Dark Social: The Next Frontier of Marketing

Dark Social Media Explained

When brands implement website traffic analytics, Voice of the Customer technology and social listening tools, they are pulling together important data on consumer behavior and sentiment about the brand to inform business decisions. However, there is a hidden source of social media insights usually left undetected – Dark Social. This segment of data could have an important impact on your marketing strategy.

What is Dark Social Media?

The idea of “Dark Social” was coined in 2012 by the former deputy editor of The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal. Madrigal defines Dark Social as “social traffic that is essentially invisible to most analytics programs.” It refers to any web traffic not attributed to a known source, like a social network or Google search, that usually has referral tags attached to the link to allow for tracking.

Dark Social is comprised of the private interactions between people on private messaging apps (PMAs), email and text. These interactions are usually encrypted and only accessible to the conversation participants. For example, if you copy the link to a news article and send it to your friend via Facebook Messenger, you have just shared the URL via Dark Social. PMAs are one of the main platforms for Dark Social. These include Facebook Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp and Telegram, which have 5 billion users together and form an intrinsic part of our daily lives.

Links shared on Dark Social are hard to track, and typically will show up as a “direct” share without telling the marketing team which channel was used. Although a large portion of our web traffic might be “direct,” we can safely guess that people did not type a complex URL like “https://mulberrymc.com/us/getting-your-content-writing-juices-flowing/” into a browser window.

Why Dark Social Matters

Although Dark Social is hard to track, its billions of active users and popularity among millennials and Generation Z make it a huge opportunity. Facebook Messenger has 1.3 billion active users and in 2019, 68.1 million U.S. mobile phone users accessed WhatsApp to communicate. A survey of American and British internet users aged 16 to 64 found that 63% use Dark Social apps to share content. Even more striking, 20% of respondents only use these channels to share content.

Some reports have stated that for a business or brand, 84% of consumer outbound sharing on average is via Dark Social. Although this number varies widely between brands, studies have consistently shown Dark Social to outperform regular social media channels. As a result, your advertising spending is based on a small piece of the full picture of your audience. Without knowing the origin of people visiting a website, marketers can’t effectively invest resources into that channel. As soon as someone copies and pastes your link into an unexpected channel, your data is less accurate.

Additionally, Dark Social makes up a significant part of the public discourse about a brand. Companies want to be in tune with public conversation about themselves to monitor their image and collect feedback. These organic conversations with close-knit circles can be highly influential, with people being more comfortable airing their views in private. Social media platforms are already recognizing the potential of Dark Social for monetization and advertising. As an example, Facebook announced in February 2021 that it would integrate WhatsApp’s messaging data into its operations.

How to Manage Dark Social

Although it’s currently impossible to gain a full picture of your audience’s Dark Social interactions, you can take several steps to help enhance your data.

  • Shorten URLs. Use tools such as Bitly or Ow.ly via Hootsuite to shorten your links and gain more information about your website traffic. URL shorteners allow you to share different links to the same page to differentiate their source. Link shorteners also enable you to track clicks and make URLs look cleaner in social media posts.
  • Rework share buttons. Make your share buttons visible and easy to use to encourage visitors to use your share links instead of copying and pasting from the browser window. Tools such as ShareThis make it simple to add inline or sticky share buttons to your content and make it easier to track whether people share via email, messenger or text.
  • Use analytics tools. More platforms are adding functions for brands to gain deeper insights into Dark Social. Po.st can help brands break into Dark Social analytics with unique tools and publishing options. GetSocial allows brands to paste a snippet of code into websites to track Dark Social shares. Although these options may be more costly, they provide the fullest picture available of private messaging sharing.

Expanding Your Marketing into Dark Social

Whether you decide to invest in Dark Social tracking tools or not, it’s important to recognise the rise of Dark Social sharing and the hidden portion of online activity concerning your brand. Since access to Dark Social is limited, brands need to have a fully-formed, consistent and clear brand identity to ensure messaging gets across even when they can’t see it.

Interested in developing high-quality social media content that your audience will want to share with others? Contact Mulberry Marketing today.


Theresa Colston is an Account Executive at Mulberry Marketing Communications, an award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in Chicago, London and Australia. She enjoys developing creative marketing ideas and building connections to drive results for clients.