What is Dark Social? Revealing the Unmapped Sea of Social Sharing


In the digital landscape, a significant portion of content sharing occurs in the shadows, away from the watchful eye of traditional analytics. Welcome to the realm of dark social, where whispers of engagement echo through private messages, email threads, and closed groups. In this blog post, we’ll answer the question “What is dark social?” and shed light on this enigmatic world, exploring its impact, challenges, and ways marketers can harness its elusive power.

What is Dark Social?

Dark social refers to the practice of sharing content privately and directly through digital communication channels such as messaging apps, email, and private social media messages. This type of sharing is considered “dark” because it is challenging to track and monitor compared to publicly visible sharing on social media platforms. The term was coined to describe the phenomenon of web traffic that cannot be accurately attributed to a known source. Think word of mouth or earned media — dark social is the new age of peer-to-peer marketing.

When someone shares a link via private channels, it lacks tracking parameters that would normally be present when sharing on public platforms. For example, if you were to share a link to an article with a friend through a private message on a messaging app, that sharing activity wouldn’t be directly traceable in the same way that a public social media post would be.

Dark social sharing is important for marketers and analysts to understand because it can contribute significantly to website traffic and engagement, yet it often goes unnoticed due to the lack of proper tracking. Marketers have tried to address this by using techniques like shortening URLs, utilizing tracking parameters, and implementing share buttons that allow users to share content directly to social media platforms.

6 Strategies for Marketers and Businesses

Though it can be difficult to track and ultimately attribute the sources of privately shared content, with the right steps in place, it can be a great way to expand awareness of your business. Here are a few ideas for ways marketers can take advantage of dark social sharing:

1. Personalized Stories

Share relatable stories through private messages. Imagine a travel company sharing travelers’ stories and memories in captions, delivered straight to people’s private chats. This makes people feel closer and more likely to share their own travel tales with their close pals.

2. VIP Exclusives

Send secret intel only to a select group. Think a fashion store sharing flash sale alerts or sneak peeks of new stuff via private messages. This makes people curious and they’ll want to share these exclusive goodies with their inner circle.

3. Challenges and Quizzes

Make it fun and interactive for people using private platforms. Picture a fitness brand starting a “30-day challenge” where folks can share their progress in private. This creates a group feeling and encourages them to invite friends to join the fun.

4. Secret Insider Tips

Spill the beans privately. Say a foodie website sends monthly recipe cards via private messages, urging folks to pass them on to fellow food lovers. This gives a sense of knowing something exclusive and makes people want to share their knowledge.

5. Dark Social-Exclusive Webinars

Host secret webinars for a special group. Experts in a field might share private links to webinars on upcoming trends. This makes it feel exclusive and encourages people to bring their like-minded friends into the loop.

6. Incentivize Sharing Loops

Get people to share more by giving them stuff. Users can earn rewards, deals, or limited swag by getting new users to join in private channels. This creates a sharing circle, allowing your content to reach even more people.

Navigating Dark Social’s Footprint

Tracking and capturing data from dark social efforts can be challenging due to several reasons:

  1. Limited Attribution and Referral Data: The primary challenge of tracking dark social is the lack of attribution and referral data. When content is shared via private channels like messaging apps and email, the typical referral information that helps identify the source of traffic is often stripped away. This makes it difficult to accurately attribute conversions, visits, or other actions to their original sources.
  2. Privacy and User Experience Concerns: Implementing robust tracking mechanisms for dark social can raise privacy concerns and negatively impact the user experience. Users often share content privately to maintain their privacy, and overt tracking efforts may lead to mistrust and a sense of intrusion. Striking the right balance between tracking and user privacy is crucial.
  3. Inaccurate Data Interpretation: Even if tracking mechanisms are in place, accurately interpreting the data can be challenging. Not all dark social shares result in meaningful engagement or conversions, and understanding the context of these shares is difficult. Distinguishing between valuable shares that contribute to business goals and casual sharing is a complex task.

These challenges emphasize the need for marketers to adopt creative tracking methods, implement user-friendly sharing options, and focus on broader trends and patterns in dark social sharing rather than attempting to capture every single interaction. By appending your URL tracking parameters to a unique destination link, then using a URL shortening service, you have a better chance of the trackable link remaining intact.

Keep in mind that while you can track the click-through rates and basic analytics of dark social links, you may not be able to identify the individual users who shared the links due to the private nature of these interactions. Also, make sure to respect user privacy and disclose any tracking activities as required by relevant privacy regulations.

Charting the Course of Social Sharing and Dark Social

Overall, dark social highlights the limitations of traditional web analytics tools and emphasizes the importance of recognizing the full spectrum of digital sharing behaviors. Balancing data accuracy, user privacy, and effective analysis is key to successfully navigating the world of dark social.

Want to gain a better understanding of where you stand in your social media efforts, where you can grow? Take a look at our Maturity Model benchmarks, developed by VSSL’s subject matter experts. Using this tool, you can plot the most direct course for incorporating best practices into your own operation.

If you still have questions or need additional support, get in touch and our demand generation experts will help you out!

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