Dark Marketing 101: What You Need to Know

By Noam Harel, CMO, BrandTotal

Dark marketing is a common practice used by everyone from Apple to Nike. But what is it?

To put it simply, dark marketing is the practice of publishing sponsored advertisements that only a certain group of people can see. They’re private and hyper-targeted to the niche audiences they were intended for, and nobody else can see them. It has become extremely common in recent years, and data shows that 90% of Twitter ads, 85% of Facebook ads, and 60% of YouTube ads are “dark.”

Dark marketing has evolved into a multi-channel strategy, one that is quite advantageous. It not only hyper-targets ads to people who need to see them the most, but it also hides their marketing strategy from competitors, who are unable to track their activities and measure themselves up. Advertisers are safe from prying eyes that want to see what they’re up to. It’s like a deeply guarded company secret. Imagine if people knew what was in McDonald’s special sauce. Or the Coca-Cola recipe. Dark marketing allows advertisers to use the same tactic to conceal their strategies.

The Drivers of Dark Marketing

So what drives the popularity of dark marketing? How has it become so prevalent? Well there are three main factors:


Now more than ever, consumers’ attention is split across multiple media platforms. There are so many websites consumers engage with, which means plenty of places for marketers to target plenty of people. But that means that most of the ads will get lost in the shuffle, and consumers might not remember “generic” ads that weren’t targeted specifically to them. But with dark marketing, it’s almost guaranteed that the ads they see will be something they’re interested in, something that might lead to a purchase. By not pursuing dark marketing as a strategy, brands are wasting budget, reducing effectiveness and negatively impacting ROI.


If a brand sends out one standardized message to its entire audience, the results will likely be lackluster. There is no uniform audience, they’re segmented in many ways, from age to race to location, and marketers must target all of them uniquely. Dark marketing is the perfect way to achieve this.


On a similar note, dark marketing can be used to personalize a brand’s message, even at scale. As marketing continues to rely on data and business intelligence to craft the best message/market fit, brands are able to create campaigns that truly resonate with each audience member, based on numerous internal and external data points.

Dark marketing will also become even more crucial once third-party cookies are no longer an option, eliminating a path that many marketers use to collect data. Unable to track or retarget consumers on multiple websites, marketers will turn to the data users voluntarily disclose, which will be used to hyper-target them. Thus, dark marketing will be critical to marketers wanting accurate targeting.

Is there a way to break through?

While dark marketing is a way for marketers to hide their strategy from competitors, it may also be frustrating if they want to find out what their competitors are up to. Tracking competition has been a thing since the dawn of business, but it’s rare when people are this much in the dark. How can one analyze the effectiveness of a campaign with such little visibility? It’s a double-edged sword, and even worse, if all companies in an industry are using it at once, there is no transparency.  Thus it’s unsurprising that marketers are trying to find ways around it, trying to pry into what’s behind that closed door. And since such ways exist, that might render dark marketing moot. If competitors can just sidestep this strategy, then it’s back to square one.

Overall dark marketing is a useful tool that allows brands to engage with consumers like never before, and will become substantially more important with the absence of third-party cookies. But those who use it can also be harmed by it, so they have to make sure they’re able to see what their competitors are up to.

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