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The Marketer’s Guide to Building, Managing, and Future-Proofing UTM Tags

 

The Marketer’s Guide to Building, Managing, and Future-Proofing UTM Tags

  November 16, 2018   seo, web development,


Create scalable tracking URLs by understanding the keys to effective UTM tag management. Clients over the years during our onboarding process have asked me to review their website analytics and sometimes what I see is absolutely staggering. Even though they start off with the best intentions, their tracking data is never quite right. Most commonly, I see bots giving erroneous data, internal traffic not being blocked, and a UTM naming convention that is confusing to just about anyone who was not involved in the actual setup.

The Marketer’s Guide to Building, Managing, and Future-Proofing UTM Tags
Create scalable tracking URLs by understanding the keys to effective UTM tag management.
Clients over the years during our onboarding process have asked me to review their website analytics and sometimes what I see is absolutely staggering.
Even though they start off with the best intentions, their tracking data is never quite right.
Most commonly, I see bots giving erroneous data, internal traffic not being blocked, and a UTM naming convention that is confusing to just about anyone who was not involved in the actual setup.
This guide is designed to help you correct your own UTM issues while offering some best practices to future proof your analytics against future errors. But before we begin, let’s address what UTMs are, why they matter, and what they can tell you.

What is a UTM?

An Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) is a type of URL parameter used to track website traffic and help evaluate the effectiveness of digital marketing campaigns.
There are a total of five UTM parameters: Source, Medium, Campaign, Content, and Term.
However, there’s no requirement to use all five, or any at all, in your URL paths. Google Analytics supports these tags and will automatically add the tags believed to be the most accurate in the absence of the UTMs. Even without the use of UTM tags, Google Analytics will show traffic from other websites along with the Source and Medium of that inbound traffic. For some websites, the standard tagging of Google Analytics is all that’s needed. UTMs are used to fill in the gap when you need more information.

How Should You Use a UTM Parameter?

UTMs should be used to help your URL tell a story about exact how a user got to a page on your website. If you were explaining this visit to a co-worker, you might say something like, “Hi, this user came from this SOURCE in the MEDIUM channel after being exposed to this CAMPAIGN. Specifically, they saw this AD CONTENT that you decided to mark with this TERM.”
Let’s break this down piece by piece:

Source

Use the UTM Source tag to identify the name of the site or network where your traffic originated. Examples would be google, facebook, or adroll.

Medium

Use the UTM Medium tag to identify the overall default type of channel for your traffic. Examples would be cpc for paid search ads, email, display, or referral.
In the absence of UTM tags, Google Analytics will append the source and medium tags to your incoming traffic. For traffic that cannot be effectively identified as well as for visitors who type in your URL rather than search for it or who come back to your site from a saved bookmark, the default value for source and medium will show up like this in a report: (direct) / (none).

Campaign

The UTM Campaign, Content, and Term campaigns will not auto populate inside Google Analytics, and therefore must be manually added to your URLs. I suggest to still keep your campaigns at a relatively high level, but this is where you’ll start to finally start to get a bit more granular.
Don’t over-complicate this field; use standard naming conventions that you use in your other marketing efforts so you can easily recognize which campaigns are driving value to your website. If you have something complex like r6–105473-fall-drive-500-fb as your campaign name and that makes sense to you, then great. Use it. Perhaps you use a simpler phrase such as newsletter, blog, or auto-responder to define a particular email campaign. The key is to be able to recognize which particular campaign out of the same source and medium that drove your users to the site.

Content

For the UTM Content tag, this is where I recommend starting to get more granular. You should just about be able to complete the full sentence of identifying exactly where your users came from, and you’ll also notice that it becomes slightly more challenging to find this information as you navigate through Google Analytics. I suggest using the content parameter to identify the specific ad version that your user clicked on.
So let’s say you’re running a re-targeting campaign on the Google Display Network (GDN) trying to capture site visitors that did not convert by using custom audiences. Let’s further say you have three audiences you’re trying to convert: those who viewed your pricing page but did not make a purchase, those who read a blog but did not sign up for your newsletter, and those who visited a specific AdWords landing page but did not fill out a form to request a quote. In this scenario, it would be wise to have separate ads with unique messaging for each audience to bring them back to perform the specific actions you are trying to get them to complete: a quote request, a newsletter signup, or a purchase.
Here’s where the scenario starts to get granular. Each of these would probably have the same source, medium, and campaign tags, and make look like this:
?utm_source=gdn&utm_medium=display&utm_campaign=retargeting
However, you could append the Content tag to your ads to clarify which set of ads is driving the returning traffic. It would look something like this:
For the quote request
?utm_source=gdn&utm_medium=display&utm_campaign=retargeting&utm_content=quote-request
For the blog or newsletter signup
?utm_source=gdn&utm_medium=display&utm_campaign=retargeting&utm_content=newsletter-signup
For the purchase
?utm_source=gdn&utm_medium=display&utm_campaign=retargeting&utm_content=discount-10
Over time, you could test various ad copy iterations, discount codes, and more to help determine which are your winners and losers by not only seeing the ads that drive the most traffic, but ultimately which drive the most conversions and value.

Term

The UTM Term parameter can be used to identify specific paid keywords in your ads, which is something that typically does not come through in Google Analytics. When using this level of granularity, I suggest keeping a Google Sheet or Excel file handy to help ensure you don’t reuse the same values in multiple places. One other way to use the utm term is to identify A/B testing variations. Your full URL might look something like:
www.mysite.com/landing-page?utm_content=my-retargeting-ad&utm_term=version-a
Or like this:
www.mysite.com/landing-page?utm_content=my-retargeting-ad&utm_term=version-b

Where Do I Use UTMs?

UTMs can be used on any URL link you’d like to have tracked to see where visitors to your website coming from. Simply add a question mark (?) to the end of your URL where you would like to start passing data and separate your UTM parameters with an ampersand (&) to have the URL pass information back to you.
For example, your paid search ads for Google and Bing might have URLs of:
www.mysite.com/ad-landing-page?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc
and
www.mysite.com/ad-landing-page?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc respectively.
When you look at your site traffic in Google Analytics, you’ll be able to determine for that page how many visits came from Bing and how many from Google while also collectively seeing how many came from the medium CPC, which is the standard for cost-per-click or pay-per-click ads. Consistency is the key for your naming conventions.
UTMs can be used on any URL link you’d like to have tracked to see where visitors to your website coming from. Simply add a question mark (?) to the end of your URL where you would like to start passing data and separate your UTM parameters with an ampersand (&) to have the URL pass information back to you. For example, your paid search ads for Google and Bing might have URLs of:
www.mysite.com/ad-landing-page?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc
and
www.mysite.com/ad-landing-page?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc respectively.
When you look at your site traffic in Google Analytics, you’ll be able to determine for that page how many visits came from Bing and how many from Google while also collectively seeing how many came from the medium CPC, which is the standard for cost-per-click or pay-per-click ads. Consistency is the key for your naming conventions though.

Why UTMs?

A client once asked me why they should be spending so much time tracking their site traffic. They said all they really cared about what whether or not their site was generating phone calls, regardless of how people find them.
I told that client to think 12 months out. Over the next year, you may be launching multiple campaigns for your brand(s), and as you generate results, you may decide to pursue ad platforms based on their performance. You’ll want to ensure you can maintain consistent reporting across every source, medium and campaign so that you can accurately assess your results.
Further, you may want to know which ads delivered results and which ones were duds. This type of structure can future proof your reporting so that you can quickly see in Google Analytics all traffic from each traffic platform, and how many conversions you’ve obtained from that source.
Finally, I recommend you to think of the old Chinese proverb that states the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Plant your tree and start tracking your UTMs now. Your future self will thank you.

UTM Best Practices

Here are a few best practices to help you master your UTMs:
  • Always use all lowercase letters. Google analytics will interpret utm_source=Facebook and utm_source=facebook as two separate sources, so keep it consistent by always using lowercase.
  • When you need to use multiple words, use hyphens instead of spaces. For one, URLs cannot have spaces but you’ll sometimes see %20 in a URL path, which is the ASCII value for a space in hexadecimal. Even though that’s allowed, it’s just easier to read when you use hyphens, particularly if you’ll need to share your results with other less technical team members.
  • Always keep a tracking sheet of your UTMs and naming conventions.Yes, we know you’ve got a lot of other metrics to keep up with between Google Analytics, your content management system, and social media marketing platforms. However, make UTMs and naming a priority. It can keep you from duplicating campaign or ad content names. You can find lots of examples from a quick search, but www.linktosheets.com has created a simple but solid tracking UTM template that you can find here.
  • Keep a list of the mediums and source names that you will use in a separate area of your spreadsheet. Always try to find a relevant medium and keep your list as high level as possible, typically no more than ten to fifteen mediums.
  • If you use a marketing automation or CRM tool, ensure that your UTMs map properly into the tool and are not auto selected. This is a common issue with Salesforce and Pardot as an example, but can be resolved.
  • Finally, don’t use the same value multiple times in your UTMs. For example, don’t use utm_source=google and utm_campaign=google as part of the same URL.
Understanding UTMs can help boost the quality of your analytics and save you the headache of erroneous data. They can also clue your team into what works and what doesn’t. So keep calm and track on!

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