Why Dark Social is Distorting Your Social Media Data

Social Media

Social media marketing has been at the forefront of many digital marketing strategies since it’s rise in the early 21st century. That’s unsurprising considering 75% of businesses feel that their social media marketing efforts have increased their traffic. Year on year, the social media marketing landscape changes dramatically, not needless because of the ever-changing algorithms of social media, but also due to the way customers use these platforms. And although these changes present marketers with ever more opportunities, it’s something which is proving problematic when it comes to successfully measuring social media marketing performance.

At the forefront of this issue is dark social. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of secret social media platform, but you’d be wrong.

What is dark social?

Dark social is a form of social sharing which is done through private messaging apps, instant messaging services, text and email. In other words, if you found an article that you enjoyed and you shared it with a friend over Facebook messenger, this would be classed as dark social sharing. The problem with this is that it isn’t easily tracked and therefore many businesses fail to recognise it as an important marketing metric to measure.

How does dark social distort your data?

Did you know that 82% of content shared on mobile is done via instant messaging apps, text or email?

And yet so many businesses fail to track these shares. It’s probably because there’s no obvious way to track this form of engagement or maybe because many companies don’t even realise it happens. Either way, if you’re not tracking 82% of social shares happening around your content, your social media data is going to be hugely distorted and you’ll be unable to gain a clear picture of where traffic to your content stems from.

For many companies, Google Analytics is the main tool used for monitoring website activity. But did you know that Google class dark social as direct traffic and fail to credit social media for any website activity that comes as a direct result of sharing via instant messaging apps? That’s crazy considering someone is very unlikely to type in the exact URL of your content. When you share content on social media, it has a referral tag to indicate that traffic to this page has come as a direct result of it being seen on that specific social platform. However, dark social shares don’t have this referral tag and therefore Google Analytics fails to notice this as social media traffic.

As a result, solely relying on Google Analytics to monitor your website activity does present a business with some problems. By doing this, you’ll never fully gauge the extent of your social media referrals. Alongside content engagement and audience size, website traffic is considered as one of the three most important social media success metrics to measure and therefore, it’s time to start tracking dark social activity correctly.

How to measure dark social?

Knowing how to track your dark social activity correctly will change the way you report on your website data forever. By doing so, you’ll get a much clearer picture of what traffic comes from where and as a result, you can begin to tailor your marketing strategy to generate better results. Here’s how you can monitor your dark social traffic:

1. Monitor direct traffic sources with Google Analytics

Using Google Analytics, track your website visits via each attribution method. Every website should see a certain number of direct visits, but these are usually limited to URLS that visitors can remember such as your homepage and leading landing pages. Any pages on your website with long URLS, such as blogs, which are receiving a lot of visits via direct traffic are likely to be from dark social platforms such as instant messaging services and email. This is because it’s highly unlikely that your audience will remember a website URL that is more than a few words long. If you’re looking for a more structured way to monitor dark social in Analytics, follow these steps:

  • In your Google Analytics account, go to Behaviour > Site Content > All Pages

  • Once you’re in this section, create a new segment for direct traffic only

  • Selecting the advanced filter option, exclude every page in your website with a short URL that someone might be likely to directly search for such as your homepage, contact page, blog etc.

Once you have excluded these pages, you’ll be left with a list of pages searched for directly with long URLS. Although there is no way to directly and confidently attribute these visits to dark social, there’s a high probability that this is where they came from.

2. Use dark social monitoring tools

There are many social media monitoring tools you can use to track dark social sharing. Some you can use free of charge and others you must pay for, so it’s up to you to work out which one best suits your business. Some of the best dark social monitoring tools include:

Share This: This software allows you to install social sharing buttons into your web page to allow your readers to easily share your content. As part of this, the software allows you to customise your buttons to track different things. When customising your settings, make sure you select ‘’Measure copy and shares of your website’s URLs’’ as this will allow you to track dark social sharing activity. The bonus is that this software is free!

Get Social: The Get Social app really has a lot to offer, but one of its main benefits is that it directly tracks any website traffic which has come as a direct result of dark social sharing. Their real-time dashboard allows you to monitor which platforms are driving the most traffic to your website, even including instant messaging apps and SMS! You do have to pay a fee to use this service, but it’s probably one of the most comprehensive dark social tracking services you can use.

Add This: Like Share This, Add This is a piece of software which allows you to add customisable share buttons to your website. This software also comes with address bar tracking analytics, to show how often your URL is copy and pasted into instant messaging services and email, giving instant access to dark social data.

So what next?

I hope this article has shown you just how important it is to measure dark social activity. Try implementing some of my suggested dark social monitoring tools into your marketing strategy or if you have any of your own, feel free to share them in the comments!

Author Bio

Kimberley is part of the Digital Marketing team over at Easy Fulfilment. Specialising in content and copy generation as well as SEO, she also has a wealth of experience working with PPC and social media marketing. She’s spent her career primarily helping small businesses but has also worked with larger companies along the way too. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram