People are increasingly sharing content through messaging apps, email, and other platforms that cannot be tracked by regular analytics software. The traffic generated through these shares show up as ‘direct’ but in truth their source is unknown.
After all, how many readers are actually going to type the URL of a specific web page on their browser? What they are doing is clicking on links received on emails, chats and messaging apps among others.
Links accessed this way lack referral tags, which makes them difficult to track. Such shares are called ‘dark social’.
The future is private
The Reuters’ Digital News Report 2019 noted, “Social communication is becoming more private with people continuing to turn away from Facebook. WhatsApp is becoming the primary social communication tool for news in many countries in the Global South including Brazil (53% usage for news), Malaysia (50%) and South Africa (49%).”
It doesn’t surprise us that most shares are made in private messaging channels. People are no longer sharing everything and anything to their Facebook feeds – it’s become more and more apparent. The future is private and consumers have known it way before businesses caught up to this.João Romão, Founder, GetSocial
According to Hootsuite’s Social Media Trends Report 2019, “The top messaging apps—WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, QQ, and Skype—combine for nearly 5 billion monthly active users. That’s more users than the traditional social networks have worldwide.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who had quite categorically announced the death of privacy earlier, is now outlining a privacy-focused vision for social networking. “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever,” he said.
As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Facebook
This trend has been on the rise for the past few years, abetted by growing concerns over fake news, trolling and privacy. People want to share and discuss news in secure and comfortable environments that private messaging channels provide them. Although it may lead to deeper engagement with news on an individual/group level, publishers would not know it well enough to inform their strategies.
Tracking the dark social
GetSocial is a content performance analytics platform that tracks 100 million private and dark social shares each month. This year they tracked their 100 largest customers across the world for 6 months to analyze recent sharing trends. Some of GetSocial’s customers include Forbes, Adobe, and Sky.
The company analyzed 159 million shares made between January and June (2019) and found that 77.5% of the shares are dark social. This means content creators and brands are not tracking this data. Facebook finished a distant second with 7.5% shares.
There was a huge difference between dark social shares at 123,242,440 and the total shares made from all other social channels (public and private) at 35,739,660.
Website referrals were slightly higher from dark social (47.5%) compared to Facebook (47%). The study also found that 1 dark social share generates 2 referrals compared to 18 referrals via Facebook.
However, this cannot be taken to conclude that Facebook shares are more effective at generating traffic. There are other factors that need to be considered, like average behavior of a visitor coming from Facebook. This was beyond the scope of the study.
In earlier studies though, GetSocial found that Facebook referral traffic has the lowest recirculation percentage while dark social has the highest.
According to Andreia Loureiro, Marketing Executive at GetSocial, “If people are coming to an article from Facebook and don’t recirculate at all, that means they only view the article they clicked on and leave the page.”
She adds, “Publishers have a hard time monetizing their users’ sessions when this happens. The higher the recirculation, the higher the reader loyalty, which also means that users are spending more than mere seconds on your page.”
According to the report, “This is expected since it’s plausible to assume that users’ attention span on Facebook is lower than on private conversations with friends and family.”
Further, the study found that dark social referrals (+221M) and Facebook referrals (+218M) are much higher than all other social channels together (+25M).
Publishers who add social media sharing buttons on content pages to facilitate sharing and tracking should note that the study found that 83.88% shares were made by copying and pasting a link. Share buttons were used for only 16.03% of shares.
Also the majority of shares (58.5%) were made on mobile.
This is not surprising considering the increasing usage of mobile devices. A Pew research study found that mobile devices have become one of the most common ways Americans get news. They have outpaced desktop or laptop computers. The survey found that 58% of US adults often got news on a mobile device, compared to 39% that got it on a desktop or laptop computer.
A GlobalWebIndex survey from earlier this year found that around 44% shared news articles via private messaging apps.
“Stories that could be going viral privately”
Publishers cannot ignore dark social. It occupies a very large slice of the pie and as the trends show, it’s going to get bigger. Which makes it crucial that publishers track dark social data.
On dark-social channels, content is shared between friends who know each others’ likes and preferences. It’s a level of hyper-personalization most companies can only hope to attain.”David Cohn, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Pigeon, a social sharing app on Facebook Messenger
Romão whose company GetSocial offers a Dark Social Calculator says, “Publishers are especially threatened by not having insight into their dark social shares because it can really impact how they measure content success.
“They risk investing in distributing stories solely based on social media engagement when there are other stories that could be going viral privately.”