Dark Social: Content is Working for You, Even When You Can't See It

Lauren Patestos
September 11, 2023
5 min read

By now most marketers, and a good portion of business owners, are hip to the value of content marketing. You understand that the right content, targeted to the right audience creates connection; and connection converts.

But whomst among us doesn’t like the external validation of likes, comments, and shares to confirm that our social media content is hitting the mark? How do we justify the value of content that doesn’t produce strong engagement metrics?

I’m losing some of you because you think I’m going to tell you metrics don’t matter. Stick with me here.

They do matter. But your web and social reporting are almost definitely misattributing a large chunk of your inbound traffic.

A 2023 study from Sparktoro concluded that “if you’re attributing all direct [site] visits to type-in visitors, email, text message, offline/brand campaigns… you’re almost certainly undercounting the impact of social media marketing, social referrals, and word-of-mouth on social networks.”

What is “dark social?”

Dark social is a term coined by former editor of The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal, in 2013 to describe the sharing of content from social media through other channels that are not trackable by the platform(s) they originate on. This can include texting, messaging apps, private messaging within a social media platform, word of mouth, and email.

Dark social may be especially prevalent (and useful) for B2B brands that have longer sales cycles and more stakeholders to convince. How many executives do you know who send links to articles from LinkedIn thought leadership posts to their team as a means of soft-selling the strategy or services of the company or individual?

According to a 2022 article from marketing agency NoGood, only 16% of social sharing was attributable to trackable social media referral sources, with 84% being dark social (i.e. users did not come straight from social media or search engine searches, but instead from a share through other private channels).

It is widely accepted that new opt-out options for iOS14 users and the general public becoming more concerned with data privacy and less inclined to participate in data sharing, as well as the staggering growth of messaging apps in recent years, have contributed to the popularity of dark social sharing.

Engagement isn’t the end-all-be-all

So what does all of this mean for social media marketing metrics? While engaging with your audience is still crucial, it’s important to remember that you won’t necessarily be able to see and track all of the engagement that is actually happening. Visible metrics like reactions, comments, and shares are still valuable as they help generate social proof that encourages further engagement and builds brand buzz. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. A ton of engagement is happening beneath the surface.

The team at NoGood put it like this: “We all want engagement on our content, but it is almost a higher compliment (and even better conversion) if the content gets shared privately. This reflects its genuine nature and quality of content that stirs a user’s behavior to specifically share with someone particular, not just pushing it out to their entire audience. In this way, these dark links develop more qualified leads...”

Separately, oft-neglected metrics like clicks, saves, and impressions can also be valuable measures of the health of your sales funnel and lead pipeline as they indicate brand awareness and baseline interest for potential customers early in the buyer’s journey who may not be ready to take action yet.

How to quantify dark social

Most modern websites track inbound site traffic and attribute it to referral sources like Facebook, TikTok, Google, etc. But there is a whole swath of “direct” traffic that is actually likely coming (indirectly) from social media.

Hootsuite explains: “How much of your traffic is coming from dark social? Your direct traffic in Google Analytics is a good estimate.”

Inbound website leads that bring users straight to the URL, without coming from a referral source or the website’s homepage first are highly likely to be the result of someone clicking “copy link” from a social media post and sharing it with their network through other channels.

Think about it — how many times have you actually typed out a full URL to an article or video link? Did you type in www.foreword.us/blog/dark-social-content-is-working-for-you-even-when-you-cant-see-it to visit this blog or did you perhaps click a link that a colleague sent you in Slack, text, or via private message?

Bottom line: Unless you saw our blog in your social media feed and site-hopped from there or searched Google to read up on this topic, there’s a good chance that you (along with a majority of social media users) are already a participant in dark social.

If you’re ready to put content to work for your brand, reach out to Foreword’s team of content marketing experts today.

Lauren Patestos