What’s all this about “Dark Social?”


In November of 2016 I went to an internship fair for UNT’s Mayborn School of Journalism, and I talked to a representative of Splash Media in Addison, Texas. He told me that the newest thing that marketers should be paying attention to in social media was something called “Dark Social.” He explained a little about what is was, and then I did some investigating on my own. Here’s what I found out.

What is Dark Social?

Dark Social is defined by Technopedia as “the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs.” That’ stuff like emails, Facebook messenger (which is HUGE) now, twitter DMs, and even apps like GroupMe which is used for group chats.
It’s called “dark” because there isn’t any straightforward way for most brands to measure it, and we don’t often think about it as a method of content sharing because it’s typically shared between just two peers. And yet, in one study by RadiumOne of over 900 million users they found that almost 77% of content sharing done by users is done through “Dark Social.”

Why does it matter?

When marketers think about social media impressions and engagement we don’t usually think about private messages between people on social media, I know I didn’t. But after hearing about dark social I realized how often I find something cool on Facebook, and share it with my friends via Facebook Messenger with a little bit of my own commentary.

As mentioned earlier, about 77% of content sharing is done through dark social. Analyzing how users share content is important to making marketing stronger, and to giving users the kind of content they like. With the majority of content sharing being out of reach for most marketing analysts, what new insights into digital marketing are we missing? With the rise of the studying of Dark Social we’ll be able to comb through a new frontier of digital marketing ideas, and social media etiquette. There is a whole area of user behavior we’ve never factored in, and the innovations that come from finally analyzing that could bring big changes in how marketers bring content to users.

SEO optimization, programming process
Image from gwebpro.com

In addition that, when web analysts are looking at web traffic for their websites, they sometimes see people showing up to a webpage out of nowhere. It’s as if they manually entered a complex URL into their browser, no linking from another web page or social media platform. It’s likely that much of this traffic is actually coming from Dark Social. People sharing links from peer to peer, and then clicking on them from in their messages. As we begin to understand Dark Social we’ll be able to innovate how marketers engineer their clicks and conversions.

What’s the history of Dark Social?

The term “Dark Social” was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in his piece for The Atlantic called “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.”

In the piece Madrigal talks about his problem with the standard narrative of how the internet evolved. It goes something like this: First we had simple webpages linking to one another, then the rise of web crawlers to better find the page you were looking for, and then the rise of the early social media sites like MySpace. He says that’s not even close to the full story.

Madrigal goes on to talk about how his early days on the internet were definitely spent connected, but rather than exclusively using sites like MySpace, he was using a lot of things like instant messenger, web forums, and emails. He says he thinks that social media sites are given too much credit for establishing social networking on the internet.

“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 True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.”

-by Alexis C. Madrigal

There’s a lot more he has to say about the subject, and considering that he wrote the book (or article to be exact) on the subject of Dark Social, I highly recommend checking it out. If the guy from Splash Media is right, we might all be talking about Dark Social sooner than you think. Better get a head start on the competition.

-Dallas Schwab, @schwabsyy

Published by

UNT Eagle Strategies

Class members of the social media class in the Mayborn School of Journalism