We live in an era in which social media has left everyone exposed. Or at least that’s how it seems. For a certain group of brands, social media platforms are offering a new cover to hide behind as they embark on digital marketing campaigns that fly below the radar.
According to some estimates, as many as 85% of Facebook ads and 60% of YouTube ads are hidden from public view. The practice is even more common on Twitter, where an estimated 90% of ads are hidden.
What does that mean, exactly? Rather than posting their messages publicly, major brands are creating social media posts or sponsored content that is only shown to targeted audiences. Unlike organic or boosted posts, these targeted ads don’t show up on the company’s timelines or all of their followers’ feeds.
So-called “dark marketing” tactics are becoming more pervasive, and while they don’t usually impact consumers, they have the effect of creating a black hole that makes it more challenging for brands trying to research their competitors’ campaigns.
“Dark marketing can be traced back to 2012, when Facebook first enabled advertisers to create ‘dark posts.’ Soon thereafter, dark posting was made available on LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube, and the tactic evolved into an all encompassing, multi-channel strategy,” explains Alon Leibovich, co-founder and CEO of BrandTotal.
BrandTotal is one of a handful of firms that’s trying to change the game and give marketers a clearer picture of the full social media landscape. The company has made a name for itself by developing an AI platform that distills usable insights from the targeted campaigns that most people can’t see when they search or scroll through social media timelines.
At least two name brands—Amazon and DEVOUR—ran dark ads on social during the Super Bowl. Amazon’s ad saw more than 41.7 million views on Facebook alone as part of its sponsored post campaigns.
Although Leibovich sees the value in brands being able to diversify their campaigns and target specific audiences with precision, he says dark marketing makes it difficult for brands to gain a comprehensive view of their competitors’ whereabouts and tactics.
“If a marketer can’t see dark posts, they’re only seeing a small fraction of their competitive field—creating a massive blind spot,” Leibovich says. “They can’t truly have a sense of what’s going on and understand how to quickly adjust their strategies to level that playing field relative to their competitors.”
Being able to monitor dark marketing—and having the ability to share patterns, traffic, and actions taken as a result of posts that are hidden from view—is one of the ways brands can gain a clearer picture of audience behaviors.
According to Leibovich, every brand advertising on social media is using dark marketing to some degree, whether or not they realize it. That’s because targeting is so advanced with dark posts that there are key advertisements that other brands aren’t going to see without the right tools.
For an easy example, he recommends looking at the mattress industry. As early as 2010, digital native mattress companies came to market—think Casper, Purple, Nectar, and Leesa—and they have continued to disrupt the traditional buying journey ever since. A big part of these companies’ success is due to ad targeting. Leibovich says Casper is much more likely to target millennials through its online campaigns, while legacy brands like Sealy target much older audiences.
How does Leibovich know that? Most of Casper and Sealy’s ads are targeted and hidden from public view, but BrandTotal’s platform uses AI and machine learning to collect, categorize, and analyze ad data across social and digital channels. The platform analyzes comments associated with both dark and public ads and provides sentiment analysis for marketing campaigns. BrandTotal also incorporates clustering algorithms to aggregate different ads and creatives that the AI picks up.
As ad targeting grows more common, Leibovich is betting that platforms like his own will become even more necessary for brand marketers looking to keep tabs on what their competitors are doing online.
“Just a year ago, I’d say that marketers were just scratching the surface for AI in marketing and sales. However, over the past 12 months we’ve seen more and more brands that incorporate AI based platforms into their marketing stack,” Leibovich says. “That adoption has been manifesting itself in the widespread disruption that’s occurred across many industries.”
Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.