Are marketers getting lost in the Dark Funnel?

dark funnel

By Krista LaRiviere, {grow} Community Member

The buyer’s journey has twisted and turned in a way which leaves many marketers struggling to find insight from within what we call the Dark Funnel. The good news — as with all trends and shifts in the world of marketing — many technology companies are starting to build solutions to address the radical new way customers engage and buy from brands today.

The behavior of customers has become an evolving maze and marketers are always trying to stay one step ahead. The rise of online and social marketing and the vast distribution of content have added another level of complexity to what we used to think of as a sales funnel.

Many marketers are now asking:

  • Did this prospect know about us before coming to our site?
  • How did this person hear about us?
  • How informed are they?
  • Have they already formed an opinion on us?

Before the explosion of social media and content marketing, marketers probably knew the answers to these questions. For the most part, prospects found your website before they discovered anything else about your brand. Today, customers educate themselves in countless ways and your website may not even be in the mix. Their’s is a much richer information ecosystem. That’s what makes today’s sales funnel “dark.”

The Dark Parts of the Marketing Funnel

Current technology provides detailed engagement data only after a customer or prospect visits your website and identifies themselves. This point of conversion may come from a contact form or a gated piece of content, such as a how-to guide. But how did they arrive there?

These missing pieces confound marketers as consumers increasingly look to their trusted friends on social networks, review sites, and other sources to inform their buying decisions.

A Forrester Research report from way back in 2007 predicted a transformation of the buyer’s journey was underway and the traditional sales funnel had “outlived its usefulness.” This report said the “real process looks more like a complex network of detours, back alleys, alternate entry and exit points, external influences and alternative resources” thereby making a marketer’s job all the more difficult.

With recent research showing anywhere from 60-90% of the customer’s journey going on away from a company’s website, the potential insights gained from capturing this data can be transformational.

Thankfully, new light from technology is revealing this Dark Funnel.

Emerging Solutions to the Dark Funnel

I believe new systems to provide insight into the Dark Funnel will soon become a normal part of the marketing toolset, just like marketing automation and content marketing management software. The Dark Funnel martech space is already emerging through smart URL systems, influencer marketing analytics, stronger audience development tools, and content performance platforms, which can bring the entire story together.

Here are some of the leading ideas in this emerging field of marketing intelligence:

Smart URLs

A smart URL is a unique link, which contains tracking parameters and analytics to capture click data behind the scenes. Smart URLs can be engineered to report on various data points based on your specific requirements. Content tags can be added manually and/or collected dynamically as the URL is clicked.

Smart URLs can provide critical insights into engagement with off-site content, including which content is working best, where it is working, and potentially who is engaging with it.

Smart URLs provide insight into content marketing and prospect behaviour not immediately visible to digital marketers in any other way. When your content is shared off-site using a smart URL, many systems will cookie that user. If that data is then connected to your marketing automation platform, you can potentially have visibility into the engagement path of each prospect once they have self-identified on your site.

Here are a few best practices when using smart URLs for Dark Funnel insights:

  • Create groups of content tags for every aspect of your distribution including social channels, individual influencers, content type, campaign, etc.
  • Create unique smart URLs for every single channel you distribute the content to, as well as a unique set of channel links for each influencer who is helping to amplify the content. In other words, if you are asking influencers to share your content on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, you will need to create 4 sets of smart URLs for each influencer.
  • Embed smart URLs into content you publish on other platforms (press releases, op-ed pieces, external blogs, etc) to see engagement around long-form external content

My company, gShift, launched one of the first smart URL system, kontextURLs. This technology enables marketers to track on-site and off-site content engagement metrics with infinite levels of tagging for detailed, segmented Dark Funnel reporting. We have a free guide to tracking off-site content available if you want to go deeper on this topic.

Influence Marketing Analytics

Influence marketing has become a prominent component in many content strategies. Marketers recognize the opportunity and value in “borrowing” the deep trust of relevant, talented, highly connected influencers, as well as less connected, but highly influential, advocates.

As more customers turn to the trusted word of their heroes or peers, it is very likely influencers are playing a larger role in your Dark Funnel than you realize!

Mining data from the role of influencers in the customer journey is a multi-step process:

  1. Identifying influencers is the first step. You want to ensure you are working with influencers who have the right audience for your brand. InNetwork and Traackr both offer insight into a database of influencers, which you can search using a specific keyword, brand name or even competitor. BuzzSumo reveals the  most popular content and the influencers behind it.
  2. Managing influencer campaigns is labor intensive part. There are many systems in the marketing technology landscape to make management easier. One of the popular systems would be TapInfluence, which allows you to manage your influencers, campaign details, content and measurement from one platform.
  3. Measurement is the most critical part of influencer marketing. Examining likes, shares, comments and pageviews just aren’t enough to measure the full benefit of influencer-generated content. Content engagement analytics are required to assess the true value of an influencer channel, which is insight you get when you add smart URLs into the mix.

Audience Analysis

Mark Schaefer has written extensively about the “Alpha Audience” in hjs book The Content Code. This is a rich area for further exploration, insight, and new technology.

Your Alpha Audience is the elite group of people who share your content the most – your biggest online advocates. Do you know who they are?

Since these online shares and recommendations mean so much today (one study showed it influences the buying behavior of 70% of US adults), we simply must know who these people are and reward them.

Audience analysis technology is moving along fast and one company to keep an eye on is Affinio. This start-up has developed powerful techniques to not only segment your audience, but see important audience connections that might lead to insights about the customer journey.

Lighting Your Own Path

Getting in front of the Dark Funnel will require a learning curve and some leg-work. And it’s going to take time to assemble all the tools we need to really do the job right. But it’s starting to happen.

The Dark Funnel can seem daunting but as marketing technology continues to evolve, customer journey maze will become increasingly clear.

Screenshot 2016-02-08 08.06.01Krista LaRiviere is the Co-founder and CEO of gShift, a Web Presence Platform for SEO, Social and Content Analytics. She is passionate about the digital space, and obsessed with bringing automation and innovation to marketing. gShift’s smart URL technology, kontextURLs, enables marketers to track on-site and off-site content engagement. Follow her @KristaLaRiviere and on LinkedIn.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr C and Matthias Ripp.

gShift is a client of Schaefer Marketing Solutions.

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