Dark Marketing 101: The Change to How Brands Communicate Online
Apple has had a Twitter account for over seven years, but if you visit its page, you’ll see an empty feed without a single tweet. It looks like Apple simply hasn’t gotten around to tweeting in all that time. But, in reality, Apple tweets constantly. You just don’t see it.
Check out this tweet about Mac.
Behind the Mac people are making wonderful things and so could you. #BehindTheMac
— Apple (@Apple) June 21, 2018
Or this one promoting the new iPhone.
An iPhone and a little imagination can make every move look big. More tips at https://t.co/cZ8feyROdm
— Apple (@Apple) June 18, 2018
These are just two examples of dozens of Twitter campaigns Apple has run in the last year.
What’s happening? Social media has ushered in a new era of “dark marketing,” a phenomenon that illustrates the dramatic changes in how brands communicate online.
Dark marketing can be traced back to 2012, when Facebook first enabled advertisers to create “dark posts,” which are posts that are only shown to carefully targeted audiences. Soon thereafter, dark posting was made available on LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube, and the tactic evolved into an all-encompassing, multichannel strategy we call dark marketing. Today, 90% of Twitter ads, 85% of Facebook ads and 60% of YouTube ads are “dark” or hidden from public view.
For brands, this is a gift and a curse. The benefit is that they avoid wasting resources through “spray and pray” advertising like broadcast television, sending the same message to millions of people. Instead, the brand is drilling down to reach audiences most likely to be receptive to their messages. And consumers become part of an entirely new digital ad experience.
A recent Harvard Review Study revealed that 78% of users do not want to develop a relationship with a brand. Yet, when executed correctly, personalization can be viewed as a considerable value-add to the customer experience with a given brand. Thanks to data and analytics, customers see ads based on their demographics and behaviors that speak directly to them. For example, if someone is not within 18-24 age range who seeks out gaming-based content, they likely won’t see ads for Playstation 4 consoles or video games.
In short, when done correctly, dark marketing immediately drives revenue for brands, and allows them to control the conversation, without revealing to competitors how it was generated because only the targeted consumers know the campaign is running.
The downside of “dark marketing” is that anyone who wants to understand how a given brand is conducting its ad and marketing campaigns, like competitors, stakeholders, or regulators, will have trouble getting a full picture. This is highly problematic, as understanding what competitors are doing is vital to survival for most brands. When marketers talk about digital being a black box, this is why.
So how did we get here? There are three main social media drivers for dark marketing: fragmentation, segmentation and personalization.
As marketers work to target more precisely, the fragmentation of social platforms has become a key factor in the rise of dark marketing. Marketers can use a variety of marketing platforms based on campaign goals and target audiences. For instance, as a video platform YouTube reaches more 18-49 year-olds than any cable network in the U.S. Facebook hosts 22% of the world’s population, and it promotes ads that get customers to buy products and services. From these examples it’s easy to see how a cross-platform strategy maximizes the reach and ROI for many campaigns. Many marketers adopt strategies involving multiple channels for that very reason.
However, because each site only reveals a part of the overall campaign, a multi-platform approach obscures a holistic picture of any given marketing program. Theoretically, a brand could spread their campaign spend across multiple platforms at the same time, so the only way to get a full picture of its marketing is to view each social platform 24/7. This isn’t humanly possible.
Marketing 101 taught us all that it’s about your audience, not your brand. Ads must be relevant and meaningful to customers, and that is best accomplished through customer segmentation. Segmentation techniques allow marketers to break down their audience in a variety of ways, such as socio-demographics, geography, values and interests, behaviors, and much more. This audience breakdown is nothing new; however, dark marketing has given segmentation new life.
On social media, a user can only see these segmented posts if they’re a part of the campaign’s target audience. This explains why you can’t see any Apple tweets on Twitter but their content may show up in your feed. That means competitors looking to counter Apple can’t tell just by looking at social channels who they should be targeting. They can guess that a certain age group would be most excited about the new emoji capabilities on the iPhone X, but they don’t know for sure. Twitter has introduced new functionality to try and shed light on some of these campaigns for transparency purposes, but it’s not at all comprehensive.
Social platform fragmentation and segmentation across audiences enable dark marketing, but there’s also a third component: content personalization.
As campaigns get smarter, they gather data to learn whom to target and how to reach them in a personalized way that will resonate. And it works. Personalization strategies have been identified as improving sales by an average of 19%. This means the ad one person sees can be very from different from that seen by another, even though the message is for the same product. These campaigns are launched with multiple variations and are designed to resonate with as many people as possible. Each person is essentially approached with a distinct marketing campaign designed specifically for them. Yet for a competitor, this further complicates the goal of getting a full picture of the strategy because a rival brand can’t see all the creative that is running, let alone where and to whom.
Because of fragmentation, segmentation and personalization, brands are in the dark, and without visibility into the entire digital marketing ecosystem. To do their jobs effectively, contemporary marketers must be able to get a glimpse behind the screens of their customers and shine a light onto dark marketing. Only then can they have a truly agile marketing strategy.
Alon Leibovitch is the co-founder and CEO of BrandTotal, a marketing technology platform that empowers marketers to discover and act on threats and opportunities in real time. Alon collaborated with BrandTotal’s co-founders to develop marketing technology built on the principles of machine learning AI and military grade cyber security data collection to develop the BrandTotal Agile Marketing Platform. Alon holds a Masters in Behavioral and Management Sciences at Technion Israel Institute of Technology.