If “dark social” conjures up illicit images of a secret underground network filled with “Criminal Minds”-esque content, I don’t blame you. What initially comes across as the mysterious underbelly of B2B is actually a lot less nefarious than it sounds — and a lot more critical than marketers realize.
“Dark social isn’t really a new concept per se, but it has really taken off in the marketing industry over these last two years,” explained Todd Kunsman, Marketing Team Lead at EveryoneSocial and Founder Remote Work Junkie. “The easiest way to define dark social is the results generated by distribution channels that are difficult to accurately track via attribution software. These are places where buyers are highly active, but the company will not have direct visibility of the impact.”
This predictably poses a challenge to marketers, as it’s tough to sell strategies that don’t directly reflect ROI. But given the prominence of social media — more than one-third (34%) of marketers rely on social media as their primary lead generation channel and an additional 38% pointed to social as a top channel for early-stage engagement — marketers can’t ignore the opportunity dark social holds.
“Dark social is a breath of fresh air for B2B,” explained Sarah Breathnach, Head of Demand Generation for Hunters.ai, a security operations center platform. “The rise of analytics and automation over the last decade have positioned marketing as a science rather than an art. The gated content era is over. Buyers want to consume content first, gather insights and solicit advice from their peers before talking to sales.”
And there lies the paradox: While the increased reliance of analytics is critical to marketing strategies, many peer-to-peer conversations take place on dark social channels — and therefore can’t be tracked in the traditional sense. However, it is possible to shine a light on dark social and leverage the strategy to its full potential. According to Breathnach, the keys to unlocking success on dark social include:
- Understanding your ideal customer profile (ICP);
- Creating valuable content;
- Having a strong presence on social media;
- Telling powerful stories that resonates with audiences; and
- Eliminating gates or forms and making content accessible.
First, Create Content That Facilitates DM Sliding
Content is critical to all aspects of marketing — and dark social is no different. The first step to increasing dark social presence is to start with a strong social media strategy. Research has found that more than one-third of practitioners (34%) get most of their content through social networks or peer recommendations, and 31% are spending more time using social media to research vendors and solutions.
“Content can no longer be boring or just the latest company news,” explained Kunsman. “Companies need to share entertaining yet educational content to social channels, and that means moving away from content that’s only links — you need videos, images, GIFs and text.”
This means marketers must be more intentional about how they create content and design pieces that practitioners feel inspired to share with each other. Breathnach explained that all too often, organizations simply use content as a means to an end.
“Many organizations rely on short-term, company-centric tactics, such as creating a gated E-book to drive more leads when you’re behind on pipeline generation or leveraging short pieces of ‘click bait’ to quickly drive more website traffic,” she continued. “That creates a poor experience for the customer. The best way to approach content creation is to put yourself in the customer's shoes — you can’t create great content unless you truly understand who is buying and using your solution.”
When creating content, she advised marketers to consider the following questions:
- What pain is my customer experiencing that my solution can solve?
- What information can I share that will help my ICP become more successful?
- Are there words or concepts that I should avoid when speaking to customers?
- What jokes or memes will resonate with my ICP?
Now, Tap Into The Influencer Market
By its nature, social media created an open-air-type environment that inherently breeds content sharing and word-of-mouth marketing. Word of mouth in the dark social arena can be defined in two parts, according to Breathnach: Pay-to-play and evangelist/influencer.
“Some private communities give companies, aka vendors, access to their members in exchange for a sponsorship fee,” she explained. “There are strict rules of engagement that vendors must follow — never pitch members on your product/service, don’t come across as ‘salesy,’ quietly observe the community members and only mention your solution when it’s relevant.”
For example, Breathnach explained that she’s part of Pavilion, a private membership for marketing, sales and customer success professionals that work at high-growth companies. She explained that most of this activity takes place within a Slack channel, and vendors often sponsor webinars and in-person events that members can attend for free.
On the (somewhat) free side, social media is nearly synonymous with influencers, though in the B2B sense, it takes the shape of thought leaders instead of celebrities shilling supplements. To promote content sharing and amplify messaging, 85% of marketers plan to work with influencers in the coming months, and more than half believe they’ll increase their budget for influencer partnerships, according to the “2022 B2B Marketing Influencer Report.”
“Being an ‘insider’ is the most effective way to gain access to an exclusive community,” said Breathnach. “Many senior leaders join private WhatsApp groups to solicit advice or share ideas with their peers. Vendors are not typically allowed to access these groups. Therefore, it can be beneficial to work with someone who fits the criteria of your ICP who is incentivized to mention your solution to their peers when relevant.”
In fact, the “B2B Influencer Report” uncovered that 95% of those using influencer marketing reported it’s helped achieve at least one of the marketing goals, with the two most commonly met goals being improved brand reputation (72%) and increased brand awareness (70%).
When companies partner with an evangelist or influencer, they can observe conversations within dark channels and report back to the company, depending on community rules regarding privacy and confidentiality.
Finally, Track That Engagement (As Best As You Can)
And now, the challenge: Tracking engagement. EveryoneSocial’s Kunsman explained that, “a big challenge for executives is accepting dark social, as there is no direct attribution.” However, he continued that there are still ways to determine how a company’s presence on dark social is performing. Kunsman explained that tracking can take the shape of:
- Asking a prospect how they heard about an organization on high-intent forms or in sales outreach;
- Employees receiving direct messages asking to learn more about their company’s products and services;
- Monitoring direct and organic channels where analytics are growing, which indicates more people are searching for a company’s services because they’re now aware of the organization; and
- Asking customers and prospects how they heard about your company during live conversations.
“There’s a huge opportunity right now to be hyper focused on dark social channels and be present where people are looking to learn and having conversations,” said Kunsman. “Staying with the times will allow marketers to better drive revenue for their orgs, create more demand and build brand trust. Not everyone is ready to buy, but by being engaged in dark social channels, they sure will remember your name/brand when the time comes to purchase.”