Shedding Light on Social Media's Dark Side

By Amberly Dressler, Managing Editor

Internet professionals just need to look to the upheaval that Facebook's Messenger app caused in 2014 or the chaos that ensues after any privacy policy change to know that social media users are growing increasingly concerned about what information is being collected by social networks (and available to advertisers) or which activities (comments, likes, shares and posts) are being seen by their digital "friends."

This may be one of the reasons that 56 percent of all online sharing activity in the U.S. is now taking place via "dark social" channels, compared to just 31 percent via Facebook and 10 percent on all other social channels combined, according to data released by advertising software company RadiumOne in Dec. 2014.

As RadiumOne defines it, "dark social" refers to any inbound Web traffic coming from sources that traditional Web analytics platforms are unable to track. It typically occurs when online content is shared by copying a URL and pasting it into messaging platforms such as email, forums or instant messaging (IM) rather than sharing it via social networks. Aside from possible privacy concerns, consumers are also favoring sharing material "in the dark" versus publicly because of today's social norms, as well as context and situation.  

"Sharing photos or greetings from a trip to Maui is a pretty normal public sharing event," said Eric Bader, the CMO of RadiumOne. "Forwarding a picture of the zip line at a Maui resort through email, text or IM and asking friends if they think you'll like it, because you know they have been there before, is more typical of a private sharing event.

"The difference is that most Web analytics programs that marketers have access to don't track the sharing between the group of friends via email, text or IM, just the more public stuff via social networks."

When consumers share content, products or other information via dark social channels (email, text or chat), marketers are missing out on a huge amount of data about preferences, interests and intentions that they can't see or don't get to consider when making media planning and buying decisions.

"The content that people share between a connected group via email, text and IM is likely to be different from what people post or share via public networks and therefore provides marketers a whole other aspect of consumer interests and intent," said Bader.

One way marketers can find out how and where their content, videos and pictures are being shared is through their current link shortener service. When a company, for example, uses a shortened link on social media but users copy and paste that short URL into a text message, some link shorteners will reveal how many times it was shared, where it was shared and by whom. Many of the most popular URL shorteners (e.g. bitly) will simply provide an "unknown" category for links that weren't shared on channels it tracks (like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter). RadiumOne's Link Shortener product, however, provides surface-level analytics for URLs shared via email and IMs, as well as the different social networks. Its sharing widgets provide the most data, however, and can be incorporated on a website to ensure brands can monitor how and where their content is being shared (e.g. email, messenger, etc.) in real-time to understand more about a consumer's purchase journey, for example.

Even so, most Web analytics programs have a lot of ground to cover if they want to provide marketers with insights into how consumers are sharing content via dark social channels like text, email or chat, but the good news is "dark social" is getting its time in the sun and will get social media marketers thinking in the new year.

Did You Know?

  • Arts and entertainment (80%), careers (78%) and travel (78%) are most often discussed via dark social channels
  • Pets (84%), family and parenting (63%) and real estate (55%) are most discussed via social channels like Facebook and Twitter