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How to Measure and Analyze Dark Social Media

Stacey asks, "I’m so curious if you know of any proxies that work for estimating the value or volume of these "dark social" networks?"

Measuring dark social media is obviously quite difficult since it’s by definition outside the scope of most tracking (hence dark). Depending on the urgency and importance, there are a few things you could do to estimate it and/or track it.

Measure The Scope of the Problem

First, let’s measure what we do know. How bad is the dark social problem? I’m going to assume you’re using some kind of web analytics software; I’ll be demonstrating with Google Analytics but these techniques should work with pretty much any package on the market that’s reputable.

Any traffic that Google Analytics doesn’t know what to do with is bucketed under the source/medium combination of (direct) / (none). Direct traffic comes from three places:

  1. People just typing in your site URL.
  2. People visiting your site from bookmarks.
  3. People visiting your site from unknown places.

Dark social media traffic fits in category three. So, how do we tell the difference? Direct traffic in category #1 will almost always be visits to the homepage. Let’s create a traffic segment in Google Analytics that encompasses all direct traffic, but excludes the homepage and any landing page we absolutely know to not be used in social media:

Google Analytics Dark Traffic Segment

Above, I’ve excluded the homepage and my newsletter unsubscribe page. What’s left is about 17.49% of all my traffic being unknown, which I’m quite happy about. If this were above 25%, I’d be mildly concerned. If this were above 50%, I’d be very concerned. If this were above 75%, I’d be extremely concerned that I’ve actually got an analytics infrastructure problem – and that any conclusions I was drawing from my analytics were wrong because we’d be getting into the territory of sampling errors.

So, once we know how much dark social traffic we’re dealing with, how do we begin mitigating this?

Track and Customize

Our first step is to understand our audience. Ask people at every intake point in your marketing where they found out about you, from simple on-site questions to questions on forms, even to point of sale. Track that data carefully, look at it frequently, and start to understand where your audience spends their time.

If you have an open-ended "How did you hear about us?" question and Slack comes up as the top channel, then you know a part of your dark social media traffic is probably coming from there. If it’s "my colleague texted me a link", then you know text is a channel potentially driving dark social traffic.

There is no substitute for asking people. This is important; as good as analytics software is, you will never be able to rummage around in someone’s head.

Join and Participate

Once you’ve ascertained which channels may be driving dark social media traffic, start to dig into those channels. Say that 25 people all said on intake forms that Slack was how they heard about you. Follow up by email with each of them asking which Slack community they were in, and if the community is open to the public, join it and get the lay of the land. Who in the community shares your stuff?

Slack example

Here’s a simple example – I searched for the domain name of my site in the Analytics for Marketers Slack Community to see who was sharing my stuff. Obviously, I’m at the top of the list, but this is how you’d identify your champions within a community.

Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, as appropriate, share stuff yourself in the community using UTM tracking codes, as shown in the blue links above. This will reduce some of the dark social media traffic because you’re tagging your own stuff, and if your site/content is of interest to the community, you’ll beat others to the punch in sharing content – and your content will have sharing, whereas theirs will not.

Detailed Analysis of Dark Traffic

Finally, and this is more advanced, one of the things you’ll want to know is whether your direct dark traffic is truly dark social media traffic or not. Which traffic source does it behave like?

Here’s an example over the past 10 months, looking at my dark trafic versus known social media traffic, known organic search traffic, and known email marketing traffic:

Traffic source comparison

What we’re looking for is correlation here – what does our dark traffic most closely resemble? Let’s run a Spearman correlation in the statistical software R:

Spearman correlation

Well, well, well. Look at the bottom row. Our direct dark traffic most closely resembles organic search traffic, with a Spearman coefficient of 0.54; 1.0 would be a perfect match, 0 would be absolutely no match, and -1 would be a perfect inverse relationship. We see that our direct dark traffic actually matches known social media traffic the least, with a coefficient of 0.25 – weak at best.

This may mean that I have a dark search problem, rather than a dark social media problem! I’d want to dig in some more, start looking at individual source/mediums rather than channels as a whole, but this clearly indicates that the sharing behaviors in known social media just don’t match up as well with my mysterious dark traffic.

Ask, Ask, Ask

The ultimate solution to Stacey’s original question is asking people. There’s no substitute for it, because dark traffic by its very nature is dark – we have no data to rely on that we don’t actively solicit from our audience.


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