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As a SaaS marketer, one of the most important things you think about is attribution. What channels work best? How much is your cost per MQL, your CAC by channel, your ROI? This leads some marketers and a lot of B2B SaaS leaders to obsess about attribution. Now obviously, you want to be able to answer questions like: “If I have an extra $xxxx right now, where should I spend it?”
You also want to be able to see what are the best channels to reach your audience and what content resonates best with them. However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re never going to be able to track every single touchpoint your customer has before they fill out a demo form.
Every Slack conversation they had with a team member, every software listing platform they’ve researched, every community they were a part of where your software came up, every organic post they saw but didn’t interact with, most of this can’t be attributed in your CRM.
That, in a nutshell, is Dark Social.
What is Dark Social?
The first time I heard the words Dark Social, I was convinced it had something to do with dark magic. It’s not though, I promise.
Dark social essentially is the whole journey that your prospects/leads go through way before first touch attribution (and after). It’s the fact that people hear about your brand in channels that your HubSpot or other attribution software can’t track.
Here’s an example from one of my clients where dark social was huge:
One of my clients has an industry group they’re part of which is a huge watering hole for their ICP. That group puts together the biggest event in the industry every year which was my client’s #1 lead generator for several years. Members of that group are all on the same community boards and Facebook and LinkedIn groups.
Every conversation that happens in those groups is dark social. You can’t really track it without self-reported attribution (we’ll talk about that in a little bit), and it’s the strongest way to get someone to use your product. When someone that has the same pains, dreams, and jobs to be done tells you about a solution to those pains or something to make your day-to-day better, you’re so much more likely to check it out than if a salesperson reached out to you about it. That’s why getting your name mentioned in these peer-to-peer settings can be hugely impactful.
Organic is working!
We had an organic lead come in. They clicked around our website, looked at our product pages, watched a few of the videos, and then filled out the demo form. My demo form then asked only for some basic contact info and some company info. Nothing, however, asked how they heard about us. I looked at our first page viewed and lead source, and everything pointed to organic search traffic. I thought, “Great! We’ve been putting a lot of effort into SEO, and it seems like it is starting to take off.”
A few weeks later, they became a customer. It was very exciting because it was a high ACV deal with a very short sales cycle compared to what we typically saw. I had that deal in my reports attributed to an organic search for over a month. After the customer was onboarded, I interviewed them, as I typically do to help with our positioning and messaging and create a relationship with them. I asked that client how they found out about us, and he told me about a Facebook community board he was a part of. I didn’t know anything about it until then. He said that he was looking to switch from the old software he was using at the time, asked for recommendations in that group, and that was how he found out about us.
The moral of the story is that if I had never interviewed this client, or if they had never “self-reported,” I would have continued to think that they came in through organic sources. If that scenario repeated itself a few times, I may have focused more resources on organic or fewer on increasing our awareness in industry groups, thinking that organic sources were where we were getting traction.
I just didn’t have the right data and wasn’t reporting properly on how our clients heard about us. I wasn’t making the right strategic decisions because of it, even though I thought I was making data-driven decisions.
This experience taught me 3 things:
- Always, always inspect your data, and don’t take any of it for granted.
- Add a self-attribution form field to your forms.
Talk to your customers!
Think of all the organic social campaigns you’re running, or if you have a podcast or YouTube channel you’re investing in. None of that is easily attributed. This is why it’s crucial to understand dark social. Because I talked to that client, I was able to find more sponsorship opportunities through that association to keep us top of mind for all of its members, and it’s since been a great source of leads for us. It’s also why I went back and added a “How did you hear about us?” question to all my lead forms (and made sure they were open text fields).
A few other examples of dark social:
- Jordan went to CrossFit practice on Friday and found out from her coach about this really cool app she was using to track her WODs, so she downloaded it.
- Vaughan asked in the general Slack channel if anyone knew of a good cloud-based call center software, and someone from the team remembered a demo they did with Aircall and sent him the recording.
- Antoine got a message from his CEO to check out a one-pager he got in his email about this really cool new quoting tool that they can add to their tech stack to save them a lot of time and money and elevate the way their quotes look.
- Amir was sitting next to someone on a plane that was listening to a podcast from a new B2B SaaS that’s killing it in the attribution game and told him to check it out.
- Charlotte heard from the kids in the house next door that the Johnsons down the street were giving away full-size candy bars for Halloween, so she made sure to stop by.
Self-reported attribution vs. software-based attribution
Software-based attribution is what you’d typically get out of HubSpot or any attribution platform you use. It can be first touch, last touch, multi-touch, etc. It's very important, of course, because it allows you to understand where someone’s journey started. It indicates whether a person came from a specific campaign you were running, organic traffic, social media, email marketing, or any other source site visitors may be coming from.
Software-based attribution only shows you how you captured demand. Self-reported attribution, on the other hand, shows you how you generated demand. It’s when a prospect tells you how they heard about you.
Using a combination of these is essential for giving you the clearest possible picture of your buyers' journey. Everything from the day they heard about you to the channels they used to find you to the content that resonated with them and beyond. None of this is possible through either self-reported attribution or software-based attribution alone.
Someone can hear about you and start researching you months before the first time they fill out a form or reach out to you. That’s why you need to not only do your customer interviews but figure out how to get into those channels and watering holes that your ICP frequents.
Dark social is not a specific tactic or channel—it’s the practice of understanding that a lot of the buyer’s journey, especially for digital natives, happens in many different channels and platforms that can’t be determined by software-based attribution and then knowing how to get a better picture of that journey through self-reported attribution. With that understanding, you can then look at ways to uncover those watering holes that your ICP frequents and determine the right content to inject into those places to generate demand and stay top of mind until someone is ready to buy. No dark magic, just good marketing :)
- Make sure your lead forms all include a “How did you hear about us?” free text field
- If you’ve picked up your copy of T2D3, see the introduction to Chapter 4 for another example of turning dark social to your advantage (and if you haven’t yet, you can order yours here)
- Check sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit regularly for trending posts and groups in your target industry
I'd love to hear some examples of dark social you've seen at your company! I'll add them to my list of examples in this blog, and I can even tag your LinkedIn profile next to your example if you'd like. Just send me a note at email@example.com.