What the heck is dark social - and is it relevant to enterprise buyers?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 17, 2022
"Dark social" sounds compelling and mysterious - but is it a bona fide sales trend? And what is the so-called "dark funnel"? Sales and marketing must adapt to today's enterprise buyer, but are they going about it the right way? Here's my review.


LinkedIn's algorithm often fails to lure me in. But a month ago, it got me. I'm a sucker for a live video with a guy sporting a t-shirt that says "social selling sucks." (That was the show host, Brandon Lee). But the show title also grabbed me: Building a Personal Brand to Harness the Power of Dark Social.

"Dark social"? Oooh - sounds cool and subversive. Alas, "dark social" is neither of those things. At its worst, dark social fuels the behaviors we dread the most on LinkedIn:

  • Overeager salespeople soaking comment threads with happy talk so as to "remain visible" to their prospects.
  • Those same salespeople striving valiantly to connect with you, so they can spam your LinkedIn messages with their fishing expedition.

Suddenly, your LinkedIn contacts in sales/marketing roles are sharing uplifting proverbs, because dark social teaches them to distract their way into your world every day, whether there is something useful or relevant to say or not.

At its worst, "dark social selling" is about salespeople finding new/invasive ways to pitch their wares, since you don't answer your phone anymore. But is there more to it? At its best, dark social creates a welcome, organic connection between enterprise projects - and those who can support the effort.

Defining dark social - buzzword history

Let's start with some definitions. Target Internet defines dark social as:

"Dark social" refers to all the social media interactions that the public, search engines and marketers like you and I can't see – such as communications on private social media messaging, email, WhatsApp and SMS.

The term goes back to a 2012 article by The Atlantic's Alexis C. Madrigal: Dark social: we have the whole history of the web wrong. Public social media activity causes plenty of sales attribution problems. Dark social activities make attribution tracking even harder - but many energetic salespeople are giving it a go nonetheless. As I see it, the growth in dark social in sales coincides with LinkedIn's rise to dominance as a professional platform. In other words, you haven't received your last "I want to introduce you to our services" or "How can I help?" message.

To be fair to dark social selling advocates, sending blatant product pitch messages is not what they recommend. That would be considered an abuse of dark social, not a proper use. However, from what I've seen and researched, sales and marketing teams aren't taking their white hat behaviors far enough (more on that shortly). So what do marketers recommend? I got a flavor from Brandon Lee's aforementioned LinkedIn show, and this Demand Gen U podcast episode from Metadata.io, Taking Advantage of Dark Social and the Dark Funnel.

Dark social as a sales practice

Salespeople who get results out of dark social tend to emphasize two things:

  1. Play the long game (don't oversell)
  2. Be helpful/active in online discussions, and good things happen.

Demand Gen U's hosts Mark Huber and Justin Simon covered this off:

Organic social is a big component of it, but we look at communities too. So starting to see what people are talking about in DGMG, Pavilion, or one of the other big communities, and seeing questions that people are asking, comments that people are leaving, jumping into those conversations and trying to be helpful - without pushing Metadata.io.

Perfect example: there was a comment I responded to, I think it was like a month or so ago, it just came in as a closed one deal yesterday. They said it was inbound, it was direct, and it 100% wasn't, because I responded to a comment in there. I scheduled a demo with them the next day, and you know, 30/40 days later, it's not only a deal, but it's a closed one deal. So it works.

We're not trying to measure everything about it. Because you can't, and we're okay with it. But there are some creative things that people have been trying lately with, 'Hey, how did you hear about us' and open attribution. We haven't gotten to that yet. But I think we want to.

How do we define the so-called "dark funnel"? The Demand Gen U podcast duo explains that the dark funnel flows from dark social. Once you engage in "hidden" social sales interactions, you want to make sense of where they are headed. Destination CRM puts it this way:

The digital sales environment has long lulled marketers into a false belief that they can accurately monitor the customer journey online. The truth, though, is that much of the customer journey still takes place offline and even the activities they might perform online seldom progress in a linear fashion. Instead, the journey is circuitous with elements that are not as obvious or easy to see.

In the online environment, these hidden elements are what we mean when we refer to the dark funnel.

Cognism talks about the dark funnel as spooky. Unfortunately, the dark funnel is about as spooky as dark social is cool. However, from an attribution standpoint, the dark funnel is indeed ominous:

It's a term that means the places that buyers are engaging and making decisions that no attribution software or tracking can account for.

My take - dark social is a worthy challenge, not a sales tactic

Dark social is hardly limited to sales tactics. Even in a sales context, you can envision plenty of dark social interactions between peers that vendors have no idea about (example: a project manager messages a friend, or a group of colleagues, to get their feedback on a particular vendor). In that sense, dark social is another avenue for vendor accountability - perhaps a more honest one than moderated peer review sites.

Software vendors were always, on some level, accountable to customers. But dark social ensures that bad behavior travels fast. Fortunately, good behavior does too.

Personally, I welcome the attribution headaches dark social poses. Why? Because reaching buyers that aren't drinking your Kool-Aid has always been hard to measure - including B2B content, which I am obviously passionate about. I've lived off the virtual power of content for 30 years.  Sometimes I feel like I am waiting for the analytics to catch up with what I've already proven to myself, again and again.

Dark social is the same way. Salespeople who have potent 1:1 online interactions with prospects intuitively know the power of it. And sure, you can enter that name into your CRM system. But how do you do that with a big 'ol comment thread?

As we improve our attribution models and opt-in data tracking, we'll get closer. Start with this premise: we know dark social matters to sales, so how do we track it? The reverse, challenging your salespeople to prove why their time on LinkedIn and other platforms is productive, is the wrong starting point.

I hold sales and marketing to a very high bar. I believe salespeople need to become industry advisors, and marketers need to become media creators, with a journalistic mindset. That's not a very popular view, nor is it easy to achieve. But as I listened to these dark social podcasts, I felt my grouchy side rise up.

My big objection to B2B social media is people hopping onto platforms too soon, before they've deepened their expertise and content. Have something to say - and something meaningful to share. That's so much better than scouring platforms, trying to be friendly and "helpful." In B2B, you can be so much more helpful when you actually know your sh&t inside and out. Funny how that works.

Setting a goal of "20 comments on LinkedIn every day" strikes me as annoying and premature. Why not create a podcast about your industry first, like Metadata.io did, or a webinar series, or a training course, or even a series of informal TikTok videos with customers? Then you have content to share, and expertise gained. What would be a better goal than posting volumes? How about: become a valued member of this community, someone with a unique point of view?

There is a misconception that prospects just want to be listened to. Personally, I don't want an active listening exercise. I want to talk to someone who I trust, who understands my problems, who has solved similar problems for others. When you've earned that authority, then by all means, I want to talk to you. My research on enterprise buyers shows me the same thing. And guess what? You don't have to message them. Because if they trust you - and know you can solve their problem - they'll message you.

Dark social reflects the online discourse that is core to our Vaccine Economy lives. It's a term that can be misused and abused. It can definitely spur unwelcome sales behavior. But I also like what can happen - if you take it as a challenge to improve your community.

End note: for more context, see Barb Mosher Zinck's related 2019 post, What can marketers do about private communities?

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