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What is Dark Marketing? The Good, The Bad, and How to Identify It

What is dark marketing?
I am Nick, a B2B & SaaS marketer with a focus on SEO, content, and techstack marketing. 
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Table of Contents

Have you ever seen an ad that seems highly targeted or incredibly personalized?

That might be a case of dark marketing or dark advertising.

Dark marketing is not so new. With big data solutions, personal information is being collected by advertisers to be used in very creative ways. 

Hyper-personalized ads are becoming more and more prevalent, leading to campaigns targeting a very niche audience and almost invisible to others. This is dark advertising at its height!

What is Dark Marketing?

Dark marketing is a hyper-targeted, niche marketing campaign, focused on a very specific audience and invisible to other people or competitors.

Dark marketing may be also referred to as dark advertising.

When brands want to reach a very specific audience without alerting their competitors or any other people seeing them, they use dark marketing campaigns. Those might include social media posts, ads, or on-location activities.

With lots of data for their audience, marketers can use micro-segments or very specific triggers for their marketing strategy to make an ad feel very personalized.

The purpose of dark marketing might either be hyper-personalization or a small brand trigger to create a brand association or trigger the curiosity of their intended audience and search for the product themselves. The consumer might not always be able to recognize the advertiser.

Dark marketing is hyper-targeted, hyper-personalized, and invisible to competitors.

What Dark Marketing is Not

While it sounds sinister or illegal, dark marketing is neither. 

Dark marketing is not associated with the illegal dark web, dark social, or deceptive advertising like dark patterns

The Benefits of Dark Marketing Campaigns

Hyper-targeted digital marketing campaigns are more cost-efficient and effective than massive brand campaigns.

You don’t need to reach out to millions to find a few real valuable customers, dark marketing is about reaching the right person at the right moment with the right message.

Dark marketing is also a great tactic to a/b test your messaging, ads, or new products away from the prying eyes of competitors, or the public backlash of an out-of-the-box ad message.

The Problems with Dark Marketing

Lack of transparency makes dark marketing a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of bad actors. While dark marketing is not illegal, it can be used to promote tobacco or other harmful products to countries or audiences; this would be illegal to do so.

Also, the degree of segmentation needed might go against privacy regulations like GDPR, and the breach of personal data might create a backlash from your audience.

For example, using the family status of someone to promote your products might feel like a breach of data privacy to them, and collection of such data might be illegal in certain cases.

Examples of Dark Marketing

It’s difficult to capture and present real examples of dark advertising, as … by definition it’s hard to grasp. Here are a few possible examples to give you some better understanding into dark marketing campaigns:

  • A character in a movie using Apple products, with the logo showing in different scenes.
  • A billboard outside a conference with only the company logo or slogan (or combination of them) acting as a brand association trigger.
  • An influencer presenting a video wearing a brand t-shirt, but does not mention a sponsorship or brand association.
  • Targeting recently divorced parents flying to a specific city through remarketing on social networks to promote a single’s retreat.
  • A bus station banner with the company colors and a curious slogan near a shop selling the product.

How to Create a Dark Marketing Campaign?

Speed and velocity of scaling the campaign are essential here. Digital marketers involved in dark advertising campaigns need to be able to execute, evaluate, and scale these strategies fast.

Opportunities for dark marketing may come from a “trigger event” like a policy change affecting a specific segment of your audience, and you might be issuing a special discount or pricing for a short duration of time.

Your marketing team will need to be able to execute the campaign in the same day or with a very short window of opportunity:

  1. Identify the opportunity
  2. Brainstorm dark advertising ideas
  3. Run ad / messaging variations (test)
  4. Use data to target / retarget your audience
  5. Evaluate the results quickly
  6. Scale or stop the campaign

For example, Facebook allows companies to post for custom segmented audiences, where you might be using a combination of demographics, location, and interest data to target a niche audience.

Retargeting options in other social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram might allow you to use an email list to reach a specific segment. You can also use phone numbers to create whatsapp message groups.

Segmentation Examples:

  • Demographic targeting of travelers with different messaging for each type of audience.
  • Ads based on the Job Title of the target audience.
  • Recent browsing behavior, e.g. recently visited a gaming website.

How to find Dark Marketing Campaigns of Competitors

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, large social networks are offering some transparency of information options:

Facebook’s Ad Library

Google’s Ad Transparency Center

Or, there are tools you can use to spy on competitors’ ads like:

SEMrush

Ahrefs

Spyfu

Limitations

Facebook’s ads library will remove an ad that is not running anymore, so, if you didn’t catch the campaign as it was running, you might miss it altogether.

Also, as those are hyper targeted ads, paid tools will probably not catch those, as they won’t fit into the targeted demographic.

Your competitors might be also using smaller, niche ad networks you won’t be able to easily identify. Alternative or less popular ad networks might be cheaper or focused on a specific audience.

Sites like BuiltWith can help you see what kind of ad network tracking your competitors are using. They have to install a tracking script to monitor their results or for building remarketing audiences.

A Few Last Words

Have in mind that dark posts, dark ad campaigns, or other dark marketing methods may create spikes in traffic.

As normal marketing tracking may not work for small niche audiences or hyper-targeted campaigns, a spike in dark social traffic might be an indicator that those campaigns are doing well.

And, while it sounds like this tactic is more prevalent in social media marketing, we, digital marketers, often forget how real-world advertising can impact the digital world as well.

Even a banner ad outside a conference center for the 2-3 days of the conference can be one type of marketing campaign that cannot be easily attributed or blindside your competitors.

Thinking out-of-the-box might take you so far, marketing through the same methods that have worked for decades might be the right way to go sometimes!

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