Demand Generation

What is Dark Social?

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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 sometimes after). It’s the fact that people hear about your brand in channels that your HubSpot or attribution software can’t track.

For example, one of my clients has an industry association they’re part of because it’s a huge watering hole for their ICP. That association puts together the biggest event in the industry every year, which was my client’s #1 lead generator and conversation starter. Members of that association are all on the same Facebook group and community board.

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. Someone that has the same pains and dreams, the same jobs to be done, tells them about your platform.

They’re likely to listen to them 10 times more than if you walked up to them and said, hey I sell this software. The point I’m trying to make here is that Dark Social is huge. You need to understand how it affects your business, and how you can start getting your name mentioned more in those channels and those community groups.

We had an organic lead come in. They clicked around our website, looked at our product pages, watched a few of the videos we had there, and then filled out the demo form. My demo form then was only contact info, some company info, and then a discovery question. Nothing, however, asked that person how they heard about us. My client uses HubSpot. I looked at our first page viewed and lead source and everything pointed to organic. I thought great! We’ve been putting a lot of hours into SEO and it seems like it is starting to kick 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 as organic search for over a month. After they were integrated, I interviewed that client. I typically do these interviews to help with our positioning and messaging. I asked that client how they found out about us and he told me about the community board. I didn’t know anything about it until then. He said that he was looking to switch the old software he had, asked in that group, and that was how he found out about us.

The moral of the story is that if I never interviewed this client, or if they never “self-reported” I would have continued to think that they just came in through organic. If that scenario repeated itself a few times, I probably would have started looking at changing my strategy to spend more resources on organic. Also, if I was already investing in that association, I wouldn’t have known. I could’ve just pulled the plug on it because I don’t see any traction from it, even though it’s doing A LOT of work that I just can’t attribute.

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 customer, 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 been a great source of leads for us. This is also why the one question you need to add to all of your forms right now is: “How did you hear about us?” and make it an open text field.

This is also why the one question you need to add to all of your forms right now is: “How did you hear about us?”

Self-reported attribution vs. software-based attribution

Software-based attribution is what you’d typically get out of HubSpot or any marketing attribution platform you use. It can be first touch, last touch, multi-touch, etc. I think there’s a new one every day. They’re very important of course because they allow you to understand where someone’s journey started, maybe that was a platform you were running a campaign on or a piece of content or something you had.

Software-based attribution only shows you how you captured demand. Self-reported on the other hand shows you how you generated demand. It’s when a prospect tells you how they heard about you.

The idea is never to replace one with the other but to use a combination that gives you the clearest 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, etc. None of this is doable through either only self-reported attribution or software-based attribution.

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 stays at.

This is also how you really switch from demand capture to demand generation. That’s a different conversation for a different day, but the idea is that you want to make sure that you’re getting into those channels and creating demand even before it’s there, not just waiting for someone that’s already problem aware and in the middle of looking for solutions to click on your Google Ad.

Dark Social is not a specific tactic or channel, it’s not necessarily something you do, but 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 be determined by software-based attribution and then knowing how to get a better picture of that journey through self-reported attribution. So with that understanding then you can look at ways to figure out those watering holes that your ICP stays at and then determine the right content to inject in those places to generate demand and stay top of mind until someone is ready to buy. No dark magic :)

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