Dark Social: Why Freelancers Should Know This Term
Do you know what "dark social" means? The term describes the phenomenon that the majority of traffic to your website cannot be clearly traced. This applies in particular to traffic from social networks. In this article, you can find out why freelancers who use social media for their business should know the term and what it means for their channels.
What Does Dark Social Mean?
Dark social generally refers to activities that cannot be clearly tracked using tracking tools such as Google Analytics. Originally, this term primarily referred to website traffic via social networks that could not be clearly traced. However, it is now recognised that this also applies to traffic via channels such as messengers (e.g. WhatsApp) or blogs. This is why the term "dark traffic" is used often.
Dark social is not actually new - US journalist Alexis Madrigal used the term back in 2012 in an article in the US magazine The Atlantic. Even then, he described in detail how important it is to familiarise yourself with the mechanics behind dark traffic: Dark social accounts for around 69 per cent of website traffic, for example, and more recent data even speaks of 84 per cent - direct Facebook referrals, on the other hand, only account for just under 20 per cent.
It is currently assumed that dark social represents around 84 per cent of shared content from external platforms such as social media or Messenger.
How Does Dark Social Work?
A brief example will illustrate how website traffic that cannot be clearly assigned arises:
- You place an advert on LinkedIn.
- A person sees this advert, becomes curious and visits your LinkedIn profile.
- They find the content interesting, but have no need for your services at the moment.
- A few weeks later, a problem arises that is covered by your service offering.
- The person remembers your business and searches for your website on Google.
However, an analysis will later attribute this access to the organic Google search and not to the LinkedIn advert. This is precisely the principle of "Dark Social": the start of the customer journey cannot be traced back. Instead, the access in the analysis tool is assigned to the last source before the contact (or purchase) was made. Incidentally, this example works in the same way when it is not advertising but organic content.
- Other examples of dark social are:
- Shared information in messengers such as WhatsApp, for example links to articles or products or simply the exchange of information about content or products.
- Shared links in emails to products, articles or podcasts
- Private social media channels such as groups on Facebook or LinkedIn in which links or information about content or products are shared.
- Hearsay: For example, when a service or product is mentioned in a podcast or simply in an exchange with family, friends or colleagues.
Why Is It So Important To Know Dark Social?
Quite simply: because we all use it. We all share information with others. We also tend to rate something more favourably the more often we see it. For example, anyone who repeatedly sees an advert in a social network for a podcast on a topic that they find fundamentally interesting will at some point either click on the advert or search for it in their browser or on Spotify. The important thing here is: The person must be interested in the topic or at least have a neutral attitude towards it - anyone who hates Brussels sprouts will not be convinced otherwise by 1,000 adverts.
Social media also serves as a gateway for cyber criminals. Social engineering, in which inexperienced users are manipulated into certain actions that harm them, is particularly popular with hackers. Read here how you can protect yourself against this: Social engineering: When People Become a Risk.
Dark social is not only used by all of us, but also describes the basic principle of how social networks work: Above all, it's about sharing information with each other. Information and content is shared and commented on, thus constantly reaching new users. The customer journey via social networks is rarely complete: A person sees a post, clicks on a link and becomes a customer. Therefore: First of all, say goodbye to the misconception that a post automatically brings X number of hits (or purchases) to your own website.
Social networks can massively increase the reach and visibility of your company - but the majority of traffic is not measurable. This applies to both organic content and advertising. The most important thing you should therefore bear in mind when using social media: Don't publish promotional posts à la "Here's my great service - sign up now" or "Here's my great product - buy now", but rather informative and entertaining content. Adverts or shopping functions are available for promotional content.
Do I Need Social Media As a Freelancer?
In principle, a presence on social networks makes sense for freelancers and the self-employed. Especially because you can generate more traffic for your online channels and therefore also your business. Dark social can be amplified through content on social networks - even if the sources cannot always be clearly assigned. However, you should be aware of some basic functions and risks when using social media.
Social Media Risk of Infringements of Rights
In addition to data protection, the risk of committing an infringement is also high on social networks - especially when it comes to copyright. This is because text, image, video or audio content is always protected by copyright. You should therefore only use third-party content if you have acquired the rights of use, for example via a licence, or have received the written consent of the author.
Even if you reveal too much about past projects in your social media profile, you are in breach of your obligations - as this damage event impressively proves: Confidentiality Agreement Violated: Too much Information in a Business Profile.
Social Media Risk Data Protection
Social networks have been criticised for years, especially when it comes to data protection. Meta was fined a record 1.2 billion euros in May 2023 due to the opaque transfer of data to the USA. But it's not just the networks, you as a user - especially if you use social media for your business - can also commit a data protection offence. Therefore the following applies:
- Watch out for competitions: If you organise competitions via social networks, you should always inform yourself about the platform's internal guidelines as well as the general guidelines for competitions.
This article summarises more about the risks in social networks and what freelancers and self-employed people should bear in mind when using them: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & co.: An Overview of the Risks in Social Media.
Social Media Algorithm
Every social network has its own algorithm. This means what works well on one platform may have little or no effect on the next. To make matters worse, the platforms are constantly changing their algorithms. For example, LinkedIn changed its algorithm in summer 2023 so that more "content-rich posts" are displayed. It is therefore important to take a close look at the platform you want to use for your business and to keep up to date with any changes.
Focus On the Platform's Own Content
Posts that contain articles or videos from other platforms are penalised by the algorithms of most social networks. YouTube, for example, likes it when you link to other YouTube videos in your videos - external links, on the other hand, receive less attention. The same applies to Facebook and Instagram. So if you have an online shop, for example, you can think about setting up a Facebook or Instagram shop.
Insure Business Risks With Professional Indemnity Insurance Through exali
Whether it's legal infringements or data protection violations on social networks or expensive claims for compensation due to a professional error: with Professional Indemnity Insurance from exali, your business is optimally covered. Thanks to the integrated passive legal protection, the insurer always first checks at its own expense in the case of a damage event whether a warning or claim for compensation is justified at all. Unjustified claims are defended against in your name, while justified claims are settled.
Do you have any questions about Professional Indemnity Insurance services or would you like advice? If so, please contact our customer service team on +49 (0) 821 80 99 46-0 (available on weekdays from Monday to Friday, 09:00 a.m. to 06:00 p.m.(CET)) or use the contact form.
Is It Possible To Track Dark Social?
Difficult - the term already implies that it is "dark traffic", i.e. traffic that cannot be attributed to the original source. However, Google Analytics initially provides a good indicator. Under "Reports -> Acquisition -> Overview" you will find the item "Newly generated traffic", where you can see from which access sources the users came to your website. The value that provides you with a good indicator for dark traffic is "Direct":
In Google Analytics, the value "Direct" as a source for website access provides a good indicator for dark social.
Direct basically means that the URL to your website was entered directly into the browser. However, Google also includes everything that it cannot clearly assign anywhere else. This leads to the suspicion that a high proportion of users who come via the Direct source are dark traffic.
Tracking In Social Networks
There are also some parameters within the social media channels that you use for your business that indicate dark social. Let's take a look at these for the individual channels:
If you have activated "Creator Mode" for your LinkedIn profile, you have access to analysis tools. Creator Mode is recommended for anyone who regularly publishes or shares content (articles, documents, videos, images, etc.) via LinkedIn. With the analysis tools, you can not only better analyse your posts according to reach, interactions, etc., but you can also see how many people follow your profile and how often your profile has been viewed. The key figure "profile views" is therefore a good indicator of dark social access, because: Especially with adverts, users often click on the corresponding profiles.
LinkedIn Company Page
If you have a company page for your business on LinkedIn, you can also use the extensive analysis tools for the page here. Under Analysis -> Visitors, you can also find the page views - similar to the profile views, this is a good indicator of dark traffic.
Meta Channels are generally rather difficult to analyse - especially when advertising is involved. For a long time, Meta did not make a clear distinction between organic and paid values in the analyses. Only recently it has been possible to analyse the reach in organic and paid. However, a good indicator for dark social is the value of profile views. Similar to LinkedIn, users often click on the profiles behind the adverts. Therefore, more profile views on Instagram are also a good indication of the success of the adverts.
If you operate a YouTube channel, you will find the "Access source" item in the analysis and the value "Direct or unknown" here. In contrast to Analytics, Google admits that everything that cannot be clearly assigned to YouTube ends up under Direct.
This overview shows why it is important not only to use Google Analytics for analyses, but also to know the values in your own social networks. This provides a pretty good picture of the proportion of dark social.
UTM Parameters: Better Evaluation of Your External Links
Another good way to track your traffic better is to use UTM parameters. UTM parameters are small snippets of code that are appended to the end of a URL. This makes it easier to track how often and by whom the link was clicked in the respective channel. With UTM parameters, you can track which links were clicked in which channels much better in Google Analytics.
UTM parameters should definitely be used for adverts - both for Google Ads and for social media ads - as this allows you to better understand the performance of your advertising. The use of UTM parameters is also recommended for links to other external sites such as blogs, specialist articles, podcasts, etc.
Structure of UTM Parameters
You can easily create UTM parameters using Google's Campaign URL Builder. There are various parameters that you can use. However, to create a URL with UTMs, the following values must be filled in ALWAYS:
- Source: The source which the link comes from, for example Google (for Google Ads), Facebook, Linkedin (for both adverts and organic content) or newsletters.
- Medium: This value indicates what type of content it is. This can be, for example: post (for social media posts), video, CPC (for adverts), banner (if the UTM parameters are stored in a banner advert), etc.
Campaign Name: Here you can, for example, enter the name of an advertising campaign (christmas-sale) or the year and month in which the link was used first (23_11 or 23_KW48).
You can add suitable UTM parameters to your links in the Google Campaign URL Builder.
The other parameters are used to categorise the links even better. For example, you can include important keywords under Term and specify where exactly the link is used under Content. The latter is useful if, for example, you link to different content types such as buttons, images or text-only links in a newsletter.
Daniela has been working in the areas of (online) editing, social media and online marketing since 2008. At exali, she is particularly concerned with the following topics: Risks through digital platforms and social media, cyber dangers for freelancers and IT risk coverage.
In addition to her work as an online editor at exali, she works as a freelance editor and therefore knows the challenges of self-employment from her own experience.