Marimar Portilla (@mapoir) is a digital marketing and design consultant. Her experience highlights the development of commercial brands, publicity, public relations and the implementation of social media marketing. Currently, her research focuses on consumer engagement in online fashion brands communities. She aims to contribute to the understanding of consumer behaviour in the digital world.
Dr Rodrigo Perez-Vega (@rpvega) is a Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Henley Business School. His research focuses on how to make branded social media presence more engaging for customers. He has consulted companies on digital marketing and social media strategy in the UK, France, Spain and the Middle East.

Dark Social has become a major topic among marketing practitioners in the past years. The reason behind this is that marketers are realising that dark social behaviours are increasingly popular among consumers. In this article, we will look at what dark social is, and we’ll share some recommendations on how to leverage on this online behaviour.

The concept of Dark Social was introduced by Alexis Madrigal in 2012, and it refers to the behaviour that occurs in closed social communication channels that are rarely measured by analytics programmes. Dark Social communication is often untraceable and cannot be identified. For example, when someone finds some content interesting such as an article or a video they can simply copy and paste the link into an email or a message and send it. Since the user shared the link directly it won’t include a referral tag that can help identify the traffic source, hiding it instead as just direct traffic.  Examples of Dark Social also include:

  • Email
  • Instant Messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Snapchat, Skype and Facebook Messenger between consumers, and between consumers and the brand.
  • Native Mobile apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
  • Secure browsing: Changing from HTTPS (secure site) to HTTP (non-secure site)


The attention given to dark social is explained by its high incidence among online consumers. In fact, some reports have found that 84% of on-site shares happen via dark social channels.[1]  Therefore, knowing how to harness this type of communication can help companies to leverage on electronic word-of-mouth recommendations that can help increase the positive attitudes and purchase intentions of the products and services sold by the company.

How can SMEs leverage on dark social?

Just because dark social is hard to measure, it doesn’t mean that companies can’t run initiatives to promote this among their customers. Here are a few initiatives that can help your business take the first steps when it comes to dark social, and they range from the most basic, easy to implement ones to the more complex, yet promising ones that will soon become the standard:

Social sharing buttons. This is really a no-brainer, yet we still see many SMEs not adding sharing capabilities to key parts of their online presence. Facilitating the task of sharing via social media should be now a must for any business.

Up your email marketing game. Email marketing is normally an underrated tool for many SMEs. And this is not surprising since many business owners are accustomed to receiving tonnes of emails and not opening many of them. However, statistics show that email marketing has high engagement rates (in terms of click-through rates) in comparison to other digital channels, such as social media. Therefore, spending some time building a good data base for your customers can help your business. The key is to send e-mail responses at key points in the customer journey. The ultimate goal is not only to increase customer satisfaction but also to generate initiatives customers want to share with their network through these channels. Referral promotions work quite well in this type of channel.

Chat bots – We’re already hearing more about the potential of chat bots for enhancing your customer relationship management system. This is also by far one of the most interactive ways to leverage on dark social activities. Chat bots are usually powered by rules and sometimes artificial intelligence, and customers interact with them via a chat interface. Automating part or all of your interactions at different touch points can help you engage with your customers in a more meaningful way. In addition, evidence finds that online users are using more messaging apps than social networking sites, thus having a presence in these environments will soon become a must. The first thing you need to consider when developing your chat bot tool is to define what problem this tool will solve. Will the chat bot inform customers when they are ready to buy? Will it provide feedback on delivery times? Ideally, you want to focus on steps in the journey that are a common cause of dissatisfaction among your customers. Looking at online reviews about your product or service can be a good source of inspiration. Once you have defined this the next steps are more technical. Choosing the platform (e.g. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, regular text messages) and finding a developer to create your tools would be the next step. Freelance platforms can give you access to developers at an affordable budget, however, there’s always the risk of ensuring the developer has the experience to do what he or she says will do. Some established brands like IBM also offer pre-made tools that allow customising a chat bot up to a certain degree. This is more a matter of budget and familiarity of the business owner in developing digital artefacts.

[1] RadiumOne (2016). The Dark Side of Mobile Sharing. Available from:

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