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What Is Dark Social? Definition and Examples for Marketers

B2B Marketers, this next line is going to scare you a little…

Most of your buyers are making decisions inside channels and places that you can’t track - and you probably aren't even aware it's happening! 😱

It’s called dark social, but is it bad news for your marketing spend? 

The opposite, actually! It just means you’ll need to keep a closer eye on which channels and tactics are giving you a return for your efforts.

In this article, we're going to explore:

  • The definition of dark social
  • How you can use it to increase campaign reach
  • If there’s a way you can track and measure your marketing across dark social media

Grab your torch, and let’s dive into the dark 👇.

What is dark social? 

You might have overheard the term whispered by B2B marketers in the shadowy corners of Zoom calls and marketing meetups.

Or, you know, just from posts on LinkedIn 🤷‍♀️.

But, wherever you heard it, you're likely wondering:

What is dark social?

Coined by writer Alexis Madrigal when he wrote this article for The Atlantic, dark social encapsulates the “invisible” shares via private channels like messaging apps, email, and text.

In a nutshell, dark social describes private shares and website referrals that are difficult to track across social media.

But as Alexis says:

“We’re only seeing and measuring the tip of the sharing iceberg.”

It's incredibly difficult for B2B marketers to track the referrer data or source of dark traffic. This is something Chris Walker, CEO @ Refine Labs, has spoken about extensively when referring to the dark funnel.

While it may sound a bit baffling, the dark side of social media is something you definitely want to jump on. The reason being, that Madrigal found that private channels are the top referral sources for B2B businesses.

Examples of dark social in the wild

Wondering what to look for on the hunt for dark social posts? 

The majority of dark social media is shared via messaging apps like Facebook, Slack, WhatsApp and Instagram. (So if you’re wondering if WhatsApp counts as dark social, it does!) However, every link share, tag and mention count too. 

For Cognism, we’ve noticed a rise in dark social mentions since we made the move to a demand gen first strategy. Here are some examples of dark social posts we’ve spotted on LinkedIn:

An example of dark social on LinkedIn

An example of dark social on LinkedIn

An example of dark social on LinkedIn

Of course, these are just a few of the dark social shares we can track. There’s no accounting for how much content, how many referrals, and the number of untagged mentions that are being shared by potential buyers on a daily basis.

Why dark social can no longer be kept in the dark 

As marketers, we like to know where traffic is coming from.

Or rather…

We need to know!

It helps with our strategies, and it tells us what our audience likes so that we can give them more of it.

What's more, it helps build intent data and buy-in from senior stakeholders for an increased marketing budget.

Unfortunately, 77.5% of buyers share links through dark social channels.

That means there’s a huge invisible audience out there. They love your content, and you aren’t even aware of it!

Dark social isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it's only set to grow. So knowing where your traffic is coming from is important for future campaigns and why we need to bring dark social traffic out into the light. 

Want to know more about why B2B sales and marketing teams are so excited about dark social media? Watch this quick video to find out 👇

Benefits of dark social campaigns 

Being fully aware of where your website traffic is coming from is one benefit of honing in on dark social tracking, but there are more, including:

1. You can prioritize popular content

When you know where your traffic is coming from, you can pinpoint how popular a specific topic or article is and do more of it.

From here, you can go on to double down your distribution efforts in relation to these topics within the dark social channels that are ACTUALLY performing for you.

This will make measuring dark social metrics around it a little easier, especially if your audience uses the share features available on most posts.

2. Dark social impacts your traffic

Whether you realize it or not, your links are being shared via dark social posts every day.

The majority of shares come from mobile, and they’re said to account for 53% of click-backs; that’s not counting desktop.

So, when you’re having a look at your attribution software, and you notice you had a spike in traffic on one day but not the next, dark social traffic might be the reason. 

3. You can reach unique demographics

If you're already using B2B data to drive your marketing strategies, then capturing more from dark social marketing will only improve your reach.

Dark social can help you collect intent on your customers’ interests at specific points in their buyer journeys. You can use this information to:

  • Create better-targeted campaigns
  • Improve your relationships with prospects and customers
  • Reach demographics that might have been invisible to you before

4. Dark social uses referral marketing

Think about how successful word-of-mouth marketing is.

It's the same with dark social. Even if it's being done in a way you can't track - it's still happening!

Each dark social share is a referral in your favor, and if you learn how to harness its power, you can gain a lot more followers.

Watch Chris Walker, CEO @ Refine Labs, and Alice de Courcy, CMO @ Cognism, discuss the dark funnel 👇

How to track and measure dark social?

How do you harness the power of dark social?

First things first:

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

That said, there are a number of ways you can track and measure dark social metrics.

Here are four dark social share-tracking tactics:

1. Utilizing sticky share buttons 

Have a look at your website and make sure your follow buttons can be differentiated from your share buttons. Use a tool like sharethis, which creates inline or sticky share buttons. This means you can track dark social shares via email, messenger, or over text and measure them through your attribution software.

2. Shortening your links

You can add a tracking code or UTM to your link, but they’re easily removed and can become overly diluted with information with each sharing journey. Instead, use a link shortener like Bitly or Owly. They’ll track dark share traffic for you and provide accurate dark social analytics.

3. Using Google Analytics

You can find out what percentage of dark traffic is attributed to the wrong source by adding a dark social segment to Google Analytics.

4. Ask your customers

Add a ‘where did you hear about us’ question to your demo forms or thank you page. Call up closed-won deals and ask them how they heard about you. You will soon see that the data your attribution software is pulling in, and the qualitative learnings from these methods are very different.

But this data can be everything. It illuminates the misty darkness of that ‘organic’, ‘direct’ referral source that your MAP shows you; it’s the difference between doubling down investment on your B2B marketing and sales podcast vs. SEO efforts.

Closing thoughts 

Madrigal pointed out that there's really no way to be 100% sure you're getting the right information when it comes to dark social analytics.

So instead of worrying about how dark social affects your marketing metrics, embrace it.

Create content that's worth sharing, and keep an eye on your web traffic and conversions to make sure it's working.

Below you can see notes from inside our largest CW opportunity this month. The human-verified lead source indicates dark social marketing, and specifically, our CMO’s organic LinkedIn content as the source of this deal:

example of dark social via email

This is the power of dark social. If you can harness and scale this, much like the Refine Labs team and Chris Walker have done, you will unlock a whole world of revenue opportunities.

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