Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Dark social is about messaging that sidesteps social media and cannot be measured accurately. The term was coined by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, in a 2012 article. One could be forgiven for confusing the term with a disturbing mass of overlay networks, authorisations, configurations and illicit purchasing of drugs, or worse. But messaging becomes “dark” for brands as we increasingly receive – and forward – messages in WhatsApp, Snapchat, SMS, secure browsers and even e-mail.

While traffic will continue to show up on the actual website, the referrer website is largely untrackable. And therein lies the challenge, especially for marketers and search engine optimisation (SEOs) specialists who need to prove their worth to clients. Dark social puts obstacles in the way of straight-line measurement, as this social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programmes. Without a clearly attributable source of statistics, clients and marketers will have a hard time replicating the success of their campaign.

A 2014 study of 900-million globally connected devices by advertising firm RadiumOne showed that dark social dwarfs the volume of sharing on social media platforms by three to one; and this is likely to have grown as online access has become more available to all. So, what’s a marketer to do?

Can’t measure it, but don’t ignore it

Online analytics giant Brandwatch says there’s no foolproof way yet to track 100% of dark social traffic. Still, with its increasing influence, marketers cannot ignore it. Like the “Orangutan” clip that went viral in minutes, engaging content is shared extensively on social media channels and generates momentum for dark social traffic.

Going off mainstream like Twitter and Facebook but still seeing where traffic originates means coming up with solutions such as shortened URLs; including sharing buttons on websites, e-mail, WhatsApp and other dark mechanisms; and learning how Google analytics can help us get greater  access to dark social data than is  available now.

The big take-out

Johanna McDowell points out that the growing influence of dark social media presents a real conundrum for marketers – and there is no sure-fire way to track or measure it yet.

Address bar tracking, content-sharing tools and new analytics tools are bringing us closer to being able to measure more of the 70% of shares experts suggests take place via dark social.

Still, in our quest to measure every click and like, clients, SEO gurus and marketers must never forget the “social” aspect: just as we can’t measure who makes a purchase after a recommendation over dinner with friends, there will always be those metrics that are inexplicable. I say leave it to your online teams and hope for “viral”.

  • Johanna McDowell is MD of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company.