Categories : Online Marketing , Social Media

Dark Social: Shedding Light on Private Social Networks

Dark Social: Shedding Light on Private Social Networks

So, you think you’re pretty tech-savvy? You know a few things about the social media world and even taught your grandma how to use “The Google”? Maybe you’re a digital marketer and are used to things like tracking your posted content and keeping tabs on your target market.

Well, even if all of this is true, I am here to inform you that there is a dark, largely unreachable, hugely pervasive part of the Internet that goes unnoticed by most of the world. Its name? Dark Social.

Never heard of it? Feeling betrayed by the Internet? Don’t worry; this article will help you understand that Dark Social isn’t the dark lurking corners of the internet that teenagers like to hang out.  In fact, it is called Dark Social for an entirely different reason. Let me explain…


If you are anything like me, the first time you hear the term “dark social,” you might start picturing a list of all the negative effects of posting everything you eat for breakfast on Instagram. In fact, until I spoke at the Women in PR & Communications Conference last year in Sydney, Australia, I hadn’t really given Dark Social much thought either.  So, what is it?

Dark social refers to when people share content on private, rather than public, platforms.

The term was coined in 2012 by journalist Alexis C. Madrigal in an article he wrote for The Atlantic challenging the way we think about web history. It is recently becoming more of a buzzword, not just because it sounds edgy, but because we are realizing it has serious implications for the way social media marketers and analysts do their thing.

Basically, when I send you funny cat videos when I should be doing something productive, and I send them via some type of personal message to at least save a bit of my dignity, I send you a link that does not typically add any tracking tags.

Dark social traffic channels include any “social” elements that aren’t considered “public.” Today, we have the ever-growing popularity of newer apps like Snapchat. Snapchat is a completely dark social network. Why? Because Snapchat doesn’t display everything you have to the world. Instead, Snapchat allows users to be selective in who they let into their networks and share with. This comes down to a push towards privacy, which you don’t get when sharing on public platforms. See that dark social big picture filling in?

Dark Social Traffic

Dark Social traffic includes apps like:

  • Messenger
  • Snapchat
  • WhatsApp
  • WeChat
  • Line
  • Viber

With all of these apps, traffic is between individuals rather than public and traceable audiences.


One report on dark social showed that 84% of consumer’s outbound sharing now takes place on private platforms.

Whereas this can prove to be challenging, it is not to say that dark social is “bad.” In fact, it’s great. People on the receiving end of dark social sharing, or those using dark social networks, generally have higher interest than those following publicly shared links, perhaps found lurking on a Facebook wall. As Business Insider reported, messaging apps are outpacing social networking apps in terms of monthly active users and, to review, messaging apps are included in dark social traffic platforms. So, when someone sends a specific person a link to view content, check out a product, or visit a website, it’s almost like a direct referral, with high potential for conversion.

It’s the difference of coming across a Nike ad on my newsfeed randomly and getting a message from my best friend sharing the ad and asking if I want to go shopping with her later. One is trackable and the other isn’t, but which would a company actually prefer?

So, marketers are faced with a dilemma, they need to track their social media traffic to analyze their marketing efforts, but the main source of their web traffic is not trackable.


Account for Dark Social

With dark social, you aren’t able to go into your analytics information and simply search for the report that says “dark social traffic.” Dark social goes places that even The Great Google Analytics can’t touch (yet). Don’t lose hope, however.

What you CAN do, is look for direct traffic. Direct traffic is any traffic to your website that is either direct, in that a user typed your address directly into the URL bar, or it is untraced. Untraced traffic has two sources. Either the user came from a dark social network where the click has no traceable source (such as a URL sent via text message) or the user’s browser allows no tracking cookies. The latter is common throughout Canada, the EU, and Australia and is more widespread since the GDPR update, which applies to companies internationally.

Your total direct traffic isn’t a straightforward indication of dark social networks or solely from dark traffic. However, if you’ve recently launched a campaign and seen your direct traffic spike noticeably, you can assume your campaign is working both on and off the screen!

To access this information on Google Analytics, first click on only the segment “direct traffic.” You will then find an “Advanced” link button on the right of your analytics screen. Click it and add a new filter.

The first filter to appear will default to include a page. You must change “Include” to “Exclude” in the drop-down list. Then, select Page. Add as many of your simpler website URLs as you can to the field — the ones that people may actually be accessing directly.

After applying the filter, your results will consist of your website’s “more difficult” URLs, which have not been tracked to any specific referrer. These URLs are likely the result of dark social traffic to your website.

Organic Traffic

Organic traffic can also be an indication of dark social. Let’s say, for example, someone sends a Snap from Target and says, “Bae! Have you seen these new cute bangles here at Target?” Their post has no link to click on. Instead, you type “Target” into your search bar and click the link from search results. You may even go as far as to type “bangles at Target.” This is a key element of dark social working for you. To learn more about navigating Google analytics, check out these resources.

Make Dark Social Platforms Part of Your Marketing Strategy

Your marketing efforts on public versus private social platforms are going to look very different. It won’t be all about likes and comments as it so often is with tools like Facebook campaigns. But still, as consumers shift towards more private messaging options, you’ll want to work with the trend rather than against it.

Although it may seem unlikely at first, small businesses can use even apps like Snapchat to their advantage. Let’s  take a look at what you can do.


– Use Snapchat Stories to show your Snapchat audience what a typical day at your company looks like.

– Try out Snap Ads, which give companies 10 seconds and usually a call-to-action to make an impression.

– Sponsored Geofilters attach brands to certain locations by using a location services a filter specific to that area. This can be especially useful during holidays and events.

– Sponsored Lens uses facial recognition to bring fun graphics to the lens, such as a user’s picture becoming a dog. You can create a lens that is relevant for your brand.

– Reach out to influences and take advantage of the feature that allows Snapchat users to tag each other.


– Build a brand persona to chat with users and encourage communication

– Offer discrete advice, updates, and offers to top customers and clients.

– Provide one-on-one assistance.

– Add a click-to-chat WhatsApp link on your website.


– Decide which WeChat business account is right for you: subscription accounts, service accounts, or enterprise accounts.

– With a subscription account, publish daily messages to your subscribers.

– Use service accounts to… provide customer service.

– Help the rest of your marketing efforts run smoother using enterprise accounts for internal communication and support.

Overall, the potential of these platforms is huge. According to Statista, as of August 2017, Snapchat had 173 million active users worldwide and more than 3 billion snaps were being sent daily. As of December 2017, Whatsapp has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users and WeChat reported having nearly 1 billion active users. Many of your customers are already using these platforms and so focusing on these users allows you to more easily share your content (privately) and extend your brand reach.


To sum this all up, understand that, although it will take some extra effort to analyze, dark social is a positive thing. Plan for ways to incorporate dark social networks into your marketing strategy, such as with the use of chat platforms, Instagram Stories, or Snapchat as a brand-building tool. Embrace dark social as a rising trend, especially as users gravitate more and more to private platforms and away from the eye of businesses.

Leave a comment