Dark Social vs. Darth Vader
Where the dark side goes to promote their stuff - 𝗞𝗲𝗻 𝗖𝗵𝗼𝘄
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In marketing, finding a catchy name to explain what you are executing in your marketing campaigns is almost as important as the action itself. Having a "cool" way to explain how you shifted your focus from "A" to "B" and how that is working for your marketing campaigns seems to be what matters.
You define your objective, do something, test if it works, and if it does, you share it and claim it as your success. And, if you post it on LinkedIn and it somehow "resonates," it becomes a "thing" marketers can discuss and either support or challenge.
The problem with this process is that we are drowning in playbooks, experiments, guides, tricks, tips, hacks, etc., that claim to be the appropriate and certain way to do X, Y, and Z but lack the context, and depth marketing campaigns require to work correctly.
In other words, we are surrounded by an incommensurate amount of noise that makes it harder for us to step back and think about what is essential for our marketing strategies. We are surrounded by information and yet we are starved for meaning and knowledge.
Even though most professional marketers understand marketing is not about certainty, but about minimizing risks and maximizing your chances of success, what tends to be popular in social networks are words and concepts that "pop", bridge gaps, and are shiny. We are told to ignore the shiny object syndrome while, in the end, some of us are ironically eager to find the next big thing to discuss, embrace, or challenge.
We are eager to find the hack that would lead to success, when in reality there are no shortcuts in marketing.
Daily, the nature of marketing as an ever-evolving uncertain and complex profession seems to become more evident. And yet, we let ourselves be distracted by new terms and acronyms every couple of months.
And, this time, the latest distraction is Dark social.
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What is Dark Social?
Dark social emerges as a natural response to being unable to measure everything.
Initially coined by Alexis Madrigal in this article in The Atlantic, it refers to all information that can't be attributed to a particular action online. Either because it is digital word of mouth that surpasses analytics, or because in an increasingly cookieless world, more people care about their privacy than a decade ago.
Dark social is a way to acknowledge that not everything can be measured in a click-driven world - a relatively bland concept considering that most experienced marketers know that attribution is one of the most challenging aspects of marketing.
Why is Dark Social a distraction?
Marketing appears to be a space where trends work cyclically. From the self-served PLG movement to the sales-assisted way, from going all-in on brand and ignoring performance to doing the exact opposite a couple of years later, it seems, as marketers, we do not know what we are doing half the time.
Suppose you explain marketing functions to outsiders. To some, it may appear we are constantly running like headless chickens trying to deliver and prove to ourselves and the world that positive numbers are possible. We try to do anything we believe will show we are accomplishing our goals, often losing sight of what matters and what needs to happen to transform visions into reality.
In this marketing context, dark social is just the acknowledgment that marketers cannot measure everything. But other than that, it is not novel, groundbreaking, innovative, or conceptually solid enough to be taken seriously as part of a marketing strategy.
While there is a lot of digital behavior that can't be measured, that does not mean that a new marketing realm suddenly appeared. You should not waste your time thinking about "what to do to develop a dark social strategy" nor believe you are missing something in your marketing strategy if you are not jumping into this "new" trend.
It is a distraction. A sexy distraction with a name similar to "dark matter" (the energy you can't see, but it's powerful and present) that minimizes the rigorous qualitative and quantitative efforts marketers exert to accomplish their goals.
Beyond the distraction, Dark Social is still meaningful
Dark social itself holds little to no value. Most people who work in marketing understand not everything can be measured flawlessly in a funnel. There will always be external factors that influence behavior and drive people to buy that you cannot track.
What matters, however, is the fact that traditional attribution marketers that tend to be laser-focused on measuring everything are facing one of marketing's harshest truths.
"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." - John Wanamaker
ROI cannot entirely reflect marketing activities - and in a hyperconnected paradigm click-based attribution spoiled us and we need to wake up. As marketers, our job is not to attribute and understand precisely how to spend every dollar but to know how to maximize our chances of success in a probabilistic system.
Dark social conversations are essential, not because dark social is new or a "new strategy" for marketers, but rather because it elevates the conversation. It allows us to view marketing beyond an exclusively logical omnipresent ubiquitous understanding of digital behavior to a less tangible, cultural vision of it.
Dark social matters because it brings to light to marketers that context and providing an experience worth sharing might just be as important as ranking for the right keyword.
How to use Dark Social for your Marketing Strategy
If you are seriously considering implementing Dark Social for your marketing strategy, you must start by forgetting about dark social.
Go beyond what dark social means to the tactical actions needed to leverage the untraceable to your advantage. In other words, dark social is irrelevant when viewed as a new marketing dimension (mainly because it is not new) - but it gains value as a set of actions that prioritize memorable experiences that people want to share with others.
You may not be familiar with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.
When we think about marketing as a discipline and language, it seems that meaning-as-use is exceptionally relevant. Unlike in many other spaces, marketers love talking about what they do, and in doing so, they add meaning and coin new terms faster than in most disciplines. Meaning and value emerge simply as a reflection of experiments and recycling old "terms" with new names. So even if we hate never-ending processes or regurgitating old concepts with new words (information that can't be attributed = dark socials), what matters is that marketers are doing things differently, trying to adapt offers to an unpredictable digital world with fewer cookies than ever.
In that sense, discussing dark funnels becomes relevant because marketers are beginning to do something regarding this untraceable information. Wittgenstein puts it this way "speaking a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life." And, today, being a marketer means you need to talk about this whether you like it or not.
It is at this precise point, in the fact we are having this conversation and reading/writing this article, that dark social gains value.
Dark social marketing strategies are mostly fluff, but recognizing there are lots of data points marketers cannot measure and still have an impact on our marketing campaigns is not only valuable but crucial in a privacy-first new reality.
To leverage the importance and the actions that go beyond dark social, start by accepting several marketing principles that are uncomfortable.
Attribution is not 100% accurate, nor should it be (it would be creepy, not to mention massively illegal).
Great marketers make great decisions even if they are not 100% sure of them; moreover, the result is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the decision. It is a probability game, there is always chaos and unpredictability in marketing.
"What makes a decision great is not that it has a great out/come. A great decision is the result of a good process, and that process must include an attempt to accurately represent your own state of knowledge. That state of knowledge, in turn, is some variation of "I'm not sure".
Focus on adding value instead of trying "playbooks" or “new dark social tactics” to grow - your lagging indicators (results from customer behavior) are not nearly as important as what you need to do to ensure your customers and potential customers enjoy interacting with your brand and product (leading indicators - customer actions). Great products and experiences are messages we love sharing because they make us look good - social currency and practical value are real and not always traceable.
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