The bright side of dark social for accounting firm marketing

The bright side of dark social for accounting firm marketing

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? The same concept applies in marketing, which is why great marketers work hard on attribution that clearly ties their work to metrics, including leads generated and followers gained. But dark social throws a monkey wrench into these efforts, and has become a growing concern for marketers and their clients.

As an accountant or bookkeeper who engages in marketing or who has hired a marketing firm to help, it's worth learning about dark social so you can understand how it impacts reporting and attribution in your marketing efforts, and when to take prudent action.

Shedding light on dark social

If this is the first time you're hearing about dark social, here's a good definition: Dark social refers to the platforms where critical buyer decisions and interactions are made, but cannot be tracked through traditional methods. Some examples include:

  • Communities and private groups such as Slack channels, Facebook groups, and Discord chats.
  • Word-of-mouth and direct channels, including direct messages (DMs), text messages, Zoom calls, phone calls, emails, and offline conversations.
  • Content platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Someone may see a social post that includes your website URL either in the image or the post. Later, they type your website URL directly into their browser to learn more about you. Poof! Your website analytics will show that as direct traffic even though your social media prompted them to visit your website. There are other examples that are a bit more technical such as misattributed HTTP-to-HTTPS switching, but the main idea is that it's becoming more challenging to track and measure brand mentions and traffic.

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Dark social refers to the platforms where critical buyer decisions and interactions are made, but cannot be tracked through traditional methods.

More privacy means less measurable data for your marketing efforts

Dark social is just one signal of a wider shift in digital marketing, specifically marketing attribution. It’s not that marketers are freaking out that customers are sharing links and screenshots through untraceable text messages. Rather, it’s about data privacy.

Research by KPMG shows that 86% of US consumers are concerned about their data privacy, while 68% are concerned about the amount of data being collected by companies about them. Technology companies are finally responding as well. From Firefox introducing Total Cookie Protection to Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Protection in iOS 17 and Google’s Tracking Protection in Chrome, browsers are taking away third-party cookies that marketing professionals have relied on for years to run data-driven ads and marketing campaigns.

How to keep marketing attribution intact and see in the dark

The loss of third-party cookies, increased data privacy, and a rise in dark social interactions don’t spell the end of attributable marketing. Rather, it’s a watershed moment for digital marketing!

Polish up your UTM links

Although Apple and other companies are removing user-related information from links with their data privacy features, UTM links appear to be surviving this purge. UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module, and includes parameters that specify the campaign, keywords, referral source, content, and other information related to an external link for marketing analytics and reporting purposes. An example of a UTM link would be, where is the link to your website that you want to track and the “utm_medium” parameter is defined as AdWords. This shows us that this visit to our website came from AdWords.

Note you should only use UTM links for links to your website on external websites, not your own. For example, I’ve set up the following link to track website traffic from our Google Business Profile: This keeps our reporting intact since Google Profile analytics can be barebones in many aspects.

You can use Google’s UTM link builder to help you create UTM links for your marketing campaigns.

Introduce self-reported attribution

This is a simple step that isn’t quite as technical as UTM links, but possibly more valuable. Self-reported attribution is about asking prospects and leads how and why they chose your firm. One implementation of this is the “How did you hear about us?” question on many contact forms. This single question can give you better insight into a person’s motivation for choosing your firm than UTM link metrics ever will.

Still, we must remember that self-reported attribution is a starting point for a conversation rather than a full picture of a person’s buying journey. I say this because, many times, people respond to “How did you hear about us?” with single-word answers such as “Facebook,” “LinkedIn,” “Google,” or, my favorite, the “internet.” But this isn’t always the case. Some people will leave detailed responses; we need more of these people in the world. However, in general, it’s best to use people’s answers as a starting point for conversation.

Invest in social listening

Tracking mentions of your company and leadership staff is a great way to spot conversations about your brand as they occur. This is called social listening and is another way you can engage in “dark social” conversations online. While this won’t let you pierce the veil of private messaging channels such as Messenger or text messages, it can alert you to articles and social posts that mention your brand or staff without tagging their username. You can use a free tool such as Google Alerts, or paid tools like Brandwatch and Mention.

Become comfortable with unmeasurable marketing results

There is an oft-repeated saying in marketing that says, “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” The marketers who weigh in on this saying belong to one of two camps:

  1. All marketing should be measurable and directly attributable to some business outcome.
  2. All marketing should be aligned with business objectives and be as attributable as possible.

As the marketing manager of an accounting firm, it’s easy to think that I’d belong to the first camp, but I actually belong to the second. Here’s the thing: Tracking the buyer journey gets harder as it gets longer and involves more channels, especially those that cannot be tracked through traditional means. 

More people are engaging with content by taking screen recordings and screenshots, or sharing through texts and private communities and groups. Data privacy features continue to restrict which data can be tracked and analyzed in quantitative marketing reports. What does this mean? While you should definitely make efforts to track your marketing activities, you should also realize that it may not always be possible or doable because of technical limitations or budgetary constraints.

As MBS Accountancy CEO Cassidy Jakovickas has discovered in his personal branding on LinkedIn, sometimes the best marketing results are the offline conversations you have with partners and everyday people in your community. These people may not be super engagers through online metrics, but they will rave about your content and brand in an offline chat.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t measure your marketing. Just realize you won’t be able to rely on quantitative data and clicks as much. Rather, you should introduce qualitative data including asking “How did you hear about us?” and talking with new clients about how they found you and chose your firm. These conversations will be the best form of marketing data you’ve ever received. It’s not as efficient as an automated survey or as impressive as a slick marketing dashboard, but it’s undeniably human and is what marketing should be about.

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Tracking the buyer journey gets harder as it gets longer and involves more channels, especially those that cannot be tracked through traditional means.

Dark social is a lightbulb moment for savvy marketers

It’s my hope that this article helps you avoid the indiscriminate cutting that Jacob Schroeder, CPA, mentioned when he said, “What we see in practice is that companies are not truly tracking the ROI of their marketing efforts so they have to cut indiscriminately. If you are not tracking your marketing efforts now is the time to start doing this.”  

Regardless of my overdone puns about light and darkness in this article, you’ve hopefully gained a clearer picture of dark social, its impact on your marketing efforts, and learned proactive steps you can take to keep your marketing reporting intact. 

Overall, I believe the marketing industry’s inclusion of more qualitative data and first-party data based on direct interactions is a win for everyone. On the marketing side, we’ll have richer insights with greater context. On the business side, we’ll build more campaigns that encourage drive better conversations and closer relationships that approach customers as people, not mere data points.

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