We Studied 11 million Social Shares: Here’s What We Found

We’re entering a new era of social sharing — one that will affect bloggers, publishers, and content creators across the world.

In this new era, people are growing tired of oversharing — instead of broadcasting their opinions across all social media channels, they rather engage in private discussions with smaller groups. That’s why more people are ditching one-to-many channels like Facebook and Twitter for one-to-one or one-to-few channels like Snapchat and WhatsApp.

According to a report from Warc, a marketing research firm, private messaging has already eclipsed open sharing, making up more than 80% of all social activity. Moreover, Pew Research found that millennials have embraced private sharing even more than other age groups, some “opting out of the online public square” completely.

That’s all well and good for the user. But it poses a major problem for publishers: How do they track these private shares?

For the most part, publishers can use share buttons, which are planted on their sites. Readers can use sharing tools to share their favorite stories in just a few clicks, and all that data is automatically collected by the publisher.

The bad news is that there is a hidden category of private shares that aren’t easy to track — the mysterious dark social shares. These shares occur when a user copies and pastes a link onto a social channel instead of using a share button. In other words, these social sharing activities would fly under the radar from publishers’ tracking systems.

When you add dark social to the mix, social sharing categories now look like this:

Image via ShareThis.com
  • Open social sharing: Using trackable share buttons to share posts on open social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
  • Private social sharing
    • Closed social sharing: Using trackable share buttons to share posts on closed social platforms like WhatsApp, email, and SMS text
    • Dark social sharing: Copying and pasting links to any social platform

In a new report from ShareThis, we used our javascript code to track 11 million shares via open, closed, and dark social sharing. This gave us a unique glimpse into how users share in public vs. in private.

Here’s a taste of what we found.

Topic Categories

Unsurprisingly, people tend to privately share content that tackles more intimate and personal subject matters. And they save “water-cooler” content for sharing on open channels.

This is illustrated by how people share content across these three content categories:

  • People and society
    • Private social: People are more likely to privately share content about religious study, human rights, and self-help.
    • Open social: People are more likely to openly share content about ethics and same-sex marriage.
  • Jobs and education
    • Private social:  People are more likely to privately share content about standardized tests and admissions tests, job listings, as well as resumes and portfolios.
    • Open social: People are more likely to openly share content about colleges, universities, and study abroad programs.
  • Law and government
    • Private social: People are more likely to privately share content about bankruptcy, unemployment, counseling, and social services.
    • Open social: People are more likely to openly share content about law enforcement, counter-terrorism, as well as visas and immigration.

What this tells you about your audience

Private sharing doesn’t just encompass a few topics. People share a wide range of content on closed and dark channels. And these shares can reveal a great deal about what they want, need, and find interesting.

What this tells you about your strategy

If you’re not tracking private shares, you may not even know about many of your audience’s interests. For example, you may think no one is sharing your content about religion, human rights, and social services when they actually are — it’s just that they’re sharing via email and text, and you haven’t had the ability to track them. Understanding private shares can transform your strategy and your view of your audience in surprising ways.


In the U.S., more densely populated areas such as New England and the East Coast share more contently privately. And more rural areas like Wyoming, Missouri, and New Mexico share more content on open channels.

Image via ShareThis.com

Going further, we isolated our US data by university towns and traditionally conservative cities. We found that people in university towns like Cambridge, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor are more likely to utilize dark social sharing. In fact, here’s the breakdown of shares from these towns:

  • Open social: 20.24%
  • Priva social
    • Closed: 3.85%
    • Dark: 75.91%

On the other hand, people in more conservative cities like Jacksonville and Oklahoma City are more likely to share openly:

  • Open social: 47.49%
  • Priva social
    • Closed: 3.20%
    • Dark: 49.31%

What this tells you about your audience

Readers located in more rural or conservative areas are more likely to share content on open channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, readers in more populated, university-centered, or liberal areas are more likely to share on private channels such as email, SMS text, and WhatsApp.

What this tells you about your strategy

If you run a local news publication or offer localized content, it’s important to consider these distinctions. For instance, if you cater to readers in more densely populated areas, it could be crucial to have private sharing buttons on your site. This will empower your readers to share content on platforms such as email and WhatsApp.

Inside the Second Era of Social Sharing

Consumers are already ushering in a new era of social sharing — one where they can share one-to-one instead of one-to-many. Publishers need the right tools to track them in order to unearth the hidden gems in private sharing and better understand how readers spread their favorite content.

The data above is just the tip of the iceberg. In our new report, we find out how people use dark, closed, and open sharing across different content categories, countries, events, and even days of the week.

Download it now to uncover this new era of social sharing.

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