Welcome to the Dark Side

Like any good marketing agency, we spend hours each day analyzing traffic sources and reviewing how users get to know our clients online. However, there are things we cannot account for that get masked as the all-familiar “direct traffic.” It’s called Dark Social.

Have you heard of it? No? Well, you're not alone. Dark Social isn't some evil, vile path that users take to get to your site, but rather the first form of social sharing that is not easily tracked because it sends traffic to your site across various channels, such as when someone shares a site by copying and pasting a URL in a(n):

  • Email
  • IM
  • Chat
  • Mobile App

Dark Social is different from Black Hat Social, which is the practice of buying fake “likes”, “followers”, or other audience segments. We call it “Dark Social” because it is not often thought of as social and it’s not easily tracked, thus making it dark.

Sharing made easy

Even though sharing content has never been easier, according to a Business Insider study, 82% of content sharing is done with old-fashioned cut and paste. In that same study, email was the number one method of sharing at 69%, followed by Facebook 19%, and 4% for Twitter. One of the reasons for such a strong percentage of users that share data through Dark Social is that some people are not comfortable sharing items via social networks.

That does not mean that all 82% is untrackable—when it is shared via a social network the reference to the site becomes that referral network.

They bookmarked us

Have a ton of direct traffic to your site? Do you ever say, “People must just bookmark our site quite a bit”? Type in the following address:

Are you done yet? Oh, you quit? Yeah, most people do not do that, but yet that was just labeled direct traffic in your analytics report. Welcome to the Dark Side. They don’t have your site bookmarked—they have come via dark social. For example, The Atlantic sees 56.5% of its traffic from dark social, more than all other sources combined. 

Dark Friday

Dark social is what may have contributed to the surprising report from IBM that essentially rendered social media obsolete for driving online sales revenue. According to IBM’s report of the holiday shopping, during Black Friday 0.34% of all online sales come from referrals from social media. That was a surprising study given the fact that online sales were up sharply (over 20%) from last year. IBM did not give any weight to Dark Social, though.

Word of Mouth

Dark social is social word of mouth in referrals for the today digital age. It is Joe Smith stumbling across an article that he loves, grabbing the link, copying, pasting, and sending it via email or chat.

According to Chartbeat, which is an online analytics and research company used by companies like ESPN and the New York Times, 70% of their social traffic came from email, instant messaging, chat apps, and other sources. This has long frustrated media companies as they see days-old stories explode via social networks. How? They were originally shared via dark social, then spread via social media.

Dig Deep

It is impossible to track everything, so make sure you track what you can, always. And do what you can to make everything you do more trackable. Use tools such as the Google URL builder, trackable links in your email campaign, and deep dives into your analytics reports. If it seems like direct traffic is high for a specific URL that is deep within the site, then it is likely to come from dark social. It is not coming out of thin air by users directly typing lengthy URLs into the browser.

Dark Content

You want Dark Social. It is powerful. But how do you capitalize on it? You must develop great content that people are willing to share. It starts with an engaged user reading mind-blowing content—and that's when things get sticky. From there, it grows and floats from email to email, from chat to chat, all across the web. The same rules apply when trying to get people to like or share via social media—it's just far less trackable. Killer content is important and necessary if you want to dominate the dark side.