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The Rise of Dark Social Media

The modern world thrives on a sense of connectivity and shareability anytime, anywhere. The ideology of social media itself is the ability to publicly share content amongst a select circle of friends, or the entire general public should the user please.

In a post-Snowden era, users are becoming more aware of security breaches and risks, particularly as mainstream social sites such as Facebook, who has seen a reduction of 21% in “original sharing content”, have faced public slander for over-exposing their users with continuous reports of misleading privacy restrictions.

These privacy pressures coupled with the fact that more young people are quitting and deactivating mainstream social profiles only accelerate the rise of so-called “dark social media”; an online account that provides a certain level of untraceability and intimacy the public increasingly seems to desire.

Dark Social Media Defined

First coined in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal, “dark social” is a term used to describe the motion of people sharing content through private 1:1 channels, such as instant messaging programs. Dark social can take a number of forms, and collectively includes all avenues a user can take to arrive at your website without directly typing in the full web address or clicking a trackable link.

Dark social media is unique as it does not offer a “referrer” tag. If somebody clicks a link to a website from an open social platform such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, an analytics tool will easily be able to distinguish where that referral came from. When content is shared through dark social platforms and clicked on, analytics tools cannot distinguish where this traffic came from, thus grouping it into the “direct traffic” segment on website analytics.

Channels we can owe dark social traffic to include:


  • Email: most email providers such as Gmail and Outlook do not pass on a referrer when a user clicks on a link in the interest of privacy and security.
  • Native mobile apps: a number of native mobile apps such as Facebook and Instagram force the mobile browser (e.g. Safari or Chrome) to open a new window with the URL the user clicked. In Google Analytics, this will be logged as direct traffic.
  • Instant messaging apps: such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat.
  • Secure browsing: if the user is browsing on a website using HTTPS and clicks a link to a site using HTTP, a referrer won’t be passed.


Dark social media does not only offer convenience of specific and targeted conversations for a user amongst a select group of friends or an individual, but also has an element of un traceability that has become a sought out quality in a society that thrives on shareability.

Measurability of Dark Social Media

Dark social media is reported to make up 77% of content being shared, recent RadiumOne research shows. This is over two-thirds of website traffic that marketers need to interpret and digest.  As explained in the above segment, traffic from dark social accounts is grouped into “direct traffic” in analytics tools, which would usually imply that a user has typed in the full URL of the web address and hit enter.

Tactics for accurately measuring dark social referrals are continuously expanding and growing, with the most popular methods being:


  • Appending UTM parameters to share buttons on content: i.e. &utm_source=sharebutton&utm_channel=facebook. This helps distinguish when users have reached the site via a social share.  
  • Creating advanced segments on Google Analytics: by creating specific parameters and using a multitude of filters as demonstrated here, basic information about the landing page’s traffic comes from will be instantly available.
  • Trialing third party software: a number of independent software solutions such as claim to provide detailed insight into dark social metrics specifically.


How Brands Are Reacting

A number of online brands such as Buzzfeed and ASOS have adapted for dark social, by providing options such as WhatsApp sharing via iOS and mobile apps. Buzzfeed has taken an even bolder step towards understanding dark social referral traffic, specifically recruiting for messaging-app strategy as its dark social traffic has increased fourfold over the past 12 months.

To remain “the most personal brand” and grow intimacy with this growth in dark social media, Adidas has set-up dedicated WhatsApp ‘squads’ in some of Europe’s biggest cities, aiming to create and nurture hyper local communities and encourage a full 360° take on dark social media – inspiring conversations and conversions, rather than just becoming a space for sharing content.

“As long as the dark social platforms continue to innovate, we’ll find new ways to use the technology. In the past you could only send text, but now you can send video and image, which has opened doors. Using a mix of content we can reward advocacy with personalised approaches like inviting consumers into a dialogue with Adidas stars, offering live coverage from events or simply handle customers service queries.”

Florian Alt, Senior Director of Global Brand Communications at Adidas Sport.


Investing time and resource into a traffic avenue that is both difficult to accurately track and against the grain of traditional marketing can appear risky for a business. However reaffirmed by the overwhelming statistics that explain dark social is on the rise and will continue growing, incorporating dark social media as part of a wider digital strategy unlocks a number of potentials for both brand and consumer.

Taking simple steps to tap into dark social media, such as building social media monitoring strategies, pushing unique social shares with dedicated URLs, and drilling into website analytics can help eliminate some of the main causes and concerns surrounding dark social media. Digital strategies quickly become expired, and as dark social media shows signs of continuous and steady growth, it is more important than ever for businesses to start taking steps towards understanding this previously excluded side of social media.

Will your brand be investigating the potentials dark social media unlocks? Tweet @mporiumgroup to share your thoughts on this topic.

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