8 min read

What is Dark Social and how do you bring it to light?

What is Dark Social? The term refers to private sharing in instant messaging and email - traffic that is a bit tricky to uncover. This post is a "what is" and "how to" article all at once.


When digital marketers talk about “dark social” and “dark posts” – they must mean the same thing right?

But no. Nothing is supposed to be easy in the world of buzzwords.

You might be wondering:

“What’s the difference?”

“Dark social” was first used in 2012 by Alexis C. Madrigal in an article in The Atlantic. and refers to the 69% (back in 2012) of the social sharing of online content that is done in private channels like instant messaging and email – and therefore hard to measure.

Dark posts, on the other hand, are a type of ad format. Ads that look like regular social media posts, but don’t show up in a brands organic social media feed are running undercover – in the dark – hence: dark post.

Dark posts make it possible to show different messages to different audiences, without the recipients for a specific ad message knowing about the ones others get.

Good to know:

We don’t talk about dark posts as much after organic reached has dropped dramatically on many platforms. There’s a much smaller need for dark post ads since no one sees a brands organic posts anymore anyway).

What is Dark Social?

So far, you know one thing about dark social:

Dark social has nothing to do with ads.

Here’s the deal:

Dark social refers to sharing of links in channels that don’t reveal themselves to a web analytics platform.

Dark Social channels are for example:

  • Email
  • Slack
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Text messages
  • WhatsApp

Your web analytics tool doesn’t know where the people visiting your site come from, if they visit after someone shared your link in any of these channels.

If it makes it any easier to wrap your head around, think “private sharing”. However, some dark social channels (…Slack, E-mail…) can easily reach more people than a share on Facebook or Twitter, depending on the context. The Spotify Slack-team is huge.

Just to be clear:

It is not possible to trace back the traffic arriving from a post in Slack, the size of the Slack-team won’t change that fact.

The social part of Dark Social?

You might ask:

“Is there anything else I need to know about Dark Social?”

Well, yes. The social component in dark social is a bit different from social media shares made in public.

Social media got its name from the social interactions going on between two or more people. The difference between dark social and other types of social media is that dark social is much more selective.

What do I mean by:


Well, you are sharing the content with someone you know directly. Your focus is entirely on your audience – one or more people – and if what you are sharing with them have value.

Also, no one but the receiver will know about your share. So the vanity effect from the share is gone (or at least much smaller).

A simple example of Dark Social

Imagine this:

A customer visits your website and finds a pair of shoes. She thinks one of her friends will love.

Instead of clicking on the “share icon”, she copies the URL to the page from the browser.

Opening Facebook Messenger, she pastes the link into a group chat and sends it as a message to her closest friends.

She might add a comment – making it even more relevant. But either or, her friends can now click and explore the link.

This is a classic example of  “dark social.”

The difference between dark social and public shares

Now you might ask:

“Why is this different from sharing in other channels?”

Comparing dark social sharing with “open shares” shows some significant differences.

For instance:

When you (or someone else) share a link to your website on a Facebook page, you want the post to be seen by as many potential customers as possible.

The post shows up (well, they used to) in users’ feeds and you want as many people as possible to take an action that suits your business goals. They can like, comment, and share it – on Facebook or elsewhere.

People receiving a post in their social media feed don’t feel too special when they receive a post.

The mechanics of open social media feeds creates a “one size fits” all kind of feeling. The posts are made for someone, sure. But not for them.

This difference gives dark social shares a significant advantage over public social media shares. And this makes a BIG difference when it comes to acting on what you see.

Why should you care about dark social?


“Why should I care about something I can’t track?”

Well. The answer is divided into two.

Firstly, messaging apps are outpacing social networking apps when it comes to active users. And many messaging services are also continually developing new features to improve the experience of instant messaging making users investing even more time on these platforms.

Secondly, another reason was hidden in a sentence a while back. I wrote: “this makes a BIG difference when it comes to acting on what you see.”

Compared to other shares, in general, dark social shares have a:

  1. Better match in interest between shared content and person getting the share
  2. Higher feeling of being selected for you personally
  3. Validation from the person sharing it to you

The first two things above are 66.66% of what most marketers strive for all the time:
The right message, to the right person, at the right time.

This increases how relevant the shared content is perceived for the person on the receiving end. And when something is relevant, our intention to take action increases.

The third aspect above is called social proof and is a well-known tactic to influence someone to act in a specific way. We are social animals and want the group to approve of what we do.

Here’s the deal:

People are extremely likely to take action from a dark social share.

You should make sure to use that window of opportunity. Period.

If you’re able to uncover the private sharing going on, and what results come out of it, you’d have some essential keys to improve and increase your business results.

Looking at data from dark social you can learn a lot about your business. Things like what products, content or pages on your website that are most important to your audience. And these insights can help you transform your emails, social content and ads.

Maybe it’s time to start viewing Dark Social as a marketing channel of its own…

Want to know the best part?

Optimising your content for private sharing can be much more lucrative than optimising for SEO or shares on Twitter or Facebook.

The challenge with "dark social"The big challenge with shares in private channels is probably obvious by now: they are harder to uncover and understand. Dark social traffic shows up as “direct traffic” in your web analytics tool.

Direct traffic is also when someone types in your URL directly in their browser.

According to ambitious estimations – around 80% of all shares of content are done over “dark social”. That’s a lot of traffic stemming from somewhere you don’t know.

You might ask: “Why is it not possible to track these shares?” The simple reason is that when a user shares a URL by copying and pasting instead of sharing a link you’ve created, there are no campaign indicators (like utm-tags) at the end of the URL. Without campaign indicators, or a referral webpage, your web analytics tool is blind and can’t tell from where a user comes.

Who's sharing in private?

Look: We share content in private for a different reason than we do openly. While you might post publicly on your Facebook page or in your Twitter-feed to recommend something to your followers – you are also adding to the story about yourself.

Open shares are often done by 90% to make you look good, and 10% because you believe you’re doing someone else a service. It’s very much “Hey, look at this 20-minute New Yorker article about the immigration reform I just read two paragraphs from – I’m such an ambitious human being, reading articles like this one”.

Dark social, or private sharing, is the other way around: A private share is 90% about the receiver.

The people who share privately are more often:

  1. Consumers who are at the bottom of your marketing funnel
  2. Committed advocates of your brand They are sharing your links to their friends, families, and co-workers almost exclusively because they believe they are relevant for them, or they want input on a buying decision of their own. And just to be clear: People love to recommend things to others.

How to track "Dark Social" with Google analytics?

You might be wondering:

“How do I uncover the dark social traffic to my website?”

Like most other things that can improve your business results — it takes some effort to uncover your dark social traffic.

Since we are talking about hidden traffic, we need to use workarounds to find the data we want. And no, these methods are not perfect.

They will, however, work fine until there’re better methods for tracking website shares through messaging apps, e-mail and other dark social channels.

The good thing:

You will get a better picture than if you do nothing.

How to get Google Analytics to show dark social traffic

  • When you visit Google Analytics in your web browser choose “Audience --> Overview” in the left sidebar. Click on “Add Segment”in the upper middle of the screen.
  • From the list of segments pick “Direct Traffic”. Make sure there's no other segment from the list picked but Direct Traffic. Scroll down and click “Apply”.
  • Now you want to narrow the traffic down even further – to find out where on your site your dark social traffic lands. Go to “Behavior --> Site Content --> All Pages”. This page displays a list with all the pages on your site to which people have arrived directly.
    Some of these pages might have been reached directly by someone manually typing the URL into their browser bar. But it’s also pretty unlikely that someone types in a long URL to a specific landing page when they visit your site directly. So, now you want to filter out the URLs that are memorable enough for users to do this.
  • Click “Advanced” in the bar just above your list of pages to create a new filter.
  • Choose “Exclude” in the drop-down list and select Page as your dimension. At the end of the row, type in the directory of one of your simpler page URLs – things like “/contact”, “/blog”, or “/about”. (Tip: When you type in a forward slash “/” in the box you’ll get suggestions for pages you can enter.)
  • Add more pages to the filter by selecting “+ Add a dimension” and doing step 5 over again until all the pages you want to list are listed.
  • Click “Apply” to activate the filter and get a list of the harder-to-remember URLs from your site that don’t have any referrer data. These visits are probably a result of dark social traffic.

Other clever ways to uncover Dark Social Traffic

Was that all?


Now that you’ve identified the pages people share in email, messages and texts. So far good. But, there are some nifty moves to gain even more insight.

Better sharing buttons

If you add better sharing buttons for your content you can hope that people use the buttons instead of copy–paste.

Better sharing buttons consists of two things. They should:

  1. Include messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Slack and WhatsApp among the share options
  2. Have correct UTM-tags. So that you  can get the referral data you need to track from where your visitors arrive

Use Lead Magnets to get the answer you need

One thing we always forget:

It’s allowed to ask users questions.

We are so obsessed by finding all the answers in data. But it’s sometimes just as relevant to ask them a question.

Now you might think:

“But how do I get get people to answer?”

One way could be to add a “lead magnet” to your page and make visitors answer a question about how they found your site, to unlock the content.

(Lead magnets are high-value content that you lock-in behind an action that you want your visitors to take.)

Some final takeaways

What you should remember?


Back in 2012 already, 69% of all social referrals came from dark social. Today, that number is even higher.

Still – most marketers don’t give a – – about understanding this traffic segment.

Want to know the best part?

With your existing web analytics tools, you can find out a lot about how and when visitors share or content in private – and what content they share.

Yes, it’s a small investment. But you will get more out of our marketing efforts, and you will create better user experiences.

But sure, some will still argue that it’s: Better in the Dark.

And, finally:

What do you think?

How much traffic are you’re getting from “dark social”?

Share your thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll get smarter together.