Dark Social - A Short Guide

First off let's get the definition out of the way. First coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, whilst writing for the Atlantic, Dark Social refers to the sharing of content that happens outside of social channels and can't be measured by analytics accurately. 

Generally, when you manage a website or work in the advertising/marketing function, one of the things you'll be asked is about web traffic and analytics. How long are people spending on the site, how many fall out of the sales funnel and where is the traffic coming from being some of the questions that you'll face.

For the most part analytics provide a pretty clear breakdown of all these things and if you know how to set up campaigns etc you should be able to compare traffic from one ad against another fairly easily. All this means is that when you're sitting in a meeting you can tell, with a large sense of certainty, how many visitors you got from that Twitter campaign or this Facebook campaign and so on and that's all brilliant. 

But that's not how the internet works. Sometimes people just know the URL of your homepage or perhaps a specific section. Like www.bbc.co.uk/sport. That's great. Thanks for stopping by.

Sometimes they come to you via a search on Bing or Google. "Hey - what you're looking for, yeah it's right there!" Even better. A service that sends people to the page on your site that has the information they searched for? What a great idea. And it really is.

But what about those visits to pages within your site that have complicated URLs and don't live in any campaigns and don't seem to have come from a search engine? They're just direct traffic. Sitting there, lurking. Dark social lives here my friends. 

Have you ever read an article or a blog that you found and found it so interesting you were compelled to copy the URL directly and paste it into an email that you sent to like six friends? That is Dark Social.

And the reason it is so important? 

“For one, I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience?”

— Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis C. Madrigal points out, in his article, that people have been sharing via IM, forums and email for years. Sharing content isn't a new thing and the "Social Web" isn't a new thing either. We just have very visible networks that we can point to and say "That's social networking"

So basically the web has always been social - the sharing of content, links, images, videos and so on has always happened. Just because we now have tangible (and I use that in the loosest possible way) social networks doesn't mean people don't behave the way they always did.  

A quick look at my phone tells me that I have 2 email apps (managing 3 email addresses) and 6 instant messaging apps on my phone. I share links via these 8 apps on a regular basis. Like when I saw this story on balls.ie about Arsenal's new jersey leaking and decided to share it with a group of friends and my brothers via our "Football Around The World" Whatsapp group.  

The point is if the URL is long and complicated and it's got direct traffic in your analytics - then the chances are that the people are clicking on it because it was by someone they know. If you step back and think about your web habits you'll probably recognise it's something that you practice quite regularly.

Bottom line? Don't assume all your traffic is coming from tangible sources. If your bread and butter is content, perhaps have a look at your direct traffic analytics and see what kind of content people are engaging with and sharing. It might help you produce better content in the long run.