Back to blog

Future Now: Understanding Dark Social

Siobhán Maher
3 December 2018
Future Now: Understanding Dark Social

So picture this, you are browsing away on a fine Sunday evening, and come across a hilarious picture on your favourite subreddit whats wrong with your dog.

Clearly this needs to be shared immediately with your fellow pet parent. So you copy the link and text them via Whatsapp.

Well congratulations buddy - you’ve gone to the dark side now. Dark social that is.

It really is not so uncommon for this social media sidestep, due to either workplace constraints, or personal reasons. Some people simply don’t want to the world to know how much they love watching videos of pandas falling over.

In any case, dark social is on the rise - reportedly responsible for 84 percent of outbound sharing. So what can you do? In this age of digital and data driven thinking - is there way to better understand - and harness - dark social?

What Is Dark Social?

Dark social is when people share content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email.

Since dark social uses private sharing - messaging apps like Signal and Whatsapp and email - it is much harder to track. But fear not dear Jedi - there is a way back to the light.

Some of the most common dark social traffic channels are:

  • Messaging apps—such as WhatsApp, Signal, WeChat and FB Messenger

  • Email—to protect users’ privacy, referrers aren’t shared

  • Native mobile apps—Facebook, Instagram

  • Secure browsing—If you click from HTTPS to HTTP the referrer won’t be passed on

In the case of normal google searches or referral traffic, it is usually identified by certain “tags” attached to the link whenever it’s shared. So for example, if a customer clicks the share now button on your site, sharing something from your page via Twitter a unique twitter tag follows that link - allowing you to follow the clicks.

Dark social links, however, don’t contain referrer data. Typically this happens when a customer simply copies and pastes the link and shares via email or messaging apps. That all important tag doesn’t follow the link. If you have ever seen “direct traffic” on your Google Analytics - this is dark social.

Why Dark Social Matters to Arts Organisations

For arts organisations dark social matters for three key reasons:

1. Dark social is everywhere

With the rise of mobile has come the rise of dark social. Mobile browsing in combination with messaging apps' global penetration is a big factor in the rise of dark social. According to Mary Meeker’s 2018 internet trends report, digital media usage grew 4% in 2017, to a total of 5.9 hours per day per adult user. More than 55% of that time is spent on a mobile device.

2. Dark social has a huge impact on traffic

Marketing firm RadiumOne reported that, in the last year-and-a-half, dark social shares as a percent of on-site shares jumped from 69 to 84 percent globally.

And Facebook during roughly the same timeframe? Only 11% of site-originated mobile shares and 21% of mobile clickbacks happened worldwide via Facebook. In addition, more and more consumers have become wary of Facebook - with Gen Zers opting for direct messaging apps to chat to groups.

3. Dark social reaches unique demographics

Dark social reaches audiences that might not otherwise hear about you. Because of its private nature you have a great opportunity to talk directly to new segments and audiences.

Where to Start with Dark Social?

First, you need to see how much dark social traffic you are getting. There are a few ways to do this.

  1. Use a dark social calculator like which uses Google Analytics to give you a quick picture on the state of dark social for your site. This is a free service, and offers a quick bit of insight into dark social.

  2. Audit your direct traffic on Google Analytics. First you need to pull data of your total sessions from the last month. Then you can need to look at your traffic sources - click into direct traffic - this is where the critical info lies. Next, you need to filter the data to ignore your homepage - easily found via direct if someone simply searches your name. That figure is the portion of your direct traffic that is dark. You might be surprised by the results.
  3. Append tags/utms to private sharing buttons and add some UTMs to private sharing buttons. This may require more technical skills, but is an option.

  4. Keep an eye on social media you do track. If you see spikes on the social media you do track, check on Google Analytics direct traffic for the same period. If you see a bump in both places around the same time - you are likely seeing dark social in action.

Dark Social Tools

Once you understand how much of your traffic is dark, you can start to use some tools to help get a handle on what is going with those private shares.

URL Builder: If you don't already use Google's URL Builder - you should. URL Builder allows you to tag your campaigns and links so you can track back where each click comes from. It is indispensable when building tactics for dark social.

Url Shortners: One issue with URL Builder is you get extra long urls. Using an app like Bitly can allow you to track your links, while providing customers with short links, which are much more attractive and clickable.

Other tools like, and ShareThis all have specific tools and trackers designed for dark social.

Remember to make your social buttons easy to see and easy o use. Highly visible easy to use share buttons encourage people to share the social route.

Think Differently When Dealing with Dark Social

Keep in mind that dark social is not like your other channels. It is more informal and private, but also highly targeted. Imagine a VIP Whatsapp group for your top tier members, where you can share exclusive deals and programme events.But be careful! Don’t broadcast, don’t sell - your goal here is to encourage conversation and make your customers feel like part of something special.

Looking forward to seeing everyone at AMA on Wednesday!

Future Now AMA Digital Marketing Day

Back to blog


View More

Sign up for regular updates