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The mystery of ‘dark social’ revealed

Tap into the power of ‘dark social’ to optimize your digital marketing strategy.

When your audience shares your website, blog articles and other online content, it’s often happening through a mysterious-sounding process known as 'dark social.' In fact, 84 per cent of outbound sharing takes place via dark social.

But how is it that so many of us don’t know what dark social is? The term evokes a sense of mystery and even apprehension. Instead of shying away from it, it’s time to figure out why dark social is so important and what your business can learn from it.

Dark social defined

According to Techopedia, dark social refers to “the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs… (which) mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform.”

So for example, you may come across an article on Facebook that you’d like to share with a colleague. But instead of sharing it through Facebook, you copy and paste the article web link and send it via your company’s instant messaging app. That act of sharing the link in instant messaging or email is considered an act of 'dark social.'

Remember that dark social is not to be mistaken with the 'dark web,' which is the encrypted network that houses nefarious and mostly criminal acts.

Is dark social the missing piece in your digital marketing?

Dark social analytics could be a critical and missing component to your existing metrics. Adding this analysis can help inform your overall digital strategy, providing information about when and how much of your content is being shared in all networks — not just the common and easily trackable ones.

You and your analytics team can take immediate steps to track dark social activity, shares and other engagement metrics, and then optimize your digital marketing activities to improve your content scores.

Web page activity can reveal dark social secrets

One way to track this dark social activity is to determine how people are getting to your website, and which web pages they’re landing on when they do. An easy way to find out is with Google Analytics, which most organizations use since it’s a free and powerful tool.

Simply check the “Traffic Source” section within Google Analytics to see which sources are driving traffic to your site, like “Google,” “Facebook” or “direct” (where users typed your URL directly into their browser to get to your web page).

If people are landing on your site largely via “direct,” you can then use Google Analytics to review your top web pages for evidence of dark social activity.

To do this, click on the “Behaviour” section –> “Site Content” –> “All Pages.” This will generate a report that shows all of your content and the total amount of page views this content received.

You may notice that a lot of people are landing on a specific article page located deeper within the navigational structure of your website, rather than the home page. If so, then it’s probably safe to assume that a link was shared through dark social, since it’s unlikely a person would type that very specific URL into their search bar.

Include tracking links in posts

UTM codes or “tracking links” that connect to your site should be included in all your social media posts. This is one of the best opportunities to gather those dark social analytics, and it’s completely in your control.

When you include a tracking link to your website within a social media post, you’re able to determine when someone copy/pastes that link and shares it through a private message or email. In addition to web analytics, Google Analytics provides some great resources to help you create tracking links and begin including them in your social media campaigns.

Here are a few steps to get you started using UTM tracking links in your social media posts:

  1. Install Google Analytics (GA)
  2. Setup UTM URLs using Campaign URL Builder, which is a tool within GA
  3. Fill in the following fields: Website URL, Campaign Source, Campaign Medium and Campaign Source. (An optional field is Campaign Content).
  4. Add the UTM URL created as the destination URL for your social media post

Then in GA, you will be able to track results within the “Campaigns” section. You can also set up goals under the “Admin” section by clicking “Goals” and then add a target for each of your conversion objectives, like the page you want your visitors to view.

Take control of dark social

By tracking dark social activity, you can start to integrate a more holistic approach into your overall digital strategy.

Consider all the places where dark social activity can appear in your company ecosystem, whether that be internal instant messaging, customer chat tools or email. Then train your digital marketing team to share the correct links, analyze, optimize and report on all digital activity, including the dark social component.

Fully understanding what dark social is and how to track the analytics is a great thing to have in your social media tool belt, but like all social media platforms, new ways of understanding it and how we use it will continue to emerge.

By including dark social in your regular digital marketing reporting, you’ll paint a more realistic picture of your company’s brand awareness and customer engagement, which will help inform your digital content marketing strategy moving forward. 

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Shannon Vaughan

Shannon Vaughan is a dedicated and creative social media strategist based in Winnipeg with expertise in developing social media plans, social media analytics and creating fun, innovative and exciting social media campaigns. A former communications professional in the Toronto not-for-profit sector, she has written for several other blogs in the past and has experience managing a wide range of communications, including developing media materials and dynamic web content.

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