Dark social may sound rather shadowy and mysterious, but it’s less obscure than you might think. Have you ever copied and shared a link using WhatsApp? Congratulations! That means you’ve had a brush with the ‘dark side’ of social media.


For anyone looking for a definition, dark social is social traffic through private channels that are difficult to trace or to identify. WhatsApp, Slack, email and letters are a few examples of it. Search engines like Google and Bing are public, so they don’t fall into the dark social category.


What you should definitely know about dark social

As dark social takes place in the personal sphere, it is extremely difficult to measure what percentage of all traffic comes into a website through these channels. RhythmOne has investigated this phenomenon and identified a number of trends:

  1. 84% of shared links are passed on through private channels. Moreover, this figure is still increasing.
  2. Almost half of consumers aged 55 and over share their links exclusively through dark social.
  3. Communication through dark social chiefly takes place on mobile devices.


As it’s going through private channels, dark social traffic is difficult to measure – although not impossible. Here are a few tricks:
  1. UTM tags: Make the link for the content to which you want to direct people identifiable by adding UTM tags using Google’s link builder. This only takes a couple of minutes and saves a lot of head-scratching later on. Now that the link has the correct characteristics, and is therefore identifiable, you can easily identify the traffic coming in through dark social in your website analytics.

    What is UTM tagging? UTM tagging (Urchin Tracking Module) is a form of URL tagging for Google Analytics in which a UTM code can be added to a link. The results of marketing campaigns can be measured and analysed through this. You can use separate UTM tags for each medium and channel.

  2. URL shorteners: Shorter URLs look better on social media and are easier to share. URLs are simple to shorten with the help of one of the following tools: goo.gl, bit.ly, or ow.ly. But why is this important for your analytics? If people want to share a long link, they’ll shorten it themselves. They don’t generally use a tool for this, but simply remove all the UTM data. By providing a shortened version of your UTM link yourself, you prevent people messing with your link and thus avoid wasting valuable data.
  3. Social sharing buttons: By adding social sharing buttons to your content, you can quickly find out which social media your audience uses most often to share this content. Be certain to add email and WhatsApp to the list. And ensure that the buttons are clearly positioned on your website. This makes sharing easier for your audience and thus increases the number of shares.


A few parameters that you should definitely incorporate into your measurement:
  • The content form: what content is being shared? A white paper, a ‘how to’ video, a product page or something else?
  • The content’s reach: how many people are connecting to the content?
  • The impressions: how often is the content being viewed?


Why is dark social worth measuring?

By measuring dark social, you find out more about your audience’s interests. You can subsequently use this information to meet their needs better.


How do you identify dark social in website analytics?

Dark social can often be identified on the basis of direct traffic. “Direct traffic is not always what it seems”, Jente Joris explained to us at the annual Social Media Summit. When analysing your website, you’ll probably already have noticed that a large number of visitors arrive at a page “directly”. This doesn’t always mean that people are typing something like “https://www.outsource.be/marketing/e-mail-marketing-tools-getest-flexmail-vs-mailchimp/” into their browser. Instead, it’s highly likely that the traffic is coming to the page through dark social.

Direct traffic is all the traffic that Google can’t categorise under headings such as social, organic, paid search, etc. Clicks from apps, PDF documents and QR codes are also classified under direct traffic.

Looking for more social media know-how? Take a look at my blogpost on how to get more out of your event with social media.