While you might think it refers to the shadowy side of social media and Internet use, it is actually a term coined in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the sharing of content that occurs outside of what is measured by web analytics programs. Examples of dark social include links copied and pasted into emails, instant messages, or shared via text message.
So what we’re talking about here are links sent through online chat or other means rather than via a social media platform, from which referrals can be tracked.
Why is this important? If you’re relying on your website or Internet-based marketing to track leads and determine how and where to spend your online marketing budget and resources, it means that the data that you are collecting may not accurately reflect the traffic sources to your site.
This is a vital component of the metrics that are used to devise marketing strategies and budgets and measure effectiveness.
Dark social sharing also offers insight into how we behave online.
In many ways the increased use of dark social reflects pre-social media and certainly pre-Facebook era habits of social Internet use where chat, forums, email, and instant messaging were the norms for digital social communication.
The numbers are fairly staggering.
In a more recent article Madrigal explains that with a push resulting from the insanely popular Facebook mobile app, upwards of 50 per cent of mobile external traffic is coming in to websites lacking a referrer. Madrigal’s research explains that the app does not provide specific referral tracking the way Facebook on the desktop does, but that there is a direct correspondence between app usage and increased website visits.
This means we don’t know for sure where the traffic is coming from – but we do know, according to Madrigal, that “Facebook has a much tighter grip on website traffic than anyone thought.” This tells us that playing nice with Facebook, at least in terms of our outbound marketing efforts remains important, particularly in light of the massive use of mobile devices.
This holds true, regardless of whether or not we can actually track Facebook via metrics as the source. It means we need to make sure that websites – the heart and soul of online communications – are mobile responsive and integrated.
It also tells us that there is still a significant preference for one-to-one direct communication versus the wide-open public nature of most social media platform use.
In other words, we don’t want conversations to be public, and we don’t want them to be tracked.
The challenge for marketers is understanding and identifying traffic sources in order to replicate success and increase and measure market share.
Dark social makes it incredibly difficult to demonstrate return on investment (ROI), if we can’t track the actual traffic.
This points us back to the fundamentals: know your audience, create authentic, engaging, high-value content that resonates with the target market and is highly shareable. Keep it real, and they will come.
We just won’t know where they are coming from.
Vicki McLeod is owner of Main Street Communications and is happy to answer questions. Send them to her through www.thesocialchicks.com.