Do you know where your digital traffic is coming from? It’s not where you think, says Gabriella Griffith

To the uninitiated, the term ‘dark social’ conjures up an ominous collage of post-watershed fodder. It makes some people think, ‘illegal’; others think ‘Darth Vader’. But the fact is, dark social is something we’re all guilty of. It’s something all brands need to be aware of. And it’s not something you’ll get arrested for – it’s digital word-of-mouth.

The term was first coined in 2012 by Alexis C Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic. It refers to the sharing of content that happens outside of what can be measured by web analytics.

When you click on a link in Twitter or Facebook, the web page you land on knows where you came from. But click on a link in an email, and the web page has no idea how you got there. This is dark social. And, as we all know, understanding how customers find you is a vital element of marketing and advertising.

‘It’s been happening across the web for 15 years – sharing information is the pretext for the web,’ explains Rupert Staines, managing director for Europe at RadiumOne. ‘It used to be Instant Messenger and email. Now it’s about Whatsapp and Gmail Chat. None of these platforms carry any kind of thorough data. The most popular forms of sharing have always been the darkest, most untraceable.’

And popular they are. A recent white paper by RadiumOne revealed 74% of online sharing in the UK takes place via dark social channels, compared with 19% via Facebook. And 26% only share in the dark.

Why are dark social channels so popular? ‘People’s use of media has matured – they don’t want to tell 400 people something at the same time by publishing on Facebook or Twitter; they just want to talk to a specific group,’ says Steve Thompson, UK MD of Keller Fay.

Although dark social and word-of-mouth have always been difficult to trace, some companies have come up with ways to measure them.

Keller Fay gauges word-of-mouth sentiment by recruiting samples of people and asking them to keep ‘brand diaries’. Here, they record brands they talk about on a given day and what the conversations were about.

RadiumOne, meanwhile, allows brands to add a dynamic bit of code to their URL, enabling them to track where that URL is shared – regardless of which dark corners of the internet it’s shared in. ‘To understand your audience, you need to light up the dark and see how and where people are engaging with content,’ says Staines. ‘To be relevant in your targeting, you need to connect the dots.’