How to Track Digital Marketing Campaigns: A Brief Intro to UTMs

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  • 3/16/2021
    Peter Drucker quote

    What’s your biggest fear? Snakes? Clowns? Public speaking? Our biggest fear is purchased email lists, but our second biggest fear is working ourselves to the bone on a campaign launch and then slowly realizing over time we have no idea how it’s performing in relation to the time, effort and money we invested. 
     
    If the hair on the back of your neck just bristled, we’re with you. If you’re putting in the work, you deserve to reap the results, or at least have a little guidance on appropriate adjustments to make for better performance.
     
    There are two common ways to track campaigns in a digital marketing context, and this quick guide is designed to introduce you to both. Say hello to UTMs and Pixels, your new best friends.
     

    Why is it important to track digital marketing campaigns?

    It’s important to track your performance marketing campaigns because without a clear understanding of your results and the ins and outs of your efforts, it will be difficult to truly determine what’s driving your successes and failures. 
     
    Have you ever heard that saying, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? If that’s true, then the definition of fruitless marketing is not even knowing those results in the first place. Without tracking your digital marketing campaigns, you can’t know what efforts are worth repeating and which are worth pushing aside.
     
    This rings especially true when you enter the world of performance marketing where it’s likely you have several different marketing tactics running at once in support of the same campaign. Not all of these moving pieces will be top performing, but siloing them out and then assuming they’re all working together and all responsible for campaign results won’t fly in the world of great marketing. 
     

    What are UTMs | How does a UTM help with tracking?

    A UTM, also known as an Urchin Tracking Module, is a small snippet of text that’s appended to a URL for labeling purposes. Because the UTM is added to the URL, it’s automatically captured by software like Google Analytics as a unique point of entry to your site. Google Analytics is able to record the users unique combination of utm parameters and determine where they came from before coming to your website, also known as a traffic source. 
     
    Have you ever checked the address bar when you click on a link in a marketing email? Instead of a short, sweet, optimized URL, you’ll probably see a URL with the word “utm” in it, meaning a savvy marketer is working behind the scenes tracking what link got you to click through. 
     
    Each tracking URL usually contains five common tracking parameters that work to show that smart marketer where you came from and what campaign caught your eye. 
     

    The 5 standard tracking parameters

    The five standard tracking parameters can be thought of as the anatomy of the tracking URL. Each URL usually includes the medium, source, campaign, content and term. Each one gives marketers different information about the circumstances behind the user’s click. 
     
    • UTM Medium - This is the type of performance marketing tactic that you clicked on to get to the intended website. For example, this could be email, display, paid-search, social or organic.
    • UTM Source - This is the specific type of marketing effort within the overarching tactic that the user clicked on. For example, if the medium is Social, the source can be Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.
    • UTM Campaign - This is the specific campaign theme you’re promoting through your performance marketing efforts. It could be your product name, a promo code or a brand slogan.
    • UTM Content - This tracking parameter should be included if you have multiple versions of the same medium and source running for the same campaign. For example, if you’re running two different Facebook ads to promote the same campaign, you should give each one a different name or number using a content parameter. This can be as simple as “Ad1” and “Ad2.”
    • UTM Term - This tracking parameter is standard only for tracking paid search terms. If your medium is anything other than “paid-search” or “display,” you should not include a UTM Term. 
     
    Every tracking URL will generally include the first three parameters, medium, source and campaign to be of use to marketers. Anything less than that may not provide enough information for accurate attribution.
     

    Example UTM code

    Imagine if we were running a paid social media ad campaign for a professional basketball team and our goal is to sell season tickets. Because we are running paid ads across multiple social networks, our best approach to managing this data in Google analytics is to use UTM tracking with unique UTM source codes for each of the platforms we will use. 
     
    • UTM Source - Facebook
    • UTM Medium - Social
    • UTM Campaign - SznTickets
     
    Notice this is not a paid search focused campaign, so we have not included UTM Term. We are also only running one version of this ad on Facebook for the time being, so we have not included UTM Content either. If we had chosen to run all our ads on Facebook rather than spreading them across multiple platforms, then we would have included UTM Content in the URL.
     
    Using this formula, our final UTM tracking URL would look like this:
     
     
    Plugging it all in, the final version of this tracking URL will look like this:
     
     
    This is the URL we should input into our Facebook ad when we launch it. If we do not use this specialized UTM URL, we will not easily be able to track where users came from before reaching our site, and how many users purchased after seeing our Facebook ad vs. our Twitter ad.
     
    Note that it’s also not necessary to build a UTM URL from scratch like this. We recommend using Google’s Campaign URL Builder. This tool is one we always take advantage of to quickly build our UTMs prior to launching new campaigns.
     

    What is a tracking pixel and how does it work?

    A Tracking pixel is a small line of JavaScript code embedded into the header of a website. This line of code will fire based on the actions and behaviors of a visitor and is useful for tracking more complex actions beyond a click, i.e. if someone clicked a button, purchased an item, or read the entirety of a blog post. 
     
    At this point in the age of digital advertising, there are a variety of pixel types for different sites. 
     
    common examples of pixel tracking codes
     

    Common Examples of Pixel Tracking Codes

    • Google Analytics Tracking Code
    • Facebook Pixel
    • Bing Ads - Universal Event Tracking 
    • Crazy Egg, Hot Jar, or Lucky Orange’s Heat Mapping Pixels
    • Call Rail for Phone Call Conversions
    • LinkedIn 
    • Chat Bots
    • Twitter
     
    Marketers commonly install Google Tag Manager to their site to keep track of all of the various pixels they may use. Without using Google Tag Manager it’s easy to lose track of your efforts over time as more and more pixels get their own line of code on your website header. 
     

    Can I use a tracking pixel and UTMs?

    Absolutely, you can, and often should, use both at the same time. It’s become common to see sites that have tracking codes installed while leveraging UTMs at the same time. 
     
    Pixels and UTMs, though similar, do ultimately serve different purposes and provide different information. Tracking pixels are meant to capture on page activity and to leave cookies that can be used for retargeting. UTMs are meant to help understand the source of the visitor all the way down to the exact ad version they saw. 
     
    When installed correctly and working together, pixels and UTMs are a performance marketer’s dream. Enhance your next campaign by putting your Google Analytics dashboard to work and attributing your success down to the dollar.
     
    Ready to take your performance marketing efforts to the next level? Get tips and tricks like these sent straight to your inbox once per month with our Data Download newsletter, perfect for Developers, UX Designers and Eager Beaver Performance Marketers. Click here to subscribe to our email newsletter.
     
    About the author::Matt Schott is an Optimization Specialist at thunder::tech, who leverages data visualizations to help clients quickly grasp the whole story. In his free time, Matt is a reader of books, climber of rocks, and player of guitars.
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