At the Explore Orange County conference Oct. 18-19, a lot of people picked up on the term “dark social” from Jason’s fireside chat with Kred CEO, Andrew Grill. Based on the Twitter chatter, it seems like it’s a term that few had encountered before, so I thought it would be a good idea to cover it here on Social Media Explorer.

The term “dark social” was coined by Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal to describe social sharing through means like email and IM that are difficult to measure. It’s also referred to as “direct social” because it shows up in analytics as a direct referral, as if someone had typed in the URL. In the case of long URLs, such as a blog post or online article, it’s unlikely that’s the case. What’s more likely is that you clicked a link in an email, chat, or instant message.

Join me on the dark side of social, and together we will rule the internet!

Join me on the dark side of social, and together we will rule the internet!

These private social channels make up dark or direct social, and according to Madrigal’s original article, it may represent the vast majority of your social traffic, trumping the influence of Facebook and Twitter combined.

A follow-up post on Buzzfeed breaks down the sources, or possible sources, of this dark social traffic even further for the hardcore data nerds among us.

They make some inferences about the demographic breakdown of dark social, namely that Boomer users are more likely sharing via email, Millenials via social chat/IM, and Gen-Xers are split down the middle. According to Buzzfeed, about 50% of the dark social traffic to their sites appears to be from mobile devices. Also, the exact nature of the content shared “in the dark” is telling; there are still some things people would rather share privately, as opposed to posting on their Facebook or Twitter feed. Such as topless pics of British princesses…

What are the implications for a business, publisher or marketer?

Should you be worried about the impact of dark or direct social on your digital marketing strategy?

For one thing, if you have been using direct traffic as a measure of your brand marketing, you’ll need to rethink your assumptions. Many marketers assume that when direct traffic goes up, it means that someone is typing your URL in based on television, radio, print or billboard advertising. While that may be the case for true direct traffic, traffic that goes directly to your deeper content shouldn’t be included in that benchmark.

In other words, you may want to consider creating custom filters in Google Analytics to separate your true direct traffic from your dark/direct social traffic, to get a clearer view. Traffic referrals to short, memorable, typing-friendly URLs like your home page or a category or landing page are probably true direct traffic. Longer URLs are more likely dark social.

Another implication is that your social integration strategy needs to be inclusive of private sharing, especially for websites with older demographics. If you’ve dropped “share by email” from your content because “email is dead,” you may want to rethink that. Especially for sites which cover sensitive or potentially embarrassing topics, since such content is more likely to be shared privately. You may have already considered that from a user-centric, psychological perspective, but this is a nice reminder. Not everyone who wants to share your content wants to share it with the entire internet, or even their entire social network.

The last implication is what Madrigal stated in his original article: that the ultimate dark social optimization is content strategy.

On the operational side, if you think optimizing your Facebook page and Tweets is “optimizing for social,” you’re only halfway (or maybe 30 percent) correct. The only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself. There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand. This is pure social, uncut.

In other words, create great content and it will get shared, in the manner that makes the most sense to your users. So don’t be scared of the dark.

Have You Registered For Explore Portland?

Don’t miss two days of intensive learning with some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the digital marketing and social media marketing space. Join SME’s Jason Falls and Nichole Kelly, Unmarketing and The Book of Business Awesome author Scott Stratten, The Now Revolution co-author and leading strategist Jay Baer, Smart Business, Social Business author Michael Brito, allen+gerritsen strategist Tamsen Webster, Edison Research’s Tom Webster and more at one of the leading digital and social media marketing events of 2012, November 15-16 in Portland, Ore. DON’T WAIT TO REGISTER! Seats are filling fast! Reserve yours today!

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About Kat French

Kat French

Kat French is the Digital Operations Manager at CafePress. An exceptional writer both on the web and in other genres, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in community management, SEO/PPC, social media strategy and program management. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, Optima Batteries and more.

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://oziomedia.com/productreviews Ozio Media

    The
    ever increasing popularity of mobile devices indicates that dark social may be
    the fastest growing area in internet marketing. The immediacy of e-mail and SMS
    marketing can make them effective promotional tools that can show immediate
    returns in revenue. Because of this dark social is going to have to develop measurable
    analytics so that marketers can fine tune their efforts like they can with PPC
    ads now.

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  • http://twitter.com/DaveAtNORTH Dave Allen

    I knew this would happen. There is nothing new to this. Sharing was just as rampant on the Internet prior to the advent of “social media.” 

    http://north.com/thinking/dark-social/

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  • http://www.carvermediagroup.com/services/website-design.html Website Design

    Dark social is a term coined by social Alexis C. Madrigal, senior editor at the Atlantic Ocean, to refer to the social sharing of content that happen outside of what can be measured through a web analytics programs. This often happens when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than joint cross-platform social media, which can be measured referrals.

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