Understanding Dark Social

By Mervyn Kinuthia on March 5, 2018

It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is the first time you’ve heard of the term dark social. It was first coined in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal who was dan editor at the Atlantic when he first wrote a piece about it.

dark social

This article will break down what dark social media is and how you can use it to market your business. Hopefully, by the time you’re done you’ll be more adept at knowing how you can integrate it into your existing social media campaigns.

Dark Social Definition

In his article, Alexis defined Dark Social as the social sharing that happens outside conventional norms of social media engagement whose main characteristic is that it can be measured. This would explain why he used the term “dark” to define the phenomenon.

There are a couple of things that Alexis discovered while doing his research, for instance, the sharing that happens on sites such as Instagram and Twitter are just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve always considered the amount of sharing that takes place on social media impressive only because it can be measured and those numbers sure are impressive.

Another thing that he discovered was that even more sharing took place outside of social media. Think about it, how many times have you shared a link with someone over IM or email instead of using a platform like Facebook?

In fact, there’s strong evidence indicating that as much as 20% of referrals come from Facebook while as high as 69% come from dark social.

social media vector image

In his article, Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong, Alexis questioned why web analytics didn’t account for sharing that took place on IM chats as well as email.

Since 2012 plenty of advancements have taken place including how dark social is tracked and measured. I’ll cover that in a later part of this article.

With the exponential growth of mobile, there has been an increase in dark social as most people now use their devices to send emails and chat with each other. This means that a lot of dark social web traffic originates from hand held devices.

Dark Social The Numbers

To understand how big an impact dark social has on a site’s traffic, let’s take a look at some numbers. In the US alone dark social clickbacks in the sports category account for as much as 62%. But this number increases dramatically across the pond in Europe with dark social clickbacks being the dominant source of traffic in at least 5 categories including computing, sports and technology, food and drink, arts and entertainment, and health and fitness.

In the food and drink category alone dark social traffic from mobile devices accounts for 72%.

The trend is the same in Southeast Asian countries as well as Australia.

How To Track Dark Social

In view of the great potential that exists in dark social it makes sense for any marketer to want to take advantage of this massive opportunity. In order to do so, you would need to be able to track dark social in order to know where and how to apply your best sources.

There are a number of ways you can measure dark social traffic, we cover them below.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is great for measuring dark social. First, you’ll need to define an advanced segment where you’ll be able to track direct traffic to your site. Dark social traffic has unique characteristics that set it apart from other sources of traffic:

  • It’s direct traffic
  • It doesn’t go through the homepage

Use these two characteristics to define an advanced segment on Google Analytics.


GetSocial is an app store that caters to all your social media needs and is great for tracking dark social traffic as well. When using their app you’ve got two options either you can sign up for an account on their site or you can download one of their apps (Shopify or WordPress) and paste the snippet code you’ll get in the <head> section of your website.

Once you’re through doing that you’ll need to activate the address bar tracking app.

GetSocial’s standard package goes for $185/month for a single website.


AddThis is a platform that provides tools that facilitate social engagement. After signing up for an account with them, you’ll need to select your website’s platform and browse through their myriad of tools to find the feature that best serves to track dark social traffic.

Basically, you’ll need to find their library code on their site and select the Sharing Buttons tool and copy the provided code.

Paste the code onto each page whose traffic you want to track.

Go to AddThis’ documentation and locate the Address Bar sharing analytics support section. Under configuration, you’ll see a simple code that you’ll need to activate in order to start tracking dark social traffic.

AddThis has a tiered pricing structure with the most affordable package being free while their premium service goes for $100/month.


If you’re looking for a sharing tool that allows your visitors to share your site’s content with others via direct message, email, or through text, then you should definitely check out Sharethis. Once you have it installed on your website, you can go ahead and use it to track dark social traffic.


Po.st allows your website visitors to share your content on various social media channels as well as on dark social. It also provides marketers with access to analytics tools.

Trends in Dark Social

Over the years there’s has been an explosion in growth in the number of consumers that respond to dark social. As you can imagine advertisers have seen an opportunity at this intersection of dark social and mobile.

dark social trends

One of the emerging trends in dark social is that it has a significant impact on how content is shared online. It is estimated that the percentage of dark social shares has risen from 69% to 84% everywhere. No marketer can afford to ignore dark social.

Unlike before when handheld devices were expensive and the technology not good enough to encourage connection of people via the internet, things have now changed. More and more people are connecting with each other on the internet via their phones and dark social has greatly benefited from this. Since 2015, it is estimated that there’s been an 8% rise in dark social traffic from mobile phones.

How To Use Dark Social For Business

The power of traditional advertising is on a steep decline and social media is increasingly becoming the way to reach customers. There’s no better time to look into how dark social can enhance your social media marketing strategy.



A few months back WhatsApp announced that instead of having marketers advertise on the app they would encourage customers to contact business directly. This is a complete turnaround from what they had indicated in their policies.

Unlike traditional online modes of communication such as SMS or email, WhatsApp offers a higher chance of delivery combined with a format that’s less restricted.

Instead of a phone call, marketers could follow up with customers and prospects via WhatsApp messaging.

Studies show that there’s a 40% chance for you to receive a response compared to other forms of communication.

Would you like to know more about Dark Social and how it can help your business? Get in touch with us.







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