If you’re a seasoned digital marketer who uses URL tracking from the good old days of ExactTarget, Atomic Email and other platforms, you’ll remember the basic tracking conversations we used to have with our teams.

  • “Which link did he click on?”
  • “Did this link contribute to that sales funnel goal completion?”
  • “How do we know which banner ad brought this to us?”

Since the early 2000s, marketers wading the ever expanding sea of digital channels have asked one question when it comes to managing expectations: “how do I measure this campaign?”

Well, it’s 2016 and that question hasn’t changed. No matter what channel we use in our marketing mix, this has always been my favourite topic and source of innovation. How do you consistently and accurately measure something that keeps evolving?

This brings me to the topic at hand: Dark Social.

Alexis Madrigal, author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (a great book on the inventors of green tech through the years) coined the term which refers to – in its simplest terms – the content sharing that cannot be measured.

Ever shared a link directly in your email to someone? That’s you being a dark social sharer.

An example to illustrate this:

Let’s say you uploaded a great video you’ve created onto Youtube. The natural inclination and behaviour of your viewers if they like the video is to click on the ‘share’ option under the title and then choose the platform they want to share it on. When they do this, Youtube automatically adds a tracking link or hashtag to be able to see the share.

HOWEVER, there’s been a pattern emerging: people who view the video on their mobile phones are clicking ‘copy link’ instead of the platform icon, and are sharing the link directly on encrypted platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.

Why? Because they just want a quick share option without the other platform popping up within their seamless experience. Or any other reasons we’re still figuring out. Human psychology on content consumption is evolving WITH the content and platforms. A decade ago it was text, then it became images, then it became text with images (remember doge?), then video, now it’s text with video, pioneered by AJ+ and others.

That share, the one they copy pasted? It cannot be tracked. There is no tracking link, no add on in the URL, no code and no UMT. It’s a ghost URL, which will show Youtube (and you) that the video was seen but not by whom and where. You have no way of knowing where the traffic came from, hence you can’t optimize for that source.

When someone sees a great website or views great content on a page or platform, they have two choices: click on the native sharing options embedded within the platform OR click on the URL and share that URL directly in a private message.

Dark Social is exactly that: the social sharing of content in a way that doesn’t currently allow for tracking. There’s no malicious reason, it just ‘is’.

How does this impact your analytics? One of the major areas the metrics gets skewed is in Direct Traffic calculations. If people are sharing links directly with their networks without any way to track them, and those links get clicked, it takes people directly to the content but will only show up as ‘direct traffic’, not ‘whatsapp’ or ‘Facebook’. In fact, the only thing that could possibly show up is ’email’, but even that would be inaccurate. Sure, the email is how they got to your content but it wasn’t YOUR email campaign. It was a link shared by someone via their personal email to someone else, who clicked. Hence, even the ’email’ numbers could be skewed.

I’ll cover two things now: What are the major Dark Social channels and why you as a content creator, marketer or publisher should be worried.

The major Dark Social channels include:

  • Facebook Messenger
  • Whatsapp Messenger
  • Blackberry Messenger (yes, still used in the thousands in the GCC, surprise surprise)
  • Web-based email (Yahoo, Gmail etc)
  • SMS
  • Instagram and Twitter direct message boxes

What are people sharing?

Research shows 67% of news-related shares occur via Dark Social. Other categories include:

  • Arts & Entertainment (80%)
  • Relationship (dating info and sites, profiles)
  • Careers and recruitment (78%)
  • Fashion (59%)
  • Travel
  • Technology
  • Real estate
  • Business and finance


Why should you be concerned?


Almost 70% of all sharing activity is via dark social.

That’s right: OVER 70% OF CONTENT is being shared using dark social options. That’s 2 out of every 3 pieces of content you create.

That’s US$ 70 of every 100 you spend on content not having an accurate source cited.

Try explaining to your C-Suite during your monthly catch-up that the row header ‘Direct Traffic’ isn’t actually direct traffic and that you have no clue where a majority really came from.

If you are a professional content creator or publisher, and your profits are directly tied to your content being consumed via optimized target streams, how can you establish a baseline of high-value sources? How can you tell which channel is your best bet for your content to be shared?

Do you have a Whatsapp strategy? It’s 2016 and over a billion people use it. You better have one.

Have you even heard of dark social at all? If you have, excellent. I’d love to see more companies in the GCC embracing the next generation of content analytics. If you haven’t, now you have. Go speak to your marketing director, your analytics manager, your content team. Go spark the conversation and begin your homework.

I can’t tell you what to do, I don’t know what your content is or who your target audience is. What I CAN tell you is this is a global analytics question. Some solutions are easier than others and can be harnessed if you have the necessary talent in-house or if you have a kickass agency. And let’s face it, there are more agencies here in the GCC that need their asses kicked instead. You know the type, the ones that added an ‘e’ to their title and overnight became a digital ’boutique’ agency. (I’m going to catch a lot of hate for that quip).

What I know of that may help, for now:
The fastest and easiest current fix is shortened URLs. Also:
Facebook in-app stories (the pages that pop in from the side when you click on a link without loading lags, currently popular among news sites)
In-app pop ups of pages (currently popular with Youtube, Zomato, Uber, Careem among others). In fact, Youtube recently coded the sharing in a way that if you shared the video from within Whatsapp, it would load the video experience directly instead of just showing the URL. Now, the Whatsapp message shows the screengrab of the video, the title and description and the length
Other apps and mobile products that allow for instant/native content consumption instead of leaving the platform the user is currently on

Dark social isn’t here it stay, it’s been here for half a decade. It’s only in the last 24 months that we’ve started to take it seriously. In the GCC and UAE, only the last year. It’s time to challenge your analytics teams, your agencies and your innovation heads.