Beware The Dark Funnel

Your marketing data might be lying to you.

When your goal is to create demand for your offerings, what you are really trying to do consists of two different things:

  1. Make your audience aware of you and your services;
  2. Create enough interest for people to decide to connect with you, giving you a chance to earn their trust over time and make them believe you could improve or transform their business.

Awareness can be easily bought - be it in the form of advertising or one-on-one outreach. That's the main idea behind keeping the tank of your marketing engine always full. What fuels your growth are the activities that put you in front of your target audience.

Interest, on the other hand, it's more tricky. For one, it doesn't depend only on you. Maybe a dream account learned about you and your work, but the timing is not right. Sometimes internal dynamics or budget allocation play a role, and there's no intent or urgency.

The other challenge is that there's not a perfect recipe to create interest. You, as a consultant and trusted advisor, are unique. Your niche and ideal clients will likely be very specific, and as a result, your offerings should also be. The way you communicate them can't be copied from someone else.

The pragmatic and only sensible solution is to:

  • Focus on understanding your audience as best as you can (and keeping constant communication with it to learn how its worldview changes over time);
  • Keep running multiple small experiments to see what messages land better, and drive more interest from your audience;
  • When you find something that works, allocate the bulk of your resources to it until you see a point of diminishing returns.

What doesn't get enough attention, however, is that when we follow this plan of action to systematically improve demand generation we are making a big assumption: That everything prospects do can be measured and tracked.

It turns out this is a false assumption.

The reality is that B2B buyers are discovering, researching, and evaluating consulting services in places companies can’t track. We call this “the dark funnel”.

Here are some things that belong on the dark funnel:

  • Word of mouth from colleagues and industry peers;
  • Content consumption from podcasts or 3rd party websites;
  • Niche communities and organic social media.

Let's say a prospect reaches out to you, goes through your sales process, and ends up hiring your services. How do you know decision-makers listened to you speaking on a podcast, and that played a role in building their interest (and your credibility)? You can't know this unless they openly share it with you.

On another example, let's imagine one of your happy clients told a friend about you and your brand. A couple of weeks later, they see your Google Ads, recognize your name, and click on it. The message and channel may not be the best one, but Google is taking all of the credit for your marketing results.

This happens every day, for thousands of consulting firms all over the world. Word of mouth drives by far the most B2B buying decisions today and gets zero credit in attribution.

As Chris Walker, from Refine Labs, puts it:

All of this content consumption & communication between peers is happening on 3rd party channels, where the platform has no incentive to pass you the data. In fact, many of the platforms have privacy policies that specifically restrict them from passing you the data.

Since "dark funnel" channels are difficult to measure in the traditional way marketers have been trained to measure, it's neglected on their marketing strategy.

Of course, over the last decade, there was a big advance in terms of attribution software. There are hundreds of tools that can measure who are the people that are seeing your content or searching for your business, how and when they engage with your messages, and so on. I use them with every client I work with.

But the point here is to recognize that every single one of these tools is limited, so you don't make wrong decisions based on incomplete data.

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