Dark Social: The Future of Online Marketing

Dark Social: The Future of Online Marketing

You may have come across the term “Dark Social” during some of your late-night internet sessions and thought, “hey, is this that area of the web where unmentionable things are shared among friends?” You’d be close if you thought that, but not quite spot-on.

What is Dark Social?

Dark Social really refers to the traffic websites and content platforms get from private peer-to-peer sharing. In essence, every time you share one of those funny fail videos with your best friend using a messenger app, you’re participating in Dark Social web traffic. It cannot be tracked and is a hassle when it comes to modern marketing tactics.

These clicks all get sorted into analytics services like Google and WordPress as “direct traffic.” They become a  wide ocean of possibilities that cannot be narrowed for marketing purposes.

This kind of traffic offers nothing in the way of referral demographics that help you continue making and sharing content your users will like. Fortunately, the world of marketing is always evolving; today, 30 percent or more of your traffic can come from Dark Social. Dark Social doesn’t represent the end of your marketing campaign, but the beginning of your next phase in strategy.

Apps That Thrive on Dark Social

Apps that take marketing and tilt it on its head are those that offer privacy options for their users who prefer to keep their social activities to themselves or share them with a select few friends; their inner circle so to speak.  Unlike SnapChat, Instagram stories have evolved from being Dark Social traffic sources, given the user has an Instagram Business account.

SnapChat, on the other hand, is hugely popular with the younger generation, as confused as a teenager in the stock market and home to a thriving audience of hungry eyes, this app could be a gold mine for marketing strategists, but… it adds no tracking tags when items are shared privately. This is largely what younger Gen Z internet users find attractive about these newer social mediums.

Other apps like this include Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and Line. Dark social sharing also refers to links shared via email and team management platforms like Slack and through text messages. Any URLs saved via bookmarks are also part of blind direct sharing protocols.

Types of Direct Traffic

There are two types of direct traffic and they come down to privacy-protecting apps, browser settings and legal regulations.

When a person types your browser URL into an address bar, I like to call it direct web traffic proper, like the true summit of a mountain, the summit proper. This can be tracked.

Any time someone clicks on your links as part of Dark Social sharing, its more like incognito direct. This is untrackable and so are direct clicks from browsers with tracking disabled and browsing from regions like Canada and the EU and Australia that focus on user privacy.

Why Dark Social Is a Headache for Analysts

The major issue with Dark Social sharing is the loss of referral data and the frequency with which this type of sharing happens. A report stated that 46 percent of people ages 55 and older exclusively share via private messaging. Worse yet, 84 percent of consumers’ outbound sharing also happens on Dark Social.

When you can’t see where your traffic is coming from, it makes it difficult to work on lucrative marketing strategies. This is multiplied when you’re trying to market to audiences who almost exclusively share content in this way.

But, this doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on Dark Social.

Dark Social Isn’t All Bad

Dark social is not a menacing internet troll lurking around every corner trying to steal your conversions. In fact, the majority of dark social shares come from high-value targets. It isn’t all bad.

For example, an ad shared on a public news feed may get some likes and possibly some clicks, but the ratio from seen to click has a huge gap, as well as the ratio from click to buy. There’s a very random possibility when it comes to turning ads into revenue.

But, users who received inbound links to their inbox from close friends or family are more likely to click on that link and become a conversion unit. Why? Because the person sending the link has personal knowledge of their friend’s likes and dislikes and has now become your 1:1 personal marketing guru. Dark Social has a higher probability of earning you some traffic, the issue isn’t the conversion value but the ability to track this.

Lassoing Dark Social Traffic

If you’re using Google Analytics, advanced features can help you grapple some of the traffic data you’re missing.

Click on your “direct traffic” section. Then, somewhere on the right, you’ll find an “advanced” tab. Let’s venture there.

In your filters, change the option for including a page to “exclude.” Now, select “Page.”

From here, you should add some of your direct URLs that have a simpler permalink, the ones your readers are more likely to access directly by typing them into the address bar.

Your results will be a collection of more complex URLs that most likely have gathered their traffic from Dark Social sharing.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

For now, being able to track Dark Social shares for your marketing campaign is a no-go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t join the party.

Focus on incorporating Dark Social platforms in your business plan. Remember, a lot of your customers and readers are already using one or more of these platforms; suffice it to say, you need to be on there as well.

On Twitter

Start by offering one-on-one customer care using customer service messaging on social media.

Twitter, in particular, has a host of business accounts dedicated solely for their customer service efforts; prime examples include Comcast’s @ComCastCares and U-Haul’s @UHaul_Cares accounts.

These are active customer service outlets your customers can reach out to 24/7. Through comments and replies, you can see information regarding your userbase and through customer service chat, you can participate in your own Dark Social sharing.

On SnapChat

SnapChat’s audience grows by the minute. Using their stories tool can give you an edge by bringing their users directly into your circle. Show them what you’re about, and give them tantalizing snippets of those decadent cakes you design or those hot games you develop.

Anyone who comes across it is likely to share with their friends and turn these untraceable clicks into conversions.

Capitalize on their ads program and use geofilters to target specific areas.

On WhatsApp

If you’re starting out and want to be able to communicate with international customers and potential clients, WhatsApp is an invaluable tool. Offer call and chat assistance through the app, and use the chat history to offer your most active customers deals and share content with them.

Custom Tracking Codes

Using custom tracking codes allow you to customize your URL for sharing; it will pull traffic information directly into Google Analytics complete with added details, the medium and the name of the campaign you’re running.

Using these codes, the analytical data will be able to differentiate general “direct traffic” from social media traffic, even if the link is shared via a private message.

Include Share Buttons

Most content platforms allow the option to include sharing buttons with your content, and if not, coding them in is fairly simple. There are built-in sharing tools when it comes to mobile apps, but adding in your own gives you a greater spectrum for tracked sharing.

Try a service like ShareThis, which offers unique sharing menus for readers and users who aren’t surfing on mobile. Enable the buttons to share to popular services like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. These shares will give you some tracked traffic that is distinguishable as social sharing.

Let’s face it, the future of marketing online is changing and privacy issues are getting harder and harder to liaise around. So, the next best thing you can do is join Dark Social and capitalize on the services your customers are already using to get to your site. Just because you can’t trace it doesn’t mean you can’t use it.

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