Dark Social: What it Could Mean to Your Small Business

3 min read • Nov 16, 2012 • Ty Kiisel

Not too long ago I came across an article about “Dark Social” that I found so interesting that I had to look into it. It looks like I was a little late getting to the party—but I am totally jazzed about it. It’s been a pretty hot topic in social media circles since Alexis Madrical published his article in the Atlantic on October 12. In fact, I think it was him that coined the phrase.

In a nutshell, each time you share something on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, from our site for example, there’s a code (metadata) that allows us to identify that our content (that particular link anyway) was shared. However, Madrical argues that there are “Dark” social shares that don’t get counted in this way.

“There are circumstances, however, when there is no referrer data,” he suggests. “You show up at our doorstep [the Atlantic] and we have no idea how you got there. The main situation in which this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site (“https://mail.google.com/blahblahblah”) to a non-secure site (http://www.theatlantic.com).”

This becomes really relevant if you want to monitor how many times your blog or other online content is shared. Here at Lendio, I wanted to see if we had much “Dark” social sharing and was surprised. Where we may have seen a couple hundred shares captured from social media, direct links to blog articles (which we are assuming are shared via email or text messages) might add up to 4 or 5,000 over the course of six weeks. Who would type in www.lendio.com/blog/dark-social/? It’s more likely the link was shared with them and they pasted it into a browser.

“This means the vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs,” writes Madrical. “I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that’s not actually what’s happening a lot of the time. Most of the time someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.”

Of course this makes sense. Most of the content I share with my colleagues every day is in the form of a link pasted into an email or a chat. I’m obviously not alone on this.

I’m convinced that all social sharing is not the same—which really makes Dark social sharing relevant to me. A couple of months ago Forbes held a webinar for their contributors about social media shares. The presenter, Ilya Pozin, argued that sharers aren’t readers. Yeah, they read the headline, maybe the subhead, and into the first two or three paragraphs, but for the most part they aren’t reading all of your content. I have to admit, this was disappointing to me.

I have to wonder if Dark social sharing is different. The only articles or other information I share via chat or email is content that I’ve read, and feel it’s relevant or interesting regarding a current conversation. In my mind, I think Dark social shares are more engaged shares than hitting a Facebook or Twitter link. I think Dark social sharing is one of the most important contributions our blog, our podcast, and all of our other content make to Lendio and our social media efforts. And, Madrical agrees. Speaking about some recent research conducted by Chartbeat, he suggests:

“Get this…Almost 69 percent of social referrals were dark! Facebook came in second at 20 percent. Twitter was down at 6 percent.”

So far, following the logic of tracking what we believe are shared links, our content appears to be shared almost 20 times more via Dark social sharing. I wonder how many small business owners are discouraged and disappointed because they don’t see their content getting a lot of traction on Facebook or Twitter? Good content is shared, even if it isn’t shared on Facebook.

What does all this mean to small business owners?

Optimizing Facebook and Twitter is only taking you halfway there (maybe even less). “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,” he writes.

This should be very encouraging to those folks who dedicate the time to create meaningful and relevant content to promote their image and their brand; because that’s the type of content that’s shared this way. We need to remember people were sharing content long before Facebook and Twitter came along. Small business owners who want relevant shares that are more likely to have impact down the line still need to focus on creating excellent content.


Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.