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Why Brands Should Join the ‘Dark Social’ Side

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What is ‘dark social’?

When we talk about the ‘dark side’ of social media, for once, we aren’t referring to the dark web or cyberbullying (and sorry, we aren’t even inviting you to a Star Wars themed partyl!). Instead, it describes how little is truly understood about the performance of content on ‘dark’ social channels.

Metrics gleaned from Facebook and Twitter accounts tools such as Sprout Social, Sendible, Hootsuite, Brandwatch, Sysomos, and the whole host of other social media monitoring tools out there have empowered social media managers to delve into data and translate it into something actionable, they’re actually investigating less than a third of the data story. So, if you’ve based your content strategy on these findings, you might have wandered down a dark path.

What is Dark Social?

“Dark Social happens when someone shares content or a link by copying and pasting into communications such as emails, instant messages and forum posts.”

The term Dark Social was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, the technology editor at in 2012, describing web traffic that comes from outside sources that web analytics weren’t able to track. But we’re leaps and bounds ahead now. In just three years, content marketers and their analytical skills have become more sophisticated, and as standard deliver reporting on inbound social media traffic. But, there are still knowledge gaps about peripheral social channels. For example, users who are copy and pasting a website URL into an instant message. According to studies, these channels aren’t peripheral and the traffic they generate is substantial.

RadiumOne investigated the impact of dark sharing in its study, ‘The Light and dark of social sharing; harnessing the power of consumer connections’. It found that 84% of people share content online globally, plus that 69% share using Dark Social channels, such as email, instant messaging and forum posts. Even more eye-opening, it found that 32% will only share content exclusively using Dark Social. In addition, 36% of those dark shares happen on mobile.

For consumers the appeal of Dark Social is control. They maintain power as a curator of content, and are able to apply a discerning filter on who sees the content. If marketers can harness Dark Social, they can speak to a more targeted and accurate audience, than if their content is broadly shared on a social media channel.

Brands in the dark

Brands who have embraced a cross-channel content strategy will already be manoeuvring in the shadows. Owned and branded content is shared in the dark and light; content is published across owned social media channels and distributed using email. Using shortened links using free tools, such as, or the Google URL builder – we’ve created a quick tutorial here – brands can see traffic erupting from the darkness in their analytics interfaces.

If brands don’t analyse their indepth traffic sources tactically, they could be making data-driven decisions based on only 30% of proven behaviour. Yikes.

Casestudy: Team Sky

Using link shortener to build trackable links across all their consumer facing media, Team Sky discovered that 95% of its content had been shared via Dark Social, while only 5% had been shared via Facebook and Twitter. In addition, it informed the most engaging content for Team Sky’s audience so the marketing team could focus their attention on the most popular topics, platforms and formats.

How to implement Dark Social tracking.

Focusing on Dark Social should be a priority for brands in the UK, as is represents 75% of shares across the nation. For worldwide sharing, the figure is closer to 69%. Here’s what you need to do:

Turn all content links into shortened, trackable URLs using a tool such as, or the Google URL builder. The short URLs can be used on social posts, email campaigns, blogs, embedded in video, tests, press releases, QR codes, email signatures, search campaigns, offline campaigns and ad tags.

Share these trackable links every time you distribute your content. No exceptions.

Save the URLs – with clear labelling – and share with the wider marketing team.

Measure the click backs and clickthrough using your analytics package and monitor where the traffic originates from.

Calculate the use of dark vs light sharing by your audience by setting up a simple report in Microsoft Excel. Collate the referral source data and filter to show the social media channels. Create a formula that calculates a rolling percentage of shares via light methods such as Facebook and Twitter, and create a separate formula that does the same for dark sources, such as email, instant messenger, or forums. What does the dark figure look like if you add 32%? Ignore that last part, no guess work allowed.

Compare the data and tell the story of your content’s journey. Is Facebook really your greatest source of traffic? If it’s Whatsapp, maybe you should implement a Whatsapp share button on all your content.

Act on the findings to tailor your content strategy to the dark side.

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Sharon Flaherty

Hi, I’m Sharon the Managing Director of BrandContent. Day-to-day I oversee client satisfaction and carry out strategic client work. I work on both established financial services brands as well as challengers and love working on both. In a previous life, I was a journalist at the Financial Times and worked in-house for brands including the MoneySuperMarket Group and leading their Content, PR and Social divisions.

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