UTM Codes - The good, the bad & the ugly.

It goes without saying that in business, and in particular marketing, knowing what you're getting in return for your efforts (and your money) is paramount. I've talked before about widening your ROI goal posts, to focus on the broader objectives, rather than every click, like and follow and that advice still holds true. However, there are some smart ways to monitor the performance of your individual campaigns in order to ascertain what's working and what's not. One of those ways is through the use of UTM codes.

Let's face it, in 2018, websites are a critical business building channel, whether they're for e-commerce (customers buying directly from your site), lead generation (through sales funnels, email signups, remarketing etc) or simply an information resource for potential customers. If you're spending time and money driving traffic to your website (and you should be), one thing you want to nail is knowing which of your campaigns are driving traffic and which aren't. That's where UTM codes (also known as UTM parameters) come in.

WHAT IS A UTM CODE?

Put simply, a UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) is a piece of code that's added to a standard URL. It contains key information (parameters) about incoming website traffic that is passed through to Google Analytics every time that URL is loaded.  By using the UTM code in your links, you're able to measure the impact of specific campaigns in driving traffic to your site (and their associated revenue if you sell online). 

HOW ARE UTM CODES USED? 

Social media is a good example of where UTM codes can be very beneficial. To illustrate this, let's look at a basic example.

Over the course of a month, Company X might publish a number of different links to their website across social media. Perhaps they want to highlight a monthly special, launch a new product or provide helpful information through a blog post. If their marketing team is doing a good job, then they'd expect to generate significant traffic to their site as a result. If they're dilligent, they'd also want to know which of the posts performed well and which didn't, so they could continue to refine their social media campaigns.

Using regular page URLs (i.e www.companyx.com), the traffic report in Google Analytics would likely look something like this.

Without UTM parameters

Without UTM parameters

While this information might be ok for monitoring each social media platform broadly, it's lacking the required detail to report on indiviual campaigns (and posts).

On the other hand, by adding UTM parameters to each link, Google Analytics is able to generate far more specific data, allowing Company X to clearly monitor the impact of each link against specific campaigns, including multiple campaigns from the same platform. 

With UTM parameters

With UTM parameters

Of course, social media isn't the only medium in which UTM links are beneficial, they can be used to track all sorts of campaigns from email performance, links within community groups and forums, display advertising, the list goes on. Even offline campaigns can be tracked this way, using a combination of UTM links and vanity URLs. You simply need to publish a unique URL (on a magazine or newspaper ad for example) that redirects automatically to a URL containing UTM parameters and voilà, you can now measure how your print ads are driving traffic to your website. 

CREATING UTM CODES

Given UTM links contain snippets of code, many inexperienced marketers incorrectly assume that they're difficult to create. In reality, though, it couldn't be easier. Google has done all the heavy lifting for you. 

Simply visit Google's 'Campaign URL Builder' and complete the relevant fields. Google will then spit out a pre-populated URL, containing the defined UTM parameters, for you to insert into your digital advertising.  

campaign_builder.png

The only mandatory field is 'Campaign Source', but by far the most popular method is to specify a 'Campaign Source', 'Campaign Medium' and 'Campaign Name'. This information can then be reported in Google Analytics under the 'Aquisition' menu, by selecting 'All Traffic' and then 'Source/Medium'. By adding 'Campaign' as a secondary dimension, all three parameters will be shown. More advanced users can also opt to include additional information to report on specific paid keywords and A/B split testing. 

Consistency is the key when it comes to creating UTM links. There are no set rules on how to label each parameter and it'll depend a lot on how your campaigns are defined and set up. Spending some time creating a plan for the consistent use of UTMs before you begin using them will make life a lot simpler in the long term, as well as ensuring the data is as easy to read as possible inside Google Analytics.  

For those who're interested, Talu has a great blog post on some of the best practices to consider when it comes to structuring UTM links.

THE UGLY SIDE OF UTMs

The ugly side of UTM codes is, well, just that - they're ugly! Nothing screams 'big brother' more than a URL full of code and other 'advertisy' stuff. I mean, which link would you be more likely to click on? 

www.companyx.com
or
www.companyx.com?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=monthly%20special

Yeah, me too!

Luckily, most online platforms these days do a great job of hiding the URL in links, replacing them instead with a nice preview of the page you're about to land on. 

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 5.44.43 pm.png

Or, like in Twitter's case, long URLs are automatically shortened, which hides all the code.

For cases in which you can't automatically hide your UTM code, there are a number of ways to manually intervene. Vanity links (with a redirect), URL shorteners (think Bit.ly) or Google Tag Manager (a bit more complex) can all do the trick. In any case, don't let the ugliness of UTM codes put you off. The pros almost always outweigh the cons. 

So, in conclusion...

THE GOOD

  • UTM codes contain campaign specific information which is read by Google Analytics
  • They ensure that you can measure exactly where your inbound campaign traffic is coming from
  • If you're an e-commerce business, you can also track revenue and other transactional data back to campaign specific links
  • They can be used in a number of different ways, both online and offline
  • They're easy to setup with Google's Campaign URL Builder. No coding experience necessary.

THE BAD

  • They take a bit of initial planning, particularly around structure and consistency
  • They're more time consuming than simply using a generic URL link

THE UGLY

  • Like I said, they're ugly, but there are plenty of ways to keep them out of site in your marketing

 

Need help structuring UTM links, navigating Google Analytics or just getting your head around digital advertising in general?