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As the use of analytics tools has grown with the evolution of the marketing tech stack, so has the hunger for data-driven marketing. Marketers are on a constant quest to prove the value of their efforts, and show direct connections to sales and revenue, especially when it comes to time and money spent on social media. Chasing attribution and maximizing the value of every dollar spent is the key to optimizing your marketing strategy. Right? 

But what about the effects of marketing that can’t be measured? How do we understand the value of conversations between friends or colleagues? Private exchanges on messaging apps? 

In this blog, we’ll dive into what dark social is, its role in B2B marketing, and how to implement a plan that reveals how dark social is affecting metrics to make better-informed marketing decisions. 

What is dark social? 

Ever experienced this scenario?

A friend admires your new shoes: “Those are great! Where’d you get them?” 

After you tell them, and answer questions about how you like them, they ask you to send them a link.  

Typically you’re not going to go to one of the shoe company’s social media accounts, find a post about the ones you bought, and then share it publicly to your friend’s page. If that happened, it would be super easy for the shoe company to measure. 

One share, one link clicked, tagged for social media. Chalk up that sale to organic social, right? 

Except that’s not how it works. Instead, you’ll send your friend a link via text or a messaging app. The sale will be attributed to direct traffic. Even if you did share a social link, should the sale really be attributed to social media marketing? The buyer discovered the shoes based on word of mouth. 

This is how people share, and it’s difficult to measure. What looks like someone arriving at your site through direct traffic in Google Analytics was really a customer referral via dark social traffic. Even if the person doesn’t purchase right away, they may be hit with retargeting ads from your company. When those get a click or a purchase, the engagement is again attributed to a campaign that really wasn’t the first touch. 

The graph above shows the weekly source/medium breakdown for a B2B website in Google Analytics. If this looks familiar, you’re not alone, and dark social is no doubt a factor in such a large proportion of direct traffic.

This is dark social. Social sharing that takes place through WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, private messaging, text messages, instant messaging, email, other private channels, and word-of-mouth exchanges. According to Adidas Vice President of Global Brand Communications Florian Alt, 70% of global brand referrals happen on dark social

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic coined the term “Dark Socialin 2012. Even before the social networks we use today were launched, people were building their own communities of private sharing through AIM, Yahoo chat rooms, and email, to name a few. Alexis knew how she explored the web in the early days as a teenager in the ‘90s using instant messaging and ICQ and suspected that she wasn’t the only one who made a significant number of decisions through dark social referrals. 

Curious about what she saw in her own analytics platform at her job, Alex became skeptical of the usefulness of referrer data, especially with so many website sessions being attributed to direct traffic. When she worked with a web analytics firm to take a deeper look, she discovered that 17% of all referrals could be attributed to dark social, which made up almost 69% of all social referrals.

Dark social’s role in B2B marketing

An assumption that B2B marketing leaders often make is that customers move through every stage of the buying process, from awareness to purchase, in broad daylight. In reality, by the time a potential customer’s online behavior broadcasts intent signals, they’ve had multiple conversations with peers, both in spoken conversations and private channels such as online communities, enterprise communication systems, text messages, direct messaging on social media platforms, and elsewhere about the buying decision. 

This is especially true if your product or service has a long sales cycle. Your customers go through a lengthy process to select vendors, so they’re not going to your site the first time they see your ad, hitting “add to cart” and checking out. The way they’ve obtained their information and who and what have been influencers in their decision goes far beyond what a surface-level view of an analytics platform can tell you.

Training your demo and sales team to ask “How did you hear about us?” is a great way to get insight into how dark social may have played a role. You’ll discover that many of your prospects who clicked on an ad did so after hearing about your company through a peer or visiting your site, giving you an additional user to retarget. 

What can you do?

Make changes to your website

When a user comes to your site and decides to copy the link and paste in a message to a friend, you have no record of that share and the resulting traffic will appear to be direct. The main exception would be if a user clicked on a UTM tagged link and shared the full link with their friend. This share would still not be traceable, and attribution of the next user’s visit would be inaccurate. 

Adding sticky social media share buttons to your website can help with tracking the share. Since you can track the usage of these buttons and control the share link, you will have more insight into the dark social interaction taking place in response to your content. WordPress plugins such as ShareThis can add this functionality anywhere on your website.

The ShareThis website practices what it preaches, adding sticky social buttons even on its home page. This helps them track shares even if they’re shared in private messages.

You can also use tools like chatbots and surveys to learn more about the users on your site. Why not ask users directly how they got there and what they think? A couple of tools we use here at Merritt Group are Hotjar and Drift

Create custom filters for dark traffic

One characteristic of “direct traffic” is users entering your site from pages other than the home page. Sure, some of these users may have a specific page bookmarked, especially a login page. Use what you know about your own site to identify what kinds of behavior might indicate dark social traffic. For instance, do you have landing pages that are only reachable through external links? Direct traffic to these pages could signal that the URL is being shared through dark social. Implement filters into your analytics tools and reporting to better analyze traffic segments and identify possible dark social traffic. 

It’s also smart to eye direct traffic with scrutiny, especially when there are traffic spikes. Making use of annotations in Google Analytics is a great way to correlate offline activities with website traffic trends. This is especially important if you have multiple people using Google Analytics over a period of time. As a digital marketer, I’ve seen traffic spikes sparked by billboards, press releases, and even the naming rights of a state fair beer! Don’t think of it as making assumptions, consider it data to inform your next marketing experiment. Time will tell if your hypothesis was correct and these types of marketing activities are paying off. 

Make it easy for people to talk about you 

Dark social should be a good thing for your company! Knowing that so much of your marketing may be word of mouth, you’ll want to make sure the people who are talking about you are well-equipped to promote you. This is where some of your internal and customer marketing and storytelling comes into play. 

Let’s go back to the shoe example from the beginning of this post. If you were wearing expensive shoes, your friend might balk when you send the link and they see the price. 

“That’s a lot of money – do they ever go on sale? Are there knock-offs?”

But if you know the company’s story, you’ll vouch for the value of the product. “These shoes are made ethically and for every pair sold, a pair is donated to someone in need. That’s why I don’t mind paying full price.” At this point, you’re a walking, talking advertisement for the shoe brand, and you just tore down a buyer’s objection because you know just enough of the brand story to speak to it.  

People talk. Make it super easy for people to talk about your company exactly how you want them to, even if it’s difficult to measure the direct impact: 

  • Ensure all one-pagers, decks, and other collateral are on-brand, up-to-date and accessible to the people who need them.
  • Over-explain to both employees and customers ways they can share about your company. Make your story clear.
  • Arm prospects with the materials and support that they need to “sell” your products and/or services both internally. This may include creating or tweaking your referral program
  • Don’t underestimate the power of PR as part of a holistic marketing strategy, even though it can be more difficult to measure depending on the tactics. 

Integrate surveys into your CRM

Before a person signs up for a demo, they might download a gated asset or otherwise provide you with their information. By setting up a workflow in your CRM, you can automate emails asking users how they heard about you, even if you can’t get them on the phone yet. Use the feedback you receive to help improve user experience and develop ways to continue to empower the people who are referring new visitors to your site through dark social. 

Uncover some not-so-dark social

There’s sure to be some social that’s dark to you, but easy to illuminate with the right tools. By using social listening tools you can monitor tweets and other online conversations that you may be missing out on. This gives you the opportunity to enter into conversations in a hyper-personalized way. 

HubSpot offers social media tools that help you easily identify and engage in conversations. If your audience is on Twitter, Tweetdeck is another valuable tool you can use to monitor conversations and trends around important topics. 

If you don’t know where or what to start monitoring, BuzzSumo and SparkToro are additional tools we recommend and where you can identify topics related to your brand or industry that may be buried under mountains of online content.

A quick search on SparkToro helps identify information that can be used for social listening. Social listening helps your business identify conversations so that you can learn more about your audience and build a strategic social media engagement strategy.

Accept that there’s no way to measure 100% of dark social’s impact

In fact, there’s no way to measure anything we do in digital marketing with 100% accuracy. If we spent all of our time insisting on crystal clear visibility, we’d miss out on a lot of great wins along the way, even if we can’t fully attribute them to a single source. 

This is where a little storytelling can go a long way. It’s okay to say, “we don’t know why, but every time we blog about the importance of sustainability, we get a lot of traffic and product demos also spike.” You can explain the what without the why. Of course, you’ll need the data that you’re relying on to back this up. But it doesn’t have to be completely 100% proof that your hypothesis is correct. That can be worked out over time as you test tactics. 

The future of dark social 

With the cookieless future and Web 3 quickly approaching, marketers will make numerous decisions that will greatly impact how they do business. As strategies, tools, and customer experiences evolve, the rise of dark social should be taken into account as digital strategies are executed. Decentralization will only increase the need for ownership across even the dark parts of the B2B buyer journey. 

Merritt Group can help you develop a customer-centric forward-focused digital strategy from the ground up. Reach out to us today to schedule a consultation.


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