Dark Social: Moving Beyond the Vanity of Metrics

Dark Social: Moving Beyond the Vanity of Metrics

There is a way that consumers can privately navigate through social channels and platforms without being tracked and turned into a metric. 

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Dark social is changing the ways of marketing and its social opportunities.

There is a way that consumers can privately navigate through social channels and platforms without being tracked and turned into a metric. 

The phrase “dark social” was defined in 2012 by journalist Alexis Madrigal in his original piece written for The Atlantic. His view on how to stimulate dark social sharing seems pretty direct, in my opinion:

“The only real way to optimize for [dark] social spread is in the nature of the content itself. There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand.”

Dark social is a term that describes web traffic from sharing links that don’t contain tracking codes, typically through private messaging platforms. 

These are the places where B2B buyers are most likely to be highly active, while at the same time, you as a company will not have metrics that directly access that impact.

This traffic is indistinguishable from other direct traffic sources with most analytics software. It can overestimate or underestimate the “direct traffic” metric because a source is adequately or accurately applied.

In fact, according to research, dark social is reported to be responsible for more than 70% of overall traffic for various websites. Is this a bad thing? Not at all! Dark social is the new word of mouth, and it is here to stay, amounting to most of all social traffic, “normal” or not. 

The Difference between Traffic from Dark Social and “Normal“ Traffic

“Normal” web traffic, measured in visits or sessions, is a common way marketers measure the traffic brought to their online business. This allows us to see how users arrive on our website and optimize our campaigns accordingly. 

Knowing the sources people would ‘normally’ arrive through when visiting a website or web page might be helpful in understanding where dark social fits into it all. 

Here are some you might recognize:

  • Organic Search Traffic
  • Paid Search Traffic
  • Referral Traffic
  • Email Traffic
  • Social Traffic
  • Direct Traffic 

To illustrate the difference between normal traffic and traffic from dark social, we created this graphic representing the user's journey depending on which path they took.



As you can see, you cannot measure the success of specific campaigns if you can no longer see what channels are driving traffic to your website.

People want their privacy and do not enjoy their every interaction displayed for all to see, causing a bit of a hiccup in the marketing scene. 

Here are some examples of how people are getting around analytics… 


  1. Social Networks
  2. Messaging Apps
  3. Content Platforms
  4. Communities and Groups
  5. Word of Mouth
  6. Events and Meetups
  7. Employee Communications


Those are what we call dark social channels.

So what problems do channels like these cause for us marketers? Well, I’m glad you asked…

  • Visits become invisible. Secure browsing does not accept cookies that are not tracked in your analytics tool, which then falls under dark social.
  • Private communities make it difficult how content gets shared.
  • Dark social channels make it difficult for marketers to track, leading to brands becoming excluded from the conversations.
  • Dark social might not be where you want to jump in with an offer or promotion; you need to build a community and become part of the conversation.
  • Brands' content may not reach a diverse audience, instead of being discussed around like-minded people. 

I get it; not being able to view where your consumers are and what content they are taking in regarding what you have shown on your website is a bit frustrating for some. 

But as you can see from the examples above, and probably your day-to-day activity, people gravitate more and more to these untracked platforms and communications.

Now you may be asking yourself why people gravitate towards dark social?

Luckily we know that answer.

Why do people share in ‘Dark’ places?

A study done by Intermarkgroup shows that an estimated 84% of social sharing occurs within “dark social.”


One of the biggest reasons people are hesitant to share on social platforms is their fear of judgment from others, friends, family, peers, co-workers, etc. 

Consequently, people are very risk-averse when posting on social media, and realizing they are being watched affects their behavior. 

We tend to change our behavior when we realize that we are observed, which has important implications for marketers. This is also known as the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect is a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. source

It is of interest to marketers to understand the genuine and authentic beliefs of their customers. Still, these beliefs are expressed in private settings and are difficult to observe, which may sound grim from a marketing perspective.

I do have some good news, though…

It’s going to be ok!

Let’s get into why it’s all going to be ok, starting with why what you are measuring today for campaign success doesn’t matter anyway.

Why What You Are Measuring Today Doesn’t Matter (Relatively Speaking)

Traffic to your website indicates whether or not people are finding it. You may have spent hard-earned money on a well-crafted professional SEO-focused website and poured dollars into paid ads. Shoot, you have spent your valuable time doing all that yourself.

Tableau defines a vanity metric as  “metrics that make you look good to others but do not help you understand your performance in a way that informs future strategies. These metrics are exciting to point to if you want to appear to be improving, but they often aren’t actionable and aren’t related to anything you can control or repeat in a meaningful way. Vanity metrics are most often contrasted against actionable metrics, which is data that helps you make decisions and helps your business reach its goals or grow.”

So how is web traffic a vanity metric by that definition? Well, I’ll tell you…

Let’s start with an example.

You could have 2,000 visitors daily, but if none of them take action on your site, that number doesn't matter. It might be a nice number to look at and grow, but does that number mean you are having success? 


The number that matters is further down the funnel. The number that matters, the one that gives you an actionable metric, is the source of your contacts in your sales pipeline.

Once you can move past metrics like “normal” traffic, which is easily tracked by marketing software, and accept that the actionable metric is found in the Sales Pipeline, you are putting your business in a much better position to succeed.

How to use dark social for your business

Listen in as Manage Inbound’s CEO Keith Guiterrez shares his views on the Dark Social Opportunity:

“Dark social was constituting something like 84% of all social sharing activity. So it's a pretty high number, and I think that people might miss an opportunity because they cannot track their interactions on dark social. Therefore, they don't pay attention to those marketing activities and fully utilize social media because they cannot track and see how it drives success. Relying solely on their web analytics platform provides them with the data and insights they want. Which, in my opinion, is part of the problem.”


We can also look at this as a huge opportunity for most B2B brands. 

While dark social might be easy to overlook, businesses must become familiar with it and learn how to manage it. How is one to use dark social in their marketing strategy, you may ask?

There are several ways to go about this, each specific to your business and what works best for you. 

Suppose you come across a video that you want to share. The colleague you want to share this video with is taking a social media hiatus. You then copy the link and send it to your colleague- this is word-of-mouth dark social sharing. And that can take place on any dark social platform!

Additionally, it occurs when you're using HTTP rather than HTTPS during secure browsing sessions.

People continue to switch devices, channels, and platforms daily or hourly, making engagement tracking more challenging and less linear. 

With all that in mind, let’s look at one example of how Gary V uses dark social media and how it positively impacts his marketing…

Gary Vayerchuk is one of the biggest names in the digital marketing industry. He has leveraged his position as an influencer to help his company, VaynerMedia connect with its followers. Using the GaryVee Bot on Facebook Messenger, he provides tailor-made content to his audience.

As you can see here, he is using Facebook Messenger. He allows his user base to receive updates on his latest content with his VIP Messenger service explicitly tailored to your industry.

By taking this approach, he is utilizing a dark social platform in Facebook messenger because that is where his audience lives. He is embracing the channel and throwing away “normal” traffic channels that are trackable because he is delivering the most valuable information he can to his user base in the location that they want to consume that content, Facebook Messenger, instead of forcing them to read content where he can track it, like email.

Just like Gary V, you can use dark social to connect with your audience and send them updates without seeming pushy.

Is there a way to track and measure  ‘dark social'?


  1. Self-Reported Attribution
  2. Google Analytics
  3. Social Sharing Buttons
  4. Link Shorteners
  5. Tracking Tools

  1. Self-Reported Attribution

An attribution report is used to understand the journey someone takes from the first time they set foot on your website to the time they become a customer -- basically, measuring the conversion path to see what made someone convert. Source

You can use this to understand your customer's exact attribution to make a purchase. Did they see you post on LinkedIn or listen to your podcast? 

When a user chooses from a list that has already been determined, you will find that the results may surprise you and help with these dark spots in attribution. 



  1. Google Analytics

You can find several ways to track the sharing of traffic coming in from sources, while at the same time, you can find ways to avoid dark social. 

The relationship between Google Analytics and dark social is not something that I would suggest is a simple relationship, but a relationship that takes time and patience. 

Some tools will use your Google Analytics data and automatically estimate how much dark social traffic might occur on your website daily. 

You can start by creating a segment in Google Analytics that will only include direct traffic. You can filter out pages that may be bookmarked or typed; homepage, contact page, etc. By doing this, you can see how many people are showing up as direct traffic to specific pages other than your home page. 


This can indicate traffic coming from dark social, but it will not show you the complete picture.

  1. Social Sharing Buttons

The use of social sharing buttons is one of the ways you can avoid dark social altogether. 

These buttons make it easy for people to share your content when and where they want to without copying and pasting a link. You can track how content is shared and attribute traffic to the correct sources.

You will want to ensure that your site includes all the popular sharing options, including e-mail. When an app lacks a sharing option, people often copy-paste the link.

In addition, make these buttons bigger and place them where they can be seen easily.

  1. Using UTM Codes/Link Shorteners

Link-sharing activity can be tracked by attaching an Urchin Tracking Module or UTM code to each URL. Google and other analytics software can use these codes to determine the exact source of the content.

You can use this method when determining the ROI of a specific campaign. Using UTM tags, your analytics software will know which visits are associated with a particular campaign.

  1. Tracking Tools


  1. GetSocial

     2. AddThis

Communicate with your audience through these platforms

When communicating over dark social, providing value and being more personal and engaging is essential. 

The shift towards dark social might help brands and customers have more meaningful conversations.

Due to the constantly changing nature of consumer behavior, businesses will also have to stay on top of how they can stay aware of changes in dark social use, how they can effectively communicate with their audience through these channels, and how to measure the traffic through these channels. 


One thing that has not changed here at Manage Inbound is trust's importance. 

People trust people.

The way people buy and consume will most likely be on their peers’ influence and recommendations. 

Being comfortable with your buying process is essential. Maybe this new way of communication through dark social is not such a bad thing. 

We must communicate with our audience to measure and understand the traffic that comes in through dark social. 

Visit the places where your buyers will likely hang out and meet them. 

As Madrigal said, “We’re only seeing and measuring the tip of the sharing iceberg.” 

Though these ‘dark channels’ are places of privacy, this is also a chance for you to reach out and find prospective buyers/customers instead of you waiting for them to come to you. 

It can be up to you to create this safe place for buyers to come and communicate together where they want to share and find the potential to learn from one another. 

If this means changing our norms and putting us out of our comfort zone, then so be it. 

We are up for the challenge. 

Written By: Eliza Spain

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