Shining a light on dark traffic

The way that we share content online has changed dramatically over the past few years. Messaging apps have overtaken social networking apps (by monthly active users), and this is facilitating much more 1:1 and 1:few sharing. In fact, 84% of content sharing now happens via Dark Social: channels such as private IM, email and apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. Google Analytics can’t identify what people are sharing and accessing through Dark Social. This traffic then just gets thrown into the catch-all ‘Direct’ bucket (so if you’ve noticed an increase in Direct traffic to your site, this could very well be why). For brand owners, digital analysts and marketers, the Dark-ness represents a  huge blind spot of activity we just aren’t able to see properly yet.

It’s easy to see why this type of sharing is booming. From the way I personally share content, I’d say that close to 100% of it would be classed as Dark; it happens on Slack and email (for work) and WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and text (for personal). My Twitter followers probably don’t need to see an article that really deals with that thing my colleague and I were discussing in our meeting earlier… I’ll just send it to them.

The same is true when I email a recipe to a friend (or even email it to myself, which still counts as Dark Traffic, and has the added plot twist of a device-switch too). I do it all the time. Anyone with IMs and Slack at work accounts will know how common this is (note here the big missed knowledge gap for B2B).

The way we share content reveals our intentions. We share stuff publicly because it makes us look good and builds our online persona. We share stuff privately because we either want a specific person, or small group of people to read it. Increasingly these are becoming two distinct modes of operation. Does this tell us that social media’s public role as a content distribution channel is falling away? That article you stumbled across about pregnancy hacks, checking tyre pressure or best World War 2 documentaries (for example) may be perfect for someone you know, but not for sharing with everyone you know. Such content may feel too boring, or too functional to post on social: you only want one person to read it anyway, right? It’s super relevant, timely, targeted and effective, almost guaranteed 100% click-through rate too.

We see this play out in our own website’s behavioural analytics here at Bottle – content shared through Dark Social* has an average dwell time of up to 3x that of the other channels. A really positive sign that piece of content was in front of a person it was relevant to, who read it.   

This is a huge shift in behaviour. Having so many points of access to content through apps and multiple devices is a brilliant thing, but it adds a layer of pesky complexity for the brands trying to make sense of it all. As Direct traffic in GA grows, understanding of what’s really going on diminishes.

It’s always been a murky, catch-all channel, showing not only visits from us typing urls directly into the search bar – but “everything else that can’t be identified”. Again, we’ve seen this with own website data; Direct traffic has grown a massive 41% year on year. We’d love to think it’s because people love our site enough to bookmark it or reel off a url without Googling us, but alas it’s more likely that traffic is coming from an increasing amount of unattributable sources – throwing the rest of our analytics out of kilter. Traffic that should be attributed to Social gets lumped in with Direct, artificially inflating Direct, and under-valuing Social…and so on.

Is it a coincidence that Dark Traffic is completely overlooked and dumped in the “Direct” bucket in Google Analytics, mixed in with the rest of the unidentifiable traffic, leaving us digital people guessing? Because if Google Analytics (you know, that Google product) did make that information available, we could understand how our audience use them to reach our website and tailor our strategies on those platforms…maybe even give a bigger chunk of our paid media budgets to apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to engage with people there (you know, like the products that belong to Google’s nemesis, Facebook)? Hmmm… I get it now.

Before the Direct bucket gets any clearer, we’ll have to interrogate what we do have more thoroughly. Tag things better where we can, use url shortener services and improve sharing buttons on your content. These are the solutions, which can help us fill in some of the gaps. But as 87% of shares are a good old fashioned url-copy-and-paste job, there’s still a lot missing.

In the future, things like messenger apps will be fully considered as part of communications strategies, and have dedicated media spend put to these channels. More and more brands and publishers will be using Dark Social to try and leverage the effectiveness of one on one interactions with their customers, as well as distribute content like articles, images and videos. Whether brands will be welcome here is a question for a future post.

 

*Assumed through Google Analytics by applying a segment isolating “Direct” traffic, looking at the Pages report in Behaviour and applying a filter for all the obvious and easily remembered urls to isolate pages highly likely to have been reached via Dark Social