UTM Parameters: Demystify Your Marketing In Minutes
January 10, 2020
Today, we have access to a lot of data including likes, shares, impressions, opens, and much (much) more. From Facebook Insights to that spreadsheet your pre-roll vendor sends each month, it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning in numbers. Nope, there’s no denying it, we have a lot of data… but is it the right data?
Is it the kind of data that allows you to see the big picture and all the nitty gritty details along the way? Is it data that shows you how visitors are getting to your site, what they’re doing once they’re on the site, and how and when they become customers?
If not, you’re in the right place because you can achieve that level of insight into your site traffic, and you don’t need a web developer (or a wizard) to do it! All you need to do is place UTM parameters on URLs.
I saw you heading for the back button. Seriously, UTM parameters are not as technical as they sound, and they can be deployed in just a few minutes.
UT What Now?
UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module. UTMs are essentially little pieces of code you stick on the end of a URL. These pieces of code pass information back to Google Analytics. The information that’s sent to Google Analytics allows you to better understand how different platforms, campaigns, or even specific ads or posts are performing.
UTM parameters don’t alter the webpage. All they do is pass information back to Google Analytics. The only way visitors will know that UTM parameters are being used is if they examine the URL.
Tip: UTM parameters are sometimes referred to as URL parameters, campaign parameters, or campaign tracking parameters.
Are UTM parameters really necessary?
You may be thinking, “Yeah, but I already have [INSERT DATA SOURCE HERE] and Google Analytics, so aren’t these UTM thingys just more work?”
Well, sure, UTM parameters are more work, but they’re worth it for several reasons.
One, as hinted at in the intro to this article, UTM parameters allow you to see additional information within Google Analytics. Sure, Facebook Insights can show you how people are engaging with your content but not necessarily which content is driving people to your website or generating customers. However, with UTM parameters you could bring more detailed data into Google Analytics.
Two, in most cases, Google Analytics will show you traffic from other sources. However, Google Analytics doesn’t always break things down to a level that is actually helpful. For example, any Facebook traffic shows up as facebook.com, m.facebook.com, or some such variation. Nothing in Google Analytics helps you distinguish between paid and organic efforts on Facebook nor does Google Analytics break things down to specific posts. UTM parameters can.
Third, UTMs can help verify data. For instance, let’s say a third party source gives you a report saying you received 10,000 clicks last month. How do you know that number is accurate and not a typo or a complete fabrication? If you had used UTM parameters, you’d be able to vet that number, spot potential anomalies, and potentially save advertising dollars moving forward.
You can put UTM parameters on any link, and you can create as many custom links as you want. This means you can use UTM parameters to really drill down into your marketing endeavors.
For example, let’s say you’re doing a series of emails during a promo period. Each email has two links to the website. How can you tell which email is the best performing? Within each email, how can you tell which link is the best performing? You may be able to get open rate and click through numbers from your email provider, but will you be able to break down purchases by email or by link within each email? Without UTM codes probably not.
However, if you were using UTM parameters you could create a custom link for each email or get even more granular and create a custom UTM tag for every link. For example, you could create a UTM parameter for the following:
This approach would remove much of the guesswork when it’s time to analyze the results of your email campaign.
(Oh, and by the way, all of this is free. There’s no charge for creating and using UTM parameters.)
Okay, okay, how do I create UTMs?
Good news–anyone can generate UTM parameters in just a matter of minutes. (And I do mean anyone.)
First, break out your magic wand… kidding, kidding. It’s super simple. Here’s what you’ll need to have:
Whether you opt to use Google’s URL Builder or the spreadsheet, you’ll need to provide the following:
This field is required. This is the page you want to send visitors to.
This field is required. This is specifically where traffic is coming from. For example, “Facebook” is a source of traffic.
This field is required. This is the channel generating the traffic. Think of the medium as a category of traffic. The campaign source is specific, and the campaign medium is more general. For example, if your source is “Facebook,” your medium might be “social” or “referreral.”
The default channel groupings in Google Analytics include:
In most cases, you’ll want to choose one of these for your medium.
This field is required. This is the name of your campaign. For example, if your marketing your Black Friday sale, your campaign name might be “black-friday.” You would use the same campaign name for all Black Friday efforts with different sources, mediums, terms, and content tags to differentiate between various marketing efforts like your sales emails and social media campaigns.
This field is optional. Use this field if there is a specific keyword associated with the campaign.
This field is optional. Use this field to differentiate between various ads pointing to the same URL for the same campaign. For example, if you were running a display campaign you may use this field to differentiate between various ad sizes.
What are UTM parameter best practices?
Believe it or not, there’s no UTM police force that’s going to bust down your door if you accidentally swap your source and your medium or if you completely fabricate a campaign. For example, we could have a campaign called “puppies” even though our marketing efforts have nothing to do with puppies.
While there’s no law against misusing UTMs, since the data will live your Google Analytics account and could help or harm your reporting and future strategy there is ample incentive to use them correctly. Here are some best practices to keep in mind when using UTM parameters.
You don’t have to take a month to carefully plan your UTM parameters; after all, you’re not plotting to take over the world. However, you will want to put a little thought into them.
Think about how you’ll want to slice and dice up data when it’s time to do reporting. Will you want to segment things on a per ad or post basis? Will you want to see everything as one overall campaign? Thinking about this stuff will help you decide whether you need to use the optional parameters for “term” and “content.”
You’ll also want to make sure that your UTM parameters provide enough details that others can understand what they reference. For example, a campaign tag of “agfvz” probably won’t mean anything to someone else (or even you) a year from now.
Lastly, you’ll want to make sure others understand how important it is to use UTM parameters. Getting buy-in from others will help ensure a consistent application of UTM parameters moving forward, which brings me to….
To get the most out of UTM parameters, you’ll want to be cognizant of any differences in the tags you’re creating. For example, if you create some UTM parameters with a source of “Facebook,” they will be reported separately from parameters with a source of “facebook.” (You can build a filter to reconcile these, but who wants to do that extra work if they don’t have to?)
Follow best practices and use:
Some people prefer underscores, and while that won’t technically hurt anything here’s an article Matt Cutts (formerly of Google) wrote about why dashes are preferred.
Keep a Record
Google Analytics does not store a list of all of the UTM parameters and custom URLs you create. If you tag a URL and then it receives zero traffic (no clicks), it will not show up anywhere in Google Analytics. With this in mind, it’s important to keep a record of the UTM parameters you’ve deployed (pushed out somewhere on the Internet). This record will allow you to be more consistent and understand what is not working (what’s generating zero traffic).
Tip: If you use the UTM Generating Spreadsheet, you’ll have an ongoing record.
Where do I see the results?
To see how your custom URLs are performing, follow these steps:
Tip: To see “Content” or “Term,” click on “Secondary dimension” and choose “Ad Content” or “Search Term.”
What’s the catch?
UTM parameters are a great way to better understand your marketing endeavors, but they aren’t perfect. While UTM parameters will help tame the chaos that is reporting, their drawbacks include:
They’re a reminder that Big Brother is watching.
If visitors do look at a URL, UTM parameters may serve as an uncomfortable reminder that they’re being tracked. While this probably won’t send anyone running for the hills, with all of the concerns about privacy, it may give a visitor pause.
They aren’t always 100% honest.
UTM parameters aren’t magic. They can’t detect when someone has taken the custom URL you created and put it somewhere else. For example, let’s say I get one of your sales emails, and I copy and paste the link (complete with UTM) onto Facebook. Anyone that sees my post and clicks the link will be labeled in Google Analytics as having come from your email UTM when in actuality they came from Facebook. Unless you routinely produce viral content, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Big long URLs can be unsightly and cumbersome, especially on social media platforms. To get around this, you can use link shorteners, like Bitly.
They can be error prone.
With so many fields to fill in and all the nuances between different sources, mediums, etc. it’s all too easy to make mistakes when creating custom URLs with UTM parameters.
Unfortunately, a mistake that isn’t caught can pollute your data and make measurement and reporting even more difficult. To avoid errors, double check your parameters for accuracy before you deploy a URL.
UTM parameters are a quick and easy way to get valuable insights into your marketing endeavors. The data obtained by using UTM parameters can cut costs, increase sales, and refine your overall strategy. However, they won’t create and manage themselves (yet!). You have to put in the effort in order to get the reward, but trust me, the effort is well worth it. You can get started with UTM parameters right now by utilizing Google’s Campaign URL Builder or this UTM Generating spreadsheet.