Something sinister is creeping about behind the scenes in your precious analytics data.
Something invisible and inaccessible.
Something vampiric in nature, sapping your reporting of its statistical validity.
What is dark social?
Dark social is a buzzword coined a little more than a year ago by Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic. He used it to describe all the sharing interactions that go on within the grab-bag we call direct traffic (for non-webby folks, direct traffic means visitors who type URLs in directly or arrive from bookmarks).
Madrigal found it odd that The Atlantic was getting mountains of direct traffic to specific articles. After all, who wants to type every character in an article’s URL? This one has thirty-something, and that’s pretty short by some standards.
As it turns out, The Atlantic’s analytics were logging these visits as direct traffic because the true sources just weren’t trackable. These visits were coming from shares that take place outside of our view, which mostly means private messaging like email, text, GroupMe, and the like.
Dark social can also describe visits to UTM-tagged URLs from the wrong platform, e.g. someone shares a piece of content tagged for Facebook through your Twitter account, and everything goes awry.
Digital marketers like big social networks because social interactions like sharing of content can be measured and attributed. The problem is, if we’re trying to gauge our customer’s engagement, the data we get only tells part of the story. Matt Buchanan’s phenomena / noumena analogy is apt: we know the hidden interactions are there without seeing them, while interactions in social media are just visible enough to seem worthy of analysis.
Thus, the “dark” in “dark social” isn’t mean to sound spooky, rather it stems from the same concepts as dark matter – it’s simultaneously hard to detect and everywhere at once, holding the Universe together.
Is Dark Social A Real Problem?
Yes and no.
Yes, because the hidden sources of sharing interactions screw up your analysis. The good news is, you can reclaim some of your data with certain advanced segments, courtesy Tom Tunguz. By filtering out direct traffic to your home page and usual landing pages, you can see which content pieces are being shared out of the light. Of course, you’ll still have to dig in and guess at who is sharing, where, and why.
But really, no. I don’t believe dark social is an issue at all.
Dark social seems like a scary concept because it describes unmeasured (or at least non-attributed) data. We (digital marketers) love our data. It’s what we use to make our decisions. It’s our perfect knuckleball when we’re pitching against traditional media. In short, our data is our power. You threaten that, and all of a sudden our seats start to feel a little hotter.
And our data has been threatened.
Anyone with a Google Analytics account knows about the great 100% keyword (not provided) crisis of 2013. If you don’t, here’s the tl;dr: there was a glorious time when Google allowed users to see the exact keyword searches that led visitors to any given area of their site. This allowed marketers to feel out the intent of searchers and tool content towards the best-performing keywords. Slowly but surely, Google (in the name of privacy) began taking away bits of this information until mid-2013, when – BOOM – they blacked out all our keyword data.
One-hundred percent (not provided) scared a lot of people. Still, it was more than a push in the right direction.
Not having granular access to keyword data means we have to figure out what’s meaningful and relevant to customers as human beings rather than search engine users. Caleb Keiter wrote a post about how to provide post-keyword value back in November.
Compound disappearing keyword data with the Hummingbird algo update and Spam Overlord Matt Cutts’ own comments, and it’s readily apparent that Google is looking for every way possible to weed out overt SEO efforts from the rankings. Pretty soon, anything you do to build links for links sake will be an SEO faux pas.
Social Media Is Not Your Savior
For the time being, we certainly don’t have to worry about social networks stealing away access to customers and customer data. If there’s one thing social media sites hate, it’s privacy. Yes, they’ll make you pay increasingly more for access, but you’ve still got it for now. And that’s great, right? Because social media IS the Internet now.
Here’s the problem. The popularity of any given platform is fleeting. In my short lifetime, I’ve seen the rise, fall, and even rebirth of empire-level social sites. You simply can’t pour your efforts into one thing and say “We’re good!” If you stagnate, you may as well advocate telegraph marketing.
What You Can Do to Survive and Thrive
There always have been and always will be vast webs and ripples of unseen interactions. Lack of hard or accurate data is not a threat to the well-being of digital marketers. For now, we still have access to a wealth of highly-accurate measurements, but there may come a day when you have much less to go by. Traditional media marketers have been data-dark forever, and they’re still (mostly) alive and well.
Digital marketers need to get comfortable with not having access to granularity. Don’t rely on your data to give you all your insights for content strategy.
We also have to get even more comfortable being hyper-adaptive to our rapidly changing industry. We’ve known this for a while, yes, but the Internet seems more and more capricious every day. There’s no such thing as a sure bet: even Facebook, the great network titan, could fall by the wayside in mere moments.
The best thing you can do is focus your efforts on creating a cool, fun, interesting, or informative experience for potential customers. Keep your ear to the ground for new technologies or startups and jump on them. Invest in ephemeral media. Build your strategy on the fly. Test in small batches. Experiment and fight for your ideas.
Don’t be afraid to fall out of your comfort zone, and beg your client to step out of theirs. Chances are, you’ll end up a lot closer to something amazing than you would with all the information in the world to back your idea.