utm parameters online marketing

UTM Parameters: Unlock great online marketing performance

UTM parameters are a well known concept in online marketing, but their use rarely follows best practice. By not using UTM parameters properly, companies are missing a trick and are likely not meeting their potential online.

Conjura wants to enable businesses to maximise their performance online and UTM parameters are central to that. With that in mind we’ve put together this guide to using UTM parameters effectively. We start off with a quick background into UTM parameters and how they work, before diving into the details around how to use them effectively and how to design your tracking convention to get the most out of your data. 

UTM parameters, what are they and how do they work?

A UTM parameter is a string appended to the end of a URL that helps marketers track where visitors to that URL are coming from. The URL in this case is usually one used in an online ad, placed in an email or on a blog. UTM parameters help marketers split website traffic among channels and campaigns so they can understand whether their online marketing activity is working.

Without UTM parameters it is almost impossible to determine where visitors are coming from or which channels are good at acquiring customers. Without them, it is not possible to make good decisions about where to invest in online marketing activity. Without UTM parameters, the marketer is effectively flying blind.

As outlined above UTM parameters are simply strings of text appended to the end of a URL. They have no effect on the destination of the URL or on any other aspect of the visitor’s experience. They work by “talking” to web analytics tools like Google Analytics. Google Analytics will identify and read the UTM parameters and then use them to determine the source of your traffic. 

There are five component parts to UTM parameters: source, medium, campaign, term, and content. Here is a link to Google’s description of each component part. Source, medium and campaign are the most commonly used, but companies can often get great value out of using the additional parameters too. By varying these parameters depending on where your URLs are placed (i.e. in ad campaigns across different channels), you can gain visibility on click-through rates, conversion rates, costs of acquiring customers and more, at a granular level. This is the panacea of online marketing as it allows marketers to make good decisions about how to optimise campaign settings and allocate budget based on how campaigns are performing.

How should UTM parameters be used?  

UTM parameters should be used on every single URL a company promotes; both paid and organic. Whether you’re running paid ads on search and social platforms, placing a link to your website within blogs or social media posts, or even using offline methods such as leaflets and billboards, any web address you include should be tagged with UTM parameters. You can even use UTM parameters to track affiliate or influencer marketing by ensuring the influencer uses a URL in their posts that contains a UTM tag. This holistic approach will empower you to accurately track your performance across all channels, even offline ones, and correctly attribute purchases and other conversion actions to their source.

Google Ads makes it easy to correctly tag ads with UTM parameters. Simply ensure that the auto-tagging feature is turned on. But with most ad platforms you need to manually tag every campaign and ad separately. Sounds like a lot of work, but the benefits outweigh the costs!

Happily there are a few tools to help you on the way. In particular, Conjura recommends using Campaign URL builder tools. Here’s a link to one that we like to use. Additionally, in Facebook you have the ability to use dynamic URLs to ensure your ads are tagged correctly. Here is a link to how they work. We highly recommend you use them!

Unfortunately, despite these tools, in Conjura’s experience most campaigns are not tagged with UTM parameters at all. This greatly limits a marketers ability to make good decisions. There is simply not enough information about what really is driving traffic and the underlying trends in performance.

Take the example of a company that drives traffic to its website via a large number of Facebook campaigns. By not tagging campaigns properly, all visitors driven to the website as a result of these campaigns are bucketed into one “facebook / referral” channel within Google Analytics. In this scenario the company will not be able to identify the best and worst performing campaigns and therefore cannot make optimisation decisions. 

Of course, some visibility is available with Facebook itself. While Facebook’s reporting is useful, its attribution model can be over-generous as it doesn’t take other marketing touchpoints (e.g. search, display etc.) a customer may have into account. Additionally, ad platforms like Facebook use cookies and pixels to determine whether a conversion event occurred. While these are useful, they can’t beat using actual customer and transaction data, which is not possible without using UTM parameters to collect the required data. It’s not all Facebook’s fault, it doesn’t have access to this other data, so can’t incorporate it into its reporting. 

Designing a UTM parameter tracking convention

When using UTM parameters, it’s important to follow a good tracking convention. A tracking convention is a list of rules that govern how a company uses UTMs across all its marketing activity. We recommend devising a tracking convention and then sticking to it every time you place a URL, anywhere (across campaigns, channels, blogs, emails etc.). This means there’ll be no gaps in the data you collect and ensures that your data can be aggregated and analysed easily.

The tracking convention should outline how the business uses the five UTM parameters we outlined earlier across each channel. The great thing about UTM parameters is that they are very flexible and it’s possible to use them in whatever way works for your business. The most important thing is that they are used consistently across your marketing activity.

We have laid out a simple example of a tracking convention below to give you a place to start. 

  • Everything should be lowercase. Google Analytics is case sensitive, so using a source of “facebook” as well as a source of “Facebook” would show up as two separate entities when in reality they refer to the same traffic source. We can avoid issues like this by ensuring that we consistently use lowercase text across all of our UTMs.
  • “Source” should be the name of the platform or channel, e.g. google, facebook, twitter, mailchimp, offline etc. You should use the same Source for all campaigns on the same channel. 
  • “Medium” should be the type of post, e.g. cpc, blogpost, email, bio, billboard, leaflet. If you use different bidding strategies, you could include this info here too. Change the medium tag to cpc, cpa, cpm etc. depending on your bidding strategy.
  • “Campaign” should be the name of the marketing or email campaign, or the influencer’s name if applicable. It’s important to ensure that you use the same campaign name in the ad platform as well as in the UTM parameters. This allows you to easily combine data sources for analysis at a later date.
  • “Term” tends to be used mostly for paid campaigns. If your business relies mainly on paid search, such as Google Ads or Bing Ads, then you should use the term parameter to identify the search term (keyword) that drove the visitor to your site. If you rely more on paid social advertising on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the term parameter can be used to specify the target audience instead.
  • “Content” can be used to specify properties of the ad or post, e.g. text-with-image, text-only, beach-image, garden-image etc.

A convention like the above enriches your Google Analytics data and gives you the ability to slice the data in a variety of ways to gain meaningful insights. No matter what convention you decide on, the data placed in each of the five parameters should be informative when looking at each parameter in isolation as well as when looking at the parameters put together. 

Inspecting the data collected in each parameter separately provides broad insights into how visitors like to interact with your brand. For example, you could pit Facebook against Twitter and compare their overall performance using just the source parameter, or you could determine which bidding strategy is most effective using just the medium parameter. Similarly you could compare the performance of certain styles of content across all platforms using just the content parameter, answering questions like “How do text-only posts perform when compared with posts that included an image?” or “What image did users respond better to?”.

Meanwhile, conducting analysis on multiple parameters at once (e.g. source, medium and campaign) can give targeted insights into particular ads. The more parameters included, the more specific the analysis. For example, it is possible to answer questions like “How many sales were driven by my Summer Sale email campaign when I also included the image of the beach in the email?” or “What was the return on advertising spend for the Men’s Shoes acquisition campaign that was run on Google search?”. 

It is only possible to answer these questions when a proper tracking convention is followed and UTM parameters are present across all campaigns. 

Next Steps

Maybe you have a strong UTM strategy in place already and if so, great! But if not, it’s never too late to start. Implementing a robust approach to UTM parameters will revolutionise your tracking infrastructure and customer analytics, allowing you to make more informed decisions around your digital marketing spend and strategy. We hope this article gave you some ideas on where to begin, but if you’d like some more advice then don’t hesitate to get in touch!