A large part of the job of social media editor is optimising how content is shared across various social media channels to get it in front of as many people as possible. But how do you do that when you can’t see how the content is being shared?

Evidence is growing that large amounts of sharing happen on so-called “dark” channels such as instant messaging, email and text messages.

That makes it harder to track how an article is making it from one person to the next. It also strips out the ability to control how an article is presented, as on dark channels it will normally just appear as a URL. 

Those factors on their own make dark social a tricky area to address, but there’s another, perhaps bigger issue for publishers – the psychology of dark social is very different. 

How widespread is dark social?

The scale of the challenge presented by dark social was recently underlined by a whitepaper from enterprise advertising analyst RadiumOne. Of the 9,000-plus people surveyed across the five regions that took part in the study, 93 percent of those who share content online did so through dark social channels. Perhaps more surprisingly, 32 percent of those surveyed said they exclusively shared content through dark social channels. Those that did so were more likely to be older than those who used a combination of the two.


Additionally, research from RadiumOne’s short url tool Po.st (roughly analogous to bit.ly) showed that 69 percent of all sharing activity for each piece of content shared using Po.st took place through dark social channels. By comparison, 23 percent of the sharing of that same content was done on Facebook, which leaves only eight percent of sharing for other social channels. 

Obviously, there are caveats with this data. The sharing study mentioned above took place between the 1st and 28th of August, the sample size for the Tpoll section was a questionnaire of just over 9,000 people in five countries (UK, US, France, Australia and ‘Europe’) and the second part of the study only looked at the Po.st URLs. Unsurprisingly, the results subtly indicate that managing dark social would be easier with, say, a RadiumOne analytics product.

What you are in the dark

Even so, the data shared by RadiumOne gives some indication of the type of content that is most shared on dark social, which in turn offers insight into why people do so.

Often, the type of content shared most often on dark social is of a sensitive nature which someone might be unwilling to broadcast to everyone in their social networks. “Career” content, for instance, is the second-most frequently shared on dark social at 83 percent of the total sharing, since actively broadcasting information about jobs you’re applying for could jeopardise your existing employment. Similarly high are education, religion and spirituality and education content, which could be considered more personal than other topics. 

In contrast, the type of content least shared on dark social channels is related to pets, a whopping 81 percent of which is shared on Facebook.

The most popular type of content shared on dark social in the Po.st study was related to ‘arts and entertainment’, which tallies with a similar study done earlier this year by IPC Media (in collaboration with RadiumOne), which claimed that people with niche interests (which in this case would be film genre, or fandom of a particular television show, creator or actor) are more likely to share that content with people they already know to occupy the same niche.

The narrowcast model of dark social sharing makes more sense when discussing a specific topic than does sharing it with a wider network, a large chunk of which might not be interested.

Public Image

The contrast between dark and light social is intrinsically about what you want to say about your personality to different people.

A big part of the success of publishers such as BuzzFeed and UsVsTh3m is down to their ability to create content that people share in order to shape their public image among their friends or followers on social media.

A prime example is UsVsTh3m’s How Much Are You Hated by the Daily Mail? game. People shared it not because it was a great game, but because it was a way of publicly say ‘I do not agree with the Daily Mail’s world view’. 

But dark social is much more targeted. If you’re sharing with a specific individual or small group, you are using that content to tailor your image in the eyes of just those people. 

It’s the difference between what you’ll tell your best friend and what you’ll say loudly at a party.

Engagement vs broadcast

So should publishers care about dark social?

Despite Radium One’s stats on the proportion of sharing acts that take place via dark channels, the nature of dark social means each share is going to have a far smaller potential reach, often just one-to-one.

That means dark social is effectively another narrowing of the way content is distributed. We’ve seen the movement from mass broadcast down to sharing through an individual’s networks, now we’re seeing distribution to individually chosen recipients.

That matters as most online publishers are still looking to reach as many people as possible and drive traffic to their websites or apps in order to drive display advertising revenue. Dark social is a significant part of that – just ask the Guardian – but it’s not going to have the same impact on traffic as something shared on Facebook, Twitter or any other more public social media.

However, the psychology of sharing with a more specific group of people could have other benefits because it’s more targeted and personal nature means it will be more relevant and more trusted. 

The question for most publishers will be the one the Wall Street Journal’s EMEA social media editor Sarah Marshall posed in our recent piece on social media metrics:

“Are you wanting to achieve clickthroughs, or are you wanting to give people a service?”

The importance of dark social will depend very much on which of those two goals you want each piece of content to achieve.