Digital Marketing: A Beginner’s Guide to Dark Social

Digital Marketing Strategy

Dark social is the ultimate buzzword in digital analytics. While it may conjure up images of villains posting selfies, this analytics issue should be a major concern regardless of its nomenclature.

This week’s Metrics Monday post explores dark social, what it means for your marketing efforts, and how to work around the tracking and attribution issues.

While there’s no way to avoid dark social traffic completely, by implementing our recommended tactics, you can at least increase the amount of traffic, conversions, and revenue attributed to your marketing campaigns.

What is dark social?

Dark social, according to Technopedia was originally “coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at ‘The Atlantic,’ to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs.”

Madrigal estimates that nearly 70 percent of social referrals come from dark social. This means that the amount of social referral traffic reported to clients or to your executive team may be only 30 percent of the whole story. The rest of this referral traffic is lumped under direct traffic.

Where does dark social live? 

While its name may suggest being confined to a corner of the digital world, dark social traffic is created by some of our most common digital tools. explains that dark social’s channels include SMS, chat, email, native mobile apps, and private or secure browsing. The issue becomes that users will often copy and paste links, breaking the original attribution chain. When shared, these links are no longer attributed to their original social media source, thus counting as direct traffic in Google Analytics. expands further about the issue revealing, “Most of the links they’re copying and sharing with friends won’t have tracking tags in them. Or, if they do, they could be the wrong ones – if someone finds a link on Twitter and shares the full link in an email, that data is no longer valid.”

What can I do about dark social?

The first thing to understand when looking at solving the issue of dark social is that there is no silver bullet. Unfortunately, the most marketers can do is implement robust tracking to attribute as much traffic as possible.

While you may never retrieve the estimated 70 percent of dark traffic, if you can begin to take back 10 percent, 20 percent, or even 30 percent, it’ll provide a more accurate vision of your overall marketing efforts.

Below are key recommendations to tackle dark social:

  • #1: Include unique UTM codes on all content. UTM tracking codes on all social and digital marketing content will allow you to better understand the origination of your traffic.

This is not a perfect solution, given that someone could share a link from Twitter via text message. However, from the perspective of social attribution, we’re able to identify the first touch point.  We also recommend shortening all UTM codes to avoid long links. Using a shortener such as can help you increase attribution and keep the UTM link shortened for user experience.

  • #2: Increase social share button use. Avoid users taking sharing into their own hands. Make it easier for users to share content from your blog or website with social share buttons. This recommendation falls under the category of “prevention,” as you’re trying to reduce dark social before it occurs. Ensure step one is followed by including UTM codes on all social share buttons.
  • #3: Ensure tracking pixels are installed on your website. Tracking pixels from major social platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn will help to provide greater visibility on users coming to your website from their social platform and its corresponding content.

While dark social seems like the latest buzzword in digital marketing, it really boils down to the ever-persistent challenge of marketing attribution. By properly taking steps to reduce the amount of dark social traffic, you’ll be able to provide greater insight into how your marketing campaigns are performing.

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