What is Dark Social, and Why Should I Care?

'Dark Social' is when users will share content via private channels, such as email, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or text. This is instead of using public social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. But why does this matter to marketers? And is it as spooky as it sounds?

dark social

Well, this private sharing creates some hurdles for marketers to track and measure the effectiveness of content, making it tricky to define and pinpoint specific patterns or trends. 

And this is an issue that isn't exactly going away. A GlobalWebIndex survey of 3,000 UK and US internet users aged 16 to 64 found dark social apps are used by 63% of people to share content. This was followed by social media platform, which was used by 54% of people, and word of mouth by 51%. Other 'dark' channels SMS and email sat at 48% and 37% respectively. 

But still, many marketers are yet to realise the value of dark social, and why it should matter to them right now. And with 90% of social marketing budget doing on 'traditional' networks, and 84% of sharing happening on dark social, something is seriously wrong. 

Analysis of private messaging platforms found that the most popular social app was Facebook Messenger, used by a whopping 82% of people surveyed. Next was WhatsApp with 56%, Instagram Direct with 34%, and Snapchat with 32%. 

So why is this a problem? Well, one word. Tracking. 

Clicking a link in a 'dark' channel using both Client-to-server and End-to-End encrypted services will still take the user to the website, but tracking where they have come from is virtually impossible as this social sharing returns no referrer data, resulting in the direct attribution. 

Other causes of the missing source can be moving from an HTTPS to an HTTP address, mobile apps, and copying and pasting links. 

But let's go into more detail. What is Dark Social?

What is Dark Social?

Dark social is a term used by marketers to describe the web traffic that comes from popular modern distribution channels when it's difficult to accurately track. 

These can be places where B2B buyers are highly active, but the company will not have direct visibility of the impact. 

Other terms used to describe this include dark traffic, dark social media, or dark funnel. The only one with a slight difference is the dark funnel, which is all about the intent data, not the specific channels.

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis Madragal to summarise the practice of sharing content that can't be attributed to it to a particular source. These visits, as a result, become invisible, instead of being counted as social or referral traffic. 

Secure browsing also falls under the umbrella of dark social. 

Why Should Dark Social Matter to Marketers?

Well, marketers can't measure the success of their campaigns if they can't see the results of their hard work. Dark Social obscures knowing which channels performed the best, skews the numbers, and provides a distorted picture. 

This type of traffic also inflates the 'direct traffic' metric as the actual sources can't be tracked. So, marketers will have no idea where they're getting the most traffic from. As dark social traffic is rising and comprises a majority of all social traffic, this distortion will only get worse. 

“One dirty secret of web analytics is that the information we get is limited. There are circumstances when you show up at our doorstep and we have no idea how you got here.”

— Alexis Madrigal

But why exactly do brands and marketers need to know where their traffic is coming from? Well, without accurate data about traffic sources and engagement, it's almost impossible to make informed decisions when it comes to future planning and campaigns, especially when it comes to investing and justifying marketing spending. 

And as dark social represents 69% of worldwide traffic, tailoring content to this invisible majority is key. 

Overall, dark social reveals that optimising content for Facebook and Twitter isn't really optimising at all. As Alexis Madrigal said, in his article that originated the idea, you can't use tricks and tactics to fool the dark social bots and algorithms, there aren't any to beat. 

Instead, it's all about the content. You have to write, and write well. It becomes vitally important to create content that people want to talk about and share with their friends and family. 

So, what other reasons are dark social important for marketing? 

  1. Skews Data. As we've mentioned, dark social makes it harder to keep track. Social sharing on public feeds is declining, but this doesn't mean people aren't engaging with content.

    But the mindset of the public is changing; more often people are concerned with online privacy. So, issues surrounding data protection have led to users sharing links privately on messaging apps, rather than on more public sites.

    This private communication is likely to form a significant part of your traffic, but it's far more difficult to measure. On top of this, dark social can be seen to boost authentic engagement and make conversions more frequent. 

  2. Consumer Interests. Figuring out how to track and measure information about this form of sharing will provide a far more specific and detailed overview of your reader's interests, values, and opinions. This data will boost the effectiveness of your future projects, but many businesses aren't even trying to collect it. In fact, only 4% of marketers regard dark social as a top challenge. 

  3. Brand Narrative. Dark social sharing can be seen to exclude brands from the conversation. Marketers not only can't track and trace how much something is engaged with or shared, but they also can't see what people are saying about it. This means they have no eyes on how the brand narratives are developing. Unlocking dark social provides a greater deal of control, helping businesses make sure they're cultivating a positive brand image. 

2022 and Dark Social

Dragon’s Den’s Steven Bartlett is all about utilising dark social to its fullest.

When he started his career, it was all about building public communities and building followers. The big shift over the last ten years has now moved from the building of public followers on Facebook to dark social private communities. Brands that understand this, and try to capture this opportunity today, will own the future of social media, according to Steven.

But what does this mean?

“Reddit,” says Steven. “You’ve seen what's happening on Reddit at the moment in terms of communities. Discord. Discord wasn’t a thing two years ago, now all of my companies that are in this building today are moving  communications over to discord.”


“I’ve got a telegram group where almost 10M people follow me, that I can text every day. There’s no middleman deciding how much reach I get there”.


People are choosing privacy, people are choosing anonymity. That’s a macro shift, he says. There's a move from the days when every message between friends was posted on their wall, for the world to see. Brands need to understand this shift and develop strategies that keep this development in mind, for private, close communities.

“I would love to see a brand build up their community on discord or telegram”