Thought Leadership
  • Content marketing

It's got a little dark around here - what's new on social

Hayley Smith
23rd February 2017

A closer look at ‘dark social’.

This week, WhatsApp started rolling out a new, but very familiar feature in its messaging app: Instagram stories WhatsApp Status. The new feature allows users to share decorated photos, videos and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. It’s another Facebook-owned Snapchat Stories copycat, but the twist is that it’s end-to-end encrypted like WhatsApp messaging. With more and more people sharing content through private channels, we thought it would be a good idea to have a look at this phenomenon, also known as 'dark social'.

What is dark social?

Although the name suggests something far shadier (a hidden world on social media full of porn, blackmailing and social identity theft), dark social actually refers to people sharing content through private channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps, and email.

We’ve all shared articles privately through a channel other than social media, whether you were trying to avoid the no-social-media-for-personal-use policy at work, or because you don’t want everyone to know you took a Buzzfeed-test called ‘What kind of dog are you?’. Here are some of the channels responsible for dark social traffic:

  • Some native mobile apps – Facebook, Instagram, etc. (but only consumer posts - brands can, of course, use referral links).  

  • Email – to protect users’ privacy, referrers aren’t passed.

  • Messaging apps – WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, etc.

  • Secure browsing – If you click from HTTPS to HTTP, the referrer won’t be passed on.

With 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now taking place via private channels, it’s becoming a phenomenon too important to be ignored by brands. That number will probably only increase with WhatsApp’s latest announcement. So what can brands do?

What can brands do about dark social?

No reason to panic: Dark social is, although hidden, still trackable in some ways. Here’s how:

1. Think logically

If you look at your direct traffic in whatever analytics tool you’re using, you’ll find users’ landing pages (and sometimes, you can track the journey they made to get there as well). For example:

Someone goes to

That person clicks on ‘blog’

Next, that person clicks on a blogpost, for example

So far so good, yes? But what if that person appears out of nowhere on It’s safe to assume it wasn’t typed out manually, so that person probably followed a link that was shared directly with him or her. Therefore you can assume it's dark social.

2. Make sharing easy

Thoughtfully arranged buttons on your website that make it easy to share is another way to track ‘dark social’, because you can even implement WhatsApp- and Messenger sharing buttons. Include UTM parameters (i.e. “?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Organic%20Post%20&utm_campaign=Generic”) and voila: Dark social has just become a little less dark for you.

3. Use dark social tools

As said, you are not able to fully track dark social, but there are many tools that allow marketers to at least track a big chunk of dark social traffic and analyse their outcomes.

Our in-house performance & insight manager Nick Bramer mentioned Simply Measured as one of those tools. It promises you to “finally see the traffic that happens via dark social”. Another tool we found is called, which “allows you to track all of your site's sharing activity, including elusive "Dark Social," and gives you access to comprehensive audience analytics”. Then there’s ShareThis, which enables you to create aforementioned sharing buttons. And last but not least there’s GetSocial: “80% of your site's social sharing is done via copy paste and private messaging. Fully understand how your audience shares your content.”  

4. Add WhatsApp to your content channels

This one is for WhatsApp specifically but obviously applies to other messaging platforms as well: If you truly want to understand your audience, meet them where they are. A few brands such as Agent Provocateur and the BBC have already added WhatsApp to their customer service channels. With WhatsApp’s new feature, Status, there’s an added opportunity for brands to share exclusive content with a private audience.

WhatsApp's new feature, Status

As you can see, there’s no reason to panic about dark social, but don’t ignore it, either. Dark social traffic is probably already making up a huge chunk of your traffic, and it’s only likely to grow from now on.

Not sure yet if you’re brand is ready to invest in tracking dark social yet?

There’s always the good old fashioned way to make sure your content gets shared: create compelling, informative and interesting material. And thankfully, we’re experts in that - so don’t hesitate to get in touch via

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