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  • Writer's pictureHearst Pittsburgh

Marketing in the Shadows: How to Leverage the Dark Funnel

To put our roles as advertisers and marketers in the simplest terms, our job is to understand and influence customer behaviors. The "what" is simple. The "how?" That's where things get unwieldy, especially when you start to factor in the uncharted territories of consumer behavior that can elude our tracking mechanisms and don't fit neatly into even our most clever frameworks.

In today's post, we're exploring the untracked touchpoints that significantly influence consumer decisions and how we can develop ad plans that make the dark funnel work for our brands.

Revisiting the Traditional Marketing Funnel

You're likely quite familiar with the traditional marketing funnel. It's a handy-dandy visual representation of the decision journey that potential customers embark upon, starting with awareness and concluding with conversion and loyalty.

a traditional marketing funnel

In an ideal world, our customers would follow each our carefully planned touchpoints through a straight line, right down the funnel. Easy to track, easy to optimize, bah-da-bing, bah-da-boom.

A handy, but incomplete framework

However, the traditional marketing funnel framework comes with its own set of limitations. One of the primary constraints is its linearity. It implies a neat, step-by-step progression from awareness to conversion, which doesn't necessarily reflect the real-world complexity of consumer behavior.

If you've ever gone down the rabbit hole of attribution modeling, you know that customer journeys are rarely (if ever) as simple, as linear, or as easy to report on as that lovely marketing funnel would suggest. Customers frequently jump back and forth between stages, engage in some touchpoints simultaneously, and bypass others entirely.

Another limitation - and the focus of this article - is its inability to account for the influence of untracked touchpoints, the so-called "dark funnel." It underestimates the significance of brand-builders like events, PR, mass media ads, word of mouth, reviews, and more. All of these play a substantial role in shaping consumer decisions but are challenging to quantify.

The traditional funnel may not consider the long-term impact of brand-building efforts, like TV advertising, which continue to influence customers even after direct interactions. These limitations highlight the need for a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the customer journey, beyond the confines of the traditional funnel.

Meet Marketing's Dark Funnel

Beyond the reach of our tracking codes and cookies, is another, more mysterious marketing funnel at work: the dark funnel.

What exactly is the dark funnel, and why does it deserve our attention?

The dark funnel represents the hidden turns and detours that a customer might take before they even enter the traditional marketing funnel. Outside of our carefully designed touchpoints, each aligned with their funnel stage, potential customers gather information, make decisions, and interact with our brand, all without leaving a trace.

By the time that a customer arrives at their ultimate purchase decision, many touchpoints have unfolded, and some of them (maybe even "lots" of them) may not have been tracked. Think about it: events, PR, word of mouth, online reviews – these are all key players in shaping the consumer journey, yet they often slip through the cracks of reporting and analytics. It's like trying to catch smoke with a net, and advertisers can easily miss these vital interactions.

For years, digital marketers have been able to track and analyze customer behavior using cookies, pixels, and other tracking technologies. But as privacy concerns grow and users become more conscious of their online footprint, the dark funnel has become a formidable challenge. It is a black hole that swallows up valuable data, leaving marketers in the dark about the true effectiveness of their campaigns.

Furthermore, while the dark funnel is commonly discussed in the realm of digital marketing, it also extends its influence into traditional advertising avenues. TV, billboards, events, PR, and myriad other mediums play a crucial role in the customer journey, but their impacts often remain in the shadows of data analysis. Events can create ripples through word-of-mouth, while billboards make lasting impressions. TV, with its storytelling prowess, leaves a lasting mark on consumers. Understanding the impact of these dark channels is essential for advertisers to optimize their reach, influence, and spending.

TV & The Dark Funnel

As a TV station ourselves, we want to pause for a moment and take a deeper dive into the implications of the dark funnel specific to linear television advertising.

Television advertising has been a staple in the marketing world for decades. It's a medium that combines the power of sight, sound, and storytelling, making it a potent tool for brand building and reaching wide audiences. Yet, when it comes to tracking its impact, TV often finds itself in the shadowy realm of the dark funnel.

Traditional tracking mechanisms excel at quantifying immediate online interactions, but TV doesn't always fit neatly into these parameters. TV ads have a lingering effect, contributing to what we call the "brand lift." It's the subtle, long-lasting influence on consumer decisions that can't be measured through rating points or reach metrics alone. Your TV ad might not drive an instant online purchase, but it can sow the seeds of brand recognition and preference in the minds of viewers.

Television has a unique ability to forge emotional connections with viewers. Storytelling, powerful visuals, and memorable narratives are its signature strengths. The unique touchpoints created by a TV ad campaign, often beyond the reach of tracking pixels, play a significant role in guiding consumers towards your brand.

Consider for a moment, the morning after the Super Bowl. People from all walks of life are discussing, critiquing, and applauding the advertisements, as much as they are the big game. But here's the interesting part: those same highly-engaged folks probably aren't rushing out on Monday morning to stock up on Doritos or buy that shiny new car they saw in those ads. So why do advertisers invest big bucks in these fleeting moments? It's all about brand lift. In the swirling vortex of the dark funnel, Super Bowl ads leave an indelible impression on viewers. While it may not result in immediate purchases, it plants the seeds of brand recognition and positive association that will influence purchase decisions down the line. It's about playing the long game, recognizing that in the dark funnel, impressions matter just as much as clicks and conversions.

In the dark funnel, content is king, and TV ads are no exception. Create TV ad content that goes beyond selling; it should provide value, solve problems, and leave a lasting impact. Whether it's through storytelling, humor, or a touch of emotion, make your TV ads memorable. When consumers find meaning and relevance in your TV content, they're more likely to remember your brand as they navigate the untracked channels of the dark funnel.

Incorporating TV advertising into your dark funnel strategy is about recognizing its unique role and understanding that its influence goes beyond immediate tracking. It's a part of the broader customer journey, guiding consumers through the hidden paths of the dark funnel and leaving a lasting impression that shapes their decisions in the long run. TV advertising is a valuable asset, and when wielded wisely, it can be a beacon of light in the depths of the dark funnel.

Navigating the dark funnel

Understanding that the dark funnel exists is one thing, but harnessing its power is where the magic happens. Here are some actionable ideas for advertisers looking to make the most of the hidden touchpoints that influence consumer decisions:

01 | Get to know your own dark funnel

To unlock the potential of your brand's specific dark funnel, you first need to understand where it lies within your marketing stack. Review your entire marketing ecosystem and pinpoint the gaps in tracking data. Identify the touchpoints that slip through the tracking net and often go unnoticed. By shedding light on these dark corners, you'll be better equipped to leverage them effectively.

02 | Work backwards from your point of sale

Start from the end and work your way backward. Use the data you do have to reverse-engineer success. Analyze what's working, which touchpoints are driving conversions, and what kind of content or messaging resonates with your audience. Once you've identified these winning elements, replicate them across all channels to create a consistent and compelling customer experience across both the traditional and dark touchpoints.

03 | Get creative with your data capture

In the dark funnel, data capture isn't impossible. It just takes some creativity and planning. Try running A/B tests within these untracked channels to discern what strategies are most effective, or use unique coupon codes and UTM parameters to track customers originating from these elusive touchpoints. By innovating within data collection schemes, you can bridge the gap between what's seen and what's hidden.

04 | Leverage Qualitative Consumer Research

Resist the temptation to rely solely on quantitative data. Create mechanisms to gather qualitative insights from consumer research and feedback from your sales team. Find out what questions potential customers are asking, what aspects of your offering they need more details on, and how they discovered your brand. Want to learn more about collecting consumer data? Check out this post.

05 | Show your brand's human side

In the dark funnel, where personal interactions often prevail, building genuine connections is paramount. Create content and branded moments that go beyond selling; instead, focus on solving problems and delivering value. Embrace your human side by addressing customer needs, sharing stories, and making a memorable impact. Remember, it's the human touch that often guides customers through the hidden paths of the dark funnel.

06 | Build a consistent brand

Ensure that your brand message and values are unified across all channels and touchpoints. This uniformity not only reinforces brand recognition but also bolsters customer trust, even in the avenues where we as brand guardians have less visibility or control. When customers encounter a consistent and reliable brand, they're more likely to progress through both the dark and traditional funnels with confidence.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the dark funnel is not just a challenge but an opportunity waiting to be seized. It's an opportunity to understand the elusive touchpoints that have a profound impact on consumer decisions, even when they escape the scope of traditional tracking mechanisms.

By acknowledging the existence of this enigmatic brand space and implementing the strategies we've explored, advertisers can not only recognize but also harness the hidden forces that shape customer journeys.

The path to influence isn't always linear and in the dark funnel, impressions matter just as much as clicks and conversions. These uncharted territories offer new ways to engage, inspire, and build lasting connections with our audience.

So, let's not be afraid of the dark funnel. Instead, let's embrace it as an opportunity to uncover new insights, engage with our audience in more meaningful ways, and drive success in our marketing efforts. Together, we can navigate the shadows and illuminate the path to success.


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