November 16, 2022

How to enter your buyer's consideration set by marketing to their peers

The senior decision-makers and c-suite executives you’re trying to reach might not be found in any of the traditional attribution channels you track. Learn how to leverage dark social and address pain points to influence B2B buying decisions.

The senior decision-makers and c-suite executives you’re trying to reach might not be found in any of the traditional attribution channels you track. Instead, their conversations, in person and online with their peers, are most likely happening through dark social.

By speaking to the strategic pain points and priorities of senior decision-makers, you’re likely to influence decision-making processes and become top-of-mind once those conversations happen.

If they Google your company as the last step in their decision, you might only be tracking the tip of the iceberg.

Think you might be missing the forest for the metrics? This article will examine how you can influence your B2B buyers' peer-to-peer conversations behind closed doors.

How dark social is critical for entering your buyer’s consideration set

Through Discord channels, Slack communities, friends’ recommendations, and social posts, buyers learn about your product long before encountering your marketing. 

It’s called dark social, and although the term has been around since Alexis’ Madrigal’s 2012 influential think piece in The Atlantic, marketers still focus on measuring success solely through  the old, quantifiable attribution methods. Unless these marketers account for dark social and zero-click content, they will be left in the dust. 

So, what is this necessary but untraceable phenomenon? 

Dark social has been known by different terms throughout the years: dark traffic, dark social media, and peer-to-peer marketing. It describes invisible shares through social media, email, and other messaging communications that marketers can’t track through traditional attribution methods like Google Search Console. 

Buyers can find you through various dark social channels: 

  • Content platforms like YouTube and Apple Podcasts;
  • Social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram;
  • Groups and communities like Slack Communities and Discord;
  • Employee communication apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams;
  • Digital communications like social DMs, texts, and calls;
  • Events and meetups like virtual events;
  • Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

But unless you know how to track it, your analytics will tell a very different story. 

For example, say your friend tells you about Loom. You Google the brand, find their website, and become a customer. Their marketing team won’t know how the visitor found out about their website. The customer journey is untraceable or in the dark funnel

Normal Traffic vs. Dark Social Traffic
Dark social keeps the customer journey obscured.

Dark social also acknowledges that your ideal buyer is unlikely to comment, like, or share your content. To find one of Wynter’s dark social leads, I went to LinkedIn, searched “Wynter,” clicked posts, and scrolled and skimmed until I found this gem: 

Screenshot of David Gerhardt LinkedIn Post about Wynter

Expanding the post, 22 comments sing Wynter’s praises: 

Screenshot of Comments on  David Gerhardt LinkedIn Post about Wynter
Dave Gerhardt’s LinkedIn post on Wynter is an example of a potential dark social sharing hub

If one of Dave Gerhardt’s connections (or his connections’ connections) read this post along with the glowing reviews in the comments and later signed up for Wynter’s demo by Googling the brand, Google Analytics would attribute this to direct traffic, which wouldn’t accurately reflect how the customer found you. 

This presents a problem for marketers as there is no accounting for the amount of content, referrals, and untagged mentions potential buyers share daily. 

So, how do you fix the false attribution problem? 

Why your traditional metrics aren’t capturing dark social engagement

You cannot measure the success of specific campaigns if you can’t see what channels drive traffic to your website.

Traditional attribution channels have additional limitations because they lack secure browser tracking, as analytics tools don’t track cookies, making some user visits invisible. Also, private communications between peers don’t reveal the communication channels. 

For example, Peyton Walbeck, Head of Marketing at Nectar, an employee software recognition company, recently posted to his LinkedIn about how he found Wynter. 

Screenshot of Peyton Walbeck LinkedIn Post about Wynter
Wynter benefits from dark social marketing channels

Chris Walker commented, dubbing this “the attribution mirage.” 

This exact thing happens at scale with B2B buyers and results in what is called “the attribution mirage,” where the impact of demand capture channels like Google and affiliate review sites are significantly over-inflated, and meanwhile, marginal impact is reported for demand creation channels like social, content programs and community due to the inherent biases of software-based attribution.

This is an interesting case because Google Analytics would trace this website visit as direct traffic, but it doesn’t show us the full picture. Walbeck thought of Wynter not because of his peers, but through the power of advertisement. Yet, he never clicked an ad but typed Wynter into his browser. Although this isn’t necessarily an example of dark social, it highlights, as Walker says, the inherent biases of software-based attribution. 

77.5% of shares occur through dark social, meaning there’s a large, invisible audience finding your business through channels you cannot meaningfully measure. 

Dark social is here to stay. Finding your traffic source will inform your future marketing campaigns, and actionable solutions exist to fix the attribution gap between dark social and searchable traffic, which we’ll review next.

Fill the gap between dark social and traditional attribution models

By understanding your audience’s problems, you can create solutions that address their specific needs and build their trust. This trust can lead to dark social shares, as people are more likely to share a brand or product they personally vouch for and believe will benefit their friends, family, or colleagues. 

Addressing the pain points of your audience shows that a brand truly cares about its customers and is invested in providing the best experience possible. 

Here are four ways you can bridge the gap between dark social and traditional attribution models.

1. Conduct qualitative customer research

One way to have conversations with customers and understand their pain points is to conduct qualitative research through customer surveys. 

Qualitative research reveals the motivations behind customer behaviors, opinions, desires, and expectations. It uses open-ended questions to elicit nuanced customer responses. 

For example, an open-ended qualitative question would be, “what problems is your company currently facing?” “How does our product/solution solve these problems?”

Online customer surveys draw out specific information from current and prospective customers that you can use to understand pain points. Send out a survey to your entire customer base, or target specific segments of customers based on their industry or preferences. 

Screenshot of Customer Survey Questions
Open-ended questions are a crucial part of qualitative customer research

Always opt for open-ended questions because they allow respondents to express themselves fully, providing valuable, in-depth insights. They can also uncover previously unexplored, unexpected issues or opinions, leading to more comprehensive survey results. 

Create qualitative surveys using tools like Typeform or SurveyMonkey. Then, share it through email and social media, incentivizing others to participate. 

Another approach is participating in and observing online discussions and conversations among decision-makers in your industry. Take to Twitter or LinkedIn and ask your industry directly. 

Screenshot of Michelle Tandler Tweet
Don’t be afraid to ask your audience what they need

This can provide insights into their current pain points and how your product or service can address those issues. 

Message testing also yields insights into customer pain points. By getting your value proposition or “strategic angle” in front of your target audience and collecting their feedback, you can fine-tune your messaging to address their needs and pain points better.

Wynter does this by putting your marketing messages in front of your ideal customer profile. 

Screenshot of Message Testing
Wynter puts your message in front of of your target audience

Here’s an example of what a full message test looks like, along with a detailed 80/20 summary. 

Screenshot of Wynter Message Testing on Zuko Home Page
With Wynter’s message testing, your target audience can provide feedback on your messaging

Wynter helps customers test how B2B marketing messages resonate with their target audience using a panel of vetted professionals. This allows the customer to see what is unclear or uninteresting to their audience and adjust their messaging accordingly.

By effectively targeting their audience and addressing misunderstandings, companies can attract new customers and inspire dark social shares from current customers. 

2. Create content that aligns with problems, pain points, and priorities

Once you have the background data from customer surveys, decision-making expertise, and message testing, translate these insights into content addressing customer pain points and priorities. 

This content can range from blog posts, eBooks, social posts, and other educational materials directly addressing customer issues. 

It’s important to drive this content to platforms where customer conversations are happening, such as industry-related Facebook groups, LinkedIn discussions, industry events or conferences, and targeted advertising on social media platforms. 

Let’s say a B2B SaaS company regularly hears from customers that onboarding is a major pain point for them. The company could create a comprehensive guide on effective onboarding techniques and promote it in relevant online communities as well as through email marketing campaigns.

You can also address pain points in your content by publishing case studies showing how customers achieved A, B, and C using your solution, like Yesware does on their website.

Screenshot of Yesware Website showing customer outcomes
Yesware highlights customer outcomes on their website

3. Create customer personas to target messaging

Detailed customer personas can help inform what kind of content you need to create to solve each pain point. Customer personas include:

  • Demographic information like age, gender, and job title;
  • Psychographic information like values and attitudes;
  • Challenges/paint points;
  • Preferred channel/content formats; 
  • How your solution/product helps.

If you have multiple audience segments, you can create multiple personas. These personas provide the foundation for a content matrix.

4. Craft a content matrix to tailor content to specific audience segments

A content matrix can map out pain points and solutions, and inform how to turn these insights into actionable content. 

Screenshot of Content Matrix
Use a content matrix to link pain points to brand solutions for different audience groups

The matrix above divides the audience into four sections spanning the customer lifecycle. Different content mediums work for different stages in the buying journey. 

Screenshot of Customer Lifecycle Marketing
Different marketing channels work best at different points in the customer lifecycle

Start with the pain points, solutions to the pain points, the content assets most appropriate to speak to those pain points, and how you can use the content to move the customer to the next stage of the customer lifecycle. 

As customers move through the funnel, their pain points and the solutions to those change, so you must adjust your content assets to match. 

By understanding your customers’ specific pain points at each sales funnel stage, you can provide them with relevant content and propel them through the buying process. 

Track dark social’s contribution to the buying journey

Tracking dark social clarifies the impact it has on the buying process and offers a complete picture of your audience. You can use this data to understand the key influencers in your buyer journey, determine the most effective channels at driving conversions, and develop more targeted messaging and content. 

There are three common ways to do this. 

Self-reported attribution

Self-reported attribution is a qualitative research method where companies ask customers where they first encountered the brand. 

Chris Walker of Refine Labs implemented a “how did you hear about us?” field on the Refine Labs website. This allows customers to accurately report where they first heard about your brand, whether through a shared link on a messaging platform or word of mouth.

Self Reported Attribution
Self-attribution is one way to break through the dark tunnel of dark social

Dark social is intertwined with the buying journey when you think about attribution in two ways: 

  1. Creating demand;
  2. Capturing demand.

Creating demand requires storytelling on awareness channels where your buyers consume content such as a podcast, a certain social network, or paid social. Once you create demand, you’ll capture it using traditional attribution models like SEO and paid search. 

Dark Social Demand Creation
Demand creation begins in dark social

Your goal is to find out where your buyers spend their time, how they want to buy, and how they discover your brand. Using open-ended questions like, “how did you first hear about us?” encourages respondents to provide detailed responses. 

However, self-reported attribution is limited because some customers don’t provide a response, and when they do, it might be a one-word answer like “Google,” or “Organic.” 

Dreamdata.io experimented with a self-reported attribution form on their website and found that 70% of respondents answered the form and confirmed that dark social greatly influences the buying journey.

Dreamdata’s self-attribution research which shows the impact of dark social
Dreamdata’s self-attribution research shows the impact of dark social

Word of mouth and social selling combined worked better for Dreamdata.io than any other method, highlighting the important role dark social plays in generating demand and driving buyers down the funnel. 

Win analysis

A win analysis can also track dark social’s contribution to the buying journey. Conduct post-sale interviews with the primary point of contact (POC) on closed deals. 

During these interviews, ask specific questions about how the POC first heard about your company and if they recall any referrals or word-of-mouth recommendations from friends or colleagues. Then, you can connect this data to other data points, such as website referral sources, to assess dark social's impact on the buying journey.

For example, a POC may mention in the interview that a colleague recommended your company to them through a private messaging platform. On the other hand, if the POC primarily learned about your company through online advertising or SEO, this would not be attributed to dark social. 

Google Analytics 

Although Google Analytics doesn’t offer a “dark social traffic report,” you can configure it to reveal most dark social traffic. 

Go to Audience, then Overview in your Google Analytics website data view. Click on the Add Segment option.

Google Analytics Audience Overview

In the segment dropdown, select Direct Traffic. Deselect other options. Then click Apply.

Google Analytics Audience Direct Traffic Segment
Use Google Analytics to spot dark social referrals

Once you narrow down the traffic, you can filter further to content you suspect might be a dark social destination. 

Click Behavior, then Site Content, then All Pages.

Google Analytics Traffic Behavior Flow

This gives you a list of all web pages accessed through direct traffic. Filter pages you suspect bring in the most traffic into the search bar. 

Click Advanced to create a new filter.

The first filter defaults to include a page. Change Include to Exclude in the drop-down menu. Select Page as the dimension. 

Identifying Dark Social Traffic in Google Analytics

In the field at the end of the row, type in the directory of your main pages like /blog/, /home/, or /features/. Add as many as you can. Once you apply the filter, the results will consist of difficult-to-remember URLs. These URLs may be the result of dark social traffic to your website. 

This is what your GA should look like once you set up your memorable URLs: 

Filters to detect dark social website in Google Analytics 
Use filters to detect dark social website 

Brandwatch.com sets its GA up to include direct traffic in the Traffic Sources tab. In the Conditions tab, they set up two filters to exclude traffic to certain pages and from return visitors. 

Once you set up segmentation in Google Analytics, you can start tracking dark social traffic. Though it won’t track every social share, it will give you an idea of what your buyers share with their peers. Then, tailor content on these pages to the buyer segments you’re targeting. 

Shed light on dark social

In today's digital age, it is important to not only track traditional attribution channels but also consider the role that dark social plays in influencing major purchasing decisions.

Dark social influences the conversations and decision-making processes of senior executives. By addressing their strategic pain points and priorities, you can position yourself as a top option in their minds when they engage in discussions with their peers. 

By utilizing dark social to reach these executives, you can also improve your chances of being at the top of their search results when they research potential solutions. 

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