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Illuminating the Dark Funnel of B2B Marketing

What if we told you that your buyers are making their most important buying decisions in places you can’t track?

It’s true, and it’s called:

The dark funnel.

Sounds pretty spooky, doesn’t it?

No need for alarm; it’s nothing sinister. The term was coined by 6Sense; it was made popular by intent data providers to activate outbound sales and capture the attention of buyers in the places they actually buy.

In this article, we look at how marketers can use the dark funnel practically to do better marketing, with insights from B2B marketing experts Alice de Courcy, Cognism’s CMO and Chris Walker, CEO @ Refine Labs.

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What is the dark funnel?

Found yourself in a new content trap?

Every time your team finishes a new piece of content, you want to get it up on your channels.

The trap is, you’re not spending the time to optimise it before you move on to the next bit of content.

The dark funnel can release you from this trap. Here’s Alice’s definition of it:

“The dark funnel means the places that buyers are engaging and making decisions that no attribution software or tracking can account for.”

When it comes to B2B marketing, the dark funnel can shorten your funnel. It also gives you the opportunity to create brand awareness and affinity, drive differentiation, create demand and increase conversion rates.

What is the dark funnel? Click ▶️ to hear how Chris Walker defines it.

Core channels 

According to Chris, the most important touchpoints in a B2B buying journey aren’t measured by attribution software.

And, for most companies, if it can’t be measured, it’s overlooked.

Here’s what he recommends:

“Stop thinking in terms of what’s going to work with your attribution software and lean into the channels that make up the dark funnel. Most companies won’t accept them because Gartner and Salesforce haven’t written an eBook on them, or they’re just mailing it in and not doing it well enough to see results.” 

“These are the channels where your buyers are, and every other company isn’t doing well there, which creates a massive opportunity for you.”

What are these channels?

Communities

By joining online communities or building your own, you’re building meaningful relationships and getting to know your buyers on a more human level.

Be sure to engage and stay active in your buyer’s world; this builds relevance and awareness.

Organic social

You don’t need to spend a fortune on social media to build brand awareness or engage with your audience. Social should be about distributing worthwhile content that people can get value from.

This means - no more gated content!

The more you educate your followers, the more they’ll look to you for advice and answers. Over time, they may become your customers.

Podcasts

You need to bring your content to your audience, not the other way around.

This is where your outbound marketing and sales podcast plays a significant role. It might not be measurable, but it’s going to bring you a lot of buyers from shares, word of mouth and brand awareness in general, especially if you’re sharing content of real value.

Word of mouth

If your team is staying helpful and delivering on your product, and sharing insights with your audience for free, you’ll gain a lot of followers.

These people will tell everyone they know what a great company you are. This is one of the most important factors driving B2B buyers.

PR

Any PR you’re not paying for is like a referral on its own. The more your name is brought up, the more prospects will remember you when they want to invest in a product or service like yours.

Events

Live events, webinars, industry talks and sharing live videos on social media all constitute a dark funnel channel.

Events create impact, and they give you content to share on a wider level later on. The better experience you give your audience, the more likely you’ll stay in their minds.

Chris Walker said:

“The thing that connects all of these channels is either direct communication between peers, or it’s happening on third-party content platforms that have privacy policies. So you can’t get hold of any data to track, and because companies can’t track it effectively, most of them don’t execute on them.”

“If they do, it’s a throwaway, and they’re just kind of mailing it in or posting a LinkedIn post on the company page every once in a while and not recognising that these are major business drivers when executed appropriately.”

If you’re a B2B buyer yourself, you’ll know where you’re doing your own research and discoveries for the products you want. Just be sure to add them to your own marketing strategy.

The thing that’s really exciting about the dark funnel is that its core infrastructure is already built!

Chris said:

“My strong recommendation is that you align on a holistic, high-intent website funnel where someone will come to your website and ask to speak to a rep, request a demo or request pricing.” 

“In the case that they have high intent to buy, they are qualified, and when those three actions happen, your win rates are significantly better than any other channels. Sales funnels are short and acquisition costs low.”

You might be thinking that you’ve already got this set-up, but the fact is:

“60 to 80% of marketing source revenue comes through high intent conversions that move through sales qualified opportunities and then into revenue.”

“But companies take all of their marketing dollars and effort and create a lead generation funnel where they go into other channels to collect leads that are qualified based on job title or company size, but have no intent to buy.” 

Meaning:

Your sales team is contacting people who don’t want to buy!  So win rates will be low, sales productivity bad, customer acquisition high, and your sales cycles incredibly long.

To counteract this, Chris sees marketing’s responsibility in three core buckets:

  • Pipeline marketing -  this is bottom of the funnel, with companies already in it and would normally fall into ABM, field marketing or sales enablement.
  • Capture demand - here, you want to find people who are already looking to buy what you sell or are already brand aware. You need to get those people into a meeting with a rep as fast as possible.
  • Create demand - executing in the dark funnel. You’ll need different metrics and expectations on time here, as well as a totally different mindset. You can’t focus on bringing in MQLs; instead, you need to focus on how much revenue you’re bringing in.

Chris added:

“There are two very different sales funnels that are happening inside of your business right now. Most companies take all the MQLs and put them into one big pool, and they don’t see the two big differences based on the intent of buyers.”

How to get started with the dark funnel

Using the dark funnel will open up major opportunities for you - opportunities your competitors aren’t yet utilising.

To start, all you need to do is create demand and start educating your followers.

 Chris suggests building from the bottom up:

“Exclude pipeline marketing for now. This should be someone else’s responsibility while you focus on capture and demand.”

“There’s no sense in starting a podcast or trying to run LinkedIn ads at high spend if when someone gets to your website, they don’t convert, and they can’t get in touch with the person they want to talk to. They won’t be moving, so they won’t be buying.”

“So, if you’re not doing this repeatedly and consistently, then optimising that part of the process is a good place to start. We’ve done this and seen conversion rates improve by 45 to 80%.”

After you’ve optimised your website, start figuring out what channels you plan on using and how you’re going to measure them.

Chris advised:

“Demo page views and demo conversion rates are a good lead generation metric for non-page traffic.” 

“So you won’t just be running a bunch of ads to drive people into the funnels because your conversion rates will go down on forms and sales, which is not what we want as marketers.”

What we do want as marketers is to optimise the entire process, not just one part of the process at the expense of other ones.

Meaning:

Look at your demo page views, your home page views and direct traffic.

Once you’re out of Google Analytics and on your website, review your channels and see how they influence your customer journey.

Chris said:

“This is a place where marketers get scared because they’ve been trained for the past ten years or longer by marketing automation vendors to look for direct attribution to prove that something is working or not.” 

“Instead, we need to look at correlations and the audience to figure these things out.”

Content as a competitive advantage 

The next mistake many marketers make is focusing too much on what their competitors are doing.

Every company has a different budget depending on its size, and if you spend too much time worrying about how to do better than your competitors, you’ll only get left behind.

Alice said:

“For me, the most important thing is content. Every startup I’ve worked with has relied on content to create a competitive advantage, and you don’t necessarily need money to do it well.”

Chris agreed:

“Exactly. Refine Labs has a lot of competitors, but I don’t really know many of them, and I don’t pay attention to them. I don’t think about it.”

“Instead, I focus on the customer - they tell me what they aren’t getting and where the gaps are, and I execute the strategy.”

What’s the best way of using your content as a competitive advantage?

It’s simple:

You need to spend more time looking at what your customers are doing rather than what your competitors are doing.

This will give you way better insights into what you need to do to keep your buyers happy. It will also help you avoid copying your competitors.

Chris offered this example for why you shouldn’t copy your competitors:

“A client once asked me why they weren’t getting results on a specific term, and I said, well, your competitor is spending $3,000 bidding on that term. It makes no sense, and they’re wasting all their money.”

There are three things that make a content strategy work; most companies miss at least one of these:

1. A subject matter expert

Your subject matter experts should be suited to your buyers. So, if you’re selling to Chief Information Security Officers, you need to ensure you hire someone who understands and has a level of respect in that industry.

It’s the only way you will give people real value and get them to pay attention to your content. If you have a marketer trying to write for that audience and they don’t know anything about it, it won’t work.

2. Consistency

Almost every company fails at this. Refine Labs produces three podcasts a week. This means they have enough content to distribute via micro-content distribution levels on various channels, including YouTube, LinkedIn and Instagram etc.

This level of consistency creates content to be repackaged and distributed on social channels.

3. Distribution

You’ve got good content, but the trick is to get it in front of the right people. You can’t post it once and hope people find it.

Instead, you need to balance how you share it over time, between paid and organic. Speed and time are essential when it comes to distributing content.

This means letting go of the content strategies you’ve worked on for five or six months and focusing more on the here and now.

Chris said:

“When it comes to content distribution, it’s great when you have more content to distribute, so when you get to that point, you need to start siphoning it off to organic.” 

“Then you can be more selective about what you run on paid, and you can see which is performing better.” 

“Another alternative is to run one campaign with a lot of different assets and then turn off the ones that don’t do well. Let the audience decide what content they want to see.”

How to execute a dark funnel strategy

Chris said:

“I believe marketing’s new role is to educate people to a level where they’re ready to buy. You’re not just giving someone an eBook and a score and then moving them into your marketing funnel; you need to think about it a lot more methodically.”

“This person has never heard of your brand and doesn’t understand; how can you move them through the buying process at scale without needing a salesperson to give them a demo?”

So how do you start executing this new way of marketing?

Simple, you need two strategies:

1. Paid

Inside of paid, start with product marketing, then social media and work your way up.

You can go straight to paid if you don’t have an audience built for core organic distribution channels, and you believe it’s going to make an impact and move the needle on someone buying.  

Chris added:

“Most importantly, when you're paying for things, it needs to serve a business objective.”

2. Organic

Lots of things are better served organically. Chris recommends that once your paid strategy starts moving, you can begin to build on organic marketing.

Then, as people see your ads, they might actually subscribe and get into a different stream. Having these two strategies running in parallel is critically important because it gets organic traction and boosts paid.

Regarding Cognism’s strategy, Alice said:

“How we’re running our version now is that we have a wide audience like in our ICP, and we’ll run what we call an awareness phase with videos because they’re more affordable and can be reused easily.”

“Then we’ll build a phase two funnel where we restart the video views with product target and MOFU content such as webinars etc.”

But for Chris, educating his buyers is the most important part of executing a dark funnel strategy:

“I'll share to educate so that the more my buyers consume my content, the more they understand, and the more they understand, the more they are going to consider our product and ultimately choose our brand.”

How does this work?

His idea is that people are in certain places when they want to buy enterprise SaaS. They’ll show intent to buy by visiting Google and looking at review sites and your website. Here you can be in full-on conversion mode because they’re showing intent.

But if you’re in another place where it’s clear that the buyer doesn’t have intent, like when they log onto LinkedIn to connect with colleagues, you need to build a funnel that educates and builds that intent.

For example:

Selling a 99c course or sharing relevant content for free. It works because it’s a transaction that offers value to your buyer and builds a relationship between them and your brand.

Chris said:

“Take your entire audience and segment them how you want – by business, by content etc. and create ongoing communication for them without the intention to convert.”

“Instead of trying to segment it off like a funnel, give everyone everything.”

Tracking in the dark 

As marketers, we need to track and measure things - it’s the way we’ve been trained.

So if you absolutely have to track the dark funnel, how do you do it?

Chris suggests a number of methods, but the very first is attribution.

Most companies have attribution software as a standard, but these tools can’t measure dark social and tend to give most of the credit to what they can easily measure.

Acknowledge these metrics, but don’t build your entire strategy around them.

Chris’s suggestion:

“One thing Refine Labs is doing is called self-reported attribution, specifically on our web form. We require anyone who fills it out to tell us how they heard about us.” 

“We’ve had it going for three days, and so far, all results have been organic search and the State of Demand Gen podcast. Of course, we already knew this, but other companies don’t, so it’s a good place to start discovering where your leads are coming from.”

Alice wondered if there was a drop-off on the form, to which Chris replied:

“Common conversion rate optimisation principles say, ‘don’t add more fields to the form,’ and we didn’t add more; we took one out and added this one instead.” 

“Secondly, if someone is on my form and they won’t convert just because there’s an extra field on the form, then I don’t want to have a conversation with them anyway.”

Chris believes that these optimisation principles have been ingrained in our minds since 2011.

This was when we were trying to get as many leads as possible for the lowest lead cost, not understanding that when you convert more people who aren’t ready to buy, your sales team makes a manual effort to filter them out as opposed to you filtering them out on a marketing level.

He said:

“When I look at this, I look at it with a sales productivity lens on.”

“I don’t want to pass people on to sales if they’re only going to convert to closed-lost after a meeting that wastes 30 minutes of my reps’ time.”

Alice agreed:

“It won’t be 100% accurate either. If I’ve seen a LinkedIn ad a few times, but I haven’t engaged with it, but I’ve come to you from various other sources, it’s still an indicator.”

Another recommendation Chris had is to call your prospects and ask them how they heard about you. This will give you a deeper understanding of how your marketing is working, and will provide you with more insight into how to market to your buyers.

Back to Chris:

“Look at your opportunity metrics, so you can calculate win rate by each stage of the funnel.” 

“When you start measuring this way, you can find the source of your leads. I often find they come from two places - organic search and direct traffic.”

Selling the dark funnel to your CEO 

You might find that when you try to pitch the dark funnel to your CEO and stakeholders, they’re stuck on the MQL hamster wheel.

This is an issue Chris addresses with:

“Companies give marketing a whole bunch of incentives to do the exact opposite of what sales want, which is driving a bunch of leads that don’t go anywhere and waste their time. We need to get out of this mindset, especially if you want to scale.”

“CEOs often look at SQOs and go, ‘Oh great. Our SEO is doing so well. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ But in reality, people are just funnelling through Google when they’re ready to buy, and you don’t have any tracking on the things that got them there in the first place.”

So how do you get your CEO out of this mindset?

Once you can identify the source of your SQOs, you’ll discover a whole bunch of other things, like what’s working and what isn’t, but you won’t make any discoveries if:

  • You’re not executing organic content on LinkedIn.
  • You don’t have a podcast.
  • You’re not interacting with your buyer’s communities.

However, you will find that a lot of your leads do come from word of mouth.

Alice recommends:  

“Hit your target, hit your number, earn your right and then split the funnel and measure both, and there’s no argument as to where the conversion came from.”

“You can use this to make a business case for more money to siphon budget off from what’s less productive and into what’s more productive.”

Most importantly, when pitching to your leaders, you need to have a plan or strategy on how you’re going to trigger outbound sales instead of MQLs.

Try wording it as follows:

  1. What we’re doing now isn’t working. Here’s the data.
  2. Here’s what we’re going to do instead: we’re going to trigger outbound from intent data, from a certain source first, and 3rd party intent data as opposed to MQLs. This way, our sales team will be talking to people who are way more inclined to buy right now, and our marketing team can do more important things.

The dark funnel: closing thoughts

Changing your strategy to embrace the dark funnel could actually be a blessing.

Firstly, you don’t need to monitor metrics much, freeing you up to create more and even better content.

It’s an efficient way to do marketing because you know your audience wants to buy, and it shortens the funnel immediately.

What’s more, the dark funnel opens you up to dramatically better results. It’s a massive opportunity for your company and your career because you’re always learning and growing.

If you continue to do the same marketing as everyone else has been doing for years, automation will eventually advance to where your job becomes obsolete.

Listen to the podcast 

Press ▶️ to hear Alice and Chris’s full conversation about the dark funnel.

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