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“Dark Social” Is Still Nearly 70 Percent Of Sharing Activity

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Two years after Alexis Madrigal coined the term, we’re still largely in the dark about Dark Social.

Dark Social, you’ll remember, is that portion of referral traffic that lacks information to trace it back to its source. In Madrigal’s Atlantic.com article introducing the idea, he reported that nearly 69% of social referral traffic to publishers was “dark.”

This week that number came up again when social engagement firm RadiumOne released a study “The Light and Dark of Social Sharing” that pegs dark social sharing at 69% globally. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the evidence is strong that there’s a flame flickering behind the smoke. Especially, when you consider that Tynt, another provider of social engagement tools, put the number at more than 70% earlier this year.

But just because several data sources are triangulating doesn’t mean we fully understand what’s going on here.

The assumption by RadiumOne, Tynt — and Madrigal, at the inception — is that the majority of dark sharing is being done via email, instant message and other private person-to-person means. And no doubt email and IM are major conduits, but there’s also a strong possibility that there are other stealthy modes of transmission at work. Mobile apps, for instance, don’t always pass along referral information.

Whatever the source, this activity bears watching, given that it dwarfs sharing on the traditional social networks.

RadiumOne’s results — drawn from a month’s worth of activity from the 900 million unique users on its network — put Facebook sharing at 23% of the global total and all other social networks at 8%. The traditional social channels fare better in North America and worse in the rest of the world, as this chart shows:

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RadiumOne also found that 36% of dark social sharing happens on mobile devices and that some topics were more apt to be shared privately, with entertainment, careers, travel, science and education all topping the 80% dark social mark. Public sharing surpassed private in only five topics — home garden, shopping, family parenting and government politics and pets — but only narrowly so for all except pets, as the chart below shows. Pets, with 81% of shares via Facebook, seem to be the only topic few mind sharing publicly.

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RadiumOne also backed up its on-site data with a global user survey, contracting with Tpoll to ask 9,000 people about their sharing habits. The survey found that of the people who share online content more than nine of 10 said that private channels are among the ways that they share. Further, 32% said that they share only privately, with older respondents more likely to answer that way.

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Clearly, dark social sharing is too common for publishers and marketers shrug off, and RadiumOne naturally has some ideas how to put the information to use. The company offers branded URL shorteners and a sharing widget that gathers intelligence about user activity, including copy-and-pasting text from a website. Both services are free and, according to RadiumOne, have helped publishers better understand and connect with their users. RadiumOne CMO Eric Bader explained to Social Times:

We can detect which keywords and phrases are being copied and shared in addition to automatically adding a short URL linking back to the original web page at the end of the copied text. Anytime a user engages with this short URL, or any other short URLs generated by Po.st, we can measure this activity and identify these engaged, interested users. For URLs copied straight from the address bar, we add a special bit of code to the links to distinguish and track them separately as they are shared and clicked upon around the Web. Wherever there is an opportunity to add a hyperlink, you can track engagement if you take the proper action.

Download the full RadiumOne report here.

Postscript: After we published this story, Chartbeat, the real-time analytics firm, shed more light on the makeup of dark social, finding that a significant percentage can be attributed to traffic from mobile apps. Chartbeat said after making an adjustment to its platform Wednesday night, client sites saw a 10-20% reduction in dark social traffic. And sites with a high amount of Facebook traffic, saw 40% increases in mobile traffic from the social network.

Read more about it here: Chartbeat Shines A Light On Dark Social, Finds Missing Mobile Referrers


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