Feds Shed Light on Dark Social

Oct 19, 2012

“Dark Social” media took the web by storm this week, unveiling to many the shadows in measuring your social media impact. This accounts for the majority of your traffic and yet lives untraced where standard metrics fear to tread (or simply cannot) — places like email and instant messaging.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, proposed last week in a post:

“The sharing you see on sites like Facebook and Twitter is the tip of the ‘social’ iceberg. We are impressed by its scale because it’s easy to measure. But most sharing is done via dark social means like email and IM that are difficult to measure.”

It’s true. Too often it’s the harder-to-find and more nuanced metrics that best tell the story of your program.

Our office maintains a number of email listservs, internal ideation platforms, and yes, traditional social media channels. Much of this content was lumped in one broad and undefined metric: direct traffic.

We knew there was more to the story.

On one side, the conversions reported from URL shorteners were far greater than what was reported as social traffic on our basic web analytics tools.

On the other side was a heap of undefined direct traffic treated as if it came out of nowhere.

A basic solution I call the “social string approach” can help any agency cast light on this hidden world that drives our social media performance. It is surprisingly simple and freely available to agencies:

1. Define a test period to accurately monitor. How often do you do post content on social media, and on how many channels? The more complex your strategic operations the more time you want to dedicate to testing. Our teams often contribute to listservs and other channels once a week, so we set our test period at three weeks in order to collect a meaningful sample.

2. Create tracking URLs. Many agencies already use Go.USA.gov to shorten their URLs and track conversions, but we’re taking it a step farther. Social string approach asks you to split that conversion metric into more targeted brackets, with a different tracking link for every form of social and dark social you engage in:

One for Facebook, one for Twitter, one that sits on your video channel description, one for external email (like a listserv), one for each internal email and sharing among colleagues.

As a result, you can monitor the strings of engagement that impact your performance outcomes.

3. Monitor and report the conversions for each URL. You’re looking at one piece of content, but you’re tracking the individual performance of all the ways you launched it into the social space.

Is the content you’re sending to one list of 20 people getting more than 400 conversions on average, so what looks like limited engagement is really an important social contributor?

Watch and find out.

4. Compare the ratios between performance for each channel with metrics like Direct Traffic. No tool is perfect and they’ll rarely match up, but you can adjust based on overall trends identified across the board. This is where the analysis of metrics comes in and not just reporting.

5. Adjust your social media strategies and periodically repeat process to spot trends. As always, use your findings to revise your strategies — and chances are, the outcome of this exercise will make you want to rethink and adjust.

Then start the process again to gauge its effectiveness and evolve with your customers.

Also, as Mathew Ingram highlights in a follow-up post:

“The only real way to optimize for social spread is in the nature of the content itself. There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages. There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand.”

Understanding nuances, like what drives direct traffic, is a challenge we’ve long noticed in our ongoing efforts to improve our web performance metrics.

We look forward to discussing dark social and government strategy more during our weekly office hours for feds via Google Hangout, and on the #SocialGov hashtag.

For more information, follow the Federal Social Media Community of Practice and its 12-agency Social Media Performance Metrics Working Group.\