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February 28, 2024
Dark Social: Hidden Conversations Marketers Can’t See

When is social media, not social media? When it’s dark social media.

WTF is ‘dark’ social media? Well, I’m so glad you asked.

‘Dark social’ is the term given to any kind of online sharing that happens under the radar of visibility, attribution, and analytics tools.

It’s how and where friends, colleagues, or members of a community might share any kind of content. However, they’re using channels that marketers – and attribution software – can’t see.

As far as marketing is concerned all of this kind of happens in the shadows, across private or even clandestine networks – hence ‘dark social.’

Dark social blows apart much of what marketers and data analysts have been taking for granted until now. Every minute of every day, non-trackable channels are being used to amplify your brand and content (positively or negatively) without your knowledge.

Buyers are increasingly reliant – and trusting – of dark social channels as part of their consideration process. And, right now, you don’t see any of it.

Dark social is like learning your Great Aunt Gladys goes to pole dancing classes every week. Once you know it’s going on, you can’t ever think about it in the same way again.

Why is dark social so important?

Dark social can provide astute marketers timely and relevant insights into how buyers are thinking and the influences currently shaping the sales landscape.

As the sales and the buying journey continues to evolve, marketers need to understand the power of dark social. To tap into the hidden currents of online conversations and drive meaningful engagement with audiences. Oh – and to close more sales, of course.

Why should marketers and business owners be all over dark social, and what it means to the lead generation plans? To answer that we need to take a step back and look at how content is consumed and shared online.

Dark social and conventional social media attribution represent two sides of the online sharing coin.

Conventional social media attribution needs little explanation. It’s about tracking and analyzing public interactions and engagements taking place on social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever.

Using analytics data spewed out from such platforms, we can measure the impact and reach of content shared within their networks. We get insights into public conversations, brand mentions, and the effectiveness of marketing campaigns on a particular social media platform.

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Such data helps us make educated decisions. What do people think of our product, or how well did last month’s campaign do? It also helps us gauge more nuanced metrics such as brand recognition, Share Of Voice, or mental availability.

Conventional social media attribution provides a wealth of data on public interactions and engagement. However, dark social holds the potential for deeper, more personal connections and recommendations.

You can think of it as a more intimate and personal form of sharing. Individuals share content directly with trusted friends or contacts, often with a higher level of trust and relevance. In most sales situations (especially in B2B) buyers trust their peers more than anyone else. More than Gartner, more than Google – and definitely more than brands.

Just because you can’t measure it, doesn’t mean it isn’t important

Dark social is different.

Dark social refers to all those channels and methods of sharing that all of us do every day, but happen outside of public view. Sure, it includes sharing via private messaging apps, email, and other encrypted channels. But there are a ton of other ways we share content with our peers that, while being public, are still not tracked by attribution software.

  • You read an insightful post or watch a video on LinkedIn that you think your colleague/boss/customer would find interesting. You copy/paste the link and send it to them.
  • In your next department meeting, a co-worker mentions a podcast she listened to last month that talked about the subject currently begin discussed. She sends the link to everyone in the meeting, and posts it on the company Slack channel.
  • You’re interested in an ad you see on your Instagram feed, but don’t click on it. Instead, you tag a few of your friends to get their feedback.

All of these are examples of valuable touchpoints in a modern buying journey. Yet none of them are getting tracked or measured by attribution software. Why? Because we’re missing the traditional referral mechanisms and metadata that come with publicly-shared content.

As a result, these kinds of exchanges are often invisible to analytics tools, making it difficult for marketers to accurately attribute their impact and understand their full reach.

How dark social muddies attribution

Conventional marketing attribution methods don’t translate themselves to measuring dark social effects.

For example it’s all very well using a personalized URL or adding a UTM code to a backlink. But that presupposes the target of the message campaign is the one doing the clicking.

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Dark social shares often lack referral information specific to the link. This screws-up assuptions on how someone ended up on your site in the first place. Attribution software (Google Analytics, for instance) considers someone coming to your website from a WhatsApp link, as being no different to them typing the URL directly into their browser.

Just to be clear, I’m not singling-out WhatsApp. The vast majority of social media links are misreported by attribution software. Links sent from channels such as LinkedIn, Pinterest, Slack, TikTok, or Instagram either contain a fraction of referral data, or don’t bother with any.

So when you next check your stats to find out how visitors found your website, take those numbers with a large quantity of sodium chloride. It’s very likely you’re totally underestimating how much traffic is coming to your site from channels and sources you cannot see.

Why is dark social growing? Because of privacy concerns

So how come we’re all talking about dark social all of a sudden. I think there are three main reasons, and all of them come from the same point: privacy.

The two biggest data earthquakes for marketers in recent years have been GDPR and iOS 14.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a law to safeguard the privacy rights of individuals in any EU member state. Since its inception, many other territories and countries have implemented GDPR-type privacy legislation.

Apple’s iOS operating system introduced significant changes to user privacy. For example the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature requires any app to obtain user permission before sharing any data for targeted advertising purposes.

The third factor for the growth in dark social? Us, the users.

Research shows that more of us are sharing content using a different channel to wherever the source content resides. Maybe it’s pasting the link into an email, Google Chat, or Microsoft Teams. Perhaps – like me – you email stuff to yourself, to deal with later. However we’re doing it, we’re doing it away from the site in question.

Another user factor is trust. Or rather, the lack of it. More of us are increasingly aware how our behavior is documented and tracked online. Use of ad blockers is at an all-time high, for example.

The built-in browsers in most social media apps mine a gazillion more data points that ‘real’ browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

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No one in their right mind (and certainly no-one over the age of 40) clicks the “I agree to be tracked” cookie button when visiting a website.

Marketing mindset in a dark social world

Bottom-line: a significant percentage of most organizations’ website traffic is coming from channels they don’t know about.

Attribution software data can no longer be trusted. This is due to user behavioral change, distorted or missing channel referral metadata, and user privacy regulations.

Marketers need to update their mindset. There needs to be an understanding that, increasingly, some facets of the buyer’s journey are happening in places that are either difficult or impossible to measure.

Sure, that throws out those sales prediction Excel sheets we’ve worked on over the last few years. But if their usefulness continues to wane, why are we still using them?

Dark social is further evidence (as if more were needed) that trying to create a consistent and irrefutable ‘formula’ for marketing effectiveness and growth is a futile endeavor.

Why? Because human beings don’t make decisions in 100% logical and rational ways. To quote Jill Bolte-Taylor, “we think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.”

Emotion, context, demography, psychography, and 101 other variables influence the thoughts we have and the decisions we make.

We need to adapt our attitudes to measurement and attribution to be better aligned with the behaviors and expectations of the people we’re looking to attract.

To accept that measuring the ROI of a particular blog article, social media post, or webinar isn’t just a waste of our time. It’s that such assumptions actually run contrary to real-world audience behavior.

Blowing our own trumpet

Many thanks to the team at Feedspot for selecting us as one of the 2023 Top Small Business Marketing Blogs.

About the Author

Avatar for Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha is CEO and founder of KEXINO. He’s been a marketer since the days of 56K modems, lectures on marketing and behavioral economics at two European business schools, and was noted as one of the top 100 global business influencers by sage.com (those wonderful people who make financial software).

Originally from London, today Gee lives in a world of his own in Strasbourg, France, tolerated by his wife and teenage son.

Find out more about Gee at kexino.com/gee-ranasinha. Follow him on X/Twitter at KEXINO, on Facebook at facebook.com/ranasinha, or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ranasinha.