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What on Earth is ‘dark social’?

Chris Haydon
Written by: Chris Haydon
Length: 7 min read
Date: 30 Apr 2024

To the majority of us, the idea of the ‘dark web’ is some kind of insidious internet underbelly; rife with hackers, scammers, and illegal trade. It sounds kinda awesome really, but the reality is a little different (and, well, much more dull). 

The dark web is actually just a trendy name for parts of the internet which aren’t visible to search engines. You need a specific browser in order to access it, and unlike “Googling” a term in order to find a result, you’ll need to use your onions to navigate around it. Onions are the names of websites on the dark web, by the way. That wasn’t just us being clever. 

Granted, there’s a lot of sketchy stuff on the dark web - from the purchasing of stolen credit cards and counterfeit money, to the dealing of drugs and firearms - but people also use it to play chess, or read ebooks, or even social network on “BlackBook”.

In fact, Terbium Labs (a company that analyses dark web usage) recently crawled a random selection of 400 websites and found that less than half of what goes on in the murky depths below Google-level is actually illegal. 

So then, when we think of ‘dark social’, what do we picture in our minds? Do we see harmful videos and images being shared between users? Do we see criminal activity and other horrible stuff flashing away on our smartphones? Well, no. What we actually see is, uh, nothing? Sounds good right. Okay cool, read on...


Stepping into the Abyss

In 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said: “the future of social media is private”. He was bang on the money. You see, dark social is all about privacy. We’re living in George Orwell’s world and users aren’t gonna gamble their valuable stock with any old somebody. 

Dark social is all the user activity that marketers can’t accurately track. It’s the information, traffic, and most importantly, conversations, that are happening away from the timelines and cameras. The DMs on Instagram, the chat flows on Facebook Messenger, the group interactions on WhatsApp.

Dark social is where users go to quietly discuss and debate you, and it’s happening right under your nose. So much so that you might be stunned to discover that thanks to the influence of dark social, SEVENTY SEVEN PERCENT of your website traffic is unaccounted for. And considering an independent study suggests that 90% of all buying decisions start online, that’s a staggering figure. Right now, your audience is spending more time than ever on social media, and you can’t see where or why. Pretty annoying isn’t it?

So then, how does dark social work exactly? Well, lemme create a scenario. Imagine your ideal prospect visits your LinkedIn page, stumbles across an interesting article, and off the back of that, decides to check out your website. They would click the URL link on your social page, and voila! They arrive at the destination you want them to, and your analytical platform of choice would/should back up that transition by telling you exactly how that referral arrived. Easy peasy. 

Now let’s imagine your ideal prospect visits your LinkedIn page, stumbles across an interesting article, and off the back of that, decides to copy and paste the post link into a messaging app, like WhatsApp, and hit send. Like Houdini himself, they’ve bleeding vanished. Gone without a trace. Your analytic platform can’t find them, and you have no clue that they’ve even been on your LinkedIn page, let alone your website. 

They’ve gone dark, dear reader, and they aren’t alone. You see, millions and millions of people are doing this exact thing every day, and they’re sending an absolute tidal wave of traffic to unbeknown publishers as a consequence. The reason it’s considered ‘dark’ is not because it’s illegal or sordid, but because it’s void of any referral tags. This means when said user actually clicks on said link to said website, their visit will be listed as “direct traffic”, because their journey can’t be properly documented.

Which it isn’t really, is it? They found you on LinkedIn. The social platform generated that traffic for you. But there’s simply no proof.

Casting a shadow

You might be wondering “why does this matter?” I mean, they visited your website in the end, so who cares how they got there? It’s a fair point, but the reason it matters is because right now, you're putting energy, resources, and almost certainly money, into a process which can’t be properly tracked or monitored. 

Right now, you have no clue why your website is generating results, or why your social media platform is generating leads. The shadow of dark social has clouded an integral part of the user journey; shutting out the light from opportunities you should be able to capitalise upon. 

But it isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, if we revisit that scenario, it’s the period between the user hitting send on WhatsApp, and your new source of “direct traffic” arriving on your website where the magic happens. That’s where your business is gaining advocates and interest. That’s where your prospects are talking about you. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. 

What we need to do is find our way into the secret space. To immerse ourselves in the niche social chats, and private messaging groups. We, as marketeers, businesses and brands, need to become an active part of that incognito dialogue, but is that even possible?

A light to lead the way

When you see the Apple logo, what do you think? Innovation, technology, stupidly expensive cables which don’t fit anything besides one tiny device. Something along those lines. 

The reason you think these things is because their branding is otherworldly. They are instantly recognisable, and their business mission is simple: connection. Apple plays a very important role in many of our lives, and they act as a daily problem solver; even if we aren’t always aware there is a problem that needs solving.

As a consequence, they have positioned themselves as a thought leader in their field, and when a potential customer has a problem or a query, they are a brand that would be frequently referred to in dark social circles as a viable and trusted solution. 

Considering most dark social activity is made up of small, private conversations via SMS messaging, email, and so on, what this means is the shared dialogue is between friends, family, and other trusted voices. We buy from who we trust. If a family member sends a URL link to a product they own and love, a prospect is going to be far more inclined to listen to their feedback, than perhaps some flashy looking promo video on your website. Because when it all boils down, relationships will always be more powerful than marketing.

Great brands and businesses don’t generate customers; they generate advocates. That's why people will line the street for the new iPhone every year. That’s why people will happily pay £160 for a pair of Nike trainers. Through nurturing, trust, customer experience and meaningful recommendations, quality brands convert their buyers into their sales reps. They quite simply do the marketing for them. Apple could very comfortably never make a piece of promotion again, and people would still line those streets.

They are the light to lead the way in their respective field, and that’s what you’ll need to be in order to succeed in this new age of digital communication. Considering 60% of online purchasing decisions are made before a customer interacts with a representative of your business, it is integral that you cement yourself as the go-to solution to your buyer’s specific need or problem. 

Naturally (and perhaps frustratingly), there is no quick route to dark social success, because dark social is ‘relationship marketing’, and that’s something you simply can’t hack. But you can use it to your advantage. You know where your customers are spending their time, and you know why. You know who they are talking to, what they are sharing, and whose opinions they trust most. 

This complex era of technology, marketing, and customer experience is presenting you with a new and exciting opportunity. You’d best flip the switch because it’s time to shine.

If you’re still feeling left in the dark, don’t fear - we can provide more insight. Get in touch today and our digital team will be happy to lend a hand.


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