One way to make ‘dark social’ work for you

As it turns out, content sharing on social networks is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the totality of everything that gets spread online. And just as most of an iceberg’s mass is hidden from view, much of what gets shared online is also… it takes place through what has now been termed “dark social.”

facebook buttonWhat is dark social?
Alexis Madrigal, the tech editor for The Atlantic, is widely credited as the creator of the term “dark social,” as he introduced the idea in a 2012 article for his publication. At the time, Madrigal found that most online content was shared through email and instant messengers, reporting that an estimated 69 percent of traffic referrals came through those channels. By comparison, only 20 percent of referrals came through Facebook.

Email and IM are staples of dark social. This is because they are private channels, making them difficult to track and measure traffic that originates from their confines. Despite the wild popularity of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, dark social still dominates as the preferred method for sending our friends links.

A more recent study from RadiumOne turned up similar findings to what Madrigal found two years ago: 69 percent of all global sharing is through dark social, with only 23 percent happening on Facebook. 32 percent of consumers reported that they will only share content through dark channels.

If you couldn’t guess by now: dark social is powerful. It’s important. This is a private world in which your customers will share what truly interests them with people to whom they share a deeper connection (they have each other’s email addresses, after all). It’s more personal – if someone shares a link with someone they know, it’s likely to communicate about a common interest, or to help them solve a problem. Gaining insight into dark social sharing can give marketers a more accurate picture of what their content is actually being used for. Failing to understand what’s going on in dark social channels means leaving yourself with an incomplete picture of how your content is really performing.

But it’s not just a matter of posting your link and hoping it moves through dark social networks. You have to make them sharable and traceable if you want to get the full value of dark social sharing. Here’s one method you can use to prime your links for movement through email, IM and other private channels.

Use a URL shortener
If you want a piece of content to spread, you have to make the initial push by linking the pages to which you want to drive traffic.

Generally, when marketers start an online marketing campaign, they will include links to relevant landing pages or social profiles. The problem with these links that they are long and cannot be traced without an analytics platform. Unfortunately, most analytics programs cannot directly account for dark social clickbacks.

RadiumOne recommended using a URL shortener to create short, easy-to-share and trackable links. For starters, you benefit from the shorter links because they take up fewer characters – perfect for adding more description for URLs posted on Twitter. Most link shorteners include real-time analytics on clickbacks, giving you data without you needing to invest in a full-service analytics dashboard. In addition, they also allow for segmentation of the incoming data.

Shortened URLs can also encourage more sharing due to the fact that they can be customized with campaign- or brand-specific keywords. These are more trustworthy than long, number- and symbol-ridden links that often get shared. RadiumOne found that branded short URLs receive more shares and clickbacks than generic long ones. It makes sense too – people want to hear from the brands they like. Seeing a link with the name of a familiar and trusted company will allow the people who truly want to view your content to know exactly what they’re getting.

This post barely scratches the surface on dark social – if you’ld like to learn more, let us know in the comments below.

Martin Jones

Martin Jones is a Senior Marketing Manager with the corporate Cox Communications social media team where he assists in leading strategy, campaign ideation and marketing execution for Cox Business social media & content marketing. Today, over 1 million fans engage with Cox Communications content, campaigns and Customer Care on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube. LinkedIn and Google+.