The Future of Cross-Media Measurement in a Privacy-First Economy
Read Now

Zero Dark Thirty: What Your Brand Needs to Know About Dark Social

By Camila Martinez-Granata

Imagine a customer (or potential customer) sees a banner ad for your product, visits your website, uses your live chat, and sends you an email–all in the span of an hour. This is the reality of the customer journey in today’s omnichannel world. To maintain a top-tier CX in this scenario, your brand needs an analytics toolset that can seamlessly track users. This includes social, where many brands now reach their core audience. 


While social media has become integral to every brand’s marketing playbook, the rise of “dark social” has made tracking and attribution complicated. As much as 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from marketers’ websites takes place via private, dark social channels like email and social media.


So what exactly is dark social and how does it impact your brand’s marketing? Read on to find out what it is, why it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and how to measure it as a component of your brand’s online strategy.

Social media is essential for brands

As any brand marketer knows, social media drives success. Gone are the days where you can schedule a couple of posts per week and let it ride. Comprehensive social media strategies involve:

  • Regular content
  • Optimized ads
  • Responding to direct support requests
  • Social listening
  • Building connection with your customers and audience


A recent study revealed that 68% of consumers use social media at key moments throughout the customer journey. Whether it’s researching your brand before making a purchase or looking for product support, users turn to social media to connect with your brand.


Given this importance, tracking social media metrics is critical to understanding your brand’s marketing efforts. You need to measure how your efforts impact the customer journey and discover friction points to improve and optimize the customer experience


But what happens when social media has opaque nooks and crannies that are harder to track?

What exactly is dark social?

You’ve probably heard about the dark web—and its nefarious nature—and might be wondering if dark social means something similar. Thankfully, there’s nothing illicit about it.


Originally coined in The Atlantic almost a decade ago, “dark social” is all of the social media activity that analytics can’t track. This includes copying and pasting links into chat on social media platforms, instant messaging apps, and sharing content via email.


All of these are dark spots for social media analytics, which sharply contrast with the highly measurable nature of most social media usage. You can see how users interact with your content directly. And when they share links on their public profile, your tracking will accurately reflect where the traffic came from. But when someone shares a link via private chat or email, the problem arises. Analytics tools claim it is direct traffic as if the user typed in the URL or had it bookmarked in their browser–which is a notable inaccuracy when tracking social metrics. 


Let’s say you put up a blog post about a new product feature. One of your passionate users gets into a group chat on Facebook and tells five of their friends about your brand’s awesome new development. On one hand, this is great news. Nielsen research says that 83% of people surveyed trust the recommendations of friends and family, so this word-of-mouth evangelizing is gold for your brand.


However, when you look at traffic stats, you’re going to see five people who went directly to that blog post. You’ll have no idea (or a misleading one) of how they got there, which presents huge challenges for analytics.

Why dark social is a challenge for brands

Traffic that you can’t fully analyze or account for means there’s a gap in your reporting. And anything that you can’t explain is also something that you can’t optimize, improve, or use to justify your strategy. Considering how much marketing budgets have shrunk over the past year—dropping to 6.4% of company revenue in 2021—you need every piece of data you can get to establish how effective your efforts are.


Dark social’s blind spot creates a few specific challenges for brands:


  • Incorrect attribution: If you have traffic coming from social media—albeit indirectly—and is reported as direct, you have a clear misattribution issue. Even if you know the problem exists, you can only guess what the real numbers are.


  • Skewed ROI: Marketing campaigns live and die based on their performance. When you can’t accurately match costs to revenue, it’s impossible to optimize your ROI and you’ll be making spending decisions based on flawed data.

  • Flawed metrics: Given the fast-paced nature of online marketing, brands have to make quick decisions based on analytics dashboards. Feeding incomplete statistics into the system will result in bad metrics and ultimately, bad decisions and poor outcomes.


  • Gaps in the customer journey: Every marketer’s quest is an end-to-end view of their customers’ journeys. Blind spots at any point are difficult, but it’s especially painful when you can’t see just how and why they’re first exposed to your brand–as those initial touchpoints are critical to forming a long-term relationship.

How to measure and track dark social

Dark social has its challenges, but it’s ultimately a good thing. After all, having your customers share content and evangelize your brand is invaluable free advertising. The key, then, is figuring out how to measure and manage it.


While there’s no silver bullet to tracking dark social, there are some ways to mitigate the issue:


  • Use link shorteners: Link shorteners like Bit.ly and Goo.gl don’t just make unwieldy URLs easier to copy and paste. They also allow you to embed tracking variables, giving you the opportunity to add traceability to see exactly how and where links are being shared.


  • Set up a dark social segment in Google Analytics: Google Analytics can’t directly segment dark social traffic, but there are some clever ways to approach the issue. By eliminating commonly bookmarked URLs and excluding returning visitors, you can create a direct traffic segment that will mostly be dark social traffic.


  • Leverage social sharing tools: The more user-friendly your link-sharing features are, the more likely people will use them instead of copying and pasting. Give your customers as many options as you can to let them share your content on social media and messaging platforms. Be sure to eliminate roadblocks in sharing, like forcing them to log in or enter captchas.


  • UTM codes: UTM parameters are a great way to add granularity to your tracking, as they pass information through the URL that you can later use to determine where a user came from. Link shorteners come in especially handy when used with UTM codes, as they hide the otherwise-cumbersome long strings of data from users.


  • Ask users how they found you: First-party data isn’t just valuable from a privacy standpoint, it’s also the most accurate. Unobtrusive pop-ups or forms asking people how they found you can help eliminate dark social’s blind spots and build a better profile of your users.


  • Dark social tracking platforms: There’s a growing industry of analytics platforms that specifically address dark social. While they’re not going to fully address the issue, they can be a valuable addition to your toolset if your brand relies heavily on social media.

Elevate your customer journey analytics with Scuba

You might not be able to eliminate the shadows of dark social. But with careful planning, you can brighten the room. And shedding light on what happens before and after the blind spot—i.e. the moments you can’t track—will help you understand how to account for it.


That’s where robust customer journey analytics come in. Scuba’s customer intelligence platform includes several critical tools to give you a 360-degree view of what your users are doing:


  • Ultra-granular views of the customer journey that detail every touchpoint.
  • Interactive tools to easily move from high-level overviews to nuanced analysis.
  • Self-service data analysis tools that allow marketing professionals to perform complex queries without technical knowledge.
  • Real-time analytics dashboards that provide up-to-the-minute insights based on continuously streamed data.
  • A robust alert system that can bring minor pain points to your attention before they have an outsized negative impact on your brand’s marketing efforts.


Brands that can use the power of dark social to their advantage are going to be best positioned for success in the coming years, and Scuba can help you get there.


Ready to find out how Scuba can help eliminate blind spots in the customer journey and improve your social traffic attribution? Request a demo today or talk to a Scuba expert.

Stay Updated

Stay in touch with Scuba with fresh insights delivered to your inbox.

Ready to dive in?

We'd love to connect.

Talk to an Expert