• March 30, 2021
  • By Linda Pophal, business journalist and content marketer

Shining a Light on the Dark Funnel

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Chris is in the market for a new car. Chris, like most consumers, is broadly aware of the many types of cars on the market and can see them on the road, on car lots, in advertisements, and online. While deciding which car to buy, Chris not only draws on his own awareness that has been created through these channels, he is also likely to become much more proactive in seeking information—asking family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues for their advice; perusing review sites; following hashtags on social media channels; gathering information through Google searches; and, eventually, visiting car manufacturer or dealer websites to help narrow the choices. Then Chris is likely to visit a local car dealership to take a test drive and talk pricing.

This winding and convoluted process challenges today’s marketers to identify a clear path to purchase. No more can they map the journey from need, to awareness, to consideration, to purchase—if they ever could. In fact, as today’s marketers think about the traditional funnel, they’re increasingly becoming aware that this linear model simply isn’t sufficient to offer relevant and reliable insights into the purchase process.


The dark funnel is a concept that has been making the rounds for some time now in sales circles. The term refers to the often-veiled insights marketers might fail to uncover as they attempt to understand the customer journey. While the digital marketing environment yields some powerful insights into consumer actions, some of these actions, like visits to other websites, research conducted through third-party sites, social media impacts, etc., might be hidden from marketers.

The digital sales environment has long lulled marketers into a false belief that they can accurately monitor the customer journey online. The truth, though, is that much of the customer journey still takes place offline and even the activities they might perform online seldom progress in a linear fashion. Instead, the journey is circuitous with elements that are not as obvious or easy to see.

In the online environment, these hidden elements are what we mean when we refer to the dark funnel.

“The traditional marketing/sales theory works but takes too long and can miss the mark,” says Janet Deskins, a faculty member in Walden University’s College of Management and Technology. A marketer’s role is to find consumers, of course. Therefore, Deskins says, “the dark funnel is more of a consumer journey than a dedicated target launched by a marketer.”

The traditional marketing approach is irrelevant when the dark funnel is implemented, Deskins says. “Many marketers today will tell you that the traditional marketing and sales funnel and theories are dead.”


The concept of the dark funnel emerged around 2016, according to Deskins. “The dark funnel came about when marketers realized the customer experience was changing,” she says. “While there is still a traditional sales funnel, consumer action changed.”

Today’s consumers often do a considerable amount of research about an intended purchase before ever coming to a company’s website, she explains.

“The dark funnel basically speaks to the fact that marketers began to lose sight of what drives customers to websites and through their buying decisions,” adds Milosz Krasinski, managing director at Chilli Fruit, a web consulting company. “The dark funnel is made up of all the small but important things that have changed over the years and which come together to make a big difference.”

Despite the sinister-sounding moniker, the dark funnel is “really just a name given to the act of rooting out gaps in the sales funnel which occur naturally as the digital marketing world grows and evolves,” says Jack Zmudzinski, a senior associate at Future Processing, a software development firm

Brandee Sanders, a digital and tech strategist and vice president of marketing at Modal, a digital commerce solutions provider for the auto industry, explains the dark funnel as “the missing steps or pieces of a journey.” For example, she says, “the dark zones like offsite content before a lead is known to the [marketing technology] stack or has self-identified via traditional things such as form fills, known IP, or registration or download requests.”

Most buyers will start their prepurchase research in one of three ways, Sanders says: off your main site, through reputation tools, or by doing their own competitive research. In addition, she says, buyers can be significantly influenced by previous purchases, reviews, or comparative data. Undeniably, the act of social listening or researching a brand or product—whether online or through word of mouth—still matters to consumers. They seek information from a variety of sources before coming to a decision. Those sources are likely to be both online and offline.

The two divergent paths consumers often take in making purchase decisions online and offline have come to be referred to as webrooming and showrooming. As e-commerce emerged, brick-and-mortar marketers quickly became concerned about the tendency for consumers to go to physical stores to browse and select products, but then to go online to make the actual purchase.

Interestingly, though, there is an offsetting tendency here—webrooming. This is where consumers browse online but then make in-store purchases. These two pathways to purchase have implications for the dark funnel.

“While traditional sales and marketing funnels can work, the dark funnel brings in an element of a new direction,” Deskins says. “The dark funnel can mean that marketers are more engaged with potential consumers because most of the groundwork has already been done. Consumers already know what they want, so the traditional marketing funnel can be bypassed.”

The circuitous route that consumers take in their decision making is increasingly subject to change as new technologies and new business models emerge. Marketers must remain nimble and be constantly on top of emerging trends to remain relevant and top of mind.

“It’s all about keeping up,” Zmudzinski says. “Don’t just stick to the same old strategy. You need to be watching the ways in which the sales funnel and your customers evolve and then put in the work to tweak your funnel accordingly.”

The bottom line is that the dark funnel represents the realization and reality that companies don’t control the messaging that consumers receive about them. Not only do they not control the messaging, often they might have absolutely no idea where consumers are getting information about them or their products and services or how accurate and reliable that information might be.

That’s problematic.

“You don’t know what you cannot see,” Sanders says. “If you cannot see it, it cannot be measured. If it cannot be measured, it’s not being quantified or spent against or noted as a touchpoint in marketing attribution.”

Consequently, she says, “the dark zones can impact us even if they’re not seen directly in reporting.”

Are there steps marketers can take to bring some of that dark information to light? Fortunately, the answer to that question is “yes!”

Technology can be illuminating here, Deskins says.


“Technology plays a huge role in the dark funnel because of the ability for consumers to bypass a salesperson,” Deskins says. For example, many marketers use online forms to allow consumers to submit information. That data is sent to the marketer to better understand what consumers might be trying to find.

Third-party analytical data can also be gathered through third-party means—like Google Analytics or through tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and others, Deskins says. In addition, she notes: “The use of codes is extensive in the dark funnel. Technology has allowed marketers to better pinpoint how to obtain consumers without guessing how to find them. Embedded smart URLs allow marketers to see analytical data through embedded tracking codes.”

Smart URLs contain tracking codes that can be programmed to give marketers visibility into consumer behavior online that wasn’t previously available, through urchin traffic monitor (UTM) codes that can be attached to custom URLs to track a source, medium, and campaign name.

Tools like 6sense also are available to help marketers track and analyze consumer behavior online. 6sense actually claims to have coined the term “dark funnel” and includes a trademark symbol behind the phrase on its website. The site indicates that “6sense’s AI platform uses historic intent signals to reconstruct the account-based buyer journey for your business, meaning you can confidently predict where any account is in the buying journey.”

Mintent also claims to have come up with the term. “We coined the term Dark Funnel after extensive research into how the customer journey has changed.” It also points to kontextURLs (kurls)—trackable, custom smart URLs that measure multichannel engagement and report on conversions and true ROI for content and campaigns across the customer journey—as the “first step to illuminating the dark funnel.”

“Being able to tie together multitouch attribution or stitch together the journey is impactful and helps shape a true 360-degree picture of your visitors and buyers,” Sanders says.

Tracking codes allow marketers to track both on- and off-site content engagement metrics. On- and off-site, but not on- and offline. That’s an important distinction. While much marketing activity does take place online in the digital environment, not all of it does. Marketers should resist being fooled by the lure of bright and shiny technology solutions, thinking they will provide all of the answers they’re looking for about their customers’ journeys.

The smartest smart URLs in the world can’t tell marketers about the conversations customers have had with colleagues, friends, relatives, and others about products or the reports they might have seen on television, in the newspaper, in trade journals, or at trade shows.

We are analog, not digital, beings, which means that the ability to track every step of our consumer journeys is arguably futile. And, in truth, traditionally depicted sales funnels of any kind have never been truly reflective of the customer journey, even before digital marketing emerged. Companies have never had 100 percent control over messaging about their products and services. They never will, despite the greatest advances in technology.

But don’t despair. In fact, a very old concept could well provide relevant insights for marketers—even more meaningful insights in some cases than technology: simply asking your customers.

Mozilla offers a great example of how this might be done. Back in 2018, Mozilla posted a message on its community portal asking users which sites they used to download the Firefox web browser. They explained that their desire to know this information stemmed from concerns that consumers might put themselves at risk when accessing older editions or even malicious installs.

More than 1,500 people responded to the request.

The old-fashioned approach of asking customers “How did you find us?”—although subject to response bias and error—still provides value for marketers, especially when they’re trying to piece together consumer actions that might span the web and other nondigital means of gathering data to help guide purchase decisions.

Just as there is no one way to depict the consumer purchasing funnel, there is no one recipe for gathering relevant information from consumers about their buyer journeys. Despite advances in technology, marketing remains both a science and an art.

It’s clear that there is no straight path to seamlessly understanding buyers’ journeys to identify, step by step, how they came to make purchases. Still, there is a lot of value in continuing to attempt to monitor that journey and its various twists and turns to identify best practices to attract attention, generate interest, create desire, and drive action. The old “attention, interest, desire, action” (AIDA) formula still applies. It’s just not as much of a linear funnel as marketers have historically believed it to be.

And truth be told, it never was. 

Linda Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer who writes for various business and trade publications. Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends, and more.

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