You might have probably heard or read the phrase of ‘Dark Social’ in a casual conversation or in some article floating around on the Web. The first thought that trails around with the phrase is that of a sinister, ominous and uninviting part of the Web. However, if we delve deeper into the etymology of the phrase, we get to know the less daunting meaning of the phrase. Just like the Dark Ages or the dark side of the moon, Dark Social hints at an element of ignorance. The term however, is not as old as the concept it delineates.
What is Dark Social?
Dark Social refers to the act of sharing web content through private channels like instant messaging platforms, messaging apps, and email. This occurs beyond the scope of what can be measured by mhe ost conventional Web analytics programs, and hence is ‘Dark’. The term was first used by former deputy editor of The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal in 2012, who in an article claimed that the history of the Web, then known to most of us was entirely wrong. The birth of the concept is a direct consequence of the evolution of the Web from a network of interlinked pages containing information to a scenario where the Social Web dominates most of our internet activities.
A common misconception is that the traffic received on web content through channels like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit accounts for all the social traffic that there is. However, there is a larger chunk of traffic that comes in through private messaging apps. With the number of messaging apps on the rise, the amount of ‘invisible’ shares is not only growing but is also making detection highly difficult. Wrong attribution of the web-traffic is a big issue for most marketers and analysts.
How does one recognize the Dark Social traffic?
When any story on the internet is shared by its users using a link, it has certain attributes that tie it back to its source and the route followed by it. If one clicks on a Tweet, he or she will often be directed to a link with a tag “&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter” that is attached at the end of the main link. This indicates that this story referral came from Twitter and can be categorized accordingly in any Web Analytics program. This referral tag is called a UTM code or parameter.
A team at Chartbeat had taken a section of visitors who showed up on a site’s traffic without a referrer-tag and categorized them into two classes. The first set of users were people who go to the site’s landing page (example, “www.huffingtonpost.in”) or a sectional page (“www.huffingtonpost.in/news/”) and trace their route from there to the article. However, there are multiple others who land directly on an article page without go to any other page on the site. These users were called ‘direct social’ as no-one really types a link as: “www.huffingtonpost.in/2017/06/27/eu-slaps-a-record-2-4-bn-fine-on-google-for-favouring-its-own-sh_a_23003792/”. They had to follow some kind of a link that was provided to them without a trailing referrer tag.
Absence of a referral is often misconstrued by the Web-analysts as they categorize such users as ‘organic-search’ users which they are not. This leads to an erroneous analysis of the traffic leading to a site. Eventually, this might result in skewed recommendations on how to improve the performance of a website leading to little or no gain at all. As per a White Paper in RadiumOne, approximately 84% of shares happen via Dark Social.While that figure may sound outrageously high, one can safely presume that over 50% of a sites’ social-shares happen via Dark Social, accounting for a large chunk of the total traffic that is misrepresented.
What can be done about Dark Social?
Measuring Dark Social is the first step in addressing the issue. While estimating the exact figures will be difficult in this scenario, tools like Google Analytics provides an estimate of the same. This might prove to be a good starting point for any forum to measure the dark social impacting its performance. It is important to note that dark social is important for your site, not only because it accounts for a large section of your traffic but also because it is here to stay. Clickback rates on shares via private messaging apps is typically high as they come from trusted sources. If a family member or a friend shares a link with you, you are bound to click on it. Thus, this traffic is good for you and methods should be designed to promote and measure the same.
Having defined the intensity of the issue, we can now see how to measure and deal with it. It is important to note that with the increasing trend of Dark Social, chat and messenger-apps are becoming more of social-marketing tools instead of mere communication forums. This calls for innovative marketing approaches that can target the ‘dark-traffic’. China’s WeChat, is in-fact morphing into an entire ecosystem of product discovery, payment and customer experience, which is a massive step in the mitigating the lows of Dark Social.
Dark Social permeates through a unique demographic range and a wide-variety of industries. This goes on to say that, no-one can avoid playing with Dark Social. However, it become necessary to devise new methods to target the audience better as per their characteristics. Chatbots can provide conversational experiences to the users and will include widescale-branding involving complex data management, AI and a brand’s tone of voice. These chatbots will have to be designed according to the industry they cater to.
Since one cannot reduce or ignore Dark Social, the best way to deal with it would be promote it and develop methods to use it to your benefit. However, if you still want to reduce the Dark Social traffic on your pages, certain measures can be taken. The design and the layout of the web-page can be modifies to make sharing-icons more prominent and easily accessible to the users. This will ensure that the link is shared with a referrer attribute, making analytical estimations simpler. While the subject is being worked upon, an organization can do its best by using available methods to use Dark Social or tone it down. Even better, there is a scope of devising innovative methods to utilize Dark Social and people across the industries could really use one.