I recently attended a local marketing event hosted by Institute of Communication Agencies, where Adam Pattison, VP of BBM for the Americas and EMEA, was speaking and the topic was one I hadn’t heard much about – Dark Social. The name alone conjures thoughts of the dark side of the Internet, where criminals and hackers lurk. When really it’s all about the difficulty of tracking content being shared on private social channels like messaging apps and email. It was an interesting presentation about people spending more time on ‘dark social’ (messaging apps and email) and how it is dominating our mobile usage. After Adam’s talk, I was intrigued to learn more about ‘dark social’. So I set out to do some research to see if people are actually spending more time on dark social and what it means for marketers like myself?

What is dark social?

Dark social, a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Dark social refers to the sharing of content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email. The content being shared on these private channels are difficult to track because web analytic programs can’t pinpoint where exactly the shares are coming from.

Chances are, many of us aren’t typing https://www.windwatermarketing.ca/why-your-website-is-important/ directly into the browser. But if one of our friends sends us that link through a messaging app and we click on that link it will take us directly to that web page. Links sent through private channels are missing the referral tags and web analytics programs will classify this as ‘direct’ traffic. The majority of the time ‘direct’ traffic comes from dark social.

Why should you care?

It’s easy to think ‘why bother’? However, you might be missing out on the chance to connect with your prospects and current customers on platforms where they are spending most of their time. In a study conducted by RadiumOne, 82% of all online referrals come from dark social. The biggest sources of dark social traffic come from email, messaging apps, and secure browsers. Email and messaging apps are great channels to reach out to your prospects and current customers. Are you taking advantage of these platforms to share your message?

A few week ago I was looking for new carry-on luggage, and I asked a friend on Facebook Messenger if she had any recommendations. She replied with a link for TravelPro luggage. And you know what I did? I bought that exact luggage she suggested. Dark social traffic is very valuable because it is basically word-of-mouth promotion from someone you know like a friend or family member. We are more likely to take our friend’s recommendation more seriously than a brand. We’re even more likely to take a stranger’s recommendation (third party) more seriously than a brand! Why is this?

It’s easy for a friend to share a link with us and we don’t think twice about their motive, they probably don’t have one, but it is a different story for brands. It is difficult for marketers to market on messaging apps because it’s hard to engage with users without intruding on their privacy (which is never received well). At the moment companies like BBM are adding content eco-system and public spaces within the BBM app, so brands can engage with users in those public space.

It is not just about selling a product or service. Brands must provide content that adds value to the user. If users see your content as valuable, they are more willing to engage. Since marketing on messaging apps is still in its infancy, we need to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t want to experiment with marketing on messaging apps and prefer to play it safe, email marketing is the way to go. If you have an email list it might be time to start reaching out to your list of contacts.

How to track dark social referrals?

As I mentioned earlier, social sharing that happens on dark social is difficult to track but it’s not impossible. Take a look at your direct traffic in your web analytic program, if you notice long links, it is most likely from dark social. Since we are less likely to type a long link into our browser.

Another way to track direct traffic is to add tracking tags parameter to the URLs. UTM parameters are tags that you can add to a URL, these tags you create are tracked by Google Analytics. This will help you differentiate where your web traffic is coming from. This is especially useful to track the success of your email marketing for a specific email campaign. Using UTM parameters, Google Analytics can tell you what the person did after they clicked the link on that email, such as what web page they visited, how long they spent on each page, and purchases they made. It’s recommended that if your CRM doesn’t track link clicks in your emails, you should add UTMs to any links you share with your email list.

In order to take advantage of dark social, we need to understand the platform and tailor our approach. Dark social shouldn’t be ignored because people are spending more and more time on these platforms on their mobile devices. Now that you know what dark social is, does it seem less scary? Will your next marketing campaign be on messaging apps?


Christine is the Marketing Assistant at WindWater Marketing, a B2B marketing firm based in Toronto, Canada. Christine stays up-to-date with current trends and shifts that are happening in the marketing industry and uses that knowledge and insight to help our clients find marketing solutions that are right for their business. Visit windwatermarketing.ca or email hello@windwater.ca for more information.