What is Dark Social and How Can It Help My Business?

7 min read
Apr 6, 2020
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Dark social. 

What jumps into your mind when I say those words? If you’re like most of the people in my office, the first thought is that it must mean something related to the dark web. You know, something that is cryptic, secretive, and maybe even borderline illegal. 

While sounding mysterious and foreboding, dark social is much more mundane (and legal!) than the image it conjures. Most likely, you’ve been using dark social in your personal life and aren’t even aware of it. In fact, dark social is becoming a critical part of private messaging, social media/networks and our everyday lives. Its use is more and more common, and that makes it something every marketing professional should know about and make use of. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, I’m going to break down what dark social is, how it works, and how it can help your business.

What is dark social?

Although many people are unaware of the term, it was first coined nearly a decade ago, in 2012, by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. Simply put, dark social is social communication that happens in such a way that it can’t be measured with traditional analytics platforms like Google Analytics. It’s sharing a link through (SMS) text messages, email, WhatsApp or other messaging apps, using secure browsers, or some native mobile apps. In a nutshell, it’s digital word-of-mouth advertising and electronically recommending something to your friends and family in a way that can’t be tracked.

For example, imagine you’re going on vacation with a group of friends. You post on social media that you’re looking for things to do in, say, Omaha, Nebraska. A few people comment on your post telling you to check out the Old Market (that’s not dark social). Another friend sends you a text message telling you to make sure you go to the Henry Doorly Zoo (that’s dark social), and another emails you a link to the College World Series (that’s dark social, too).

How does dark social work?

With dark social, Google Analytics doesn’t tell you exactly where that traffic came from. Instead, it shows that traffic as ‘direct’ in most cases. You don’t know where it originated and you can’t track it.

The opposite of that, open social sharing (for example, using Facebook’s share button or commenting on a Facebook post with a link), shows us what people are saying and identifies the traffic source. That allows marketers to attach a value to it, track it, and create marketing efforts directed at that traffic.

In the middle is controlled sharing. That’s when someone shares something in a private message. You can’t see what the conversation is about, but you know that it was shared and that there is interest in your product or service. Above all, the share is also trackable.

The difference between the above methods of sharing something and dark social is big. With dark social, you don’t know why something was shared, what was said about it, and most importantly for marketers, where that traffic came from. To say the least, it’s hard to build an effective marketing campaign if you can’t identify where traffic is coming from or what channels are producing the best results.

Dark social use is on the rise

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the number of people texting and using private messaging apps continues to grow every year. After all, it isn’t like it’s a new technology or anything, right? What those growing numbers tell us is that a change is underway in how people communicate and share information with each other.

The number of people using mobile messaging apps in 2016 was 1.58 billion people. That number is expected to grow to 2.34 billion people by 2021. If you look at two of the more popular online messaging apps, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, the numbers have jumped even more. WhatsApp grew from 200 million users in 2014 to 1.3 billion in 2017. During the same time period, Facebook Messenger went from 500 million users to 1.5 billion users. Looking at the top five online messaging apps shows us that they account for almost 5 billion active users each month. 

Those types of numbers provide a lot of opportunities for dark social to thrive. Especially when you consider that 63% of consumers tend to share through private messaging apps. Users are also likely to share with SMS and email at rates of 48% and 37%, respectively. More importantly, 20% of consumers prefer to share using only these channels.

Where things really get interesting is when you look at what is happening with social media interactions. Facebook went from nearly 30 billion interactions in the first quarter of 2017 to just under 13 billion in the second quarter of 2018. That’s a massive drop.

Looking at those sets of data together - texting and private messaging growing while social media interactions are decreasing - we can see a dramatic shift in sharing is happening. To put that into perspective, dark social accounts for 77.5% of all shares. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, came in a very distant second place with just 7.5% of shares each.

The takeaway here is that nearly 80% of shares that are taking place are not being tracked. In order to stay relevant, certain aspects of marketing need to change to accommodate that shift taking place.

Why are more people using dark social?

So, why are we seeing a rise in messaging app use combined with a decline in social media interactions? There is no simple answer, but recent trends point towards a few possible reasons.

One reason is that people, generally, trust social networks a lot less than they did just a few years ago. The 2016 Presidential election in the US, which saw the use of the term “fake news” hit the mainstream, damaged people’s trust in social networks in a big way. At the same time, we learned about Russian efforts to undermine the credibility of the election. And then, of course, it was revealed that Facebook was selling its users’ data to Cambridge Analytica. All of those factors combined forced people to reconsider their relationship with formerly trusted social networks.

Another reason, and perhaps related to the reason above, is that the overall dynamic between people and their social networks has changed. They’re not sharing less, but they’re sharing in different ways. Social media is no longer the novelty it was, and people are looking for more meaningful ways to connect with their friends and family. 

How can it help my business?

The potential of dark social and marketing is significant. People sharing with dark social are sharing with greater intent than most standard social media interactions. Their shares come with the thought of purchasing behind it.


Think about travel and sharing links for cheap flights, sights to see, and affordable accommodations. Or the food and spirits industry and dark social shares for recommended restaurants and bars, or even recipes. Those shares are responding to friends and family asking for specific recommendations for travel, entertainment, games, and clothing, among other things. 

Many dark social shares come from people that are likely to share personal photos (72%) and entertaining photos and videos (70%). However, there is more being shared that will impact the bottom line for a business. 50% of people are likely to share links to a website, 49% are likely to share links to good deals or discounts, and 49% are likely to share links to, or pictures of, products. 

These shares are trusted by those that receive them because they are coming from friends, family, colleagues, and peers. Think of it as a more organic word-of-mouth. The implications in marketing and for a business are enormous. 

Dark social is here to stay. Many marketers are treating it as a bothersome trend and are searching for ways to limit its use or avoid it altogether. They’re not seeing the forest because of all the trees. You have more advocates for your business than you think, but you don’t know where they are coming from. It’s high time to embrace it and turn it into something that can benefit your business. 

I’ll be back with another article shortly to delve into the details surrounding how your business can start to implement dark social into your marketing campaigns.

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