Remember the quote of debatable origins that goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing), "I know half of my advertising works. I just don’t know which half."
The conversation around the "dark funnel" is giving B2B marketing a similar identity crisis.
The carefully constructed and measurable B2B buying funnel is not as linear and clear-cut as marketers would like to think. There are multiple nonlinear touchpoints, that we cannot control, influence or measure, but which significantly impact the buying decision. And they make up 75% or more of the path to purchase. All such unknowable, unmeasurable, un-influenceable touchpoints are, in a nutshell, the "dark funnel."
Naysayers say what can’t be measured can’t be managed or improved. Supporters say it’s a part of the buying process, accept it or not. So, what’s an already overwhelmed B2B marketer to do?
My money is on the "don’t ignore it" camp. If you embrace the dark funnel, then you have a shot at understanding it, and indeed, making it less unknowable, uninfluenceable and even perhaps less unmeasurable.
As Paul Slack, founder and CEO of B2B digital marketing agency Vende Digital wrote in a recent LinkedIn article, the dark funnel and dark social are simply where buyers learn to buy. He added not to be afraid of the dark funnel, but adapt instead and recommended becoming part of the learning and discovery journey by educating buyers with social posts, community, monthly Zoom meetings and podcasts.
To help understand the dark funnel, I dove into — (where else?) — the dark social. I trawled dozens of conversations, comments and resources to pick these three questions you should be asking if you want to better understand, influence and measure your own dark funnel in 2023.
1. Does Our Organization Have a Clear Understanding of the Dark Funnel?
Two areas of confusion emerged repeatedly across conversations on this topic.
Does the Dark Funnel Mean Word-of-Mouth?
The dark funnel is not just word-of-mouth (WoM). It is also ads people see but don’t click on, podcast mentions that they later Google, or event sponsorships, swag and conversations filed away in the prospect’s mind for a later time.
But WoM matters too. Perhaps more than ever in an age when it’s become hard for prospects to tell what’s an advertisement and what’s real, unbiased feedback. People trust other people over brands, but the nature of "known and trusted" has changed. Digital WoM is often "one-to-many" conversations on social or private channels, communities, Q&A forums, webinars and events, product review sites, webinar chat boxes and so on. The enabling space for this digital WoM is the dark funnel.
Is Dark Social the Same as the Dark Funnel?
Chris Walker, founder and CEO of Refine Labs, makes a clear distinction. He calls "dark social" the places where "everyone in B2B hangs out right now" — communities such as Pavilion, Peak and DGMG; internal company communication platforms like Slack and Discord channels, private channels and closed Facebook groups; third-party events and meetups, social platforms, podcasts, etc.
In dark social, the buyer is likely not yet "ready to buy" but is soaking in peer-to-peer learning. Together, via discussions, shares, DMs and content consumption, people are discovering problems, opportunities, solutions and products, evaluating their own performance, learning how others are solving similar problems and so much more. “The dark social does not show obvious intent. But if you are waiting for intent signals to start your engagement and nurturing, you are already too late,” said Walker.
So where does the dark funnel begin? After spending a long period on dark social, when learning, shortlisting and evaluation have already happened, people often transition to the dark funnel. They then come to organic search and review sites — aka the dark funnel, and finally on to your website. This shows up as "direct traffic," "other sources" and "organic search traffic" on your Google Analytics reports.
Note that this is not a linear transition — prospects may weave in and out of both for a long time before they respond to any inbound marketing tactic if they do at all.
Expert tip: On an episode of the Demand Gen Live podcast, Chris Walker highlights a common mistake — not recognizing that much of their site traffic has already been through the dark social and the dark funnel. That means knowledgeable visitors are automatically pushed into nurture workflows when in reality, this prospect is close to a decision.
What can you do instead? Replace standard form fills and nurtures with bot-powered contextual conversations to give each visitor what they want at that moment. I came across The Bot Lab's Helium platform, which claims to let advertisers have contextual conversations with readers right on the publisher’s page, instead of having to click out with an ad link. Ungated bottom-funnel content also helps makes it easier and friction-free for prospects to ask for a trial or demo.
Related Article: Have Martech and Marketing Become Synonymous?
2. How Can I Better Integrate Dark Funnel Traffic Into My Attribution and Analytics?
Attribution has its challenges, but it’s still one of the most powerful tools for revenue-driven marketers. You can’t give up on it — especially when revenue attribution and intelligence solutions are getting smarter by the day, several with the capability to track full-funnel customer journeys (and not just individual contacts or accounts).
At the same time, ignoring what dark social and the dark funnel have to tell us is impractical. In this LinkedIn post, Ryan Reisert of Phone Ready Leads shares how a comment left on another post received just about 22 engagements on LinkedIn. On the same day, the company's website traffic showed a 10 times surge. A clear indicator of the impact dark social can have on web traffic, but which will show up as "direct traffic" on the analytics.
Here are some ways to get a better understanding of the dark funnel:
Correlate: if direct traffic or organic search is going up, understand what could be causing those spikes. Have you sponsored a podcast or event recently that had a lot of listens?
- Set your conversational intelligence platforms such as Gong, Chorus or Outreach to listen for dark funnel keywords such as "podcast" or "LinkedIn," and set your CRM to mark these as "dark funnel" sources.
- Connect social monitoring tools such as Oktopost or Meltwater to your CRM to track brand mentions and other solution or category-related keywords to track spikes.
- Get paid subscriptions to review sites for more insights into who reviewed your products or category. When combined with other intent data, this may provide stronger context and signals.
- Sort out your UTM processes. Missed or messed up UTM codes often end up unleashing a big dump of "other" or "direct" traffic, especially if hundreds of campaigns leading to hundreds of landing pages are on in parallel. A solid UTM workflow narrows the dark funnel by ensuring as much traffic as possible is tagged to the right source.
- Institutionalize a self-reported attribution process. Ask mid and late-stage prospects, converted customers, and even churned customers how they heard about you and why they chose your brand. Make it scalable with onboarding and off-boarding microsurveys.
Do these enough times, with a consistent process, and patterns will start to emerge about dark sources that are helping generate demand. Declan Mulkeen, CEO of Strategic ABM, who calls it the dark iceberg in his viral LinkedIn post, reminds us that our B2B marketing metrics need a better balance between what can and cannot be seen.
Expert tip: in this post titled "Why B2B revenue attribution is broken," B2B marketing leader Naseef KPO shares the reasons why single-touch, first-and-last touch and multitouch attribution models are all problematic. The issue, he says, is that most of them “focus on demand capture alone and not demand creation or generation,” referring to the dark social and dark funnel. Instead, he suggests a 'mixed attribution model' composed of:
- The hybrid attribution model, which focuses on a combination of self-reported attribution and software-based attribution.
- The influencer attribution method, where you look at the contribution of multiple demand capture channels and attribute revenue proportionately.
The core principle of this approach, KPO added, is to separate demand generation and demand capture channels and attribute revenue among these channels in such a way that “you are able to come up with the right budget allocation for future marketing activities.”
Ultimately, marketing strategy should be based on where customers are, not which channels can be measured. Even Google is moving away from last-click attribution toward an intelligent data-driven system.
Related Article: The Secret to B2B Marketing? It’s Just a Game of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’
3. What Mindset Shifts Can Help Leverage Dark Funnel Insights Better?
Mindset is a key part of winning the dark funnel. Needless to say, dark social, dark web and almost all B2B marketing itself today should be not about selling, but about helping people buy.
You cannot track the dark social or the dark funnel 100 percent, so stop focusing on that. Instead, focus on how you can best be a part of it and influence it by providing genuine value.
Train employees to fan out across dark social and amplify — without selling — that value, with meaningful insights, comments and content about the category, problem and solution rather than the brand. When it comes to communities, do not think of prospects as "us" and "them." Instead, be a member of the community, giving and taking value from it.
To drive leadership buy-in and help sales open more doors, track and share screen-shots of useful engagements and DMs, including those of competitors. The currency here is not conversion, but attention and engagement from the right people.
Expert tip: In this episode of Insightly’s Closing Time podcast, Shama Hyder, founder and CEO of Zen Media, makes a great case for why marketers should spend more time on dark social and the dark funnel. The problem, she says, is a marketers’ work today is more about working on known intent. They end up as an on-demand collateral factory for sales, churning out white papers and brochures for the 5% of people already showing intent and ready to buy.
Instead, marketing should focus on creating demand. They should be on dark social and dark funnel channels, interacting with the 95% of potential customers who are not yet "ready to buy," but are in the process of learning, collaborating and evaluating with peers. That is where the real opportunity to create demand exists. But you can’t rush it. When it comes to creating value and engagement on dark social, Hyder advised, play the long game.
Like all great marketing, content, conversations, context and connections are the key to getting the most out of the dark funnel as well.