What is “Dark Social,” Why It Matters, and How to Use It in Your Practice Marketing
Do you know where your website traffic comes from? Are you sure?
Because when it comes to up to 80% of your website traffic, you really don’t.5
Even if you use analytics programs like Google Analytics, there’s a huge chunk of your website traffic and other marketing data that is still invisible to you before it arrives at your website.
Who are these visitors? How did they find your site? And how can you replicate this marketing success?
The answer is Dark Social.
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The term “Dark Social” has been floating around the web since it was coined in 2012, but the truth is that we’ve often underestimated its influence.6 Now we understand Dark Social is a large (and growing even larger) section of online marketing activity that even small businesses like your practice can’t ignore any longer.
What is Dark Social?
Dark Social is a term used to refer to “the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs.”1 In other words, Dark Social is nearly untraceable web traffic that comes from Internet users sharing content directly and privately with each other, instead of posting or sharing it publicly.
Dark Social is as diverse as the ways we communicate with each other, and can happen when someone clicks on a link shared with them in any non-public way, such as in an email, a private message, or even a classic text.4
When a visitor reaches your website in a “normal” way – for example, typing your website address into the URL bar, clicking on a link in a search engine result, or clicking on one of your marketing materials – web analytics programs like Google Analytics keep track of how those visitors got to your site. This is because these ways of getting to your website already include tracking or “referral” data.
When a potential client clicks on a link to your practice website in one of your public tweets, they automatically get tagged with a little piece of metadata that let’s us know they’re coming from Twitter. That “tag” (the tracking or referral data) is what analytics programs read to learn about your traffic. And there’s the rub – Dark Social traffic doesn’t get tagged with its origin before it arrives at your website.
When someone shares your content privately with another person (such as through a direct message on a social media network), that traffic becomes much more difficult for analytics programs to trace, if not impossible. That’s why we call this type of traffic and sharing Dark Social, because to marketers this invisible social sharing might as well be happening in the dark.
Why does Dark Social matter?
One of the most important questions marketers ask about their web traffic is “How did you find me, so I can get others to find me in the same way?” With Dark Social, we don’t know how the traffic got to our site, so we’re missing a huge piece of the picture of how our audience operates and what they want from us.4
While it’s easy to underestimate things we can’t see happen right in front of our eyes, don’t be fooled into thinking Dark Social isn’t important just because it’s difficult to measure. The truth is quite the opposite.
Dark Social is a growing powerhouse in the world of social media marketing. At the beginning of 2018, more than 2/3 of all content sharing was happening through Dark Social, and that number is projected to have grown even further since then.2 In July 2018, Dark Social even surpassed Facebook Referral Traffic (when users travel to a different website from a link or share on Facebook) to become the Internet’s largest social traffic source.3
That may surprise you less when you learn that monthly users of private messaging applications (a major source of Dark Social) have outnumbered social network monthly users for the better part of a decade.2
All that means that the world of Dark Social – the way we share with our friends and family privately – is now even more effective at driving website traffic than all of the public sharing and engagement on Facebook combined.
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Where does a Dark Social strategy start?
Dark Social isn’t just here to stay – it’s quickly moving in to dominate its own corner of the online marketing industry. Time to figure out how to get your piece of the pie.
Dark Social sharing most commonly happens on one of these three online channels:2
• Email platforms (Gmail, Outlook…)
• Instant messengers (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack…)
• Social smartphone applications (Facebook, Instagram…)
When it comes to creating a Dark Social strategy for these channels, you’ll likely struggle with the whole reason that Dark Social is difficult for marketers to measure and control in the first place. By definition, Dark Social’s powerful marketing interactions tend to take place in private. That makes Dark Social strategizing a challenge to try and get your name mentioned in a conversation where you don’t seem to have a seat at the table.
The good news is there are different tactics you can use on classic Dark Social platforms that will give you a leg up on your competition in the mysterious marketing world of Dark Social.
How to create a Dark Social marketing strategy
The truth about Dark Social strategizing is that it’s still a developing part of the marketing industry. Because of the nature of Dark Social, we don’t know as much as we’d like about penetrating that segment of social activity with marketing, especially when it comes to unique industries like mental health. However, there are several different micro-strategies that you can put together as a therapist to create a new, modern online marketing strategy that will help to ensure you’re making the most of your potential Dark Social traffic.
Better Customer Service & Engagement
The immediacy and social intimacy of private messaging platforms make them a natural tool to communicate with your current and potential clients about specific (but public) information.
By letting users contact you through popular messaging networks, you can create a quick & easy way for potential clients to ask you questions about office hours, the nature of your services, help getting to your office, or even any of your online content. Maybe one of your blog posts or your e-book caught their eye and they have questions about what they should do next (hint: the answer is making an appointment with you!).
The only catch is that in order to make this piece of your strategy work, you have to be reliably accessible on the platforms where you promise to be. That means being active on those platforms and responding to messages at least once a day (ideally at least a few times a day).
Networking Locally (for the Internet)
As a therapist, I’m sure you’re familiar with the time-honored practice of local networking, particularly with other clinicians. The good news is that local networking is a technique that can be easily applied to your online marketing, especially when it comes to Dark Social.
A great way to get your quality content shared between your ideal potential clients is to network with trusted influencers (“taste makers” or the type of person that many others go to for guidance) and private online groups (such as private Facebook groups) from your local area.
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Connecting with a trusted voice in the community your practice serves and getting them to recommend your content or services to their followers can give you a huge amount of credibility in that community’s eyes. Not to mention, you’d be tapping into an established community of that influencer’s followers, placing your content in the right Dark Social circles that are primed to receive your brand because of the influencer’s referral.
Networking with a private Facebook group or other closed group and sharing your content with their members is a wonderful way to know exactly what type of audience will be reading the content shared there. There are thousands of active clubs and groups online for every type of ideal client, from single working mothers trading time management advice, to people on a weight-loss journey who are looking for extra support.
Being part of a closed group also adds instant credibility to your voice as being a member of that exclusive community – if you can get in. The most difficult part of networking with closed groups online is also the reason that their friendship is so worthwhile to pursue: private groups need to trust and know you to let you in. This allows group members to trust each other simply by virtue of the fact that they were both admitted to the same exclusive group.
The first step is making a friendly connection with the admin users of a closed group through direct messages. Demonstrate your expertise to them – they’re the ones with the power to let you into their private community.
If you get in, be sure you respect the community and their rules. When speaking with the admin users, be transparent about your intention to promote your business so they can let you know about any group guidelines surrounding selling & marketing. However, whatever the rules, your best bet will be to avoid marketing your services directly. It’s okay to make sure the community knows what you do, but be sure you’re demonstrating your worth primarily through valuable content instead of sales pitches. Show them how valuable your skills are, and they’ll come to you.
Creating Your Own VIPs
Of course, whether or not you’re successful in infiltrating private groups online, you can always just make your own! Create your own VIP group chat on your favorite messaging platform, or even start your own private Facebook group. Design a group whose purpose specifically supports your ideal client and their struggles, and the group membership roster will eventually read like a cherry-picked list of your most interested potential clients.
To get people to join your new group, you have to offer them something truly valuable. Simply sending your VIP group weekly newsletters isn’t going to cut it! You want to be able to promise those exclusive members something that makes their membership feel truly special, instead of feeling like they’re getting the short end of the stick.
You could offer your VIP group the exclusive right to vote on the topic of your next blog post. Or maybe you can release your next e-book to your VIP members a week early, and let them (and them alone) ask you follow-up questions about it through the VIP group on the messaging platform of your choice.
By managing your own group with exclusive membership, you’re creating your own Dark Social audience with which to share your content. The more emphasis you put on making sure your content is valuable, the more shareable it automatically becomes between your members. Not to mention, meeting your potential clients on the social platforms they already love means the ability to share your content directly with a friend is already only a button-click or screen-tap away. You can kick-off the cycle of person-to-person sharing yourself and start seeing Dark Social in a whole new way.
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1. “What Is Dark Social? – Definition from Techopedia.” Techopedia.com, www.techopedia.com/definition/29027/dark-social.
2. Uncovering Dark Social: The Essential Guide to Dark Social in 2018. Uncovering Dark Social: The Essential Guide to Dark Social in 2018, GetSocial, 2018. Whitepaper
3. “Dark Social: Your New Largest Traffic Source.” Smart Insights, Smart Insights, 20 Aug. 2018, www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-analytics/dark-social-your-new-largest-traffic-source/.
4. Jenblat, Omar. “How ‘Dark Social’ Can Hurt Or Help Your Business.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 Dec. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2017/12/21/how-dark-social-can-hurt-or-help-your-business/#9f62f9f57b81.
5. Smith, Brad. “The Definitive Guide to Tracking Dark Social.” AdEspresso, AdEspresso, 26 Sept. 2017, adespresso.com/blog/dark-social/.
6. Madrigal, Alexis C. “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 Oct. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/.