April Digital Hack: Dark Social

According to RadiumOne, over 80% of social sharing happens via Dark Social. Firstly, Dark Social is not some seedy version of Social like the Dark Web. If you were looking for that please go elsewhere. So what is Dark Social and how can we leverage this across Digital advertising?

To help understand what Dark Social is, let’s look at an example of it in action:

I have a friend, let’s call him Bob. Bob is very detail oriented and likes to do a lot of research and compare all available options before making a purchase.

Bob has a girlfriend, let’s call her Brittany. Brittany is not very detail oriented at all but is the decision maker in the relationship and will always have the final say. Sound familiar?

Bob & Brittany needed a new, bigger TV. Bob said it was to watch sport but we all know it was to watch their favourite show The Bachelor in glorious 4K ultra high definition.

Bob began his research on his laptop by searching for 60 inch 4K TVs and clicked a few Google Shopping ads, to compare different products. A Sony, a Samsung, an LG and a Huawei.

Bob liked the look of the Sony, so copied the URL and texted it to Brittany to check it out. She liked it too. But then Bob did a bit more research on his mobile during his lunch break. He visited the sites again and read some reviews, which said the Samsung was better. So Bob shared this article with Brittany via WhatsApp as it had a share button on it. Brittany read the review and agreed that the Samsung was much better.

Brittany has a mate, let’s call him Damo. Damo was also in market for a TV and is a bit of an expert in this field so Brittany asked him for advice. Damo said the Huawei was just as good as the Samsung but much cheaper and had been retargeted by a Facebook Ad with an offer, so sent this link to Brittany via WhatsApp. Brittany forwarded this via SMS to Bob with Damo’s recommendation. Bob then clicked the link and bought the Huawei then and there.


The Intro

So let’s have a look at that journey from Google Analytics’s point of view:

– Bob visits the Huawei site as a new user via Paid Search on his laptop.
– Damo visits the Huawei site as a returning user via Facebook Ads.
– Brittany visits the Huawei site as a new user via Direct on her mobile (as we can’t tell she came from Bob’s shared link via SMS).
– Bob then visits the Huawei site as a new user via Direct on his mobile. Here he makes the purchase so Direct would get the credit.

In this example, half of the visits accredited to Direct are actually from Dark Social. Also, Facebook Ads should get some of the credit.

So we can start to understand how important tracking Dark Social can be.


The Setup

Since the term Dark Social was coined back in 2014, and marketers began to understand the importance, many tools have become available in the market to capture and act upon this data.

But, this wouldn’t be a hack without some free alternatives to the tools out there. So, here’s our 4 ways to better measure and act on your Dark Social sharing.

We focus on using WordPress & Google Analytics for this hack as they are the most widely used amongst our client base and the market in general.


The Execution

GA Segments

As the Dark Social traffic has no referral source, GA categorises it as Direct. Direct traffic, used alongside brand search volume, can be a good measure of brand health. But, if all this Dark Social traffic is being categorised as Direct this can be skewing your view.

More importantly, these Dark Social shares could be triggered from your paid advertising meaning you are unable to measure a large portion of the effectiveness of your digital advertising.

To create the segment, go to Acquisition > Overview > +Add Segment > +New Segment

Add in the Traffic Source as (direct), then exclude the homepage and any of the pages where the URL is easy to remember or may be visited more frequently by returning users.

You can then add this segment to any of your GA reports to see the results.


GA Default Channel Grouping

Once you are confident this segment is accurately measuring your Dark Social traffic you can take this a step further by creating your own Custom Channel Grouping.

The GA Segments method is a good solution if you are doing some more in-depth investigation in GA, but if you just want a snapshot across your normal GA reports you can take it a step further.

You can go to Admin > Custom Channel Groupings and create your own from scratch. But it’s easier to just duplicate the Default Groupings and make some changes (this is a hack within the hack). To do this, go to the Conversions section > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions, click the Channel Groupings dropdown link, then Copy MCF Channel Grouping template.

Click Define a new channel and filter using something like the below:

Now, let’s get deep.

You can take this even further by splitting Dark Social Direct and Dark Social Tracking.

Dark Social Tracking picks up all of the traffic from our outbound sharing where we have edited the links and defined the traffic as Dark Social. Your filter would look like the below:

The Dark Social Direct is like a safety net, capturing any Dark Social sharing where even with our hacks above, we can’t determine the source.

Now go back to your usual Channel view in the Acquisition section and select your new grouping to see the results!



UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module (I know, catchy right?!) and is a snippet of text added to the end of your destination URL. This allows us to tell website tracking tools such as Google Analytics where the traffic has come from and measure behaviour, conversions and ROI from our Digital advertising.

You should already be using UTMs across all paid activity to track website behaviour from said paid activity, but don’t forget you can also add UTMs to Organic activity as well. Basically anything you control the URL for.

If you are running a branding campaign on Facebook, your URL, including your UTM, may look something like the below:


If someone copies this link or shares via the native smartphone sharing option to Dark Social channels then any subsequent website visits and actions from this link will be credited back to the original source/campaign.

Great! But, what if users access the site via non-paid channels where no UTM was present? When they copy and paste the URL it will have no UTM code and the subsequent visit will be attributed back to Direct when we want it to show as a Dark Social share.


Share Buttons

This is a manual hybrid version of the tracking tools & UTMs. Using this method, you can essentially create your own free tracking tool. Most website templates have built in options to share to various platforms and we can add our own UTM codes to these.

WordPress is the most popular website hosting platform and has the ability to edit themes to choose sharing options, as well as many Social sharing Plugin options.

Most websites will likely be using these already, but most will not likely be tracking them.

To track them, we can add the UTM tracking code to the outbound link, just as we do with our destination URLs.

When you edit the WhatsApp sharing link, for example, it should look something like the below:


This means any subsequent clicks on this link will be categorised as “Dark Social” and allow you to separate this traffic from direct.


The Result

Segmenting out our Dark Social traffic has helped us achieve:

– On average 30% Direct traffic actually Dark Social sharing
 * Sometimes see Dark Social Direct outweighing Direct as per screenshot above
– Measuring up to 50% additional value from paid campaigns
– The ability to retarget Dark Social users directly achieving increased engagement results
– Educating clients on previously unknown elements in the customer journey

So first look to segment your traffic using the one or both of the first two examples to understand what sort of volumes you are looking at, then have a go at the tracking options. Alternatively, get in touch and we can do it all for you and recommend some additional strategies around this.


Jamie Taylor
Digital Lead, True Sydney

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