Shining the Light On Dark Social

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

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

Luis Aguilar has been on the trail of dark social for about three years now as a product manager for, an offshoot of  programmatic advertising agency Radium One. offers tools that help publishers track that traffic.

Illuminating the Issue


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

CMSWire: How do you define dark social?

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

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 and that's the standard sharing. We call that light social. The dark social is the copying of text. The only way you're able to track that is through the implementation of software. We have that software and there are other services that provide that software. It isn't something you can organically start tracking.

CMSWire: What proportion of sharing gets lost that way?

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

It's a big deal. A lot of publishers are missing out on true content virality. If you're an editor and you have 1,000 shares from an article, in reality you have nearly 3,300 shares because you weren't properly tracking copied text and the address bar, which are social actions. So it really helps to confirm for the editor that they're doing a great job. It's also helpful for sponsored content or native advertising. It says, yes, you have a lot of social actions. 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 can provide. 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, a snippet, is it going to be tracked that way?

Aguilar: If it has our dark social sharing software, yes. What we're going to be able to track is not only if the user is copying a paragraph and what article page it's on, but when they paste it somewhere -- for example, if I'm sharing in an email to a friend -- we're able to provide the person that's receiving it with an attribution link. That sources the original article in a link. That way, the person receiving it can click on the link and go back to the source 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're quoting something, the person can click on that link, go back to the site and read the rest of the article, or at least know where the article is sourced too.  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 not want, we can cross that out of the line of code we provide and we can just track copy-to-X activity. But we want to provide an attribution link -- and we're asked 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?

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

CMSWire: Still, you get the IP?

Aguilar: Yes, but we don't know anything but the cookie behavior and where they've visited. It's just user 123 kind of thing. This is how we can use that for advertising purposes and finding the right ad for that person based off of 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, we can not only get them back to the site, but [we can] cookie that person as well for the use of the website. So the site can track and analyze all this information 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-known competitors. Again, we track sharing buttons, copy-paste activity and we track link-shorteners. These can all be attributed to dark social in one way or another. 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, to help 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've provided this free service with the idea that maybe they'd like to use the Radium One side of the business to advertise based on the data we're collecting for 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 is being collected for them and turn that into an advertising opportunity. 

Say Canon wants to reach the photo enthusiasts on your site. We can gather that 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 your site with a Canon ad. That's the way we generate revenue with the software for 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. So mobile is affected, they're not immune to this. As users grow in their use of mobile devices, so will dark social aspect of it.

Also there are different verticals that are affected differently by dark social. Some might be 40 percent dark social, others may see 80 percent. It really fluctuates depending on the site and the content. For example, sports is about 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 70 percent.

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