17 February 2016 | Team Tamar

Is ‘dark social’ as dark as it sounds?

If you’ve not heard of the concept of ‘dark social’ before let’s sum it up in one sentence: When measuring traffic driven to a website from social channels, some of it doesn’t show up due to a variety of different factors. How important is this and is it something that any digital marketer needs to lose any sleep over?

The movie Dark City. More exciting than Dark Social

There are several factors which stop social traffic from properly being attributed in analytics packages – including the redirections used in URL shorteners, the proliferation of social apps, chat-based apps like Whatsapp and SnapChat and a few other issues.

Why does it happen?

Before we get into the meat of the discussion, let’s take a step back and look at why this is happening. As a lot of you will know, most good analytics packages divide your referral traffic into categories. SEO traffic from Google goes into the organic segment; PPC traffic goes into the paid search category; users that type your address straight into the address bar (mostly) go into a category called direct– and so on and so forth.

As it turns out, though, the ‘direct’ basket of traffic is also home to a lot of other traffic types – including those where Google (or whoever runs your analytics package) simply doesn’t know where the visitors came from.

Sources of ‘dark social’ traffic include (but are not limited to) some email apps, social sharing platforms, mobile messaging, SnapChat, WhatsApp, text messages. If a traffic source doesn’t exist as a website, chances are high that your analytics won’t know where to put it.

What this means, is that you might not be getting credit for some of the success of your social campaigns, because the traffic (and sales, where relevant) may be going in to the ‘direct’ traffic bucket in analytics.

As well as highlighting an area that many analytics packages are currently failing to cater for, it also means that your traffic split might be incorrect. Whilst this might seem like a small issue, if you find yourself fighting over budget with another marketing channel (such as email marketing) it could make all the difference in justifying increased investment.

Whilst this is certainly something you need to be aware of as a digital marketer it has the potential of being a big distraction and could even result in a less effective social campaign if you worry too much about it.

Is there a sensible solution to dark social?

Many of those discussing dark social suggest that adding tracking tags to the end of your URLs (when you share them) solves the problem. It doesn’t – and relying on them could be even more problematic.

Adding a Google Analytics tag to the end of your link may give you a small amount of extra transparency in your tracking, but it’s a very unreliable method. Tracking tags will get chopped-off, shortened, mis-typed, mis-pasted or just plain removed – mostly by customers when they share the link in question.

Some users might even be put off sharing content in the first place if they feel alerted to a suspicion that their activity is being tracked. In short, it’s impossible to rely on this as a solution – and if you do rely on it, you’re potentially being just as misled by your traffic sources as brands doing no tracking at all.

Why ‘dark social’ as a concept doesn’t make sense

Here’s some harsh truth: If you’re worrying about accounting for every last visit of your social referral traffic, you might be doing social media for the wrong reasons.

This kid is confused about Dark SocialOne of the reasons Tamar developed ‘TouchScore‘ was because of the lack of accountability when it came to planning social campaigns. Even if a client knows why they’re planning a ┬ásocial media campaign (rather than ‘we do it because we think we have to’), often those reasons change mid-campaign (often justifiably) and they frequently end up with a jumble of different KPIs and measurements.

Asking “why are we doing this?” at the outset, a brand could arrive at multiple conclusions. Here are a few:

  • Raising brand awareness – perhaps you’ve just launched a new brand, or had an overhaul of your presences and need to get the word out?
  • Improving customer sentiment – i.e. trying to improve people’s perception or opinion of your brand
  • Increasing customer retention – want to keep your customers longer? Social can be a great way to remind them of their value to your organisation
  • Researching a new product line – an audience of existing and loyal customers is a great test-bed for trying out new ideas and getting feedback
  • Improving customer services – the immediate nature of social media can (if done right) revolutionise your customer service offering
  • Drowning-out negative PR – if people are saying bad stuff about you, social can be a great way to highlight the more positive story
  • Building an offsite community – having a community of fans is an invaluable tool for any organisation
  • Spreading the reach of your content – want to have more people read what you write? Social is a great way to spread your reach and grow your audience

There are many, many more that could be listed – all of which would require other measurements than just ‘traffic and sales’. And if you think ‘dark social’ is a problem that makes it hard to measure your social traffic, give sentiment tracking a go.

So what should you measure?

The way you measure social should be linked directly to the strategy you’re following and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.

So if your campaign is designed to build a community, measure all the aspects of community growth possible – not just ‘likes’ or ‘fans’, but all the other elements that community growth gives you. They might not seem relevant initially, but you’ll be glad later.

The same goes for all the other outcomes above – measure as much as you can get your hands on. Not only will it give you a clearer overall picture, it’ll also help you if your campaign changes direction mid-way through. And if somebody questions why your social referral traffic isn’t up to much, you’ll have a lot more data to fire back at them.

So next time somebody tells you about the ‘problem’ of dark social, ask them how they’re measuring all of their other social KPIs – or if they’ve even got any.


Team Tamar