Dark Social – The Marketer’s Guide

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What is “dark social”? You’ve probably heard the term floated around your office in recent months. Maybe you’re deeply entrenched in influencer marketing and your team read about Adidas’ latest social media campaign that saw amazing returns through dark social outreach. More likely, your CMO pulled you aside and asked you to start integrating dark social numbers in your monthly report.

Whatever the reason, dark social is quickly surpassing an interesting topic of conversation, instead becoming a critical tactic that needs to be part of the conversation when it comes to planning social media marketing strategy.

What is it?

Dark social – for those who aren’t up to speed – is social sharing that creates inbound website traffic from sources that web analytics tools like Google Analytics are not able to track. According to Simply Measured, inbound traffic typically comes from one of the following sources:

  • Native Mobile Apps
  • Email
  • SMS/Chat

When this traffic lands on a website, analytics suites will log it as “Direct” traffic:

At last count, nearly 70% of “social” sharing took place in the dark. People don’t take linear paths to your content any longer – they share a link with a friend on Facebook Messenger that they found on Buzzfeed that got sourced from Reddit. Finding an attribution model in that mess is a hurdle to get over for marketers – you want this type of sharing taking place (and it probably is if you’re doing your job well), but you’re going to be hung out to dry come reporting time if you can’t claim ownership of any of the results. And, as apps like Snapchat and Kik continue to grow in popularity, it’s a safe bet that you’ll only have more of this traffic to deal with in the coming years.

Great. So what now?

Digital traffic attribution problems aren’t new – they’ve been an issue for search marketing for quite some time. Things like HTTPS implementation and link shortening have been causing headaches for marketing analytics practitioners for ages. This “new” problem for social traffic attribution is more a function of the maturation of social media as a whole. Welcome to the wonderful world of digital reporting, social practitioners!

So, here’s the thing. There is no silver bullet to fix direct traffic attribution from social sharing of your content. It’s a problem for every company that’s trying to track it effectively right now. What does exist are small steps you can take as a practitioner to reduce the amount of unattributable traffic hitting your website.

Here are some of the best places to start:

  • Social Media Today has five outstanding tips for tracking dark social, including
    segmenting traffic out in Google Analytics, and four third-party tools for
    social marketers to add to their toolkits.
  • GetSocial.io is one of the tools that Social Media Today recommends above, but it deserves its own bullet. The tool adds tracking data to your website’s URLs that allow it to track social shares through SMS, Facebook Messenger, and an assortment of other platforms. It’s a great tool for almost every social media marketer out there.
  • Increase the number of social sharing buttons on your website, and tag them with UTM parameters to encourage users to share trackable links. You can then attribute those tagged pieces of traffic as social sharing, and start getting a better handle on where traffic is coming from.

Okay. My traffic is starting to sort itself out. Now what?

So long as you understand that you won’t be getting a perfect picture of attributable data, now is where you begin looking at your dark social traffic to figure out exactly what it’s doing for your business.

First off, make sure you’ve set up your analytics suite to track every bit of data you can. If this is something you need help setting up, check out our blog on measuring intent through Google Analytics.

Start assessing, month over month, how much dark social is impacting your bottom line. Are people more inclined to spend time on the site and read your content when they come from dark social sources? If you’re an eCommerce organization, how well do these users convert?

If your dark social traffic performs markedly better than, say, your paid search traffic or paid social traffic, it may be time to consider investing less in those avenues and more money into strategies that take new media into consideration. Perhaps Influencer Marketing on Snapchat or Instagram, or contests on social that promote sharing with friends.

Dark social as a means of driving conversion and awareness is only growing in popularity, so it’s critical you get a handle on it now.

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