Data tracking and web analytics play a big role in the everyday life of data nerds like us. And while we should all base our marketing efforts on reliable data, it's worth talking about how reliable your analytics really is. I'd like to tell you about the dark monster hiding in it, a considerable flow of traffic that goes untracked, or simply Dark Social.
The term "Dark Social" was first coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012 and denotes the URLs that have been copied and pasted. What does this have to do with your web traffic? Bear with us on this, it requires some explaining.
Here's how we discovered our own Dark Social traffic. We get a lot of conversions from Direct Traffic, but for a while the question was "Are our readers really typing the long URL of our landing page in their browsers?" It's probably a smart guess to assume that this isn't the case. Other options are users who have previously been directed to our website from search engines or social media networks, saved our link in their bookmarks or browsing history and later revisted us through them, this time converting into a lead. But this also didn't make any sense, because all our data tools showed the source for the conversion as Direct ... not social, not organic, and not even referral. It was Dark Social traffic, automatically categorized as Direct.
How is Social Traffic tracked?
When our social media team shares our latest blog article on Linkedin and you click on that URL, our website receives not only your visit but also meta information linked to that URL. Thanks to that information, our analytics tools tell us the source of the visit, which in this case would be Social.
But we have apparently been ignoring a big part of social media; it is more than simply publishing images and URLs. "Social" is the category of interactions that happen between users, and not all of those interactions take place on feeds and timelines. We chat, send emails to each other, use social media apps ... and URLs you click there don't generate the same meta information, which is why our analytics tools can't track your source.
Here are the 3 main types of Dark Social traffic (inspired by Mark Hansen's list):
- your reader sent your link to a friend via chat.
- a user clicked on your link in an email you don't track.
- your social media followers clicked on your link on their Facebook or Twitter apps (Dark Mobile).
Likewise, if a reader downloaded one of your free ebooks, sent the file to a co-worker, who clicked on one of your URLs, this visit will remain untracked and automatically fall under Direct, although it may include a social element.
Sad truth is, we will never know that you recommended our ebook to a friend, because we are still missing a lot of data that could otherwise show us where exactly our most interested leads come from. But the good news is that this opens a whole new range of opportunities for digital marketing agencies and experts.
How can digital marketers benefit from this?
Based on Madrigal's "The Atlantic" case, dark social traffic may be more significant than you think. According to Madrigal, "almost 69% of social referrals were dark! Facebook came in second at 20%. Twitter was down at 6%." These are numbers you can't ignore.
But a smart approach to this discovery is not getting scared of the dark unknown waters or avoiding them altogether, but embracing the misinformation and actually benefiting from it. First and foremost, this applies to marketers who are helplessly trying to boost their word-of-mouth efforts ... what if your word-of-mouth campaign is already working, only you don't know about it because you are not tracking Direct Traffic?
What if the conversations your readers are having in their chat boxes, sharing links with each other, are actually your top referral sources? How can you boost that rate? How do you find out what worked and what didn't? All these questions will depend on the experimental capabilities of your marketer. You test and you find out.
Dark social reporting, however, will remain one of the biggest challenges. You can set filters and advanced segments in your analytics to isolate the dark social traffic from the Direct group, but the drawbacks of your analytics program leaves it to the experience of your digital marketer to notice dark social traffic in the first place.
For marketers and marketing agencies who have already come across Dark Social, this can be a breaking point for data-based social media campaigns. Finally, news websites, online magazines, and businesses that rely on community engagement may discover whole new ways of proving social ROI, by simply filtering a new traffic source.
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