Unraveling the Mystery that is Dark Social

Dark Social. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Don’t let the name fool you. It’s likely you are already happily partaking in Dark Social activities on a daily basis with friends, family and your wider social network.

Let’s break it down. Almost 85% of online sharing takes place on ‘Dark Social’ channels. Think email, instant messenger, texting, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Now, if someone were to click on a link to your site from an open social platform like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, your analytics platform would (theoretically) tell you exactly where that referral came from. Links shared on Dark Social channels however, lack referral tags. So, when the recipient clicks on a Dark Social link, their visit will show up as direct traffic, but in truth, it’s an un-trackable referral.

Still with me? Let me give you an example. I recently sent my boyfriend a link for a pair of shoes I wanted for my birthday. I emailed the link along with a wink emoji, and it’s fair to say he’s very likely to buy those shoes as a result (fingers crossed). However, when he clicks on the link I sent him, his session will be counted as direct traffic, lacking any attribution to the source that got him there.

It’s easy to understand then why Dark Social traffic is considered so valuable. Essentially, it’s word-of-mouth between people who are likely to know each other well…and we all know how powerful word-of-mouth is.

The bad news? Most brands are completely blind to this treasure trove of peer sharing that occurs outside the walls of social media and are therefore incapable of measuring it.

The good news? Gutsy brands are testing the water, with new and evolving Dark Social platforms and tools designed to track and target prospective customers. Let’s jump through a couple of brand examples to explore this a little further.

Time Inc

In a Radium One study, Time Inc. found that there were almost 19,000 ‘copy and paste’ shares via email from its Marie Claire website. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter only accounted for 5,000 shares. The learning prompted a re-alignment of the website where the email share button is now of equal prominence to the social share buttons.


O2 integrated sharing widgets and URL shorteners across its owned and earned media assets in order to track and understand how its content is shared across Dark Social. As a result, O2 continues to learn how people engage with and share its content as well as who they share it with and on what devices. The collected data is anonymous, but it has allowed O2 to identify core customers that regularly share content. This has enabled a wider audience reach and provided a wealth of strategic opportunity around messaging and retargeting.


Whilst tracking sharing is important, Adidas took Dark Social one-step further tapping in to its ambition to become ‘the most personal brand’. The brand used WhatsApp to roll out hyper-local ‘squads’ of advocates with the objective of gaining a deeper understanding of their target audience. Fans were offered experiences, products and the opportunity to co-create with the brand, and Adidas listened. Adidas learned all about what made their fans tick; their likes and dislikes, their motivations and even cultural differences. A careful execution ensured consumers didn’t see the activity as a marketing gag, but something of true and personal benefit. It’s the first time Adidas has had direct access to such hard-to-reach customers.

Here is where it gets really interesting. Dark Social is not just a behavioral trend amongst millennials, but particularly prevalent amongst those aged 55 years or more. RadiumOne found that 46% of consumers aged 55 years plus, will only share via Dark Social (opposed to just 19% between 16-34 years of age).

So, how can YOU take advantage of Dark Social? An immediate opportunity lies in testing sharing tools that support Dark Social channels. RadiumOne and Simply Measured platforms allow you to delve right in to the Dark Social world, to understand your audience further, or alternatively actively play a role within the day-to-day lives of your audience; sparking organic conversation like Adidas have. It’s a new and untapped territory for most brands in Australia and New Zealand, but that is what makes it such an incredible opportunity to explore. Are you game?