Remember in the 1990’s when caller ID first became a thing? Everyone was like “oh wow, I totally know exactly who is calling and where my calls come from.” Prank callers didn’t stand a chance. But then, crank callers wised up and began realizing that they could call from private numbers and still reach you without you knowing where the call came from. “Dark social” is the Google Analytics equivalent to a private number coming up on caller ID.
A Guide to Dark Social
We can use analytic software to trace the sources of our social shares until the cows come home, but we still won’t be able to see the lost pocket of information out there known as “dark social.” The term dark social has been around for about two years when it was first coined by Alexis Madrigal. It is used to describe the unmeasurable media data that comes from shares via email or instant messages. What makes dark social so dark? It’s the social click-throughs that are invisible to analytics tracking software.
Think about this: you would assume that most referrals come from Facebook but, only actually about 20% do. It’s really the unknowable dark social that makes up the nearly 70% of total referrals to websites. In most cases, when you want to know how many visitors came to your site, it’s super easy. Like if you go to the Track5Media website from Facebook, we can see where that visitor came from and be like “oh hey, cool, someone came to our website from Facebook.” And then pretty much that case is closed. But, this dark social stuff is way more perplexing.
The problem with dark social is that the majority of shares are occurring from private sources that we just aren’t measuring. We focus all our energy on the shares that come out of the old-standby of Facebook and other social media platforms. However, the Atlantic was able to partner with an analytics firm to pinpoint how much dark social they were seeing. How? Well, they split their page views into 2 categories; homepage views and topic pages (such as http://www.theatlantic.com/politics.) It is a clear assumption that if a visitor is led to a sub-page and not from a visible social share, it must have been dark social. Why? Because, it is safe to assume that the majority of site visitors will not type in longer URLs to reach certain pages.
Fast forward two years and Radium One releases a report that sheds some light on the dark social phenomenon. According to the report, popular chocolate company Ghirardelli harnessed that power of dark social by implementing intelligent social sharing buttons that improved its dark social performance by 600%. Ghirardelli’s brand manager said, “We were surprised to find that 84% of the sharing activity was Dark Social. What that means is 84% of total sharing activity had been hidden from us.” Dark social probably ended up selling mad dark chocolate.
In other words, being able to advertise directly to “dark social” audiences, especially on mobile devices, is the best new way to unlock new target audiences. Equipping your website and social links with the right stuff to be able to locate the people who are receiving these dark social shares can get you to the people you should be sharing media campaigns with.