Strategies and Solutions for Shedding Light on the Dark Funnel
To a seasoned marketer, every inch of the funnel feels like familiar territory.
But customers don’t make all their decisions within the carefully curated, brightly lit digital marketing space. Not everything is trackable and traceable through conventional tools, and that leads to missed opportunities.
Collectively, the shady places that hide purchase intent are known as the dark funnel.
What is the dark funnel?
The dark funnel refers to customer intent data that goes unnoticed by marketing and sales teams. It’s the shadowy space where potential buyers are actively influenced, but you don’t have the benefit of tracking. It forces us to ask: How can you determine purchase intent if you can’t track buyer behaviours?
Think of the marketing channels you actively track. They include paid social, paid search, email marketing, and a handful of other traceable marketing mechanisms. What these channels don’t reveal are all the signals that happen outside your control and curation:
- Review sites and forums with community-sourced feedback like Reddit or Quora
- Events where on-the-ground conversations take place
- Word-of-mouth interactions with other customers
- Content platforms like Spotify and YouTube
- Organic, influencer-driven social spaces like Twitter and TikTok
- Internal communities and groups like Slack or Google Workspace
- Offline conversations with colleagues and teams of decision makers
Each channel represents a source of influence that’s tough to track, but conversations between colleagues point to one aspect of the dark funnel that doesn’t just require a technological change—it demands a shift in mindset around purchase decisions. That’s the individual decision maker versus the buying group.
Buyers vs buying groups
When B2B marketers consider influencing a buyer, they tend to think in terms of a monolithic decision maker. The resulting strategy tries to give that individual as much attention as possible, then attempts to qualify them as a key lead within their organization. But according to SiriusDecisions, 59% of buying decisions result from groups of people working together. Although individuals certainly have greater or lesser agency within those groups, the reality is that decisions depend on collaboration and collective influence. That’s the power of the buying group.
How does this change the way we think about the customer journey? It’s primarily in how we identify purchase intent. To explore the concept, SiriusDecisions presents an interesting lead-generation scenario. Which purchase intent signal is stronger: a single individual downloading several whitepapers or a whole team downloading one per person? In many marketing-to-sales flows, the individual would qualify as a strong lead while the ten team members fly under the radar—or even get flagged as duplicate leads and considered negative demand creation results.
When you set this challenge against the landscape of customer intent data hidden in the dark funnel, it compounds the difficulty. The solution is finding and organizing new and better data.
Shedding light on the dark funnel
As marketers, we don’t like the idea of information that isn’t within our control. We’re driven by data, so blank spots make us uncomfortable. Once we sit in that discomfort and realize we need to look beyond our standard channels, we can begin to work with what we don’t know and explore ways to uncover it.
Our comfort zone lies within conventionally tracked channels along the demand generation journey: paid social links, form fills, email click-throughs. But according to Gartner, over 80% of a customer journey occurs outside of direct engagement with a supplier. Make it your priority to learn where those channels sit and what drives customers to engage with them.
Mapping the landscape of the dark funnel itself is half the battle. The other half is coming to terms with intent signals in spaces you don’t control. You might be a master when it comes to your CRM, but there’s a wealth of knowledge outside your funnel.
6Sense breaks this data down into three distinct sets of key signals:
Behavioural signals indicate the topics that buyers research and the solutions they consider. They include the fit for the person doing research and the account they represent, the kinds of solutions their buying groups are considering, and the source of the behavioural signal itself, whether that’s a publication, blog, social network, or others.
Buyer readiness signals break down into technographics, organizational performance, and overarching market forces. Technographics represent an analysis of the technology that a customer needs to make their business goals a reality, while organizational performance indicates whether an organization is in a position to make a purchase. You can understand market forces as the macro-factors affecting the entire landscape of a customer’s field.
Buyer psychographic signals
These signals depend on understanding buyers as real people driven by psychology. Although B2B marketing differs from B2C, you’re still marketing to people. You could call it B2P. Properly identifying psychographic signals can help you shape interactions between your content or sales professionals and the behaviours and preferences of people who make up buying teams.
If you want to confront the dark funnel, understanding these signals is crucial to your success. The simplest way to start is through in-the-trenches research. Map out these key signals across your intended audience. When you understand their key behavioural signals, buyer readiness indicators, and psychographic profiles, start thinking about how to gain and leverage the information that matches their needs and the channels where you’ll reach them.
Piercing the darkness
Leveraging insights from the dark funnel depends on finding ways to access these key signals. There’s no single solution for sourcing this data, but here are a few ways to get started:
- Qualitative research with user surveys, either during the onboarding process for new customers or through micro-surveys as part of your website welcome
- Quantitative data research through tools like Google Analytics or HubSpot that provide insights into generalized search habits
- Competitive analysis research through channels like Quora or Reddit, influencer content, and social listening
If you have the bandwidth to invest the staffing time and effort, you can perform this research in-house. If not, sophisticated business intelligence tools like 6Sense and DemandBase can be powerful allies in helping you find your way as you gather intent data and decide where to allocate your efforts. These tools specialize in providing insights into key customer signals.
When it comes time to target those customers, understanding how buying groups work will be central to marketing to them. That’s no easy task. Gartner finds that buying groups typically consist of 6–10 decision makers, each with their own information biases and psychographics that you’ll need to de-conflict to arrive at a solution.
Gartner highlights the six primary tasks of a buying group, each of which you’ll need to own to influence their purchase intent:
- Problem identification: “We need to do something.”
- Solution exploration: “What’s out there to solve our problem?”
- Requirements building: “What exactly do we need the purchase to do?”
- Supplier selection: “Does this do what we want it to do?”
- Validation: “We think we know the right answer, but we need to be sure.”
- Consensus creation: “We need to get everyone on board.”
How you meet each cognitive demand will depend on your marketing goals. You might go all-in on building your leaders’ personal brands. You could design a content strategy around repurposing quality material across multiple channels so it has the best chance of reaching several people within a buyer group. You might even enlist your customer success and sales teams to actively contribute to community forums with authentic, helpful information that points to your product.
The options for influencing purchase intent are as diverse as the buyers who make those decisions. But one thing is clear: if you restrict yourself to the conventional marketing funnel, some of the most important parts of the customer journey remain in the dark.
The first step is to break out of comfort and convention. Identify the places along the path to purchase that are shrouded in mystery. Then commit to searching for signals in the dark.