Channels that are not Channels: Taking advantage of “The Unknown Bucket” of Brand Search and Direct

Marketing managers and the C-Suite love their marketing channels. Wrapping up channel performance in tidy columns displayed on the wall in a digital dashboard feels very measured and certain. But there are two columns on the digital channel chart that require a deeper dive because they are not channels at all. These two “channels” make up what we call “The Unknown Bucket”.

These are Brand Search and Direct.

Brand Search and Direct are not channels, because they cannot live in isolation. Both Brand Search and Direct reflect the end of a conversation that started somewhere else, but because of limitations on tracking or understanding the part of the user journey that exists inside the customer’s head, we don’t know where it began. We just know where it ends.

Brand Search and Direct usually look amazing, and there is no surprise there. You are seeing audiences at the final stages of engagement, disassociated from the evaluation or learning phase. However, as amazing as they look in terms of low cost and high conversion rate, you have no direct way to scale these up. Marketers laugh at the joke about the CEO who looks at his channel performance chart and says “This “Brand” channel looks great! Let’s buy more of that!”, but the truth is that more Brand Search and Direct volume is not something you can go out and buy.

But you can create more of it.

While there is no way to directly buy more Brand Search and Direct traffic (assuming you are already getting 100% of your brand search traffic), you can create more by identifying the drivers of Brand Search and Direct traffic. Luckily, user behavior dictates that Brand Search and Direct traffic have similar motivation therefore driving one will invariably drive the other as well.

How do you identify the drivers of The Unknown Bucket?

Luckily, identifying cause and effect is not that hard once you decide to try. Regression analysis, pattern identification, controlled geographic or pulse testing can all reveal the relationship between known channels and The Unknown Bucket. For example, we recently wanted to understand the effect of mobile Facebook and Instagram advertising on brand search and direct traffic for one of our clients. We did a controlled geographic test, pushing ad delivery in these channels in one geographic area while using another as a control. The gains were easy to identify vs the control, and a replication test confirmed the results. With that knowledge, we were able to understand the level at which we were undervaluing Facebook and Instagram based on lift not tied to that channel.

Because The Unknown Bucket can be a sizable piece of overall leads or sales (normal ranges can be from 20-70% of all sales), identifying the drivers of Brand Search and Direct gives the data-driven marketer even more opportunity to find financial success with their marketing program. It astonishes us how often this is ignored as an opportunity, simply because establishing the relationship between known channels and the Unknown Bucket feels daunting. Do you know how large your Unknown Bucket of leads or sales is? Do you know the drivers? Hopefully investigating this will lead you to an understanding of how to make use of this massive yet under-investigated area.