07 January 2021
Today, the problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t have enough data … it’s that we have too much. Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, the spreadsheets from your vendors—and that’s just the tip of the data iceberg! Seriously, it’s enough to make any marketer develop a severe case of arithmophobia. And then there’s this question: so you have a lot of data, but is it the right data? Enter UTM parameters. Yep, using a UTM builder to append parameters to your URLs can help you … Wait! I saw you heading for the back button! UTM parameters are not as technical as they sound. They can be deployed in just a few minutes and you don’t need a web developer (or a wizard) to do it. In fact, there are UTM builders (including a free one you can get by subscribing to our email list) that’ll do a lot of the work for you. Pinky promise What does UTM even mean? UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module and they’re pieces of code you stick on the end of a URL. These code pieces then pass info back to Google Analytics, helping you better categorize data and measure results. All for free. Sounds pretty sweet, right? Vocab: UTM parameters are sometimes referred to as URL parameters, campaign parameters, custom URLs or campaign tracking parameters. Are UTM parameters necessary? You may be thinking, “I’m already using Google Analytics, so aren’t these urchin tracking modules just more work?” Well, sure, UTM parameters are more work, but they’re worth it. They allow you to see additional info. While social media analytics, such as Facebook Insights or Twitter Analytics, may show you which of your posts or tweets are getting the most engagement, they do not necessarily show you which are driving the most people to your website … or which content is generating leads. UTM parameters allow you to send detailed data into Google Analytics. They allow you to get in the weeds Using UTM parameters allows you to drill down to a granular level when it comes to data. Here’s an example: Twitter traffic does show up in Google Analytics as a referrer and usually as t.co. However, is knowing that 100 people came to your website from Twitter in the last 30 days useful enough? By using a UTM builder to append parameters to your URLs, you could understand which of those 100 people came from paid vs. organic efforts or even which specific tweets drove those people to the site. They can help you verify data. Let’s say a vendor’s report showed that you received 1,000 clicks during the lifetime of a campaign. 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. Psst! Wondering why vendor and third-party reports frequently don’t match up with what you’re seeing in Google Analytics? If this question is keeping you up at night, get ready to catch some zzzs because we’ve got the answer! Read Why Doesn’t My Vendor’s Report Match Google Analytics? How do I build UTMs? Good news-anyone can generate UTM parameters in just a matter of minutes. (And I do mean anyone.) First, grab your magic want … kidding, kidding. Here’s what you’ll need: Google Analytics deployed on your website. You can build UTM parameters without Google Analytics, but you won’t be able to see the results so there’s really no point. The URL you want to drive traffic to. Google’s UTM Builder or our UTM Building Spreadsheet, which you can snag by subscribing to our email list. For either UTM builder, you’ll need to provide the following: Webpage URL This is the page you want to send visitors to. Tip: Make sure this webpage has Google Analytics deployed on it. If you don’t have Google Analytics deployed (and if you don’t have access to that Google Analytics account), UTM parameters won’t do you any good! Campaign Source This is specifically where traffic is coming from. In other words, where are you posting this URL? For example, “Twitter” is a source of traffic. Campaign Medium This is the channel generating the traffic. Think of the medium as a category. The campaign source is specific, and the campaign medium is broad. For example, if your source is “Twitter,” your medium might be “social” or “referreral.” The default channel groupings in Google Analytics are: Direct Organic Referral Email Social Paid Social (cpc, ppc) Display In most cases, you’ll want to choose one of these for your medium. For more on default channel groupings see: here. Tip: You can pick whatever you want for your UTM parameter medium. For example, as mentioned above, Twitter could be “social” or “referral.” However, whatever you pick, be consistent! If you frequently change your mediums it can make it next to impossible to accurately analyze your data … which pretty much defeats the purpose of UTM parameters. Campaign Name Moniker with which you will identify your campaign. In other words, it’s a name that will allow you to recognize what you were promoting. For example, if you’re marketing a spring sale, your campaign name might be “spring-sale.” You would use the same campaign name for all spring sale efforts with different sources, mediums, terms and content tags to differentiate between various marketing efforts like your Instagram ads and your emails. Campaign Term This field is optional. Use this field if there is a specific keyword associated with the campaign. Campaign Content This field is optional. Use this field to differentiate between various ads pointing to the same URL for the same campaign. For instance, let’s go back to that spring sale example and say you’re running Facebook ads. Let’s say you have two ads, one is a static image and the other is a video. You could use the campaign content field to differentiate these different creative assets or ad sizes. Remember, you can put UTM parameters on any link, and you can create as many custom links as you want! Are there UTM parameter best practices? Believe it or not, there are no UTM police ready to bust down your office 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. (Shocking, I know.) While there’s no law against misusing UTMs, since the data will live in 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 a UTM builder: Think two steps ahead You don’t have to take a month to plan out your UTM parameters; after all, you’re not plotting to take over the world. (Wait, are you?) However, you will want to put a little thought into them. Think about how you’ll want to slice and dice 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 upfront 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 “aftp” 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 … Consistency is key! We’ve already touched on this briefly, but it’s so critical that it can stand to be said again. To get the most out of UTM parameters, you’ll want to be cognizant of any differences in the parameters you’re creating. For example, if you create some UTM parameters with a source of “Twitter,” they will be reported separately from parameters with a source of “twitter.” (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: Lowecase (twitter not Twitter). Dashes instead of underscores, spaces, camel casing, etc. (summer-sale not summer_sale, Summer Sale or summerSale). Consistent sources and mediums. Note: Some people prefer underscores in their UTM parameters, 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 it subsequently receives zero traffic, those UTM parameters 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). And knowing what is not working is just as important as knowing what is working! Plus, this can allow you to quickly spot human errors. For example, if you generated UTM parameters for a spring sale email but are seeing no traffic you might double check and make sure the email actually went out! Perhaps someone forgot to schedule it or issue final approval. Tip: If you use the UTM Builder Spreadsheet that you get when you sign up for our email list, you’ll have an ongoing record of all UTM parameters generated both by yourself and any team members. Where do I see the results? Login to Google Analytics. Click “Acquisitions” on the left-hand side. Click “Campaigns.” Choose “All Campaigns.” By default, you’ll be looking at whatever you entered for the “campaign name.” Toggle between “Campaign,” “Source,” and “Medium.” Tip: To see “Content” or “Term,” click on “Secondary dimension” and choose “Ad Content” or “Search Term.” Caveat: The steps above pertain to Universal Analytics; if you’re using the newest iteration of Google Analytics (Google Analytics 4), UTM parameters may not work (as of January 6, 2021). You can read a thread from individuals struggling with this issue here. … waiting for the other shoe to drop? UTM parameters are an easy and inexpensive way to gain deeper insight into different 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. UTM parameters don’t alter the webpage in any way, and visitors would only know that UTMs are being used if they examined the URL. However, 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 can create a false sense of confidence No UTM builder or set of UTM parameters can detect when someone takes a URL you created and deploys it elsewhere. And this does happen! For example, let’s say Angie (a power Twitter user if there ever was one) gets your spring sale email. She’s stoked about that extra 50% off all clearance items and she wants to help you spread the word! Angie takes the URL (with carefully appended UTM parameters) and drops it into a tweet. She doesn’t know about custom parameters … she just really likes vintage shoes, so Angie doesn’t alter or remove your UTM parameters before tweeting. Any one of Angie’s tens of thousands of followers who click on the link in her tweet will be labeled in Google Analytics as having come from the sale email … but they actually came from Twitter. There’s not much you can do about this … other than be aware. As you use Google Analytics to dive in and out of marketing data, it’s important to understand that nothing is 100%. They’re ugly. Long URLs can be unsightly and cumbersome, especially on social media. To get around this, you can use link shorteners, like Bitly. They aren’t foolproof. 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 UTM parameters for accuracy before deployment. UTM builders make creating custom URLs quick and easy. 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 the effort is well worth it. You can get started with UTM parameters right now by utilizing Google’s Campaign URL Builder or by signing up for our mailing list. Once you sign up you’ll get a welcome email with a link to a free UTM builder spreadsheet! Want to get the most out of your Google Analytics? St. Gregory can help! Our Google Analytics certified data nerds would love to do a deep dive on your account and help you make adjustments to ensure you’re bringing in good clean data and that you’re correctly interpreting it. Contact us today for a consult.
01 September 2020
Author: Alex Webb
Help. The clicks my vendor is showing don’t match what I’m seeing in Google Analytics! Unfortunately, this is a very common problem. In fact, we’d say it’s the norm! Usually, the number of clicks the vendor is reporting is significantly higher than what you’re seeing in Google Analytics, which can be quite distressing. However, there are a myriad of potential causes behind this discrepancy and unfortunately, more than one factor may be at work here. Here are some reasons that the number of clicks in a vendor report won’t match what you see in Google Analytics. Common Reasons Vendors Don’t Match Google Analytics Clicks Are Not the Same As Users If you’re running display or pre-roll video ads, the vendor is mostly delivering those ads over an ad server or ad exchange and is most likely tracking clicks, which are calculated based on server logs. On the other hand, Google is tracking “users.” A user is not necessarily the same thing as a click. A user is a unique person that has come to your website. To put it more accurately, it is a unique device and/or browser. Let’s dig a little deeper. Scenario 1: John is surfing the web using Mozilla Firefox on his laptop. He clicks your display ad three times. Your vendor would count this as three clicks, but Google Analytics would only count this as one user. That’s because the first time John clicked your ad and Google Analytics fired, he was “cookied.” A code snippet was appended to him so that Google could recognize him. Now, any time John visits your website on his laptop in Mozilla, he’ll just be counted as one user unless he clears his cache or the cookie expires. Scenario 2: John is surfing the web using his iPhone and a Safari browser. He clicks your ad two times. Then, later that night, John is on his laptop in a Chrome browser and clicks your ad once. Your vendor would count this as three clicks, but Google Analytics would count this as two users. Once on the iPhone in Safari (even though he clicked the ad twice) and once on the laptop in Chrome. Unless John changes his device and/or browser or clears his cache he’ll keep being counted as one user in Google Analytics… but your vendor will count a new click each time he clicks on your ad. Now, there are instances where Google can track users across devices—and Cross Device Reporting within Google Analytics can give you additional insight into that. And of course, Google is getting smarter all the time at being able to track people from a myriad of sources, but the general principles outlined in this section still hold true. Conflating clicks with users is the quintessential apples/oranges issue in third-party reporting. Google Analytics Is Not Firing In order for Google Analytics to count a user, the Google Analytics tag must fire, which happens as the webpage loads. This means if a visitor clicks your ad and then quickly hits the back button your vendor will most likely report a click while Google Analytics will show nothing. In addition, if the visitor prevents the page from fully loading by quickly moving to another page or by pressing the browser’s “stop” button, Google Analytics may not fire. Again, your vendor would report a click because the person did click your ad but Google Analytics would show nothing because it never fired. Google Analytics Is Not Set Up Properly If Google Analytics is not set up properly, it may not accurately count users or document where they came from. This could be something as simple as Google Analytics not being installed on your landing page or something more complicated, like a cross-domain tracking issue. Traffic Is Being Sent To The Wrong Page This sounds silly, but if you’re seeing large discrepancies, always ask the vendor to verify the URL they are sending traffic to. We’ve seen cases where clients have accidentally provided invalid URLs or URLs to a different website and therefore traffic was going to an unintended location. Tip: Avoid URLs that redirect as this can cause reporting problems within Google Analytics and exacerbate the discrepancy. Traffic Being Counted As “Direct” A lot of display ad traffic happens on mobile devices, specifically in apps. This can be problematic because when a user clicks an ad in an app, their browser may open. (In other words, the website doesn’t always open within the app.) Sometimes, Google Analytics gets confused about where this user came from and just dumps them in the “direct” traffic bucket. In other words, Google Analytics thinks, “hey, this person just opened up their browser and went directly to this website.” It isn’t able to see that they really came from an app, specifically an ad within an app. This recently happened to us. A longstanding vendor reported 17,833 clicks for a given campaign. During that same time, Google Analytics was only attributing 5,734 users to that vendor. That’s a discrepancy of 67.8%—far larger than what we normally see from this vendor. Closer examination showed that this client had a HUGE number of direct visitors for the campaign period. The number of direct users was approximately 9x higher than what it normally is. After accounting for all of the previously mentioned reasons for a discrepancy and talking to the vendor, we determined that Google Analytics had been counting in-app clicks as “direct” traffic. This had not happened in previous campaigns. We told the vendor to stop serving our ads in apps and we’ve since seen a much smaller discrepancy between the vendor’s report and Google Analytics, as well as normal levels of direct traffic. There’s Fraudulent Activity If you’ve ruled everything else out, it’s sad to say, but there could be fraudulent activity going on. There are two possibilities: There were invalid clicks on your ad. Most ad servers have safeguards in place to filter out invalid clicks (like those by a bot). Typically, your vendor will deduct these invalid clicks from the total in your report. However, Google Analytics reports all users. This is an instance where the number of Google Analytics users may be higher than the numbers reported by your vendor. Your vendor has inflated the number of clicks. This could be some kind of glitch with their reporting system OR an intentional action to make the campaign appear to have performed better than it did. It’s sad that this one has to be on the list … but there are less than reputable vendors out there. So, Why Use Vendors At All? If a vendor’s report isn’t going to match up with Google Analytics, why use them at all? Great question. At St. Gregory, we’re always striving to provide the best possible results for our clients. If we can do something in-house better and cheaper than any vendor, then we will (and we frequently do!)—but if a vendor has access to some audience or technology that we don’t, we’re going to talk to them. We don’t want to limit our clients out of fear. That’s why we have stringent measures in place for evaluating campaign results and making sure vendors are really performing, regardless of what they report. How Can I Make Vendor Reports Match Google Analytics? Sadly you can’t. Seriously, we’ve never seen a third-party vendor report match up perfectly with Google Analytics—and that’s okay. They don’t have to match up … as long as the vendor is still providing value. Here are some steps you can take when working with third-party vendors to make sure you get the best results: #1 – Know that the numbers aren’t going to match going in. You’re going to have a discrepancy. Be prepared for it. Prepare stakeholders for it. #2 – Use UTM parameters on the URL you give the vendor. When you’re setting up a campaign with a vendor, you’ll provide them the URL (or URLs) you want to drive traffic to. Append UTM parameters to this URL so that you can more accurately track the traffic they’re driving to your site. When you send the URL to the vendor, point out the UTM parameters. Tell them not to alter your URL in any way! (Otherwise, they might strip the parameters off of your URL.) UTM parameters allow you to control exactly how the traffic shows up in Google Analytics, which makes tying users back to a particular vendor a lot easier! #3 – Check your landing page. Hit your landing page before the campaign launches and make sure Google Analytics is firing properly. You can use Real Time reporting (within Google Analytics) to find yourself on the page. #4 – Check your site speed. So … when you checked that landing page, how fast did it load? Did you know that on mobile devices, people expect a website to load and be functional in three seconds or less? If your webpage is a bit laggy, try picking a faster page (or taking steps to speed that page up). If you can’t do that, just understand that you might be a victim of people clicking your ad but then clicking the back button before the page can fully load. #5 – Consider telling the vendor to not show your ad in apps. After the large discrepancy we saw, we’ve become more cautious about in-app clicks. In fact, at the moment, we’ve told our vendor to not show our display ads in apps at all. We’ll probably retest this in a month or two. Update: In September 2020, Apple rolled out iOS 14 which included a lot of additions that are meant to protect user privacy. Unfortunately, these additions can cause tracking issues for advertisers. It’s too early to spell out exactly what all these issues may look like and how to avoid or overcome them, but be aware that iOS 14 may cause problems for you! If you’re seeing wonky numbers and your site gets a high volume of iPhone traffic, consider testing a campaign with iOS 14 users excluded, which is a capability most vendors possess. #6 – Evaluate the vendor on what you can document. Your vendor’s report says you got 1,000 clicks? So what. What does Google Analytics say? We take the number of impressions the vendor served with the number of users (or sessions) and conversions from Google Analytics to figure out how the campaign performed. If the cost per user (or session), CTR, cost per conversion and conversion rate are in line with what we would expect from that type of campaign, then we’re good. It doesn’t matter how many clicks the vendor reported. If the numbers are below what we’d expect to see, there are more questions to ask both of the vendor and of ourselves—for example, was there something wrong with the creative? (But that’s a different story!) Need help deep diving into your Google Analytics or vendor reporting? Our number nerds would love to help you out. Our entire digital marketing department is Google Analytics–certified and (better yet) passionate about data analysis. Contact us today to set up a free consultation.