Dark social sounds menacing, like a bad guy from a comic book or a low-budget science fiction action movie. But the reality isn’t a sexy or as dangerous as it sounds.

Dark social refers to the practice of sharing content privately. When your cardholders or fans cut and paste a link to one of your blog posts, or cut and paste a social media post, or write an entirely new post without tagging you or sharing your post, that’s dark social.

It’s happening to your library more often that you realize. A June 2016 report from RadiumOne shows 82 percent of the blog posts and web content shared on mobile devices falls under the category of dark social. People are sharing your stuff, but instead of retweeting or quoting your tweets, they writing their own unique messages in apps, email, or text.

Dark social came up in an American Library Association panel discussion I had with Dana Braccia of Library Systems & Services, LLC, and Kim Crowder of the Indianapolis Public Library. One of our fantastic audience members asked us about dark social and how we handle it.

My answer was… I don’t.

Sure, dark social is frustrating for marketers because we can’t see what’s being said about us on all platforms (admit it, you obsessively check for mentions of your library in Google Alerts and on the Twitter timeline). We aren’t in control of the narrative. We see that people are coming to our website or blog but we don’t know where the traffic originates. We might see an uptick in use of a service or in circulation of a particular item and we can’t figure out why it’s happening.

Is this really a bad thing? Do we need to create a process for dealing with it? I don’t think so. Any kind of sharing of any content is good for your library. If your cardholders are fans and are sharing news and information about you and your services privately, then so be it.  Although it’s lovely to be able to precisely track all web content, libraries are not under the same ROI obligations as our friends in the for-profit business world. We benefit from any kind of web traffic. I don’t think it’s as much of a problem for libraries as it is for consumer brands, nor do I think it’s happening as often as the data shows in the RadiumOne survey above. This is a subjective observation based on my analysis of web traffic to our site.

I did a lot of research to make sure my hunch about this was right. I looked for articles on dark social, all published within the last year, from well-established marketing expert websites (the best were this one and this one). And it’s clear that this is a big worry for companies, particularly those with a funnel model for sales. If you read those posts, you’ll notice the authors suggest that companies create partnerships with platforms like WhatsApp and Snapchat to help communicate their brand message and keep the conversation within their brand’s control. Those partnerships are tricky and expensive and I didn’t see any evidence that they’ve worked for anyone, and I’m certain it’s not worth the time or money for your library.

You can use short links and Google tracking URL’s to help track the source of your web traffic. And you can make sure that you embed social media sharing buttons on your website to make it easy for library cardholders to share your stuff on social and through email. And you should make sure your library’s unique branch voice is clearly a part of everything you create. You can create unique graphics to go with each piece of content and those graphics can be branded so that anytime they are shared, their original source–you–is clearly visible. That’s about all you can do, my friends. Beyond that… you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Don’t worry about dark social so much. Libraries are blessed that this is another instance in which the worries of the profit consumer market don’t apply to us.

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