5 Things Publishers Need To Know About Dark Social

5 Things Publishers Need To Know About Dark Social

(1) What is Dark Social?

Dark Social? Sounds cool. What’s that then?

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in an article first published by The Atlantic in October 2012. The phrase refers to web content that’s shared in ways that can’t be easily measured by standard analytics.

This difficult to measure traffic occurs when a link to web content is sent via email, via online chat or even via txt message on a mobile device. In short, content which is shared outside of the easily tracked social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter of Google+

Imagine for instance a friend sends you a txt msg with a link to a YouTube video or a song on Spotify – if you subsequently look at that video or listen to that song it will be almost impossible for the owner of that content to determine where you’ve come from or why.

The temptation among many marketing professionals is to concentrate our reporting on channels that can be easily measured but in so doing it seems clear that many may be disregarding the huge portion of social sharing that is taking place outside of the main social media platforms. This in turn can mean that lots of effort (and budget) could be being squandered in all the wrong places.

2) How big an issue is Dark Social?

But surely Dark Social can’t amount to very much traffic, someone would have noticed?

To illustrate this (with their permission) I’ve done some analysis on the web traffic from a publishing client of mine so I can talk about the extent of Dark Social with real numbers.

In the last 12 months the total number of visitors to their website was 398,859.

By far the biggest chunk of these visitors 56% (225,040) arrived via search - highlighting the importance of the sound SEO strategy this publisher has in place (you’re welcome *takes a bow*)

Just over 8% (29,934) came from Twitter and only 3% (11,962) came from Facebook. (Incidentally this from a publisher who employs a person in their marketing department who works exclusively on marketing through social media and manages what appears to be a large and thriving Facebook community.)

The second biggest group of visitors 30% (119,840) of the total came from Unknown Referrals or what we are now calling Dark Social.

That means that almost 10,000 people every month are visiting this publisher’s website and they have absolutely no idea where they’re coming from or why. These visitors are clicking on something to get to the website but as things stand no-one has put any measures in place to track them.

Take a moment to let that sink in – 30% of total monthly traffic is just appearing and no-one knows why. That doesn’t mean they are just popping into existence – every single one of those people is clicking on a link that brings them there – every single one of them has been passed that link from somewhere or someone – we just don’t know where or who. What a huge missed opportunity.

3) Mastering analytics can minimise the Dark Social effect 

I thought online analytics was supposed to deal with all this?

That was the theory. Sadly though online analytics can only measure what they’ve been set up to track. 

All of the big analytics platforms (Google Analytics is far and away the most commonly used) have built in tracking for all of the main social media platforms and can easily tell you how many people have come to your website from a link placed on another website.

Analytics software will provide your marketing department with graph after graph and pie-chart after pie-chart showing you a dozen different sets of data – sadly though only the data it’s been set up to track. In 9 cases out of 10 that means you get the broad brush data set reporting that came already built in.

Part of the problem is that the belief has grown up that online Analytics has taken all of the pain out of tracking results.You just plug it in and once a month you press a button and a lot of pleasingly colourful charts and graphs pop out the other end. The thoroughly modern marketer can then cut and paste these lovely graphs and stats into their reports. These reports are then cheerfully kicked up the chain of command with barely a second thought as to what they’re actually saying about the effectiveness or otherwise of the marketing activities they’re reporting on.

Analytics software is an incredibly powerful tool but like most tools it’s only truly useful in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.

Every publisher should have someone in their marketing department that they can point at and say “Yeah that’s the analytics guru over there in the corner, there’s nothing they don’t know about segmenting data”.

If you’re in a publishing company and you don’t have an analytics guru, you’re doing it wrong.

(4) Dark Social offers an untapped opportunity for publishers

Assuming I can learn to track it, how is Dark Social going to help me?

In digital marketing it’s hard to go more than 5 minutes without some chancer talking about something ‘going viral’ and in publishing the phrase ‘word of mouth success’ has taken on almost religious significance. We talk a lot about how both of these phenomena ‘just happen’ and how they're practically impossible to replicate artificially.

What if Dark Social is actually just a way of describing “Word of Mouth” in a digital context?

What if the key to understanding how things ‘go viral’ or achieve ‘word of mouth’ success is actually right there hidden in our analytics?

What is ‘word of mouth’ if it isn’t my best mate sending me an email with a link to a YouTube video of a panda juggling kittens? I click straight on the link or copy it so I can paste it into my browser later. My click just became Dark Social. Almost untraceable. A mystery. My click just got explained away by a marketing guru saying that YouTube video ‘went viral’ through ‘word of mouth’.

The fact remains that if the tracking and segmenting was set up correctly that click wouldn’t be a mystery at all – the person who made the video might not be able to find out why it ended up in my inbox but they could absolutely track its' point of origin, see where it first appeared in the food chain and using that knowledge try to replicate its success.

Replace 'YouTube Video' with 'Book Review' and you'll see how effective harnessing Dark Social data could be for publishers.

5) Publishers often already have the skills in-house to exploit the Dark Social effect

So practically, what can I do?

Allowing your marketing data to become a Dark Social statistic is the result of insufficient or ineffective tracking.

Everyone in a publisher’s marketing department should have an instinctive understanding of the importance of segmenting, testing and tracking. They should measure everything they do in terms of ROI – invest more resources in the things that are working and stop doing the things that aren’t.

In short the best thing that any publisher can do is to encourage a return to some good old fashioned marketing values and augment them with some fancy new data manipulation and analysis skills

Hands up who can remember sending out actual leaflets via direct mail? Yeah me too.

Now, hands up who can remember when they got hauled over the coals by their boss the first time they ordered a 20,000 leaflet print run and forgot to put the scratch codes on? Yeah me too.

Never did it twice.

In those days everyone in the marketing department had an in-depth knowledge of response rates and campaign codes – a marketing department wasn’t a marketing department without having piles of envelopes, mailing labels and returned order forms scattered across every available surface.

For sure it was chaotic and not very efficient (the first time I suggested tracking the results in a spreadsheet I was almost burned as a witch) but there was method in the madness.

The very fact that it was so hands on meant every single person in the marketing department had an appreciation of  the importance of testing, the importance of tracking investment -v- returns for each individual segment of a campaign.

When marketing migrated online a lot of these old skills were simply dismissed as irrelevant and the marketing mindsets behind them were often treated with the disdain that the young reserve for the old.

That was a huge mistake and one we need to reverse. Many of these old fashioned marketing skills need to be mastered again and embedded at the very heart of what we do.

And here’s the truth, here's why I'm passionate about what I'm telling you...

I’m sitting here in the heart of the tech/media beast – I’m dealing with datasets twice the size of the population of the United States and six months ago everyone suddenly starts talking about Dark Social.

One of our main topics of conversation is how we’re going to analyse it, how we’re going to harness it, how we’re going to monetise it - and there in my head the whole time I hear the voice of the 25 year old direct mail grunt I used to be,

“You know what you wanna do with that mate, you wanna put a bloody scratch code on it…”

And you know what – he’s right.