Why Dark Social Could Be the Next Big Thing in Digital Marketing


Why are marketers so excited about the possibility of tracking dark social traffic? Not only is it the quantity of traffic found on dark social channels, but also the quality of traffic there.

Everyone seems to be talking about dark social these days. The term, coined by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, refers to social traffic from previously untrackable sources, such as links shared via emails, messaging apps, and some mobile applications. This is opposed to traffic from open social platforms - Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. - which is easily tracked.

Why all the excitement? For one thing, dark social traffic is estimated to be three times larger, by volume, than standard social media traffic. If that seems hard to believe, just think about how often your friends and relatives send you links over email. But it’s the quality of dark social traffic as much as the quantity that has so many marketers paying close attention.

The Intimacy Advantage

When someone you know sends you a private recommendation for a piece of content or a product, that's a very powerful signal. It’s one-on-one messaging rather than the one-to-many messaging that takes place on a typical social channel. And the recipients of dark social links are, of course, handpicked by the sender. In other words, programmatic marketers who can tap into dark social are tapping into the same intimate relationships that make word-of-mouth marketing so effective.

"Dark social offers marketers the opportunity to understand how people really consume, use, and share your product when not in public view," says William Bancroft, a digital strategist at Frost Inc. "It’s a whole new domain for conducting new forms of social listening."

Take, for example, the case of someone who sends a friend a link to the product page for a new blender he just bought. The recipient has just received a product recommendation from someone he knows, but, despite clicking on the link, he hasn’t yet made a purchase. Sure, the blender brand could retarget this person just like any other user who visits its site, but if the blender brand knows the user arrived via a recommendation from a friend, it now also knows that it has a much more valuable target on its hand.

Shining Light on the Darkness

The big challenge with dark social, of course, is figuring out how to shine light into the darkness. That is, marketers have to find ways to track links that are shared privately. Some vendors are now solving the problem by adding trackable code to URLs that are copied and pasted into messages. When publishers participate, vendors can also add a short, trackable URL to any text that’s copied and pasted into a message. These URLs, which generally appear at the end of a copied passage, link back to the page from which the text was copied.

Other vendors are creating share buttons and offering their own link shortening tools. Instant messaging providers, meanwhile, are coming up with new and better ways to track the sharing that takes place within their services. There’s a reason, after all, that Facebook was so anxious to get its hands on WhatsApp. Instant messages, perhaps the most intimate form of digital sharing, are full of valuable data. We’re already seeing a major impact from the WhatsApp share button, and you can expect to see much more innovation in the dark social space in the months ahead.

At the moment, we’re still very much in the early days of dark social tracking. But, according to Bancroft, brands at the cutting edge of dark social are already gaining an edge in their respective markets. "The future of dark social could be huge, potentially a bigger, higher-quality market than the existing social world we already know," says Bancroft.

Dark social, in other words, isn’t likely to remain dark for very much longer.