Dark social refers to any digital channel where content is shared, yet clicks from the channel to a website are not traceable. Hence, 'dark'.

Though we have mentioned dark social before, new research shows that the problem is worse than previously thought, especially in Asia-Pacific and Australia.  

Here's why. 

Dark social exists because the web works by passing information from the source of a click to the destination site.  

That is, from a marketer's perspective, every time a user clicks through to your website to download a web page, the user's browser also sends a string to the site.

Along with all sorts of other data, the user's desktop browser dutifully tells your site where the click came from via something called the 'referer' (sic) string.

Then, an analytics programme, such as Google Analytics (GA) receives the referer string along with the URL of the page requested.  

GA then records the two strings together so that it can tell you what channels are driving what traffic: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or even another website.

This worked great when everyone was using the web via desktop. The browser was in control of the referer string and sent it along regardless of the source website. 

Then mobile happened

Now that people are sharing and browsing more on mobile, the responsibility for sending the string has shifted. Mobile apps get the first click.  

The click information is then passed to the browser, which then goes to get the page.

For some reason, it seems that mobile apps are not keen on sending the referer string to the browser.

So because the referer string isn't being sent to the browser, the browser is not sending it to the analytics engine. And, as a result, the traffic is recorded as coming direct.

I tried it out on a few mobile channels and saw that the Asia-Pacific networks do not share referer source for clicks and so are dark social platforms. 

The dark social problem

So dark social is, indeed, a big problem.

Why? Marketers rely on the referer string to attribute traffic to particular channels.  If more clicks are coming from, say, Facebook than Twitter, then marketers will be able to allocate resources more effectively.

If everything looks like it is coming 'direct' and dark, then it's impossible to know which source channels are performing well and which channel needs work.

Dark social in Asia-Pacific

It's difficult to generalize about dark social.

First off, the 'darkness' of dark social means that you cannot measure it easily channel-by-channel.  

That is, if you have stats from two dark social channels, you won't be able to tell which traffic came from which source.

Also, the impact of dark social depends on what drives your brand's website traffic.

A B2B publisher that get clicks mostly from people at work will hardly notice dark social. Its customers are using desktop browsers which usually send referer strings.

A consumer site frequented by customers on their mobiles, however, will see a huge drop in attributed social traffic and a large rise in 'direct visits'.

Finally, each market will have a different experience. A mobile-heavy culture, such as China, will have more dark social than one which still browses extensively on desktop, like the US.

RadiumOne illustrates this in its report, The Dark Side of Mobile Sharing.

Through analysing behaviour of nearly a billion monthly unique visitors on its sharing software, RadiumOne was able to determine how much sharing is done without attribution on dark social by region.

The chart indicates that most of the world shares over 80% of its links on dark social.  

Southeast Asia shares on dark social far more than the global average, and Australia is even more 'dark', with 89% of content shared going over unattributed channels.

What you can do about it

There is not much you can do to change either your users' behaviours or how the new, mobile social messaging apps send referer data to your web analytics.

However there are a few things you can do to address this issue for your  brand.

1. Measure the impact

First off, measure the impact of dark social on your site.

For sites with a long history, you can look back to a time before mobile became a significant part of your traffic.

Then see how much direct traffic there was then compared to now. Logically, most of the new direct traffic will be from dark social.

For new sites, then you can look at mobile clicks and see how many are coming direct. Direct mobile clicks are almost all dark social.

If your direct numbers are high, or getting higher, then its time to do something about it.

2. Review where you are sharing

To start addressing the dark social problem, have a look at where you are sharing and adjust your mix.  

If you're engaging a lot with customers on one of the social messaging networks like WeChat or WhatsApp, try moving some of your efforts over to Twitter or Facebook and get engagement on measureable social media platforms.

If enough brands do this, then it is possible that the social networks may become more transparent about their clicks.

3. Use UTM tags on the links you share

Also, add utm_source tags to your links (e.g. www.yoursite.com/?utm_source=wechat) and then wrap that big URL up with a URL shortener such as bit.ly.

Share the shortened link with encapsulated UTMs instead, and your analytics program will then use the data in the utm_source tag instead of any referer string.

4. Implement a solution

For those who are willing to invest, RadiumOne offers a dark social solution as does Simply Measured.  

Presumably, these solutions work by organizing your shares so that everything you post is tagged correctly and the data is then joined up on the back end to show you where your clicks are coming from.

So...

Dark social is a problem for marketers and it's likely to get worse as our sharing and our link clicks come increasingly from mobile.  

Though it's difficult to say how big the problem is, there are plenty of ways that marketers can find out the impact that it is having on their site.

Then, with one of the solutions, it should be possible to lower some of the 'direct' traffic and start to see more information about where your clicks are coming from, once again.

Jeff Rajeck

Published 31 August, 2016 by Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck is the APAC Research Analyst for Econsultancy . You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.  

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Comments (1)

Hugo Monteiro

Hugo Monteiro, Customer Success at GetSocial

Hi Jeff,

Great article about Dark Social!

The best way to approach this is indeed to understand the impact (if it's a problem or not).

The UTM codes, unfortunately, have an overlooked flaw: they are only able to track the first level share. If someone copies a UTM with source=Facebook and shares it on WhatsApp (already seen that happening), Google Analytics will count the clicks as coming from Facebook, which is wrong.

By the way, while RadiumOne and Simply Measured do track dark social channels, we have a much more cost-effective solution at GetSocial.io, starting at $9/month.

Have a great week,
Hugo

11 months ago

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