Seeing the Light with Dark Social Media


Most online marketers measure success with one key performance indicator: someone clicking on their content. This little click (or a like, share, or comment on Facebook) measures engagement. Clicks can help tell the marketer if audiences or customers find online content valuable and influential to a future sale or action. If there is a major drop in clicks, it is usually an indication that marketers need to tweak messaging to be less annoying and more personally relevant. The most important aspect of clicks, however, is that they drive online conversions. A conversion could mean the sale of an e-commerce product, a donation to a nonprofit’s fundraising page, or an email sign-up for an organization’s newsletter.

None of this is new. Direct-click tracking has been digital marketers’ #1 measurement tool for several years. But what if measuring only clicks means that you fail to see the full scope of actions that someone takes in response to your Facebook posts, tweets, or online ads? In other words, how can marketers, small business owners, and digital directors more accurately and more fully measure the type of customer engagement and traffic to their website that’s far more difficult to track? Answer: not easily.

As our clients can attest, we strive to be complicated problem simplifiers instead of simple problem complicators. So in the spirit of complicated problem simplification, we want to start a conversation around impressions, clicks, and the clicks we cannot track.

This breakdown in full picture tracking due to increased social media usage is often referred to as dark social media. The term was first coined in a 2012 Atlantic piece, which noted how the popular magazine continuously struggled to prove with hard numbers how the majority of visitors came to their site. This lack of direct-click tracking led them to deduce their traffic was, for the most part, coming from various social media channels, and most specifically Facebook.

So how exactly does dark social media work and how is it measured, if it all?

In January, Facebook announced that 90 percent of users who saw an ad and then made an online purchase didn’t actually click on the ad. This announcement is a pretty big admission for the ol’ Book of Face. To put it another way, having a visual impression—Facebook users simply seeing a post or advertisement but not necessarily clicking on it—could be worth more than a click. Could this really be the case? Are online marketers wasting time and clients’ ad dollars trying to drive clicks when they should just focus on visual impressions?

Even with impression-based marketing beginning to gain traction, most online advertisers still prefer direct-click tracking and to make conversion tracking easier and more digestible, it’s still common for marketers to tag URLs—meaning you add on a URL text string to the end of the link to allow proper tracking in Google Analytics or another web analytics tracking software. This direct-click interaction is important because it shows marketers and business owners exactly how users travel through a site, what pages and content they find most interesting, and where adjustments should be made. Furthermore, URL tagging can also show direct conversion rates, proving how effective (or ineffective) a page is at selling a particular product and more.

However, even with URL tagging, it’s still difficult for marketers to see the full picture on account of various circumstances. Here are a few examples: URLs are often “stripped” of their parameters when people use smartphone apps, such as when you click on an article link within Twitter or Facebook on your mobile device. The same goes for someone browsing the web while enabling secure HTTPS browsing. And lastly, think of when you share online content via an email, Facebook post, or a tweet. Do you always include the long, full URL tag on that article, or do you sometimes delete the UTM portion of the link? With these factors, even traceable content can be missed, lost, or not fully measured.

Most of these lost or unaccounted for clicks fall into the Google Analytics web traffic category known as direct/none. (See screenshot below.) This direct/none category—aka the black hole of web analytics—typically shows that 1) a visitor typed your full URL directly, or 2) Google just has no way of knowing how that visitor ultimately came to your site, online shopping cart, or email sign-up page. While this instance can be a common occurrence for your homepage, it’s more rare for other content with longer URL strings. For example, someone may type in but not type in the full URL for a page such as

Screenshot at Mar 16 09-28-19

What are marketers to do? To some degree, we can never fully measure all the data surrounding our website traffic. Dark social media will continue to befuddle online marketers but the storytelling around it is improving. For example, Facebook recently announced various fixes and repairs to how they report and refer mobile traffic. Even with these small, technical changes, website visitor data is beginning to become unmasked and therefore continuing to prove that Facebook is even more impactful than previously thought.

After the recent Facebook fixes, MarketingLand wrote “if you are a marketer and you are [tracking] direct traffic on mobile, that number just went down and Facebook’s [referral number] went up.” The article continued by stating, “marketers are more dependent on Facebook than they realize.” These changes aren’t small: Chartbeat noted that after the platform clean-up “mobile Facebook traffic increased by about 40 percent.”

Here’s the overall takeaway: Facebook is more powerful in bringing you qualified web visitors than you realize. It drives ROI, sends engaged site visitors your way, and leads consumers to the top of the sales funnel. We predict that over the next few months, it will be proven that the majority of your company or organization’s site traffic could actually be thanks to untraceable Facebook clicks. Important changes are taking place to make dark social media much, much clearer for marketers to track which can in turn be more impactful to your company’s bottom line.

1 Comment

  • March 16, 2015


    Foxwells, great insight on a topic I wasn’t familiar with. You questioned whether marketers should focus on visual impressions and I’m curious on your take—can you elaborate on how companies looking to roll out FB ads can create lasting visual impressions? Thanks again!