What is Dark Social? Debunking the Myths

There are many misconceptions about what is Dark Social, how it’s being tracked and why it’s useful. Let me give you some examples.

Like all Marketing related stuff, when a concept becomes a buzzword, you see a lot of people trying to jump on the bandwagon and capitalize on the trend. But many of them do not fully understand what is Dark Social and instead, mix the concepts such as customer support or dark web.

I’ve seen a recent flood of posts being written lately about it and, unfortunately, there is some confusion about what is dark social as a concept.

After all, the 1000+ hours I spent researching the topic should be enough to know what Dark Social is NOT, right? Let me give you some Dark Social examples of what it is and what it’s not.

What is Dark Social?

Just to have a clear idea before we go into what it’s not:

Dark Social describes private sharing via WhatsApp, email, text messages etc. And it’s not so simple to track. But if it constitutes around 65% of all social shares (according to our GetSocial data published in BuzzSumo Content Trend Reports 2018), it’s a big deal!

This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that’s not actually what’s happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.


#1 – Customer Support is not Dark Social

When a brand is interacting with the potential client on a private channel (e.g. Facebook Messenger), this is simply a good old customer support… happening on a messaging app.

If I want to be generous, because a visitor lands on a chat app, I can call it Landing Page Optimization, since it provides a great way to engage with the visitor instantly in real-time.

But if you know where the visitor comes from (an ad, in this case), what they clicked on and even what they want, what is so “dark” about it? You can measure everything from the start!

Here’s the example of this misconception: A pretty good guide about how to track Dark Social in Google Analytics (possible to some extent) on Social Media Examiner. It’s all fine and proper until they start giving examples of how to tie Dark Social and Social Media Marketing, such as making ads that send users into Facebook Messenger for a chat.

Another business using dark social to mobilize customers is Adidas. They use private messaging to address customer issues, questions, and concerns.

what is dark social

#2 – Number of shares is not the same as traffic generated from private shares

Actually, the original Dark Social test made by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic did not measure shares, just social traffic or visits. At the time there was no technology to track dark social shares. But there is now…

There is a confusion between ratios and quantities. Let’s say this blog post had 1,000 shares. 500 via private messaging – such as a link sent to your colleague via WhatsApp. That’s 50% of shares that are not being tracked currently. Why is it not so great? Because you have no visibility of what people are sharing, which articles, products and so on. You are not even aware of that 50% and see only 500 shares.

On top of that, the public shares – the ones you see, might have generated additional traffic to your site. But what about the traffic driven from the private shares? It will end up being reported as Direct Traffic in your web analytics.

On average, Dark Social shares bring less traffic per share than “public social” shares as they’re sent to one specific person.

The image below illustrates this behavior:

dark social sharing trendsSource: The State of Social Sharing

#3 – Dark Social is not synonymous with Private Channels

Adidas launched its dark social experiments three months ago with ambitious plans, but so far has no “major learnings”, indicating user engagement is harder to track than it initially thought.”

adidas dark social experiment

This article actually has a very good quote about understanding what is and what isn’t dark social, even if it mixes things a bit: “Adidas has previously said that Snapchat has better retention than Youtube, but Alt (Florian Alt, senior director of global brand communications at Adidas) believes Snapchat is “a dark social platform of sorts”, because “you can’t really understand the metrics behind it so it is hard to measure and compare”. This versus something like Youtube “which is very openly sharing where we can understand the stats”.

Snapchat generates a lot of dark social shares and traffic due to its lack of transparency. That makes Snapchat a private channel. Private channels usually generate dark social shares and traffic. The loop is closed.

I believe that distinguishing the concepts of private channels and dark social as two different things is important. Otherwise, the next thing you’ll see is brands saying that they are tackling dark social by using chat bots, which doesn’t make any sense.

In an older article, it was said: “WhatsApp was specifically chosen as our research shows that consumers already use the app to create their own micro-communities,” he continued. “Adidas wants to be the most personal brand, so we need to know and understand our consumer in order to have a meaningful relationship…. There is huge potential in dark social.”

In this case, they are mixing community-building with what Dark Social truly is: the bad attribution of traffic. There is indeed a lot of traffic data coming from WhatsApp that is Dark Social, mainly because, like Snapchat, WhatsApp is a private channel.

However, it’s not specified if these groups generate any traffic to external websites or if there is content being shared. If that’s not the case, this initiative’s relationship with Dark Social is tenuous at best… it’s just another form of Direct Marketing.

But I’m just going to assume old buzzwords don’t look sexy in a presentation about marketing strategy.

#4 – UTM parameters do not solve the problem

Bitly’s take on the matter: “Using UTM parameters and shortened links, you can shine a light on your dark traffic.

You can use Bitly to track clicks that would otherwise become dark traffic.”

And as an example, they say: “I include this link (http://bit.ly/bdpimagelab) every time I email clients with their photos. It’s a video explaining how to access your photos”.

In this case, the sender knows exactly where the recipient is going to open the link: in their email. In this case, it should use a UTM code such as “utm_medium=email”.

However, if the recipient then copies and pastes the link into another medium (WhatsApp, Messenger, SMS, etc.) for sharing purposes, the resulting clicks will still count as having Email as the source, messing up the attribution again. It won’t be attributed to WhatsApp or anything else.

João Romão wrote an entire blog post about the inefficiency of UTM codes that explains this problem in more details.

Summary & Key Takeaways:

  • Dark Social (DS) is the result of traffic being mistakenly attributed to a Direct channel on analytics software (such as Google Analytics).


  • Dark Social Traffic represents visitors that arrive at a website through a link but their visit doesn’t have an identifiable source.


  • The known causes for the missing source are: moving from HTTPS to HTTP address, mobile apps, messaging apps, Email, SMS, copy and pasting links.


  • Dark Social Shares are links shared onto private channels. They generate Dark Social Traffic, also known as DS Referrals or DS Clickbacks.


  • A private channel is a medium of communication whose information is not publicly available (Email, SMS, messaging apps, etc.). They exist in opposition to public channels, which most interactions are accessible by everyone, such as Twitter and Pinterest. Facebook is a mix, since it has public areas (company pages, public posts) and private areas (secret or closed groups, dark posts, chat).


  • Creating a community on a private channel is not Dark Social.


  • Customer Support on private channels is not Dark Social.



If you want to know a bit more about how Dark Social is becoming a very large issue for Social Marketing, just check our latest presentation:

João Romão is a founder & CEO at GetSocial.