Shining the Light On Dark Social

Shining the Light On Dark Social

7 minute read
Tom Murphy avatar

You do it. We all do. You see an interesting story and share the URL with afriend. Or maybe you just copy a couple of sentences and paste that into anemail.

You're just being social. But for the publisher, that's known as dark socialbecause it results in traffic that comes from unknown sources.

LuisAguilar has been on the trail of dark social for about three years now as aproduct manager for, anoffshoot of  programmatic advertising agency RadiumOne. offers tools that help publishers track that traffic.

Illuminating the Issue


We caught up with him after his presentation to the Digital PublishingInnovation Conference earlier this month in San Francisco and asked him to shine a littlelight onto dark social.

CMSWire: How do you define dark social?

Aguilar: Dark social can be described as the social sharing of contentoutside of what web analytic programs can measure. It's personal social sharingsuch as copying text from sites through media such as email, IM or saved Worddocuments.

CMSWire: How can a publisher track that?

Aguilar: For the most part publishers put sharing buttons on their websites. You have your Facebook, your Google Plus, your Twitter andthat's the standard sharing. We call that light social. The dark social is thecopying of text. The only way you're able to track that is through theimplementation of software. We have that software and there are other servicesthat provide that software. It isn't something you can organically starttracking.

CMSWire: What proportion of sharing gets lost that way?

Aguilar: We recently did a white paper on dark social, globally andregionally. Globally, we're finding that 69 percent of all online content isbeing shared through dark social. So that's a big number -- nearlythree-quarters of online users sharing through the address bar or copying textfrom the site and sharing that through personal private message, like email orIM or saving it in Word doc. 

It's a big deal. A lot of publishers are missing out on true contentvirality. If you're an editor and you have 1,000 shares from an article, inreality you have nearly 3,300 shares because you weren't properly trackingcopied text and the address bar, which are social actions. So it really helps toconfirm for the editor that they're doing a great job. It's also helpful forsponsored content or native advertising. It says, yes, you have a lot of socialactions. It helps in many different ways. 

CMSWire: How exactly do you track that?

Aguilar: From the technical aspect, it's a line of code that we canprovide. We give it to your developer. The developer adds it to the site's code.And that's pretty much it. It understands what we want to track. 

CMSWire: And if someone then shares a small part of the story, asnippet, is it going to be tracked that way?

Aguilar: If it has our dark social sharing software, yes. What we'regoing to be able to track is not only if the user is copying a paragraph andwhat article page it's on, but when they paste it somewhere -- for example, ifI'm sharing in an email to a friend -- we're able to provide the person that'sreceiving it with an attribution link. That sources the original article in alink. That way, the person receiving it can click on the link and go back to thesource article.

CMSWire: So if you cut and paste from an article and send it to me,there is a link in your email?

Aguilar: Yes, there's a link underneath the quote. That way, if you'requoting something, the person can click on that link, go back to the site andread the rest of the article, or at least know where the article is sourcedtoo.  The sender can delete that if they'd like. Publishers really love it,brands really love it, because it provides more users back to their sites.

These are all optional features. So if that's something a publisher does notwant, we can cross that out of the line of code we provide and we can just trackcopy-to-X activity. But we want to provide an attribution link -- and we'reasked to by many publishers -- to get more users back to their sites.

CMSWire: What about the sender and recipient? Are they tracked as well?Do you capture the email addresses?

Learning Opportunities

Aguilar: We only collect anonymous data. In terms of cookies and data,we never collect personally identifying information. It's the IP address kind ofstuff. So we'll just say that user ID 3267 copied text from this sportsarticle.  

CMSWire: Still, you get the IP?

Aguilar: Yes, but we don't know anything but the cookie behavior andwhere they've visited. It's just user 123 kind of thing. This is how we can usethat for advertising purposes and finding the right ad for that person based offof his cookie matching and sharing behaviors and social passions that he's into.If the user they're sharing the story with clicks on that attribution link, wecan not only get them back to the site, but [we can] cookie that person as wellfor the use of the website. So the site can track and analyze all thisinformation coming in, whether it's a share or a click.

CMSWire: How many companies are making tools for dark social?

Aguilar: In terms of dark social, I would say, four or five well-knowncompetitors. Again, we track sharing buttons, copy-paste activity and we tracklink-shorteners. These can all be attributed to dark social in one way oranother. There are companies that do one of each. We offer a complete suite.

CMSWire: What proportion of publishers are using your tool?

Aguilar: Currently over 100,000 sites -- quality sites -- are using us.We work a little differently in that we actively pursue sites to use our tools,whether it's tracking dark social specifically or through the sharing buttons.Our team actively pursues the sites to help gather that data and analytics, tohelp them prepare themselves.

CMSWire: How do you make money? Do you charge for this?

Aguilar: is completely free -- always has been, always will be.There are services out there that will eventually charge for this, but we'veprovided this free service with the idea that maybe they'd like to use theRadium One side of the business to advertise based on the data we're collectingfor them. For example, say website A is using our sharing tool and link shortener.We're providing them with analytics and reports on all their social behavior.But they also have the opportunity to use that fist-party social data that isbeing collected for them and turn that into an advertising opportunity. 

Say Canon wants to reach the photo enthusiasts on your site. We can gatherthat data from all the digital points we're seeing on your site, whether mobile,web or tablet. We're able to amplify that and get them targeted outside of yoursite with a Canon ad. That's the way we generate revenue with the softwarefor these brands and publishers. That's how we really make money.

CMSWire: What other stats have you gathered?

Aguilar: Well, 39 percent of dark social is occurring on mobile. Somobile is affected, they're not immune to this. As users grow in their use ofmobile devices, so will dark social aspect of it.

Also there are different verticals that are affected differently by darksocial. Some might be 40 percent dark social, others may see 80 percent. Itreally fluctuates depending on the site and the content. For example, sports isabout 40 percent of dark social, and 60 percent light, through sharing buttons.People really like to talk about their teams and spread it on social media ...With autos, it about 80 percent with dark social and finance is about 70percent.

Title image by Christian Arballo  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

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