How to Use UTM Tagging in Google Analytics

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Data drives us to make better marketing decisions, but with today’s big businesses using so many different agency partners and internal resources to expand their brand’s reach online, it has become increasingly harder to compare online efforts evenly across the board.

Just more than 80% of all businesses today choose Google Analytics (GA) to be their central analytics application to measure the success of their website, but the percentage of companies that use GA to track all sources they can control is far less. Simple tracking codes can be used on all links within your social, email and partnership efforts—both paid and organic—to help you specifically identify them in GA. Having all this data in one place will allow you to make quicker, smarter decisions and push your online advertising budget to deliver more results.

Fun fact: UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Modules, and was created to use with their old software. Google purchased the company in 2005, and GA was born shortly after. However, the tagging conventions for URLs remain intact.

By applying UTM tagging to all URLs, you have control over how to drive traffic to your site, and can measure all of your efforts with GA, comparing their competency and enabling you to truly measure their effectiveness at reaching people and converting online. Allow yourself to discover your best-performing channels and better invest your marketing budget.

UTM Tagging 101

Have you ever clicked on a link that interested you, and then looked at the browser box to discover the URL was much longer than you thought it would be, containing lots of question marks and equal signs? Well, my friend, your session was being tracked using a parameter tracking code so the website could understand where you were before.

Google Analytics is smart. It can track lots of information about you and where you come from using the HTTP referrer. This helps it identify you by source, device type, location and behavioral session data like the pages you viewed and what you clicked on if you completed any events or goals that were being tracked on the site you visited.

However, while Google can tell you that a visitor came from Facebook or m.Facebook, it doesn’t clearly display which post brought you to the website. It’s hard for analytics professionals to understand what came from your brand’s social profile, or from a social influencer you paid to send traffic your way. The same applies to the limitations of your paid efforts on Facebook because you can see which ads have the best click rates. But what happens when the different campaigns land traffic on your site? Which ones are engaging with your content or buying your products?

If you add tracking codes to the links served on social media, you can begin to tell what’s working—and what isn’t—because you can easily identify which sources and campaigns are driving the most qualified leads to your site.

How UTM Tagging Works

When a user clicks on a link on Website1 and lands on your site, Google Analytics marks that referral traffic source as being from Website1.

When you add UTM tagging parameters to a URL, the data you call out is passed to Google Analytics and a cookie is then set on the user’s device to identify them as coming from the specific source where the URL was placed. You can go from understanding that the user came from Website1, to understanding that they came from the DisplayAd-A you had placed on Website1 (not display DisplayAd-B like you may have thought).

Important Note: The UTM tagging identified in this post will work only if your site is actively passing information to GA. 

What the Code Looks Like

As mentioned, these UTM tags are extra code that you append to your URL so you can track the traffic that a particular source is driving to your website.

Example 1

This is UTM tagging you could apply for traffic being sent from a paid influencer’s blog (Sarah Smith) over to your site to promote a Spring 2016 event:

Example 2

This is the UTM tagging you would use to show an active policy plan holder’s traffic from a segmented Bronto email blast informing users of a member-benefit seminar in the Charlotte, NC, area when they clicked through the email’s hero image content:

How to Shorten Your URLs

Reviewing the examples above, it’s easy to see how long, somewhat scary and, yes, ugly the URLs become. In order to have both function (UTM tagging) and fashion (pretty URLs), using services like Google’s URL shortener or will help your URLs look short, sweet and enticing for users to click.

Attributes You Can Track

First, you must understand what attributes you can use to identify your marketing efforts.

Required attributes:

  • Source—This is typically the referral site, platform or search engine users are coming from before landing on your website, such as Google, Yahoo, Bronto, Mailchimp, Facebook, etc.
  • Medium—This is the type of channel category the source can be classified within, such as email, social, blog, CPC, influencer, display, etc.
  • Campaign—This is the name you decide upon for your own internal tracking purposes, such as the sale name, promo code, product launch, advertising campaign, etc.

Source and medium are the most important dimensions to track because they answer the “from where” and “what type” questions. If you want to track your marketing effort performance at the ad level, then you must include one or both of the optional attribute dimensions listed below.

Optional fields for further classification:

  • Ad Content—I prefer to use this field to identify the type of content used to drive traffic, like an infographic, video, listicle, article, banner, etc. You could also use this section to be super specific, such as “blue-image” or “green-image.”
  • Term—I often use this field for paid search efforts on Yahoo and Bing since they aren’t automatically pulled and categorized automatically like when your GA account is linked to your Google Adwords account.

Once you identify the attributes you want to track, decide the tracking strategy you want to use across all mediums and channel efforts. Keep this as simple as possible, following the mediums GA already identifies and using the same casing they do. Complicated names, or names that only identify the dates (like for emails, for example), will make it hard for anyone reviewing your GA account to understand what they’re looking at.

Helpful tip: Share this blog post with your agency partners to make sure everyone is following the same rules. The more consistent your Google Analytics account is, the easier it will be to gather, filter and review your data to help you improve your marketing efforts.

UTM Tagging Best Practices

Once you identify the attributes you want to track, apply the tagging to EVERY URL you touch. This includes not only social and paid search efforts, but all email links as well.

Creating consistency across content marketing efforts for accurate reporting within GA is vital for proper measurement accountability. A few simple high-level rules should be used every time you install tracking to URLs:

  • When applying tagging, remember that all values within GA are case sensitive. So every attribute should be either all uppercase or all lowercase. You don’t want to have two lines show up in your GA reporting for both “email” and “Email” or “cpc” and “CPC.”
  • Assign all attributes a single-word title if possible. If multiple words are required, separate them with a dash (-) if you don’t want to keep the words combined within the section.
  • Make sure the campaign names you select are easy for others to understand when reviewing the data in GA. Using really long names or really similar names in repetition won’t help you understand the content used to drive traffic. For example, how would someone understand the difference between “promo-feb2” and “promo-feb16?” A better choice would be “promo-BOGO” or “promo-20off.”

You also need to make sure you fully understand the use cases for the different attributes so you don’t use them incorrectly. I see mistakes like this happening most frequently within the email and social categories:

  • Bad idea example 1: Sometimes people will put things like “member-email” or “partner-email” as the source. Instead, they should have the source as simply “email” so they can sort and see ALL emails within the same place. “Member” and “partner” should be included in the medium section for identification.
  • Bad idea example 2: Along the same lines, I saw a company using “facebook-post” and “facebook-ad” in the source, too. Instead, the source should have just been “facebook” and the medium should have been “ad” and “post” if that was how they wanted to tag the data. By doing it this way, there would’ve been three sources for Facebook: from organic social, from the ads and for the posts they were able to tag. That’s too much filtering at the higher source level.

When NOT to Use UTM Tagging

There are two exceptions to remember when applying UTM tagging for your URLs. The first is Google Adwords. You don’t need to apply tagging if your account is linked to your GA Profile, because it will do it all for you. The second exception when you don’t want to add a tag to a URL is when it’s an internal link within your website. Do not apply UTM tagging to internal links or it will mess up your analytics big time! Doing so will overwrite the source that the visitor actually came from once they click on the internal link.

Helpful Tools

If code and creating tracking codes make you nervous, that’s OK. There are plenty of tools to help ensure you’re applying the correct tracking to the end of your URLs.

Google’s URL builder is an excellent page to bookmark to help you build your URLs. You simply copy and paste the page URL, then enter the parameters you want to use in the sections they’ve marked. Then, with the click of a button, your customized URL is populated and ready for you to copy and paste.

If you use Google’s Chrome browser, there’s an awesome Chrome URL Builder browser extension available.

A Few Final Thoughts

The online marketplace is extremely competitive. To keep up, companies are promoting their brands through many channels like email, social media, paid advertising, influencer/partnerships, content programs and more. In our pay-to-play world, we’re constantly trying to find ways to test, tweak and improve our campaigns.

By using UTM tagging on the end of your URLs, you’ll be able to evaluate the performance of all of your online marketing efforts, all within Google Analytics. Measuring your manually identified traffic sources against other traffic in terms of engagement and conversion goals will help you better understand the value of your efforts in both time dedicated to the effort and spend. Applying tracking like this is the only way to truly understand what’s working and what’s not, and make data-driven decisions to test and improve over time. Without it, you’re trying to get from point A to point B without a map!

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