Social media by nature is a sharing, open platform. It’s where we upload picture of our holidays, updates on our house renovation project, or a home-edited video of our favourite pet.

For businesses, it’s a place where they can build followers whose timelines will be populated with company updates periodically (less and less as time goes on as each platform tries to force companies into paying for advertising).

Recently though, social media has split.

There are now two sides to it and we’re all familiar with both. The first is the never-ending stream of photos, music and status updates.

The second is the direct chat function apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Telegram – marketers now call this channel ‘dark social media’.

Not to be confused with the more ominous and scarier ‘dark web’, dark social media in fact simply refers to platforms where links can be sent without being able to be tracked easily or transparently.

Coined in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal, dark social media accounts for a significant amount of traffics to website.

Visits from links sent in dark media tend to show up on Google Analytics as ‘direct hits’ suggesting that the user typed the address in organically.

However, 9 times out of 10, they arrived at your site because a friend, family member, or colleague sent a link to your website on a messaging platform or over an email or a text.

The standard dark messaging platforms are

  • Facebook messenger (the most commonly used)
  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram direct messenger
  • Emails and text messages
  • Secure browsing websites (If you click from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer won’t be passed on)

User stats are private – no company and no marketer can ever access these number. That’s why it’s called dark social media.

Who uses dark social media and why is it important to know about?

Probably everyone who uses one of the platforms listed above.

If you’ve ever sent someone an interesting article to read on a website, or the link to a product you are considering buying, you’re using dark social media.

By copying a URL and sending it over Facebook chat, Instagram DMs or WhatsApp, you are linking that person to the website without the business fully being able to trace it.

Over 80% of shares happen over dark social so it is very important to recognise that this happens and try to do something to encourage more and wider sharing.

No matter what we do though, we still don’t have the tools to identify which platform and which user a link has come from.

Devising a strategy for dark social therefore is part “art” and part “science”.

Long before digital marketing, word of mouth supported the turnover and revenues of many businesses.

Dark social is the equivalent of this because you’re more likely to buy something that has been personally recommended by a friend or family member.

And in this day and age, that recommendation is likely to be over dark social.

How does dark social media relate to content marketing?

All businesses, especially those who invest in content marketing, need to know where their traffic is coming from and which content it is which generates the greatest number of leads and sales.

By using web analytics, you understand patterns of behaviour from potential purchasers of your products and services by the way they use your website. Analysis of this allows you to identify those areas of your site which perform well and to make changes to those areas which are underperforming.

Web analytics allow you to measure performance KPIs on how long a customer browses for, which pages on your website they visited, how many times they visited, and, importantly, how they got to your site in the first place.

Most people don’t arrive at a website address by typing in the URL – they’re more likely to have found your website through a search engine (traceable) or by someone forwarding them the link (most likely dark social therefore untraceable).

Successful content marketing is shared by others on social media platforms. As with SEO optimisation, social media platforms give us (a limited set of) tools to understand which adverts and posts are working best.

Dark social media’s lack of data is problematic for content marketers.

We know it happens and we know that we need to create content for dark social media. Until it becomes a lot more transparent (which is unlikely to happen), dark social media marketing will always be educated guesswork.

Will dark social ever be more transparent?

Current tools to measure dark social media interaction are few in number and all are still at early stages of development.

The drive by Apple to protect consumers’ privacy is likely to be followed by the other tech giants so, at time of writing, it’s difficult to see where the available data marketers need to make decisions is going to come from.

However, work is being done on this front.

You can create a dark social segment in your Google Analytics profile to get a clear view of how many visits may be attributed to an incorrect source.

Grouping paid, owned, and earned clicks together can provide you with a starting point from which to optimise marketing when a visitor is on your website to give an indication of which approaches might work best.

Analysing your social media interactions (sometimes called social attribution) – is growing in importance in the digital marketplace as it allows some insight into engagement and those insights may give you a slightly better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Dark social media is obscuring our view of what is working well by shielding marketers from seeing a fuller and broader picture of individual consumers’ habits, likes, and dislikes.

And with the growth of web surfing and online shopping carried out on mobile devices, this has led to a sharp increase in the amount of dark social media sharing – specifically by up to 36%!

What can you do about making sense of dark social traffic?

Much is being done to try to increase dark social media tracking and limited tools existing with which you can do your own very limited measuring.

There are a number of programs which offer tools to enable you to track at least some of the dark traffic you receive:

  • Bitly and ly are programs provide shortened links allowing you to accurately measure traffic and track social sharing
  • You could choose to integrate a free platform such as sharethis which allows you to create ‘sticky’ share buttons which offer the ability to track and trace click throughs.
  • Consider paying for a program such as GetSocial, a social analytics and publishing platform that can improve your reach and clicks by up to 42%.

Before you decide on any approach, it’s absolutely worth considering assessing how you present shareable links online in the first place.

If your products or services have a highly visible ‘share’ button, this makes it easier for anyone with the link to do so – it’s much easier for them than asking them to copy and paste the link.

Facebook and other social media platforms have integrated this onto their websites and there are plenty of free tools which allow you to do so from your website.

It’s important you have the maximum number of options for sharing as some people prefer Facebook while others like to receive email, and WhatsApp is other’s medium of choice. The easier it is for someone to engage in, the more likely they will do it.

What do you want to achieve through content sharing whether visible or on dark social? What are you trying to sell? Is your social media campaign there to generate leads or is it more for brand awareness and loyalty?

By analysing what results you really want from your content marketing strategy and measuring your performance against those goals, you give yourself a better chance to succeed.

As stated by Madrigal:

“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.”

Creating original, interesting and valued material is the best way to get people sharing and talking about your company and its products and services regardless of if we can measure it accurately at this point in time or not.

Work with More Than Words’ on creating engaging, shareable, and downloadable content for your website and for visible and dark social media platforms.

Please get in touch with us on 0330 010 8300 or click here to email our inbound marketing team.

Call 0330 010 3495

Content marketing and dark social media

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