Dark Social

This panel dug deeper into the visibility of social sharing. How do we bring dark social into the light? The term itself spawned from the idea of “Dark Matter” – which is matter and energy that cannot be seen but which exerts a powerful force on the universe.

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs. – Wikipedia

Led by moderator, Mark Josephson, the panel batted around the good, the bad and the ugly of all things dark social. One overarching theme was that marketers need to demand that all things are measured – they need to optimize what they are doing. While one thinks they are accurately measuring, the truth is they are not. The big chunk of direct traffic is not what users think it is.

So where does it come from? The user didn’t type in a URL, there is no bookmark – this thing showing up in their analytics as direct traffic is being miscalculated. The notion is that there is a referrer but it’s not known because it’s coming from a platform or app that cannot be measured, like Slack or Instagram for example.

To make matter worse, the problem is not going away but instead will only mushroom because of the rapid rise of new platforms and messaging apps. Adding complexity to this is that most of the activity is taking place on mobile and most analytics programs were not originally designed for mobile measurement.


According to panelist, Brewster Stanislaw, from Simply Measured, he estimated that analytics tools are potentially missing anywhere from 70-80% of P2P social sharing. (Other estimates from the panel ranged from 20-60%.) He explained that the traffic is being miscounted over 50% of the time – marketers think it’s direct traffic but it’s not. It’s links being shared over text or in apps or in ways that cannot be measured.

When asked about the battle to find referrers, Matt Thompson from Bitly broke down the three phases of the market as follows:

  1. First, the term dark social was identified as a real thing. The term was coined and marketers became aware of it.
  2. Next, came the Facebook era where users realized that Facebook was not getting the credit it deserved as a referrer because link sharing was not trackable.
  3. Finally, the third phase of the market is where users are now where they are seeing that chat apps and IM traffic is also a source of dark social and how can they parse user agents to be more accurate.

The moderator pushed the panel to identify specific ways analytics companies can help solve these challenge. For starters, education and awareness needs to be stronger about the fact that dark social is a problem. Once enough people raise the alarm and acknowledge that they are not measuring accurately, the industry will continue to find new ways to solve the problem.

As Josh explained, “Once companies find out that most of their traffic is not being counted accurately – the flip out. And they want it fixed immediately.”

Brewster emphasized the importance of the problem by explaining that the private peer to peer sharing – the link someone texts to their friend – is the “truest expression of organic intent from consumer.”

Another way of understanding how crucial this issue is to consider it a bottom of the funnel user activity. Social is typically at the top of the funnel but dark social is at the bottom meaning it’s closer to the user taking real action. 

A few tactical ideas for how to fix the issue are:

  • Aggressively leveraging UTM parameters
  • Using Bitly tracking features
  • Looking deeper at user agents

As the group wrapped up their discussion, the conversation moved towards the customer journey and how complex it is for marketers to measure now because of mobile devices and unattributed traffic. That said, everyone agreed that solving the challenge of dark social is critical because marketing teams must have access to accurate data in order to make decisions about their spend.

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