What Is Dark Social and How Is It Affecting Your Brand?

While it sounds like it could be part of the Upside Down, dark social is not the next Vecna from Stranger Things. It’s a phrase coined in 2012 by journalist Alexis Madrigal in a piece written for The Atlantic. And while it may sound malevolent, it’s just a way of talking about the impacts of social media sharing that are hard to calculate. 

However, measuring your social media marketing ROI is key to figuring out what types of posts and content work for your firm. In this article, we’ll break down what dark social is, how you can measure it, how your company can participate, and how employee advocacy can support your dark social efforts. 

So put on your villain glasses, and let’s get the scoop on how to create a dark social media strategy. 

Dark Social Explained 

So, what is dark social? Completely unrelated to the term “dark web,” dark social is an all-encompassing phrase for web traffic from shared links that contain no tracking information. Analytics software can’t read where these sources come from, so it’s harder to understand what prompted these people to share your content.  

Dark social channels are used all the time. You’ve probably used them yourself without really thinking about it. Some popular dark social sharing spaces include: 

  • Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter 
  • Phone systems like text messages or calls 
  • Events like in-person meetings or Zoom calls 
  • Messaging apps like WhatsApp 
  • Podcasts or web videos 
  • Groups and communities like Facebook Groups or Messenger 
  • Employee communications like Slack or Zoom 

If you want to learn more about dark social, watch our free webinar: Dark Social: The Basics and Beyond

Why people use dark social sharing 

People are turning more to private sharing methods, like messaging apps, to clue into new content. Around 84% of outbound link sharing takes place on dark social channels rather than open ones, like Twitter pages or Facebook timelines. This is because people are increasingly worried about companies collecting too much personal data from them. So, by using more private platforms, only the people in the conversation can read the message. When people click on links from dark channels, marketers can’t tell where the clicks came from. 

This is especially true if you work in the B2B space. Many B2B buyers complete their research in spaces that are difficult to track, like podcasts and word of mouth from their peers. This makes it difficult to utilize helpful engagement metrics to track how well your social media content does in spreading brand awareness, securing leads, or converting new users. 

How dark social affects direct traffic, company image, and the online audience 

All companies want direct traffic so they can understand what prompted people’s interest in their website. If someone comes to your website or social pages via a dark social channel, it’s hard to determine what conversation brought them there. As a marketer or business owner, you can’t follow how your content is being discussed and shared. 

You also can’t join in on any conversations that happen online. One of the major perks of social media, in particular, is that if a consumer mentions a concern or problem that they have on your public page, you can comment and address the issue. This makes the customer with the problem trust you again and helps new potential customers see how much you care about your users. If you don’t have access to the discussion, you can’t solve problems. 

For any business, you want a diverse audience that comes from different pools of people. This ensures that you have the maximum number of persons who could use your brand or service to be aware of it. If people only talk about your brand on dark social channels, they’ll likely share about your brand with people who are just like themselves. This limits your brand’s reach and prevents you from growing your target audience past one type of person. 

Measuring Dark Social 

Buying decisions happen where the sharing occurs, especially for B2B marketing. This means firms still need to figure out how to measure dark social media to maximize their online marketing strategy. To do this, calculate your dark social by splitting inbound traffic that lacks referrer data into two categories: one for visitors who go to a home page or a landing page and the other one for everything else. The second category, you can assume is from dark social. This won’t give you a complete picture, but it can help you start to navigate where your dark social is.  

Tools to measure your clicks from dark social traffic 

There are also tools you can use to track down where your clicks are from: 

  • Link shorteners: Try link or URL shorteners like Bitly. These tools compress the links you post on your social feeds and track the people who click or share them. You can try these tools for free or choose to subscribe to URL-shortening services. Organizations can also set up their own self-hosted URL shorteners for more control and privacy.
  • Button-sharing tools: These help you track when people share your content via dark channels like email, messenger, or text. 

There are also more comprehensive dark social media tools and analytics for tracking social engagement. However, these are expensive options, so you have to decide if the high costs are worth eating into your social media marketing budget. 

Implement forms to figure out how consumers found your website 

A simple but effective tool to track dark social traffic is online forms. Create a button on your website or implement a pop-up ad asking, “How did you find out about our website?” While not everyone will click on the link, some users will. To create a robust form, make sure it asks for the client’s personal information. This includes:  

  • First and last name
  • The company they work for and their email
  • Their phone number
  • How they heard about you

Feel free to add any other relevant information that your company typically gathers from direct traffic. That could include the age and gender of the clients or the area that they live in. 

How to Use Dark Social for Your Company 

Indeed, it can be frustrating to realize how many people are talking about your company behind your back in messages that you can’t partake in. But know that you can take comfort in the phrase “any publicity is good publicity.” 

And if you’re feeling some major FOMO, one of the best ways to use dark social media to your advantage is to join those platforms. Some companies have recently entered these spaces to start conversations. Big brands like Adidas and Starbucks use Facebook Messenger chatbots and WhatsApp Business API solutions to learn more through interviews and focus groups.  

While this doesn’t always work because people tend not to be too candid with their companies and chatbots don’t always function right, it gives you a chance to be where the action is

Direct messaging via private channels 

If you’re a smaller company, you can offer messaging directly with top people at your firm to help people feel comfortable chatting with you. Leave the messaging feature open on your Twitter page. This way, people can come directly to your firm with private questions they want to be answered. If you have the bandwidth to establish one-to-one connections on your socials, you can create dark social channels for your company. 

Implement social sharing buttons for your site visitors to use 

Do your best to make it easy for your audience to use direct traffic sources so you can get the best information for your marketing. Be sure to add social sharing buttons on your web pages so that if someone wants to share your blog post on their social media page, you can track it. Social sharing buttons usually include a referral tag to outbound links. If someone shares this on a dark social channel, your analytics software can still read and use it. 

Attempt to measure dark social traffic 

Make the effort to measure dark social traffic. Use tools like link shorteners, URL shorteners, sharing buttons, and web page surveys to figure out where your dark social traffic is. 

If all that seems like too much work for your business, a simpler (but less precise) way to measure traffic is to use Google Analytics. Create a segment that’s just for dark social so you can understand what parts of your overall traffic are actually being considered as the wrong source. While Google Analytics won’t catch everything, this can be a helpful, more straightforward way to measure your dark social traffic. 

Convince higher-ups of the importance of dark social 

Putting your company in the midst of dark social channels can be a helpful way to grow your brand. But it’s possible that any of your higher-ups only want to use marketing systems they can measure with direct traffic. In such cases, they might tell you to stop using dark social, even if it’s working.  This is a difficult situation because it’s hard to gather and present numbers to prove to them that dark social is a useful tool for their brand. To show them its importance, try turning off your dark social channels for a month and see how it affects your company’s overall reach. Track this with screenshots to show your bosses at the end of the month. This social proof may cause them to change their mind about the value of dark social media.  

Dark Social and Employee Advocacy 

Employee advocacy can oftentimes create conversations with potential buyers in dark social media spaces. Suppose your employee posts some of your firm’s content on their personal Facebook page. A friend of theirs could then share that post with their mom on a WhatsApp message. And while you can’t necessarily track that connection, it’s still valuable because friends and family are the most trusted sources. This is especially true when you need someone to consult with before buying a product or choosing a firm to work with. 

And employee advocacy works for your firm even when you can’t make direct analytics measurements. When your employees’ social media grows because they’re sharing great personal content alongside your occasional company content, your reach of influence becomes broader. 

Use employee advocacy to increase your dark social presence 

It takes 5 to 7 impressions for people to start remembering a brand. If potential customers see your company or firm’s content more frequently across various social media platforms, they’ll soften to the idea of what you’re selling. This means that they might become more interested when they see an ad for your product or receive a form of cold outreach.  

People are also more likely to trust your company when they see your employees actively sharing your content. Your audience cares how businesses treat their employees, and when your employees advocate for their employer, it proves that you’re good to them.  

Encourage employees to share UGC and spur dark social sharing

User-generated content (UGC) can be a potent tool for sparking conversations in dark social channels. When your organization members create content about your brand, they are more likely to share it within their own private networks. By running campaigns that encourage UGC, you're indirectly fueling more dark social interactions without being intrusive.

However, it can be tough to get your employees involved with your social media marketing. While you should try different employee advocacy sharing incentives, sometimes people just don’t think they have the time or motivation to craft a social post for the company they work for. Here are some effective ways to navigate this dilemma. 

1. Run UGC campaigns 

Launch campaigns that encourage employees to create content around your brand. This could be through photo contests, reviews, or stories.

2. Offer exclusive deals

Offer exclusive deals or promotions to employees who share UGC, thereby incentivizing the creation and private sharing of such content.

3. Leverage employee advocacy platforms

Integrated sharing platforms can significantly simplify the process for anyone wishing to share company-related content on their personal social media networks. Especially during active UGC campaigns, they can directly push branded content to employees, streamlining sharing even in dark social channels.

Such platforms, often categorized under earned media software, harness employee advocacy to create more third-party recommendations and mentions of your brand. The result is a more organic reach to your target audience, effectively amplifying your brand's voice and visibility.

Clearview Social stands out by emphasizing the sharing of branded content. It encourages employees to participate actively by incorporating rewards-driven features, such as leaderboards and social media gamification.

Boost your dark social engagement with Clearview Social 

With Clearview Social’s employee advocacy software, you can get a sense of what’s going on in your dark social. With our queue builder, you can create posts with links from sources like Bitly that can help you better track where your leads are coming from.

You’ll also gain the advantage of simple, effortless employee advocacy. The key to successful employee advocacy (and expanding your brand’s reach and influence) is to make it as easy as possible for your employees to post your company’s content. Clearview Social offers pre-approved one-click sharing options delivered straight to your employees’ email. All they have to do is click one button, and business content is shared on their personal pages. And with Clearview Social’s “share-all” function, your employees can schedule out an entire week of pre-populated content in one click. 

Plus, Clearview Social offers robust analytics that can help you understand where your dark social may be coming from.

Get A Free Demo with Clearview Social today and take full advantage of your not-so-nefarious dark social channels.