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What is Dark Funnel Marketing and How to Measure It

What is the dark funnel and how to measure the results of it.
I am Nick, a B2B & SaaS marketer with a focus on SEO, content, and techstack marketing. 
I created the Marketing Experts Hub to simply explain marketing, cover business topics, and software for marketers with a pinch of opinion.
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Table of Contents

The dark funnel is the scary place where attribution and buyer journeys fail. Many marketers either ignore or misattribute the dark funnel.

But, with the ever-increasing threats to digital marketing attribution, we need to better understand the hidden side of the sales funnel, else, we miss a huge opportunity for growth!

Many brand touchpoints take place away from the measurable marketing funnels we are used to, without UTMs and CRM data, even if the lead is captured.

And, with the rise of privacy concerns, GDPR, Apple’s privacy changes, Cooking/Javascript blockers, and anonymous browsers, the dark funnel will grow even more.

Let’s talk a bit more about the dark funnel and attempt to attach some metrics and data to improve our marketing strategy!

What is the Dark Funnel?

The dark funnel is the invisible part of the sales funnel where conventional tracking and analytics fail. It’s the invisible part of the customer journey where prospects remain anonymous and there is no visibility into what they’re doing or how they’re interacting with your brand.

Every company deals with the same problems, with a big percentage of their leads and customers showing as direct unattributed traffic. The problem grows bigger in B2B with customers having a more complex and long sales cycle.

Often, this part of the journey is ignored as marketing teams focus on channels with more measurable results, leaving an important part of the funnel untouched, unattributed, and not optimized.

Chris Walker offers a great explanation of the dark funnel on Refine Labs’ YouTube channel:

The best example of the dark funnel is your customers talking about your company in chats, private groups, and face-to-face. Word-of-mouth is something that cannot be easily measured and results in one of the most effective steps in the customer journey both offline and through social media!

What is Dark Social?

Dark social is one of the biggest parts of the dark funnel. It’s the unattributed conversations about brands happening online. The biggest dark social channels are (source):

  • Private messaging apps
  • Personal social media accounts
  • Word-of-mouth (offline & online)
  • SMS
  • Emails

Conversations in private social media do not come with UTMs, attribution, or any data that leads can lead a marketer to identify the source of the leads/customers. It is often attributed to organic social or direct traffic in tracking software like Google Analytics.

The Dark Funnel Channels: Where Tracking Fails! 

Marketers and business owners tend to measure every step of the customer journey and focus their energy on measurable results to grow their business. This is a great marketing strategy, leading to optimizing demand generation.

But, it can also be misleading, by losing track of what happens beyond the measurable universe.

What are the channels of the dark funnel? Here are a few examples:

  • Word-of-mouth: Offline & online conversations
  • Brand mentions on not-owned channels.
  • Community conversations: Facebook groups, group chats, messaging apps, etc.
  • Publications & media outlets: Blogs, newspapers, magazines, content syndication, etc.
  • Media mentions: Podcasts, YouTube Channels, TV news stories, Interviews, Webinars, etc. 
  • Product review sites: Aggregated review sites or affiliate reviews without tracked clicks.
  • Social networks posts, shares, and messages.
  • Influencer shoutouts in videos or private communities.
  • Private browsing: Cookie blockers, private browsers, incognito mode, etc.
  • Multi-channel, multi-device users: Users coming in from different channels using multiple devices through their journey.
  • Offline activities: Events, gatherings, meetups, etc.
  • Group journeys: Where multiple people are involved in a decision at various points. Think of a B2B buyer sending an intern to evaluate software, who shares an excel list with their CMO, then a CTO has to shortlist the best solutions, and the salesperson probably talks with a marketing manager to make the sale.

I don’t even need to tell you that the highest engaged users of any brand come from organic search by typing the brand name. Think of someone interested in buying Nike or Adidas instead of trainers or searching Squarespace instead of website builder..

Those searches are also attributed to branded organic SEO but are part of the dark funnel, where you don’t know where the customer journey that led to the buying decision started. This is especially true with B2B, where multiple stakeholders take part in the decision over a longer period of time.

Example of Dark Funnel

So, let’s compare the known and the unknown parts of a customer’s journey right until the purchasing decision to better understand the dark funnel. Here are two examples of B2B & B2C dark funnels:

B2C Dark Funnel: Purchasing a New Pillow

Joanna has trouble sleeping and decides that her pillow is not comfortable enough. She wants to buy a new one.

  1. Joanna finds a few groups on good sleep advice and joins them on social media.
  2. She then searches the web for pillows.
  3. She visits a number of online stores.
  4. She posts the pillows she likes to the groups.
  5. A sleep coach approaches her to help. He suggests a pillow from a specific company sharing an affiliate link.
  6. Joanna then sees an Instagram ad from one of the stores.
  7. She searches for reviews online.
  8. She visits some big sites like Amazon for comparison shopping.
  9. Then, she looks for discounts on pillows.
  10. She comes back and types the name of the company on Google and visits the website.
  11. She meets some friends for coffee and discusses her options. One of her friends purchased the same pillow and she was very happy about it.
  12. Joanna types the URL of the last shop she liked and finds the pillow.
An example of a dark funnel in the journey of a B2C ecommerce brand.

B2B Dark Funnel: Purchasing a Project Management Software

Mark is a marketing manager looking to purchase a SaaS for project management for his team. 

  1. Mark does some Googling around on project management software and requirements.
  2. He gives a list of requirements to Peter, his junior executive.
  3. Peter searches for the best project management software on Google.
  4. He asks a few friends and colleagues what they are using and their experiences.
  5. He finds a list of tools from a product review website.
  6. He then goes to YouTube or TikTok to watch reviews of each software.
  7. While on YouTube he sees an ad for one of the software.
  8. He trials the ones he likes.
  9. In some cases, he comes in touch with the sales rep of the software.
  10. Peter gives a list of 10 software to Mark, who visits each website and creates a trial or downloads a lead magnet.
  11. Peter shortlists the best 3 software and shares the list with the IT department.
  12. The IT department evaluates the software by having two developers test the software and send questions to the support team.
  13. Peter also asks colleagues and his professional network on LinkedIn about their experience with the software.
  14. Peter has a decision but needs the approval of his manager, Maria.
  15. The price is higher than expected, and Maria asks to contact a call with the sales of the software to discuss a discount.
  16. The salesperson has a video call with Maria & Peter.
  17. Maria approves the purchase for the department and purchases the software.
An example of a dark funnel in the journey of a B2B saas purchase.

How to Measure the Dark Funnel: Illuminating the Dark

To optimize your marketing strategy while taking into account the dark funnel, you need to attach some metrics to it.

Fear not of the dark, as there is light to be found!

Here are a few ways to improve your marketing attribution and better track your customers, thus, reducing the percentage of the dark funnel.

Improve UTMs and Processes (SOPs)

Many companies do not have best practices for UTMs and end up letting Google Analytics or other tracking software automatically attribute users.

The earlier you share standard procedures across your marketing team on UTMs and set up the analytics software to track the channels in a way that makes sense to your company, the better attribution you will have.

Tip: You can also add UTMs on sharing articles for your blog posts, so, when one is shared you can track the source.

Review Direct Traffic, Other, & Referral Channels

By reviewing the URLs people visit from direct traffic, you can drive conclusions about how they find you. You can also filter out your home page or other pages that customers usually bookmark, remember, or visit with branded searches.

By filtering out the direct traffic, you will see how much is actually branded traffic and how big is your dark funnel.

Then, visit the Other* and Referral* channels in Google Analytics. Review what traffic is going there. Sometimes, organic and paid social might be attributed to the wrong channel due to UTM parameters.

Review third-party sites your visits are coming from to better understand the customer journey.

*Other analytics software might have different names for the other or referral channels.

Social Listening Tools

Get a social listening tool to monitor brand mentions. Your audience will be talking about you without tagging your page/profile, a social listening tool can help you monitor these conversations and attribute a part of the dark funnel.

Here are a few software providers of social listening services:

Breaching the Gap of Offline with Online Tracking with QR Codes

Events, business cards, physical locations, flyers, and so many offline marketing activities cannot be tracked as efficiently as digital activities, but do result in online sales.

Be sure to use software that creates and tracks QR codes.

This way, you can track metrics from offline events, visits to your store, or sharing your business card at a meetup.

Syndicated Content Tracking

If you are running syndicated content campaigns, tracking is always a problem. Consider creating unique URLs for each campaign, so you can track the performance of each one of them.

For example, clone a page and add an identifier for a product launch, country, or PR-focused activity, so you can measure the effects of the campaign.

Public Relations, Influencer & Dark Social Activities Calendar

If you don’t have a calendar of past marketing activities, stop reading this article and start one!

PR activities like press releases are practically untraceable from tracking software. Same as dark social activities like collaborating with influencers or posting on various social media and closed groups.

Most of the time, you won’t be able to add UTMs and people will not click on your links, rather, they will look for your brand directly or Google it!

There is one way to track this. All these activities (if successful) produce spikes of traffic to your website.

By having a calendar of all those activities and comparing them to brand searches, spikes of traffic, direct traffic, and specific pages or offers you might mention, you can track and attribute them!

Ask Your Customers Where They Found You

Sounds obvious?

Still, many brands struggle with marketing attribution and they still don’t ask their customers how they learned from them.

And, there are so many great ways to do so!

For SaaS software, it can be a short survey while creating a trial.

For e-commerce stores, it can be a questionnaire with a chance for a discount code after a purchase.

For B2B brands it can be a CSM asking them on a remote meeting.

For physical stores, it can be an in-person question from the employees.

You can automate the process with email automation, onboarding software, or even your support team!

For bigger brands, doing audience research once a year or surveying your clients is essential, as so much ends up being the result of branding, public relations, and dark social activities.

Using Big Data & Attribution Software

We live in a multi-channel, multi-device world that needs an omnichannel approach to marketing. Too many buzzwords right? In layman’s terms:

Customers own multiple devices and their journey to purchase is incredibly complex.

However, there are tools that might help you collect and complete this data:

6sense uses AI to predict intent signals and customer journeys to eliminate guesswork.

Albacross shows information about the leads visiting your website, even if they have not completed any forms!

Marketo Measure (Bizible) connects the data together to reveal the full story of the buyer’s journey.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

You don’t need to be a Jedi to find balance in the force!

The dark funnel will always be there, you need to accept that and work to understand it. With a combination of best practices, smart tracking, and a pinch of software tools, the dark funnel can reveal great opportunities for growth.

And, as an SEO professional, I will give you a final example in SEO dark funnel:

Many brands ignore the power of branding and how it can affect them. One of the invisible ranking signals and a huge part of your organic traffic is your brand recognition. That’s SEO’s dark funnel.

Similarly, many dark funnel touch points result from branding and word-of-mouth activities in the digital sphere.

Embrace the light as well as the dark, and bring balance to your marketing strategy!


What is dark marketing?

Dark marketing activities are private and hyper-targeted to a niche audience. They are not intended to be viewed by anyone else other than the specific niche audience they are targeted to.

What is an anonymous buyer?

An anonymous buyer in the context of the dark funnel is a website visitor who does not convert to a lead or otherwise gives any information that can identify them.

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