Dark social is the behavior that connects the entire purchasing journey today. Yet, most marketers are still in the dark about dark social. Just ask my father-in-law, the doctor.
I asked him if he uses social media. He replied with an unequivocal no. Social media is trivial in his estimation. Dr. J is an orthopedist in New Jersey. While not tech-savvy, he FaceTimes and iChats with relative ease from his iPhone and iPad. At my urging, he tried apps like Waze and Magisto, which he now loves.
He recently purchased a fancy sports car. Despite his views on social media, I probed him on his purchase, and together we conducted a tour of his Firefox browser history. An hour later we concluded that he not only used social media, it informed nearly every step of his purchase.
His brand preference began by paying attention to cars in his hometown. He began his search in earnest on Google by searching “Porsche,” and clicking an image of a “911” served by Autoblog.com. He emailed the link to his car buff friend (everyone has an expert friend on nearly everything), who texted him a video review of the car from YouTube published by Petrolicious. The video raised a few questions about car packages, which prompted a few more searches on Google.
Like most consumers, my father-in-law did not distinguish between media and social media. He followed the links delivered by Google Panda to visit a popular car forum, checked out a photo stream and watched two other videos on his path to purchase. Overall, he clicked on more than 28 links, 4 more than the average car buyer, of which 13 were technically social media. At the dealership, he checked his phone to price compare throughout the sales process. Of course, the final step in his purchase journey, getting the purchase approved by his wife, happened the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.
I have repeated this exercise more than 50 times with a diversity of doubters, to similar results. The decision to purchase high average order value products such as automobiles, insurance or furniture is dominated by the interconnectivity of search, social, text and email. These channels constitute what we call dark matter, or what The Atlantic more aptly calls dark social, because these behaviors do not show up as meaningful sales drivers in the sales reports delivered to the desk of the CMO.
When my father-in-law was queried how he learned about the car at the dealership, he checked the “other” box without even a mental nod to his online search. Not even a sophisticated phone survey would have captured the reality of his purchase journey, since consumers don’t distinguish between media in the way marketers do. A phone survey would have yielded the same negative results, which is why Gallup phone surveys about the use of social media are fatuous. The dealer website would have read this traffic as “other” or “direct URL,” both euphemisms for dark social. As it turns out social is a behavior, not a set of channels, that works across channels.
As a result, marketers grossly undervalue the importance of dark social. It is exponentially more complex to think about the dark matter that connects the media rather than big chunks of advertising. Dark social does not easily show-up in rudimentary attribution or surveys. Net Promoter Scores and Agent Based Marketing are only crude proxies for evaluating the impact of a better customer journey. So, these channels are underfunded in the marketing mix, and innovation in cross-channel marketing still does not receive proper funding.
Of course, billions of dollars are being allocated without insight into the fastest-growing forms of communication. And most brands remain blind to the ways their basic channels interconnect to each other through search, social, email and text, because they are all handled by different parts of the marketing organization. The four horsemen of purchase decisions not only inform, they dominate purchase decisions, whenever we conduct more thorough attribution studies. The investment in social media also uses common sense, when you sit down with your father-in-law, or any consumer, and recreate their purchases.
The Internet shines a light into every corner of marketing, even very dark places. The mobile and social revolution for marketers is about actually helping the user to control the media. If we want to help them, first we have to understand their basic journey better, their basic expressions of intent, when and where they want to engage, no matter how inconvenient.