Dark Social: What It Is, How to Track It, and Why It Matters for B2B

why dark social matters for B2B marketers

There’s an intense push-and-pull going on in B2B marketing right now. 

On the one hand, marketers are being pushed toward measurement and metrics. Analytics have become a part of nearly every marketing conversation—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. 

On the other hand, the B2B customer journey has grown more messy, complex, and difficult to track. A major reason for this is that a growing number of purchasing decisions are being made and discussed on dark social—private LinkedIn messages, Slack channels, and closed online communities. 

Touchpoints are happening all the time in these closed channels, but brands have no way of measuring them. So, given that a lot of the customer journey has become unmeasurable, how should B2B brands proceed? 

The answer (at least, part of the answer) is to focus on three things: increasing your share of voice, using the tools you do have at your disposal to make the most of dark social, and tracking the right metrics. 

Let’s take a closer look. 

What is dark social?

Coined by Alexis Madrigal, dark social refers to the “invisible” shares between consumers that happens behind the scenes. Rather than messages being shared on social platforms such Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, shares are happening through channels like messengers and texts. That being said, the content being shared behind the scenes isn’t being tracked by web analytics tools. Why is this important for your brand? Let’s find out.

Related reading: How to Hack the Twitter Algorithm

Dark Social Examples

Now that you know the definition of dark social, here is a list of dark social channels to give you a better idea:

  1. WhatsApp – A messaging app that allows users to send text messages, voice messages, photos, and videos to other users.
  2. Facebook Messenger – A messaging app that allows Facebook users to send and receive messages, photos, and videos.
  3. Email – A traditional method of communication that allows users to send messages and files to other users.
  4. SMS – A text messaging service that allows users to send messages to other users’ mobile devices.
  5. Slack – A messaging app primarily used for team communication in a work setting.
  6. Telegram – A messaging app that allows users to send messages, photos, videos, and files, and also offers group chats and channels.
  7. WeChat – A messaging app that is popular in China and offers messaging, voice calls, and video calls, as well as additional features like payment processing and social networking.

Why is dark social important?

Dark social is important for brands because it accounts for a significant portion of web traffic. By not tracking this traffic, your brand is missing out on valuable insights into what content is being shared and what channels are most effective in driving conversions for your business. If your brand wants to optimize your social media marketing strategy and, ultimately, increase ROI, understanding and tracking dark social is crucial.

1. Dark social is everywhere

Whether you like it or not, dark social is here to stay and its impact is only growing. Between mobile shares and desktop, over 84% of social shares are happening on dark social.

2. Dark social is an unseen marketing opportunity

Dark social is an opportunity for B2B brands to see what their potential customers are really like. What are their interests and top concerns? This is an opportunity for your brand to get familiar with your target market and tweak your strategy to truly speak to them, opening your brand up to a whole possibility of new connections.

What is share of voice and why does it matter? 

Share of voice is the percentage of conversation your brand owns in the market. It can also refer to the amount of advertising your brand has compared to the total amount of advertising in your industry, rendered as a percentage.

Think of this in terms of a major brand, like Kleenex. If you were a B2B buyer in charge of purchasing paper products for all your brand’s offices, Kleenex is probably the first brand that would come to mind. That’s because their advertising is everywhere, so their share of voice dwarfs that of their competitors. 

That doesn’t mean you would absolutely make your purchase with Kleenex—it would be dependent on other things like pricing, timeline, etc.—but Kleenex would certainly be present in your mind throughout your decision process, and likely for any and all future paper product purchasing decisions you had to make for your brand. 

Brands that have a huge share of voice also have an ongoing presence in buyers’ minds. Think of your brain as a phone: the brands with a huge share of voice are like those apps running in the background, always on, and always easy to access. 

Increasing your share of voice requires regularly putting out great content, implementing PR campaigns to boost your reputation and backlinks, creating paid ads to bring people to your best content, and participating in thought leadership opportunities as much as possible. 

As your share of voice goes up, you’ll reap a number of benefits, including: 

  • A boost in reputation and brand trust
  • SEO improvements, including an increase in the number of backlinks your brand has
  • A larger share of your market

How to make the most of dark social sharing

Now that we’ve established how critical share of voice is to succeeding in the B2B space these days, let’s look at how you can make the most of all the dark social sharing and discussions that are happening around your brand. 

After all, it’s growth in your share of voice that will impact the number of dark social mentions and amount of activity that your brand experiences (even though you won’t be able to see it). 

As the term “dark social” implies, these are conversations that really cannot be easily tracked. But there are certain things you can do to get at least some information: 

  • Use link shorteners, like bit.ly, because these allow you to track those links across the internet.
  • Emphasize your social sharing buttons by making them easy to find on your website and on each piece of owned content (blog posts, articles, etc.). Sharing via these buttons is trackable, so you want to make it as easy as possible to do so. 
  • In fact, 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now takes place via private, dark social channels such as email, social networks, and instant messaging. Add UTM codes to specific links you want to track. These codes make it easier for Google to track those links. 
  • Use dark social tracking tools, like GetSocial, Po.St, and AddThis. 

5 Ways Marketers Can Leverage Dark Social Sharing

Referral Marketing

Some companies offer referral programs where customers can refer their friends and family to the company’s products or services. These referrals often happen through private channels such as email or messaging apps, and can be difficult to track.

Closed online communities

Some companies create closed online communities, such as Facebook groups or Slack channels, for their customers and fans to connect and share information. These communities can be a great way for companies to engage with their customers, but also make it difficult to track the sharing of information.

Influencer marketing

B2B companies often rely on recommendations and word-of-mouth referrals to gain new clients. These referrals often happen through private channels such as email or messaging apps, which can be difficult to track. On the other hand, B2B companies often work with influencers to promote their products or services. Influencers may share information about a product or service to their followers through private channels such as direct messages.

Include Share Buttons

Including share buttons is a common way for companies to encourage users to share their content via dark social channels. By including share buttons on your content, B2B companies can make it easy for users to share the content with others, which can increase the reach of the content and make it more visible to a larger audience. For example, if a user enjoys reading an article on your company’s blog, they may want to share it with a friend who might also be interested. If there are share buttons available, the user can simply click the button and select the platform or app they want to share the content on.

Offer Exclusive Deals

B2B companies can offer exclusive deals or promotions that are only available to those who share via private messaging apps. This can incentivize users to share content via dark social channels and help increase the reach of your content.

Track the metrics that matter, not just the ones that are easy. 

The thing with having analytics for everything is that it can be hard to discern which metrics really matter, and which are simply…trackable. 

As Zen’s founder and CEO Shama Hyder says in the Modern Marketing Blog, “just because something is measurable and efficient doesn’t mean it’s meaningful and effective.” 

A perfect example? Click-through rate (CTR). A high click-through rate by no means indicates a similarly high level of meaningful engagement, but it’s incredibly easy to measure, and a high one can make a campaign look good when presented strategically. 

Related reading: Why Click-Through Rate Doesn’t Matter, and the KPIs Brand Marketers Should Actually Care About

But there are many other, less obvious metrics that mean a lot more when looked at as part of an entire picture. 

For example, you could track your growth in share of voice over time and see whether that matches up to an increase in newsletter signups or demo requests. 

You can track social media engagements in relation to specific PR campaigns or product launch. Better yet, you can look at all these numbers and put them together to create a larger picture of how your brand is doing in the marketplace. 

  • Dark social is communication that more online in Slack channels, Microsoft teams, Zoom, etc.
  • Dark social is how consumers are communicating, how prospects are buying and that’s not changing anytime soon, it’s just going to continue to grow
  • You can try and influence what’s happening in dark social, but you can’t control it and you can’t track it
  • Instead focus on creating content that people want to talk about and is valuable
  • Questions to ask your customers if you really need some form of quantitative data:
    • What do you consume? 
    • How did you find out about us?
    • Who are your peers?

Dark Social Tracking

Finally, to boost both your “regular” and dark social engagement, get better at anticipating what your prospects and customers want from you. 

Because your prospects want the information they want when they want it, it’s up to your marketing team to anticipate those desires. 

Start by conducting a content audit. Where are your content offerings lacking? Do you have lots of content for the top of the funnel but hardly any for the bottom? Are you targeting a couple of personas with your blog posts but overlooking others? 

A thorough B2B content audit can give you a baseline for where you are right now, which will help you decide where you need to improve. 

What questions do your customers and prospects come to your sales team with the most often? What are their pain points? This is information you need to know if you’re going to give them content that converts. 

The most reliable way to do this is to ask your prospects and customers directly through surveys or on sales calls (the data you get this way is called zero-party data). 

Dark Social Examples

Cookie Tracking

Dark Social refers to websites that use methods other than cookies to track users across different channels such as email, mobile apps, etc. These sites often use tracking pixels, clear GIFs, and JavaScript code to monitor user behavior without storing data locally on their computers.

For example, when someone visits a website via an app, they may be prompted to install another app onto their device. The new app might then send information back to the original site about which features were used within the app.

Product Tracking

Another example would be a company building a product that sends emails directly to customers who haven’t opted into receiving them. They could do this by sending a link to download the software to anyone who opens the email. When the customer downloads the software, the company will know exactly where the person came from (email address) and what they did after opening the email (download the software).

Sharing URL Links

Sharing a link to an article through a direct message on a social media platform. A user may come across an interesting article on a website and want to share it with a specific friend or group of friends. Instead of posting the link on their public profile, they send it through a direct message, making it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.


A user may come across a video on a website that they think a friend would find interesting. They may choose to email the link to their friend, rather than sharing it publicly on social media. This makes it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.

Forums and Group Chats

Posting a link to a forum or chat group that is not public. A user may come across a website and want to share it with a specific group of people. They may do this by posting the link in a closed forum or chat group that is not visible to the public. This makes it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.

Mobile Messaging

Sharing a link through a mobile messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal. A user may come across a website and want to share it with a specific group of people. They may do this by sending the link through a mobile messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal, which are not publicly accessible. This makes it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.

Virtual Word of Mouth

Copying and pasting a link into a virtual meeting or video call is dark social. A user may come across a website and want to share it with a specific group of people. They may do this by copying and pasting the link into a virtual meeting or video call, which is not publicly accessible. This makes it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.

QR Codes

A user may come across a website and want to share it with a specific group of people. They may generate a QR code that links to the website, and share it through a print or digital medium, making it difficult for the website owner to track the source of referral traffic.

All of these are types of tracking called “dark” because it’s not visible to users unless they take special steps to look for it. It’s important to note that while these types of tracking tactics are common, most companies don’t actually need access to personal information like browsing histories or even IP addresses.

The Truth About Dark Social Analytics

When website owners and marketers access their analytics tools to gain insights into how visitors find and access their websites, they rely on analytics software to identify the known source of referral traffic. Yet, the majority of referrer data from dark social traffic comes with significant flaws.

Many big social networks like to hide where their traffic comes from, and there’s another bunch that sometimes keeps the referral data under wraps too. To uncover the truth, in a recent study, SparkToro collaborated with Really Good Data to generate over 1000 visits through 11 prominent social networks, with the aim of observing how Google Analytics classified these incoming referrals. Here are the results:

  • 100% of all visits originating from TikTok, Slack, Discord, Mastodon, and WhatsApp were classified as “direct,” and lacked any other reference details.
  • Approximately 75% of visits originating from Facebook Messenger did not contain any referral information. This doesn’t seem directly correlated to choices in web browsers, device types, or whether the visits occurred on the web or through apps.
  • Referral data for Instagram direct messages (DMs), public LinkedIn posts, and Pinterest posts also exhibited significant gaps (30%, 14%, and 12%, respectively).
  • A smaller portion of traffic was incorrectly attributed to “direct” due to Reddit posts, LinkedIn direct messages (DMs), and Twitter direct messages (DMs).
  • Referral data from YouTube, public Instagram profile links, public Facebook posts, and Tweets currently appear to be consistently provided.

Website owners and marketers should anticipate that a significant portion of traffic labeled with a “direct” referral tag is probably from people instant messaging and private sharing links on these platforms. Dark social media is a real and ongoing phenomenon that can cause problems for those who only rely on their analytics data to understand where their traffic is coming from.

Final Thoughts

Your goal should always be to create something valuable enough for your customers that they want to share it in their private channels. 

Dark social is intricately related to your share of voice, and it’s where a lot of the B2B buyer journey is happening. By creating great content, increasing your share of voice, and focusing on the right metrics, you’ll be able to turn dark social into a valuable tool rather than a frustrating unknown. 


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