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GUEST OPINION Retailers must nail sales attribution now to tame ‘dark social’

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Andy Lockley, Digital Marketing Manager at footwear retailer, Cloggs, discusses tackling the complexities of ‘dark social’ marketing through better attribution

Coined by Alexis Madrigal in 2012, a rising challenge for many brand marketers is the increase in the web traffic flowing through ‘dark social’ platforms.

Largely comprised of direct messaging apps, these platforms are growing quickly; WhatsApp celebrated its 1 billionth user earlier this year and for many consumers this is the ‘go to channel’ to communicate with their friends and families.

However, unlike web traffic that’s attributed to a known source such as Facebook or Instagram, dark social links sent via mobile messaging apps and email are from completely unknown sources. As a digital marketer, if I don’t know that a friend has shared a link to our sale or new range of footwear on a messaging app then potentially we miss out on a prime opportunity to convert them to a sale.

It’s been suggested that dark social could be one of the most valuable sources of social insights because it represents the real interests of the person sharing the content and receiving it, so it’s imperative that marketers don’t overlook the power of this channel.

As their popularity grows, these platforms are becoming more important in the purchase journey and brands need to be aware of their influence. However, dark social is nearly impossible to measure. So how do I understand its impact on the shopping journey?

Don’t stick your head in the sand

While content on dark social often exists beyond the reach of standard analytic tools and metrics, it’s possible to analyse some of its impact when we can see how customers behave within the purchase journey and understand how they arrive at particular pieces of content.

For example, similar to how SEO is analysed, marketers can identify when a customer lands directly on a page on their website, without having clicked through from another marketing channel. If they land on a specifically tailored landing page immediately, it could have been shared with them on a dark social platform. It’s one of the few ways that they could have landed on a page without a longer purchase journey. In contrast, if the user lands on the brand’s it’s much harder to make any assumptions about an unknown referrer, as they were probably already aware of the brand, or were made aware of the brand through other means that definitely can’t be tracked, such as word of mouth.

Although it is difficult to track dark social, brands must find clever and alternative ways to try to measure its value, at least in relation to other channels and sources of information.

The problem with “last click wins”

Consumers are connected 24/7, trawling through reams of content and flitting from page to page with increasing speed and ease. The linear customer journey is over, so a limited “last click wins” view of performance actually conceals the true contribution of the various channels and influencer efforts. Last click attribution simply won’t cut it in today’s multichannel landscape, particularly when hidden channels like dark social are at play.

In order to better optimise their campaigns, brands need to understand which combination of channels is delivering the greatest value to their business. The growing awareness of dark social is proof that brands can’t rely on one channel and measure this last click to understand their sales cycle and target their customers. They must understand the whole customer journey and distribute marketing spend at each point of influence to be successful.

Use multichannel insights to solve the problem

By optimising measurement to understand the role of individual channels within the true purchase journey, marketers can measure value more easily. Our attribution technology partner, Rakuten Attribution, has enabled us to join the dots and understand how each channel and device is contributing to our customers’ overall decision to purchase. One of the key findings being that social is a very powerful tool as an ‘advancer’, neither first nor last click. By ensuring that every other channel our customers use during their purchase journey is attributed in the right way, we are able to better understand when dark social could be at play.

We use Rakuten Attribution to track all of our marketing touchpoints, including display impressions, and have a custom, propensity based attribution model. We’ve even set up data imports to automatically integrate detailed cost information into the Rakuten Attribution platform. This has meant we’re now able to optimise directly to the profit driven by each product, which has been hugely beneficial to our business.

We found that 80% of all our customers’ online activity is multichannel, so optimised our online marketing mix accordingly. We boosted sales and also reduced ad spend by more than 10%. By measuring display as part of the complete user journey we were better able to understand its value.. At the same time, we were able to allocate resources based on the data so that marketing activity and business operations can be much more efficient.

Illuminate the blind spots

By looking at the full purchase journey brands can get a better idea of how dark social is influencing their customers – chances are messaging apps or private messaging on social media won’t be the only way they discover or express interest in your brand, and measurement methods must consider this. Dark social will continue to be a more challenging channel to measure, however with insights into the multichannel purchase journey it doesn’t need to be a complete blind spot.

By unlocking insights through attribution, brands can reconfigure their online marketing mix and prove to the wider business, in granular detail, how hard each channel is working and contributing to demand.

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