June 8, 2016 / Melissa Faudree

I probably do this numerous times throughout a week. In fact, I just did it before writing this blog. I bet you have been guilty of doing it too. Don’t worry it is nothing bad. It is actually pretty common. Curious yet?

Let me ask you something. How often do you find yourself sharing an interesting article or a funny video to someone? I’m not talking about sharing it directly on your Facebook profile or on your friend’s page. The kind of sharing I’m talking about, isn’t done on social media.

You are on your lunch break and come across a funny article from Buzzfeed. The moment you read it, you know your close friend will enjoy it as well and you have to share. Instead of sharing it your friend’s Facebook page, you immediately copy the article URL at the top of your browser. Then you open up your text messages and paste the URL to send it off to your friend. You may not be aware but you have just completed a “dark social” act.

Confused kitten

Photo Credit: Last Week Tonight

What is Dark Social?

Alexis C. Madrigal coined the term dark social in an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 2012 entitled, “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.”

Madrigal states that dark social takes place outside of anything that can be measured. Dark social can be thought of as invisible traffic. For example, you can measure social sharing within a social media platform. However, once a link is sent by other means such as through email or texting, it cannot be measured anymore.

In Madrigal’s article, ChartBeat, a web analytics company found that The Atlantic users could be categorized into two different groups.

One group accessed the basic website or landing page.

Example: theatlantic.com OR theatlantic.com/politics

The second group followed a specific link to a page.

Example: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/atlast-the-gargantuan-telescope-designed-to-find-life-on-other-planets/263409/

The first group could easily type in the URL or use a bookmarking feature. Whereas the second group was probably copying a link because it goes to a specific page. ChartBeat classified the people in the second group as direct social. Madrigal prefers the term dark social but ChartBeat had finally come up with a way to quantify dark social/direct social.

Most content that is shared on social media will have a referrer tag. However, dark social links will not contain any referrer data or UTM code. For example, let’s say I find an article on Twitter that a friend has Tweeted. If I copy that link, the link will tell me where it came from if I look closely. Let’s examine the link below (in bold).


“&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter” is a UTM code/referrer tag. UTM code is a tag that gets attached to the end of a custom URL that allows you to track content that is shared on the web. Marketers are able to measure and analyze these tags.

You can break down the UTM parameters a little bit more.

Destination URL: where the traffic is going
Source UTM tag: where the traffic comes from (what website?)
Medium UTM tag: how the traffic is getting there (where is the link featured?)
Campaign UTM tag: why the traffic is going there

Here is another example of a link that contains a referrer tag. Can you tell where this article originated?


If you guessed Facebook, you would be correct!

However, with dark social there are no referrer tags. Essentially you are left in the dark with tracking any further data when someone shares content outside of a social platform. The exception would be if the tags were previously attached from the original post that the user shared.

Shift from Public to Private Media

dark social, privacy

Dark social isn’t a new concept but with social media shifting from a public forum to a private forum, it has become a concern for marketers. Today some of the most popular apps are private, just look at WhatsApp, Messenger, and Snapchat. Millions of people are using these apps for daily conversations! The trend in communication is now more intimate versus broadcasting your life to everyone on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. People are sharing selfies with each other. Others are sharing articles (and other content) in private messages with friends. This kind of private sharing makes content untrackable for marketers.

The shift in communication has led to the rise of dark social. How can marketers measure and track content in these private conversations? More importantly, will marketers have access to this data in the future? The other question also concerns privacy for the users. Should these apps such as Messenger or WhatsApp analyze everything that is said? Privacy on social media is an entirely separate topic. So we will save that for another blog post.

It is no surprise that Facebook would be on top of current trends. Presently they are focusing on Messenger and how they can make it more valuable for users. They are aware of the shift to private conversations. With Messenger’s new features such as chatbots and in-app advertisements, they have the potential to track all of the data within the app. However, they do not currently have analytics set up but are working on an analytics system. I guess time will tell what Facebook will do.

Should marketers turn a blind eye to dark social? Of course not! But if you can’t see it, how can you analyze the data? If you look at your Google Analytics, all the hits labeled “direct” traffic are more than likely dark social hits. You can also consider the times you post content on social media and if you see a spike on your Google Analytics direct traffic, then you are tracking dark social.

Whenever we (Simplexity Marketing Group) share content on our social platforms, we always shorten our links with Hootsuite. Link shorteners allow us to analyze the content and see how users are engaging. You can then go back into your Google Analytics and view all your posts with custom URLs. This will help analyze those pesky dark social hits.

As marketers we can’t ignore the fact that people are sharing content every day on every type of medium, especially private messaging apps.

How are you tracking and analyzing content? 


Posted In: Blog, Social Media