Internet users are getting more sophisticated with their digital behavior, especially in terms of expressing themselves online. Take peer-to-peer (P2P) social platforms, for instance — networks designed for IM chats. 

These networks can make conversations harder to discover, leading to Dark Social — web traffic that is not attributed to a specific measured source.   

Dark social can be described as the social sharing of content outside of what web analytic programs can measure. It's made analysts less comfortable with the ways they commonly measure like or dislike for their brand.

Hard to Track

Conversations on peer-to-peer social networks are growing. Every day Snapchat users send 700 million messages (called “snaps”) according to The Guardian.

Snapchat competitors such as Wickr and Kik vie for users in various markets with unique offerings.

Kik, for example, does not require a phone for use. Wickr is associated with maintaining secured chats and arose from the recent US National Security Agency scandals.   

When these ephemeral posts contain comments regarding a product or service, users tend to drive site traffic and retail activity without a clear connection that can be directly analyzed.

Enter Dark Social. The phrase was first coined when an analysis of website traffic at The Atlantic revealed as much as half of the visits came from untagged sources. To understand the mechanics behind the dark social issue, you have to understand the benefit from analytics tag usage to appreciate the challenge.

Most businesses interested in measuring referral traffic appends an analytics campaign tag to the URL link of a piece of content – an image, a link to a YouTube video, etc. This makes the content measurable whenever it’s shared.   

Lost Content

Dark Social links, however, usually do not contain the tags that trigger attribution for analytics. Common Dark Social examples include links copied and pasted into email, instant messages or posts without the tracking tags. 

Most P2P users overlook the tags or share content without using a tagged URL. This counters with Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter where people typically share links with the tag.

An additional challenge comes from the transitory nature of P2P chats.

They are meant to be instant messages, so their existence is short lived.  Compare that to a Facebook post, in which a person can discover a post days later depending on the news feed of a given person. 

As a light example, I posted videos of my drive to an Atlanta business conference a week ago. Even today I am still seeing Facebook likes and receiving Facebook Messenger IMs from people who just saw the video post.  

In contrast, P2P messages are designed for quick viewing and thus do not fully attain a significant impression reach that is easily measured.

Can It Be Tracked?

The result is continuous unmeasured product and brand mentions that occur outside of a structure analytics plan.  Those mentions could help businesses better understand customer concerns and create new solutions for those concerns.

Recent developments indicate better measures are on the way. In March Adweek reported Kik targeting tools to support Promoted Chats, a branding feature to let marketers engage more deeply.

Some companies are learning best practices to address Dark Social.  

Burger King offers the most promising example. Burger King dedicated research to understand how customers commented on its burgers and sandwiches. 

When it discovered comments on its chicken fries, Burger King developed an emoji dashboard app so users can share their interests. The emoji encourage conversations to start at a point from which Burger King can best measure an implied response.    

Burger King’s experience reflects significant digital marketing takeaways.  One analytics takeaway is that the value in identifying referral traffic and attribution sources should never be overlooked. Being able to read such traffic gives a business an idea of how it is being shared through its content.   

Burger King’s emoji solution also implies the importance of opt-in to maintain meaningful privacy clues from a consumer-facing business. 

While Facebook posts are open, P2P networks have treated chats as private conversations. 

So a successful marketing strategy on Snapchat positions privacy maintenance as a priority among users. Burger King’s solution strikes a balance between gaining more insights while allowing users the choice to opt out and maintain privacy.  

Dark Social has heightened the quest to understand brand sentiment and customer experience from outside of a brand’s direct influence. That quest is altering the value of metrics and refining app analytics, since P2P networks are usually accessed via apps.

If a refined analysis can connect Dark Social commentary to brand sentiment, then the rise of peer to peer networks will culminate the economic value of social media that has been long promised since the IPOs of Facebook and Twitter.  

Wall Street interest in a future IPO of Snapchat confirms the economic potential, so the spotlight on P2P networks and Dark Social measurement does not look to dim anytime soon. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License Title image by Craig Sunter.

Simpler Media Group, 2015