Why you can’t trust direct traffic
To analyze and measure success in online marketing, you need web analysis. It is not only a fundamental building block in Google Analytics to differentiate access, behavior, and conversions according to the acquisition channels. The way someone came to their website is a crucial distinction.
They are usually visualized as a pie chart. That looks nice and meaningful. How do visits via links (referral), visits via SEO-optimized search results (organic search), visits from social media (organic social), and visits from paid online advertising (paid) relate to each other? Which of these channels brings the most sales, which is not currently worthwhile?
But then there is still a piece of cake called “direct.” It is often large and usually leaves you baffled to some extent.
What are these “direct visitors”? The quick, neither entirely correct nor utterly wrong answer is:
“There are calls to the respective page that are made directly by entering the URL in the browser. Such users already know the page and go to it directly. With such a call, no other platform can send a signal beforehand from which the analysis tool can derive the origin channel of the visit.”
Factually correct, but not the whole truth. Because there are some other situations in which no signals are sent when the page is accessed. And which are therefore recorded in the default channel “direct.” Calls via bookmarks or links sent via Messenger. Or the case that many digital natives can hardly imagine that URLs are passed on as analog notes.
This means that some of the calls received that are undeclared as direct traffic are social shares via non-public or non-trackable channels. These calls were referred to as “dark social traffic” back in 2012. Alexis C. Madrigal coined the term in an article in the Atlantic ( www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-who le-history-of-the-web-wrong / 263523 / ).
And yes, it means precisely what every social media manager has always known: Social media activities are probably much more successful than web analysis shows. But: Other channels can also be shared via dark social.
By 2020, the topic had not become obsolete: From a web analytics nerd topic, it has become an essential factor in online marketing that you should keep an eye on. Today dark social is a relevant factor that – Attention! – has already influenced elections.
What is dark social?
Dark Social is the proportion of direct website visits that result from the undisclosed transmission of URLs between end-users. Possible ways are, for example:
- by email
- via Messenger
- by typing and saving on a foreign device (“Give me your cell phone. So, the shop is …”)
- occasionally via SMS
- very old-school as an analog note
The last two, in particular, sound as if they will soon die out. But the last few years have shown one thing above all: There are always new ways in which people communicate without tracking. Perhaps this is the most critical finding in dealing with dark social:
The direct transmission of information to personally known people is the most natural form of human communication. And it won’t die out.
There is a tendency in the social Internet in particular: Closed and private communication circles are getting more prominent over time. They transform into semi-public and sometimes even wholly public spaces so that many of their users are looking for new, closed and private circles bit by bit.
This takes place both within social networks and on the more significant level between platforms. And tracking, marketing, and advertising always follow these shifts. Of course, we want to start in the private space, if possible. But with poorly done measures, we tend to accelerate the move on. Not to mention data protection.
So dark social is not just a tracking problem, but one of the fundamental challenges in online marketing. It is catchy – some say overused – term for the role of communication
How can I deal with dark social?
Dark social is nothing new. It is the continuation of existing communication patterns with changing technical means, which meanwhile also includes websites as topics of conversation. And as a market player, you want to get into precisely these communication channels. You want to “go viral.”
But as a web analyst, you want clear assignments of calls, and as a controller, you want to put effort into success.
There are already a few solutions to the following goals:
- Link shorteners with such hidden UTM parameters can make it easier to assign links that have been included in social media
- Sharing buttons make it easier for users to share, especially on mobile devices and can bring channel-specific signals and parameters into the link
- Evaluate the direct access to the landing page to separate usual “real” direct entries from dark social. Unfortunately, this is only of limited use because of the use of the homepage as a landing page for both direct and dark social
- The existing tools have so far not been able to convince me
None of these approaches makes all parts and paths visible in dark social. They give an insight, perhaps allow extrapolation. The web analyst grinds his teeth and thinks, “Better than nothing.”
The social media manager is happy because the impact (and the generated conversions) is a little more evident.
The online marketer wonders: “How can I actively use this phenomenon?”
Because dark social is not only a web analytics challenge but also an online marketing opportunity.
What I find much more important is to find the right mindset not only to understand the behavior behind this phenomenon, but also to use it in marketing.
Even if the exact share of dark social in your direct traffic cannot be recorded precisely and it is even more difficult to assign concrete marketing measures: it is still valuable.
- Dark social shares are practically always personal recommendations with high power
- In many cases, they are not given without being asked, but in the knowledge of a specific need of the recipient
- The older generations of Internet users have always used this channel and will continue to do so
- Topics such as health, jobs, travel, nutrition, and finance will still be discussed more freely in the dark social than in public spaces social networks
If the pinboards and civic groups of social media are the marketplaces where everyone can talk, discuss, and advertise, then the private dark social groups are the living rooms and gardens of the Internet.
Why delve deeper into dark social?
At the moment, dark social is mainly taking place in private and semi-private messenger groups. Technology will continue to change in the future and continue to turn the wheel of public and private life. But a procedure that works for messengers today to bring one’s information into the private user sphere can also work in other technical incarnations.
And therefore, back to the introduction: “Today, dark social is a relevant factor that – Attention! – has already influenced elections.”
The most successful use of dark social marketing via Messenger to date is the presidential election in Brazil in 2018, as evidenced by Luiz Rodrigues Junior’s information on the procedure for creating WhatsApp groups by campaign teams ( https: // www.bbc.com / news / technology-45956557 ).
This approach is illegal in Europe for obvious reasons, but it shows the power of non-public exchange groups, from which messages and links were further shared in other non-public and public groups and spaces.
Numerous messenger groups were created, and large numbers of people were invited to the groups using specialized software and purchased phone number lists. In these groups, one or two controlled accounts started discussions and brought up topics about which the mood was raised with targeted statements.
As findings, they were able to establish that the groups had to be named and described generally enough to be credible and to prevent rejection of the automated invitations of over 50%. “Supports XY” did not work, “Stop corruption in politics” did. Local groups that only invited people from one area were very successful.
To get the desired width and relevant numbers of “living” groups, a large number of groups had to be generated. However, this brought them to the limits of the permitted groups that can be opened per person and means a lot of work in monitoring and controlling the groups. For this, statements in the groups were more divided into other closed messenger groups than from public social platforms.
As I said: This approach is illegal for several reasons but shows the role of non-public groups as felt safe and family exchange places. Creating such groups and letting them grow naturally is not an easy task.
Brands are not enough here. It also depends on personalities. Ideally, such groups become engagement-binding discussion platforms that do not become too controversial but serve the tribal feeling of the users.
Sounds like a lot of work? Definitely. And besides the possibility itself z. For example, if you insert your links with UTM parameters or via link shorteners, the successes can hardly be tracked. But dealing with such concepts and their feasibility is an essential exercise for successful online marketing. Because, as always, there are intermediate steps on the way to full implementation.
The first step is to know Dark Social as a concept. Congratulations, you have already taken the first step.
And for the next steps, I have five concrete recommendations at the end of this article:
- Use UTM parameters and link shorteners to improve tracking for dark social shares as well.
- Create at least one news or broadcast channel for your company through which the usual social posts are also sent and advertise it on your established social platforms as long as you can still reach users there.
- When choosing influencers and micro-influencers, make sure that they are also active in messengers.
- Inquire about relevant messenger groups in your network and join them, whether local, industry-specific, or target group-specific.
- There is none? Establish it, define it as a semi-private place of information, and invite your network.
There is no range limit in Messenger. Any group member who has not muted the group will be informed. Therefore, post carefully. WhatsApp may not mute you, but group members do.