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    “Dark Social” is a phrase that’s been tossed around since 2012, typically referring to content shared through channels other than social media.

     

    In the past that meant e-mail, chat services, text messages, and so on. Today that would also include direct messaging on platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and even Snapchat on which users are sharing upward of 2.5 billion messages per day.

    In fact, a study by RadiumOne shows that dark social accounts for over 80 percent of all social shares!

    The evolution of these social platforms has become a hot topic in business development because of the ability to directly connect with almost anyone, including a celebrity, a CEO of a company, or a specific marketing manager who has the authority to hire you.

    As society continues exploring new ways to connect with one another, companies are starting to take notice. As with everything pure, marketers are seeking new ways to exploit the technology for business gains.

    How We Currently Track Social Shares

    Historically, when marketers share information on social media, they tend to use “custom URL strings” that pull referral information directly into Google Analytics data. This makes it fairly easy to understand how successful social campaigns are performing.

    For example, if you shared a link to your favorite food truck on Facebook, you would append the custom query string to the end of the URL. The link looks like this:

    “www.greatfoodtruck.com/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook”

    Using this custom URL string means that the medium and source information will automatically be added to the Campaign tracking report in Google Analytics. See the image below.

     

    In a marketing environment, it’s easy to track this kind of social sharing. However, when it comes to tracking peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing, it’s not so cut-and-dried. The question on marketers’ minds is “How can we shine some light on the dark social?”

    Taking Control of the Dark Social

    This type of P2P sharing can be great for brand awareness and in driving qualified traffic to websites, but it creates a huge obstacle in terms of tracking and proving its worth.

    It’s almost impossible to track these referrals and forces tools such as Google Analytics to lump all data in the group for “direct traffic,” which is not true.

    “Direct Traffic” refers to someone going directly to the URL by manually typing it in the address bar—not by clicking a link somewhere else.

    Identifying the Unidentifiable Using Google Analytics

    One of the simpler methods we use to estimate dark social is through custom segmentations in Google Analytics. I repeat, this only offers estimates, but is an easy way to gain a better understanding of the percentage of direct traffic that truly came from people who shared a URL rather than typing the URL directly.

    How to Set It Up

    1. Start by creating a custom segment to view direct traffic only. Select Apply.

     

    2. In Google Analytics, go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages. This will show you a list of your top visited pages via direct traffic.

    3. Then open an advanced filter and set up a series of dimensions that exclude pages that contain short subfolder names. (That’s the part of the URL after the domain, e.g., /contact.)

    With these pages excluded, there are only pages with long URLs left over, which are highly unlikely to have been typed out when users came to your site.

    This is one of the easiest methods you can set up. If you want to get really fancy and set up advanced tracking mechanisms to narrow this down even further, you can try third-party platforms such as getsocial.io or by using tracking features available through AddThis, Po.st, or Sharethis.

     

    The Future of Dark Social

    The nature of mobile use and social apps encourage sharing and direct interactions more than ever. Overall, these are great for brand awareness and traffic generation, but they are not going to provide reliable trackable visitor information for some time yet.

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