If yours is like most brands, you are neglecting nearly three quarters of your social media impact. No, it's not because your brand isn't sending photos on Snapchat or that you haven't exchanged gifts on Impossible. It's because you aren't considering "dark social media" channels -- email, instant messenger, text message and other sources that cannot be tracked through analytics.
Most people do not want to share everything over Facebook or Twitter, lest their bosses or family see. Instead, they sometimes turn to more private messaging platforms to express their ideas, share some of their favorite things, or simply vent to someone who will listen. But just because these platforms are private, it doesn't mean they're not social. Email is used to create a dialogue between at least two people, which is an inherently social behavior. The same is true for instant messenger. They're social and they're a digital medium, so what else would you call it? (We're not here to argue over semantics.)
Untrackable Links and Invisible Referrers
These oft-uncredited types of media account for 69 percent of sharing that occurs online. This presents a major problem for brands trying to understand the value of their content marketing efforts and create a true attribution model. Analytics platforms simply cannot determine the referral source, since they're essentially invisible, thus the ominous "dark social media" moniker.
People will typically copy and paste direct links when sharing them online and as a result, those links display as direct traffic in analytics. If you are looking at blog posts or content found deep within a particular website (not at the top-level domain, such as www.example.com, but rather at www.example.com/blog/10-03-13/this-is-an-amazing-blog-post-that-you-should-read-right-this-second), it is reasonable to assume that the user did not enter that very long URL string manually. Rather, they clicked on a link from an untrackable source.
To rule these media out of the attribution path, and consider them something other than social is simply inaccurate and discredits the entire social media industry. Measuring dark social isn't exactly impossible, however. You first need to understand your audience, set expectations, then leverage tools to tell a more complete story of your content's sharability.
Understand Your Audience
Who is your target audience? What are their online behaviors? What do they do for a living and how does this affect their digital usage patterns? Who do they communicate with most often, and how do these people prefer to access digital content?
Consider all of these things, then use your available analytics data to either confirm or refute your original assumptions. Take note of direct traffic on the long, complicated URLs that users would rarely remember and type directly into a browser window. This will help to inform you of how much dark social sharing occurs with your content and further understand how you can accommodate the needs and habits of your target audience. You can even create an advanced segment in Google Analytics to further analyze traffic.
After you've made the best possible determination of dark social's volume and respective value, share that data with your team and get buy in from all parties. While it may not be 100 percent accurate, it is still better than simply ignoring this traffic or pretending that it doesn't exist. If everyone agrees that direct traffic on long URLs can be considered dark social traffic, you can tell a more consistent story moving forward.
Use tools such as Tynt or Rio SEO to track dark social sharing, increase awareness and traffic, and improve SEO.
Tynt automatically inserts the page URL when users copy/paste content from your site. According to their own site, Tynt actually drives up to 20 percent more visits to individual web pages because users are able to easily access the original source of the content being shared with them. Certainly users can simply delete the page URL, but some won't and you're better off leveraging and tracking those users than none at all.
Image Source: Tynt
Tynt also provides insights on the most engaging content, as well as top themes and keywords so that you can improve content in the future.
Rio SEO's Social Analyze software also tracks copy/paste activity. Their patented code cookies users and assigns a unique ID at the end of their URL. Rio SEO then tracks what content that user is sharing, and where they are sharing it. Unlike Tynt, Rio SEO is not free. However, the software does include other features to further analyze and measure social media and SEO efforts.
Dark social is a nagging problem in our increasingly measureable digital world, but we can still make the best of the situation by recognizing that it exists and measuring as much as we can. Ignore this traffic and you could be missing out on key opportunities to further engage your audience and expand the reach of your content.
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Angie Pascale is the social media director at Location3 Media, providing strategic direction for social media and content marketing campaigns, and helping to integrate social media, SEO, paid media and other digital marketing efforts for enterprise, franchise and multiunit brands.
Angie has provided content for a variety of industry conferences and publications, including the Google Website Optimizer Authorized Consultant Summit, Search Engine Strategies, SMX Social Media Marketing and eMarketing Association Conference.
Prior to joining Location3 in 2006, Angie was an account executive at Marich Communications, a literary, entertainment and consumer products publicity firm based in Los Angeles. She graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in English. Follow her at @angiepascale.
March 19, 2014