Welcome to the Dark Side: Dark Social and Online Marketing

Dark Social. No, it’s not a meet up for Vader and his mates. Dark Social is the term used to refer to the website traffic content platforms get from private peer-to-peer sharing. In essence, every time you share a video of a car playing a piano with your What’s App group, you’re part of Dark Social web traffic. It can’t be tracked and is a pain when it comes to modern marketing tactics.

These clicks show up in analytics services like Google and WordPress as “direct traffic” and become a number of possibilities that can’t be narrowed down for marketing purposes.

This type of traffic offers nothing in the way of referral demographics that help you continue making and sharing content your users will like. Fortunately, the world of marketing is always evolving; today, 30%+ of your traffic can come from Dark Social.

So it’s now time to adapt your marketing strategy and move it to its’s next phase.

Apps that love Dark Social
Apps that take marketing and tilt it on its head are those that offer privacy options for their users who prefer to keep their social activities to themselves or share them with a select few friends, e.g. What’s App groups.

SnapChat, for example, is hugely popular with a younger audience. To businesses targeting a youth demographic this app could be a gold mine, but it adds no tracking tags when items are shared privately. This is largely what younger internet users find attractive about these newer social mediums.

Other similar apps include Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and Line. Dark Social sharing also refers to links shared via email and team management platforms like Slack and via text messages. Any URLs saved via bookmarks are also part of blind direct sharing protocols.

Direct Traffic
There are two types of direct traffic and they come down to privacy-protecting apps, browser settings and legal regulations.

When a person types your browser URL into an address bar, this is ‘proper’ direct traffic which can be tracked.

Any time someone clicks on your links as part of Dark Social sharing, it’s more like ‘incognito’. This can’t be tracked, and the same goes for direct clicks from browsers with tracking disabled and browsing from regions like Canada and the EU and Australia that focus on user privacy.

The Problem for Analysts
The major issue with Dark Social sharing is the loss of referral data and the frequency with which this type of sharing happens. A report stated that 46% of people ages 55 and older exclusively share via private messaging. Worse yet, 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing also happens on Dark Social.

When you can’t see where your traffic is coming from, it makes it difficult to put together a cohesive marketing strategy. This is multiplied when you’re trying to market to audiences who almost exclusively share content in this way.

It’s Not all Doom and Gloom
However, let’s look at the positives. The majority of Dark Social shares come from high-value targets, which is good.

For example, an ad shared on a public News Feed may get some Likes and clicks, but the conversion may be low.

To flip that on its head a little, users who receive inbound links to their inbox from their friends or family are more likely to click on that link and become a conversion unit.

Why? Because the person sending the link has personal knowledge of their friend’s likes and dislikes and has now become your 1:1 personal marketing guru. Dark Social has a higher probability of earning you some traffic, the issue isn’t the conversion value but the ability to track this.

Begin to Harness Dark Social
At the moment, tracking Dark Social shares for your marketing campaign isn’t possible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved.

Focus on incorporating Dark Social platforms in your business plan. Remember, customers are already using one or more of these platforms, so consider those best to be involved with.

SnapChat’s is a growth platform, meaning its user base is growing. Using the stories tool can give you an edge by bringing their users directly into your circle. Showcase to them your business or product and give them great content that engages them.

Anyone who comes across it is likely to share with their groups and turn these untraceable clicks into conversions.

If you’re starting out and want to be able to communicate with international customers and potential clients, WhatsApp is an invaluable tool. Offer call and chat assistance through the app, and use the chat history to offer your most active customers deals and share content with them.

Custom Tracking Codes
Using custom tracking codes allow you to customise your URL for sharing; it will pull traffic information directly into Google Analytics complete with added details, the medium and the name of the campaign you’re running.

Using these codes, the analytical data will be able to differentiate general “direct traffic” from social media traffic, even if the link is shared via a private message.

Include Share Buttons
Most content platforms allow the option to include sharing buttons with your content, and if not, coding them in is fairly simple. There are built-in sharing tools when it comes to mobile apps, but adding in your own gives you a greater spectrum for tracked sharing.

Try a service like ShareThis, which offers unique sharing menus for readers and users who aren’t surfing on mobile. Enable the buttons to share to popular services like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. These shares will give you some tracked traffic that is distinguishable as social sharing.

The future of online marketing is changing and privacy issues are getting harder and harder to work around. So, the next best thing you can do is join Dark Social and capitalise on the services your customers are already using to get to your site. Just because you can’t trace it doesn’t mean you can’t use it.