What Is Dark Social And Should It Effect Your Content Strategy?

Don't be scared of the dark.

by Kat French |

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.

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About the Author

Kat French

Kat French is the Client Services and Content Manager at SME Digital. An exceptional writer, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in content strategy, copywriting, community management and social media marketing. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, CafePress and more.