The Dark Social Rises

I was having my coffee outside Sunday morning, scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I saw a tweet from The Atlantic to an article about Dark Social.

Confession, when I initially saw the title I thought ”Dark Social…BATMAN!” But then I clicked through and started reading. What I found was an article that has dropped a bomb on our understanding of where web traffic is coming from. In particular, social media traffic. I think many of us had an inkling that all was not well in the world of web analytics, but never have I seen it laid out so clearly as in Madrigal’s article.

As a teenager in rural Washington in the late 90’s, Madrigal spent a lot of time in USENET forums, on ICQ and email. The idea that the web was a structured set of links and directories that was suddenly disrupted and socialized by sites like MySpace and later Facebook has never sat well with him. He points out that much of the time he spent online prior to the “social web” revolution of the mid 2000’s was actually highly social – he was chatting and sharing links with friends.

Our history of the web is wrong, the web didn’t evolve to be social, it always was.

Tracking social data

When you follow a link on a web site and in marketing emails there’s data attached to that link. In short, web site analytics products know where you came from, and often what marketing campaign drove the traffic. This is useful information, it allows us to answer questions like:

  • Was the email campaign successful? Did it increase sales or leads?
  • What was the most popular story this week, and where did the traffic come from?

It’s good to know where this traffic is coming from, it gives us information on where to spend our marketing dollars. When we look at our web analytics and are able to see that 20% of all traffic to a particular page came from Facebook, we’re able to answer the “What’s the ROI of social media?” question. We have stats. Hooray for data!

But, something was niggling at Madrigal. What about the vast amount of referral traffic that has no data attached? Direct traffic. This traffic magically appears as if people suddenly decided to visit an article buried deep within your site. How can that be explained?

Madrigal spoke to Chartbeat, as they have been very clever about how they measure the site traffic. They figure that if a direct visit is not landing on the homepage or a major section of the site, it must have come from a link shared somewhere. It’s simple but it makes sense. I mean who would ever type a url like this into their browser?

(*ahem*, I think that link is a good read too) 

So if it’s been shared via email or IM or some other app between people, it’s social. Madrigal calls this traffic Dark Social and it helps explain a lot about that large portion of traffic that is earmarked as ‘Direct’ or ‘Bookmarked’ traffic in many analytics programs.

Good news for marketers, there’s now a name for that loosely categorized data.  Even better, there’s a way to explain sudden jumps in traffic to certain articles or product pages that happen out of the blue. This is all good, but for me what’s even more important than all of this data is this sentence: 

“The only real way to optimize for 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. This is pure social, uncut.”

For me this is the single most important paragraph in the whole story. Madrigal and our friends at Chartbeat have uncovered potential data to prove something we all knew already. When individuals share content with friends, it’s because it’s highly relevant and there’s a connection between the content and the people it’s shared with. It’s valuable, and it drives engagement.

After reading Madrigal’s article I checked my Gmail account and lo and behold the number of articles I had shared via email over the past week outnumbered anything I had shared on a social network. Why? Because each link I shared via email was important, either to one person or a small group of people. On my social networks, I tend to share links where I think “I like this, I wonder if this will be useful to someone”. It’s clear email is not dead, it’s a glue that still binds a lot of important social and personal interactions online, including sharing.

We talk about engagement a lot nowadays, but it’s still easy to click a button to like or retweet something. Social is important, but it will never be as important as the quality, highly relevant content that you put out there. That’s the gold! That is your brand, and your message that you want people sharing, wherever they do it.