Dark Social Media: You May Be More Popular Than You Think

Have you ever surfed the Interwebs, found an article, and shared it via email or a text message? If so, you’re a dark social media practitioner. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Alexis C. Madrigal coined the phrase “dark social” in a 2012 article written for The Atlantic entitled “Dark Social: We Have The Whole History of the Web Wrong.” In it, he wrote about how a large number of shares are untraceable on analytics. They’re unaccounted for because the referrer information is not present.

If you see an article or a business link on Facebook that interests you and you click it, analytics aggregates the metadata that came across with your click and that business can see where you came from.

This type of tracking helps analysts understand where they’re getting the best return on investment. If you realize Facebook is giving a significant amount of traffic to you, you’re going to work hard at your presence there. If, on the other hand, you realize no one is clicking through on LinkedIn, you may decide it’s not worth your time.

But what if the numbers we’re using for these critical marketing decisions are flawed?

Understand Google Direct Referrals

When something is dark it does not mean it ceases to exist. If you’re wondering about your “dark” social media or traffic look at what Google labels a “direct” referral. You may have taken that label quite literally and assumed it meant people came directly to that page by typing in the URL. This may have seemed far-fetched to you, especially if the page you’re looking at had a lengthy URL.

But in this case, “direct” doesn’t mean “direct” but Google didn’t want to call it, “We have no idea.”

Take a look at those numbers. How many direct referrals do you get every month? If it’s high, you may have a cult-like following of people who are sharing your content in underground ways. These may include email links, mobile apps, text messages, smoke signals, etc.

Up to 82% of Content May Be From the Dark Side

The ad platform RadiumOne conducted a report in 2016 where it estimated that as much as 82% of shares may be dark traffic shares. In 2014, their report shows it was below 50%. As mobile becomes a larger part of everyone’s Internet habits, there are more shares occurring on text messaging and chat platforms.

What Does Dark Traffic Mean for Your Business?

On one hand, it means we can’t count on the numbers we’ve been relying on. We need to pull back the curtains a little further and see what’s underneath. If you’re seeing a lot of direct referrals through Google Analytics, you might have a lot of dark, private sharing going on.

It’s also important to understand the sentiment that may be driving it. For instance, if I share something about your business on my Facebook profile, my friends may or may not see it. This is true not only because of the algorithm, but because my friends could miss it because they’re not online or their other friends are monopolizing their feeds. And that’s okay. I realize this. It’s something you have to understand if you’re posting publicly.

But if I send something directly to someone, I want them to see it. That’s why I chose a private avenue. Because I think it’s perfect for them, I want to ensure it isn’t missed. It’s a much more urgent call to action.

So instead of fearing the dark side, it may be something a lot of businesses need to embrace knowing that it’s out there. It may just be a lot more powerful than what we ever imagined.


Christina R. Green teaches small businesses, chambers and associations how to connect through content. Her articles have appeared in the Midwest Society of Association Executives’ Magazine, NTEN.org, AssociationTech, and Socialfish. She is a regular blogger at Frankjkenny.com and the Event Manager Blog.

She’s a bookish writer on a quest to bring great storytelling to organizations everywhere.