebook and Twitter in the early 2000s.  

Madrigal suggested that this approach has led directly to the presumption among marketers that channels such as email and private messenger apps, many of which existed before the dawn of Facebook, do not count as social media. Closely linked to this is the fact that, when a link is shared via email or messenger apps, referrer data about where this traffic originated from is unavailable to social media analysts.

Madrigal brought this problem into the limelight, emphasising ‘this means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs.’ It is this invisibility which is central to the term “dark social”, since it remains unmonitored and untapped by swathes of organisations who have otherwise comprehensive social strategies.

Why does dark social matter to marketers?

Since Madrigal first coined the term dark social, many industry commentators have highlighted a number of challenges that it presents.

Technopedia writes that because the traffic that comes from email and messenger apps is untraceable in terms of its origin, social media marketers may be overlooking a huge portion of social sharing. Brandwatch adds that analytical tools often classify dark social as ‘direct’ traffic, thereby skewing marketer’s insights and misinforming strategies. This can have long term consequences for efficiency, content creation and audience segmentation, and undermines the good work done to bring analytics to the centre of strategy formation.

This is not a problem that has been solved since Madrigal first wrote about dark social in 2012. Only this September, The Drum reported that when running an experiment on content sharing, it found that ‘compared to social buttons, 87% of all shares are made through copy-and-paste direct from the address bar.’

The Drum points out that although it is easy to become obsessed by the ‘social vanity metrics’ associated with counting shares, there is a tendency to ignore dark social completely. Given the high rate of dark social sharing unveiled by their survey, it is clear that this poses a major challenge for brands. Warning that ‘if marketers are not tracking address bar shares, it is an analytical blind spot as they have no idea how popular their content pieces are,’ this challenge is one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

What can marketers do about it?

There are a number of ways that marketers can begin to put strategies in place to confront the challenges that dark social poses. 

1. Work around the gaps in analytics 

Since the major challenge presented by dark social is that the traffic is difficult to track, one creative way to get around this obstacle is to track links themselves.

According to Hootsuite, using shortened URLs for outbound links in your content can help you to get a deeper analysis of engagement rates. Although there are many websites available to shorten links, Hootsuite offers a link-shortening platform called ow.ly which is linked to its broader analytical tools. Hootsuite points out that ‘you can use the shortened URL in emails or on your website and use Hootsuite’s URL click stats to track how many clicks those links receive.’

Acting as an indirect way to trace links and circumvent the gaps in traditional analytical methods, thinking creatively about how to illuminate dark social can be a useful approach to follow.

2. See it as an opportunity for cross-channel engagement

More than just a question of monitoring traffic, one way to capitalise upon dark social is to use it as an opportunity to drive cross-channel engagement with consumers. Social Media Examiner suggests that one way to do this is to use it as a method of building consumer-relations and dealing with feedback and customer service.

Pointing to Adidas as an example, Social Media Examiner argues that by advertising links to set up customer service chats on Twitter, for example, organisations are able to direct the manner and platform of the conversation to a realm that suits them, alleviating the tendency of customers to jump straight to social media when a problem or complaint arises.  

There is no one-stop-solution for confronting the challenge of dark social, particularly given the fact that those reluctant to share content openly on social media are unlikely to change their behaviour easily. By first understanding dark social and the challenges it can pose, and then addressing these challenges with creative solutions, brands and marketers can readjust their relationship to dark social to create opportunities rather than blind spots.

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