Generating sales qualified pipeline in the era of dark social

In the era of "Dark Social," B2B sales and marketing must shift towards a buyer-centric approach, focusing on customer advocacy, understanding dark social engagement, incentivizing advocacy, connecting advocacy with buyer intent, and identifying target accounts with high advocacy for effective pipeline generation.
Shankar Ganapathy
Co-Founder, BuyerAssist.io
Oct 26, 2023
5 mins

I sold my first deal in 2012 - a customer feedback survey tool to a standalone five-star hotel in Chennai, India. I generated the opportunity by doing a walk-in and meeting the GM in the basement office. After many iterations, I finally started working for a small startup that had pivoted into sales enablement - led their marketing from $0 to $20M and subsequently moved to a quota-carrying sales role where I sold $15m worth of deals over the next 3 years. In this process, I relocated to the US - and got exposed to the latest and greatest in sales and marketing. I have been running my startup for a little over 2 years now. My way of generating pipelines evolved from door-to-door walk-in to inbound and to outbound and ABM - all in 10 years. 

But some things didn’t change - In the world of B2B sales, trust is the name of the game. But how we earned trust in the past doesn't work today or will not work in the future. In 2023, buyers don't trust Google since they know vendors have gamed SEO/SEM, they don't trust G2 reviews since vendors have gamed the review system and they do not trust Gartner or Forrester because they are not practitioners and in most cases represent the well established present and not the unknown future and they don't trust salespeople until the later stages of their buying process. Interestingly, when it comes to trust, B2B buyers lean more on their peers than on renowned sources like Google or Gartner, and even more than the vendors themselves. This phenomenon has given rise to what is known as "Dark Social."

B2B buyers have their secret chambers where they engage with their peers to learn, validate, and make crucial decisions. These clandestine rendezvous include:

  1. Social Networks: Platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram have evolved into virtual watercoolers where professionals discuss, share insights, and seek advice.
  2. Communities & Groups: Communities on Facebook and Slack serve as hidden hubs of knowledge exchange and decision-making.
  3. Meetups & Events: Virtual meetups and events, ranging from regular Zoom gatherings to meticulously organized affairs by venture capital and private equity firms, play a pivotal role in shaping B2B priorities.
  4. Content Platforms: From Apple Podcasts to Spotify and YouTube, content consumption often leads to informal peer discussions and recommendations.
  5. Internal Company Communications: The likes of Slack channels and Zoom meetings facilitate discreet discussions within organizations.
  6. Direct Word of Mouth: The old-fashioned yet highly effective methods such as phone calls, text messages, and direct messages remain prevalent.

It's in these clandestine corners of the digital landscape that the real magic happens. This is where business priorities are set, where buyers confer with their trusted peers, and where B2B purchasing decisions truly take shape. The curious thing is that none of this activity gets tracked by traditional attribution software.

An example:

I was performing research on our buyer persona - Marketing, Marketing Ops, Demand Gen, and ABM teams. There are dozens of communities like CMO Huddles, Marketing Ops Professionals, Revenue Operations Alliances, etc and there is no vendor speak - it is senior buyers talking with their peers. There are also communities like Sales Enablement Collective, RevGenius which have a healthy mix of vendors and buyers. However, the quality of conversations in vendor-free micro-communities is significantly better than what we find in broader communities that have vendors sponsoring events.

The consequence of these dark social activities is that there is a significant blind spot in marketing attribution models. Marketing teams, in particular, face significant challenges. We cannot harness the immense potential of these channels because their outdated software-based attribution models simply don't measure up.

Is marketing out of sync with the ‘buyer journey’?

I strongly believe that Marketing teams find themselves out of sync with where buyers invest their time and attention. We are unable to truly assist buyers because their strategies don't align with these covert activities in dark social. In essence, we can't do right by their customers, as these righteous endeavors remain unrecognized in their obsolete attribution models.

It's a disheartening reality because, if marketing teams were to engage with their customers, actively listen to them, and discern where they congregate, where they gather information, and how they prefer to make purchases, the insights become strikingly evident. CUSTOMER INSIGHTS should be the North Star guiding marketing strategies, rather than being beholden to attribution reports.

In this context, "Dark Social" isn't just a buzzword; it represents the unseen forces that drive advocacy, referrals, content sharing, and word-of-mouth recommendations through the maturity of the internet. These channels remain elusive to software-based attribution, and they don't generate conventional intent data. It's a paradoxical world where the most influential conversations take place in the shadows, beyond the reach of traditional measurement and tracking. #gotomarket #marketing #b2b #demand #strategy

So how do we do pipeline generation in the era of “Dark Social”

Ya, enough of the “Dark” speak. No really. But let me make it even more dark before bringing in light. Buyers are making buying decisions in ‘dark social’, and outbound is becoming exorbitantly expensive, and unless you are already a market leader, ads and digital is not proving to be scalable.

There is no silver bullet but if we shift the mindset to be truly buyer-centric, we can truly win over our buyers and get in front of them much earlier in the buying journey. Here are some actionable ideas:

#1 Widen the definition of customer advocates 

Talk to any customer advocacy leader and their advocates are <5% of the total pool of customers. But your advocates could be anyone. For example, Boomerang is typically paid for by marketing leaders. But our advocates include sales leaders, SDR leaders, demand gen, marketing ops, ABM, and even individual AEs and SDRs. Knowing which of them are fans (NPS score, product engagement, etc) is critical, especially because they are talking about ‘what's working’ for them in their own ‘dark social’...

#2 Understand your advocates intently

We should understand each of the personas across the 6 types of dark social - how do they engage, where do they engage, who are the top voices, etc. Also, understand which of your advocates are open to praising you in public or in private. Gong.io is a great example of facilitating this at scale. Just search for gong on LinkedIn and read through the 100s of posts from their fans. 

#3 Incentivize advocacy 

No, I don't mean gifting. I mean actively addressing the professional needs of your customers. For example, many of our customers are marketing operations leaders - what's their future? What's their path to a seat on the table? What challenges are they facing every day? Our job is to bring the community together to help them brainstorm solutions that can solve their challenges. 

When we do it with the right intent, our customers will bring us from the vendor sphere to their inner circle… and magic is likely to happen after that. They will talk about it in their communities. 

An example of this is the Gong data labs where they talk about buying behavior insights that can drive more pipeline, revenue, and sales productivity. These are data-based actionable advice that any sales or marketing leader or IC can adopt immediately. 

#4 Connect advocacy with intent

Tracking and scaling intent is critical for marketing success. But what do we do when we see intent - throw more things at the buyer - cold calls, emails, events, etc? But now can you connect your advocates with them? What if you can get your current customer who has had an employment overlap with a key evaluator? What if a past customer is now working in that company in a non-ICP role? What if a considerable number of power users are working in that company? 

With this data and the relationships you have built with your advocates, your chances of engaging with the buying team in a meaningful way are much higher… besides your advocates will do the selling for you.

#5 Identify target accounts that have intent and high advocacy

Advocacy is not just about your customers - it's your current and past employers, your investors, their LPs, your partners, the partner employees, the partner former employees, your marketing database, etc. Not everyone is the same but have a model where you know the spheres of influence based on advocacy seniority to identify and prioritize working the right accounts. 

Summary:

In summary, let's be ‘buyer-centric’ and design the buying journey based on ‘what the buyer is doing’. We are building in this space…if you resonate with this vision for the future, I would love for you to take a look at our product since we are building in this space. 

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