Dark Social Attribution: Friend or Foe?

The state of online marketing attribution in 2022 is a mess. Last touch attribution is not enough. Could a simple dropdown field be your saviour?

Are you tracking dark social? Here’s what a student experiences:

(*** = When a student makes themselves known in your CRM)

  1. You want to study Business Management.
  2. A friend says they’re applying to Aston University.
  3. You Google Aston and spend 10 seconds on their homepage.
  4. Two weeks later, you’re struggling to decide where to study and ask the group chat what they’re doing.
  5. University names pour in, but only some are known for Business Management. One of them is Aston.
  6. You choose Aston because you’ve heard the name before.
  7. You check the Business Management course page.
  8. You look at the University’s social channels.
  9. You watch a video clip of a student talking on a podcast
  10. You like what you see, but see no need to comment, and decide to explore reviews.
  11. Reviews on WhatUni look solid.
  12. You consider several more courses and decide Marketing is a better fit.
  13. ***You register for an open day.

But here’s what most software reports:

  • Lead: Open Day Registration.
  • Source: Organic Search.

That’s it. How can we prove effectiveness if we’re only seeing part of the picture? Check out the episode to hear our thoughts!

Nathan Monk
Hello, and welcome to Most Clicked. Each week we are breaking down the top story from Kyle from the Education Marketer, his newsletter, and the top performing story. So this week we are talking about dark social attribution. And we’ve already been having lots of discussions around this, I think there’s going to be quite a heated debate around this one. So joining me in the ring for this week’s episode is, as ever, Kyle Campbell from the Education Marketer, but also Matt, my co-founder from SMILE. So Kyle, dark attributions social, what is the story with this one?

Kyle Campbell
To put a bit of context around it first. So this is only a topic this week because I thought I’d pull together a few different threads that are happening at the moment, just put it into a frame that’s relevant to higher ed marketers. So in the post on LinkedIn, this was, I outline a hypothetical student journey, and the various steps in that journey that are particularly hard to track. So for instance, in things like conversations between peers, fellow students, and teachers, maybe a student sees an ad and doesn’t click on it. And the idea is that a lot of these steps happen before a student can make themselves known to you.

So they might sign up via an ad, or they might sign up via an open day and that’s the first time you hear about them in your CRM, you don’t get this sort of long pre-tail of the journey they’ve taken. And in the post outlined a couple of ways in which you could potentially start to measure that or start to get a few insights on that. The first one was to measure over time. Because specifically, when you’re talking about this dark social stuff, a lot of it is about building up a reputation in a feed over time, and it’s very rarely attributed to one post. So you have to look over a period of months to get a sense of the quality of insights and feedback from customers and how they hear about you. And one of the ways I suggested that you get that information is on a contact form, or a form you’re using as part of a campaign or whatever it is to put an additional field on there literally asking people, how they, they hope they hear about you how they got in touch how they discovered you. And make it compulsory, make it free text. So you get those additional qualitative insights on that journey.

Or perhaps these people, your students, customers, will mention one of these ways in which you’ve been playing in that sort of dark social area. So it’s a mix, really. So you have those qualitative insights, then you also have the more sort of scalable stuff, which you’ve captured in your CRM. So putting those two things together. If you capture enough data, you can actually start to scale that and get insights from different sources. So that’s my opening gambit in the ring. Shall we discuss SMILE and let’s break it down and have a little that back and forth because this is a really cool topic. I love talking about it.

Matt Lees
Yeah, sure. Nath, I know, you’re chomping at the bit with a few points so I’m gonna hand over to you first.

Kyle Campbell
Hang on a minute, my Siri is going off for some reason? It’s off now.

Nathan Monk
So dark social, or dark attributions are my biggest bugbear. I think that the world that we live in today, those dark attributions are better signals for purchases, whether that be in kind of business communities, or you know, student recruitment communities, I think they are bigger signals of that sales process than what we are currently used to in terms of attributions. And as a technology person, I am particularly interested in monitoring every attribution so that I can know the journey and see where everything came from. The fact that in 2022, we’re still relying on UTM tags, which Firefox has just started blocking, for example, or the fact that we’re relying on third-party cookies and things like that. It baffles me, absolutely baffles me. And I want to know, like when I share something on LinkedIn, how many times that gets screenshotted and sent in Microsoft Teams, for example, because that is probably far more valuable than somebody actually clicking the Share button, for example, and I know just from doing this show that the share numbers don’t add up to the views.

So a couple of episodes ago, we had a really popular episode because it talks about a specific university. And my assumption is that the spike in numbers came because it got shared internally but I have no way of actually saying that that is correct. And so I can never kind of stand up in a meeting and say, oh, yeah, you know, there’s good attribution, or here’s the journey that people took, and it annoys me, it annoys me so much because I want to be able to see that journey. So from your post, Kyle, I think the thing that I really disagreed with is, that you basically said, hey, it doesn’t actually matter where the attribution occurs from, it’s just if you write good content, that kind of good enough. And like, it’s not, it’s not for me.

Kyle Campbell
Yeah, I mean, you say, from a technology angle, and I get that, that’s really important to you. But if you’re thinking about, say, someone who’s quite senior in an organisation quite far removed from the day-to-day metrics of a campaign, they might potentially be more interested depends on the style of management, I guess, but they might be more interested in the general effectiveness of something, what is working in general, which is why I suggested that field because you want to say there’s no real great way of tracking this via tools at the moment is there you can’t track a screenshot by its very nature. But if you’re running a campaign, you’re interested in discovering, if you’re doing a content marketing campaign beforehand stuff and you want to see if it has had an impact then asking people, you know, how they discovered you are actually quite useful in that context, because it gives you the general idea. It might not be just one example and saying, perhaps if you’ve got 50 responses, and say, 12 of them identify a podcast, just for hypothetical sake, then you know that, okay, that part of that dark social, dark funnel is performing.

Nathan Monk
Yeah, I mean, like that, that works if you’ve got a funnel that culminates in one place, but I think a lot of universities are balancing multiple threads. I’m not gonna go too, too much further down that rabbit hole, because I know that Matt wants to talk about that form, in particular.

Matt Lees
So yeah, so I had one bugbear with your post, Kyle. And so in the post, you had said, ask people where they had heard about you. And you kind of alluded to the point that I’m going to make it there, because you said don’t do a drop-down, people will simply select the first item in that drop-down. From a user perspective, I can’t help but for your make, making a compulsory free text field wouldn’t give you any better output, really, because I think people would stick a space in there and hit submit, I know I would, if somebody’s asking me something that I don’t really have the answer for, or I haven’t got the time to give them the answer. And just, you wouldn’t get anything useful out of me. I think at that point,

Kyle Campbell
that perhaps you’re right. I mean, there are two parts to that. So I think the first part is that we’re, I wouldn’t class us as typical users in this sense, because we work in this sort of digital sphere. And I don’t know, arguably, like, we know the rules of the game. We might just go, I don’t want to f*cking do this and then do the thing. But I can’t talk about an individual campaign, perhaps that would be true for some, perhaps 50% of users would fill it in and give you the information that you want. I mean, the other thing from a UX perspective and not making it required. I mean, I just think, I think it’s too important not to gather it. If you think about how we’re doing attribution now. It’s largely provided by the software. And, you know, having seen how certain campaigns are attributed, it’s so narrow, it’s like, organic search, paid that there’s no context. And I just don’t feel, there’s a hell of a lot of marketers missing out on this extra layer of scaled qualitative insights. Give them that real information. Yes, the campaign, the content issues you’re doing or are having an impact. And, you know, if we’re not asking the questions about if our marketing is working, it becomes very difficult to prove that we’re worth our soul and actually having a direct impact on the business. So that’s my two caveats to that. I just think it’s too important not to gather that data.

Matt Lees
I think we’ve got polarising views there. But there’s only one real way to find out. And it’s to try out, right? Because I think what you’re saying is right, ask the question and see whether you get the insight that you want out of it. But my gut would be, that people just won’t fill it out the way that you want them to. But I definitely could be wrong.

Nathan Monk 10:23
Our man in the chair behind the scenes here Elliott producing has also let us know, he said, you know, that he’ll always look to see if the option that he wants is in the drop-down. And if he doesn’t immediately see, it’ll just click any. And I think that that points out to me that there’s an issue there with accuracy as well, like, okay, yes, attribution driven by software at the moment. And that might not be the right way to do things, but at least you know, that the software is accurate in how it tracks those attributions. And I think that if you go down that route, where oh, well, they could have just put anything, they could have clicked that for whatever reason, it almost creates these questions for senior executives to really probe you with and kind of erode the trust in what you’re doing, and then just go, well, it’s not that accurate anyway, so I’m not sure we should really listen to it that that would be my concern. But I would love you to know, if anybody is watching this, decide the fight for us. If there is a free text field, are you typing something in there? Or are you just leaving straight away? We want to know what you would do.

Kyle Campbell
Or put it on some of your contact forms, and see what people do. I mean, we gather a lot of information, don’t we? Would one field make a difference? I’m not too sure. But I think it needs to be tried and left on somewhere for a month. And if you don’t get the insights, it doesn’t work for you. But you know, solely relying on attribution software, I’d say it isn’t particularly accurate because if you get like a result saying paid search, but actually, that person has already interacted with your stuff quietly in the dark for like two months previous and had 10 touch points. It isn’t accurate. It’s not telling you what’s work. It tells you the last touch, definitely. But I just think the rest of the story is just left in left in the dark, so to speak.

Nathan Monk
Well, I’m going to leave it then up to our users to really you know, control this now. I do I genuinely want to know, like, what would stop them from making a free text field mandatory on there you know, Are they scared about that? Maybe they’re not. But ultimately, who is right, Kyle or me? Like, that’s all I care about, right? So I’m not going to do takeaways this week because that’s the key takeaway that we need to work out and fill people in next week. But I would just like to say thanks to both of you for your time. Thank you to our subscribers. If you’re interested in more chats like this, please do subscribe. If you’ve enjoyed today’s chat, give us a like, and until next week. Bye

Elliott Barnicle
Elliott Barnicle

Lead Designer