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Shedding Light on Dark Social: a Publisher's Case

Sharing has changed. Social has changed. Dark Social has risen. Non-voice time spent on mobile devices is expected to grow by 403% in just 5 years while every other traditional medium will lose usage.

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ but socially, in a mobile environment, the message is the medium.  

Truth is, sharing on mobile is either personal or confined to small groups of people. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, Viber, WeChat, Telegram, Tango, you name it. This is how social sharing on mobile rolls and we all know it.  

As mobile content consumption rises, so does 1-to-1 social engagement with it. How many times were you reading through a story and thought “Wow, Jennifer would love to know this”. Browser -> Share -> WhatsApp -> Done.

Dark Social & Private Messaging

There’s a problem though. This kind of sharing, this private sharing, isn’t traceable due to the nonexistence of referrer data. This invisible traffic is usually called Dark Social. Ultimately, all visitors coming from these shares will be thrown to the ‘direct traffic’ bucket by common analytics platforms. And that’s how you mess your Social Media ROI calculations. How are you going to justify your budget when about 80% of your results are hidden?  

Imagine all the (better) decisions (social media posting, content distribution, paid sponsoring) that could be made had we the proper data, should we know how our stories are organically picking up on social media?

The Case

Context aside, we bring you a case today. A case from one of our customers and how social sharing contributes to their publishing operation. We’re talking about Gay Star News, an international media source focused on events related to and concerning the global LGBTI community.

GSN runs at about 2-3 million visits per month and it’s growing quite fast. From the beginning, one of the things the founders had in mind was that social would be crucial to their operation. However, a few months in, this didn’t seem to be completely accurate.

Operationally, GSN’s team constantly needs to understand which stories they should be featuring, promoting and distributing on social media. But looking at page views, time spent on a page or social shares just wasn’t enough to make the best decisions.

Our strategy was simple: we had to make sure that we were accurately tracking all social interactions (including dark social) within GSN’s website, their impact and how each story was driving their growth. Luckily enough, that’s exactly what our product does.

We started working with them and quickly set up everything. During the first month, we wanted to understand the current status and check if it was differing a lot from what GSN accepted as their reality.

What we found was dazzling. Not only most sharing was occurring through copy paste sharing but it was actually generating about 90% of social referrals. More importantly, social referrals were accounting for 46% of all monthly traffic.

For the data lovers, here’s a complete overview of the first month:

  • Total Sessions: 1,206,003
    • Mobile: 59%
    • Desktop: 32%
    • Tablet: 9%
  • Total Shares: 40,173
    • Mobile: 48%
    • Desktop: 40%
    • Tablet: 12%
  • Total Social Referrals by channel: 554,521
    • Copy Paste: 89%
    • Facebook: 6%
    • Twitter: 3%
  • Most shares by channel
    • Copy Paste: 79%
    • Facebook: 8%
    • Email: 5%
    • Twitter: 4%
    • WhatsApp: 3%
  • Dark Social Sharing by device
    • Mobile: 45%
    • Desktop: 44%
    • Tablet: 11%

Findings

Zooming out, there were three important insights from this first month of data:

  • Most sharing occurred on mobile, through private sharing methods;
  • 9 out of 10 social referrals came from copy paste sharing, which was represented as ‘direct traffic’ on their regular analytics platform;
  • 3.3% of the users (the sharing audience) contributed to 46% of the traffic (the referred audience).

I don’t know about you, but having 3% of our readership contributing with nearly 50% of our traffic sounds massive.

That said, with proper optimization and effectively utilizing the data we provided, on an article & social network level, the GSN staff could work on their social & distribution strategies to fuel growth.

So, how does this data looks now, 2 months later?

First, let’s look at the traffic & social referrals’ evolution during this last quarter. GSN had a fantastic MoM growth in the last 3 months. They’re now getting about 1.4M share referrals per month.

Dark Social - Social Referrals per Month

Was Copy Paste Sharing meaningful on their sharing activity? It was, by far, the most common way of sharing on GSN’s website.

Dark Social - Copy Paste Shares

And the silver lining is, how different would social look like to the GSN staff if dark social tracking wasn’t being measured?  The graph below shows the weight of social referrals (traffic from shares) compared to the total traffic, with and without copy paste share tracking.

With and Without copy paste tracking

Conclusions

“Cool, but what can we do with this?”

 

For starters, you get knowledge. Today, you might feel you know what people are engaging with on your website and even what kind of content is driving your traffic. However, you will probably be surprised with the updated data once you turn on copy paste share tracking and see how people really engage with your content.

You can also use real-time data to see which stories are becoming viral, and find the best stories to feature or promote in each social network, leveraging the organic boost people are giving you and making the most out of your content.

If you already have an advertising/paid acquisition strategy in place, make sure you’re amplifying content that is organically growing your website. The best way to improve your investment is to make sure your content is more shareable (organic eyeballs will lower your overall cost to acquire readers).

"But isn’t this a niche site with a very specific audience?"

Actually, the audiences of most of our users present similar behaviors: we found that copying and pasting a link represented a staggering 84% of total shares. Furthermore, an astonishing 91% of all social referrals (visits that arrived through a share) were generated by copy paste shares

Long story short, the way we’re distributing content has changed. Sharing has changed. Social has changed. If it’s a vital part of your business, you must understand the true dynamics of how your content is flowing through the web, learn from it and adapt your strategy accordingly.

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