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UTM Parameters In Plain English: How To Expertly Track Which Traffic Sources Are Actually Converting

Last Updated on March 20, 2020  

Have you ever found yourself unsure how to answer questions like these?

  • How are my podcast listeners converting into sales?
  • How well is my Youtube referral traffic converting into opt-ins?
  • Are my efforts to promote my posts on Twitter actually paying off?
  • How much traffic is my Facebook Page sending me?
  • What traffic source converts into opt-ins better?
  • Are the emails in your autoresponder sequence actually converting?

These kinds of questions (and their answers, of course) are key to really getting an ROI on your content marketing. And the ability to answer them really goes very far to differentiate the newbie marketer from the expert.

To really track this stuff well, we have to understand just what the hell UTM codes are.

What Is A UTM Code And How Do They Work?

So, back before Google Analytics was known as Google Analytics, that system was called Urchin. Urchin was a pretty robust web statistics analysis program created by a company called… Urchin Software (yeah, no suprise there). Google then went off and bought Urchin in 2005 and turned it into Google Analytics. And they took it from there and evolved it to what you see today.

Well, Urchin had a thing they called an Urchin Tracking Module (or UTM). It is basically a tracking marker added to URLs that enables you to track the exact source of the traffic. And this standard has carried forward to today, allowing anybody who uses Google Analytics to use UTM tags on their URLs and track their marketing down to a detailed level.

There are 5 UTM tags. They are:

  • Campaign Source (utm_source) – Identifies the source of the traffic (search engine, newsletter, facebook, etc.)
  • Campaign Medium (utm_medium) – Identifies the medium which is sending the traffic (email, blog post, podcast, etc.)
  • Campaign Term (utm_term) – Identifies any keyword terms used to refer the traffic. Uses mainly in pay-per-click ads where you’re bidding on keywords.
  • Campaign Content (utm_content) – Used to differentiate different ads which point to the same URL.
  • Campaign Name (utm_campaign) – Used to identify a particular campaign being run (an email campaign sequence, or a Facebook ad campaign)

That’s it. There’s just 5 of them. They actually work in a hierarchy:

utm-parameter-hierarchy

Image credit: ThreeVentures. (They’ve got a great, in-depth post on using UTM parameters). 

The way they work is by adding them as URL parameters right to the end of a link. So, for instance, in my welcome email sequence, I link to one of my blog posts. And I do it like so:

www.blogmarketingacademy.com/blog-monetization-strategy/?utm_source=emaillist&utm_medium=email&utm_content=email1&utm_campaign=Indoctrination

The actual URL I’m sending them to is www.blogmarketingacademy.com/blog-monetization-strategy/. However, you can see I’ve added various UTM tags to it.

  • utm_source=emaillist. Tells me that the source of the traffic is from my email list.
  • utm_medium=email. The medium being used to send the traffic is, of course, email.
  • utm_campaign=Indoctrination. The campaign being used here is Indoctrination. That’s what I call the welcome sequence, which “indoctrinates” a new email subscriber to what the Blog Marketing Academy is all about.
  • utm_content=email1. Within the indoctrination sequence, this particular link will be found in the first email of the series. Hence, email1.

Now, when I’m looking at my stats in Analytics, I will be able to determine where the traffic to this post is coming from.

In your Analytics report, go to the menu and click on Acquisition > Campaigns.

Campaigns_-_Google_Analytics

You will also find campaigns as a dimension you can use on other reports. So, for instance, if you’re looking at a report for one of your sales funnels (or a goal conversion), you can sort by campaign and see how traffic from various sources is performing in your sales funnel.

How To Actually Use These Darn Things

UTM tags are great and they can provide a lot of useful data for you. Thing is, actually using them is pretty much a manual process (most of the time).

Google provides a Google URL Builder tool you can use. Of course, Google being Google, they don’t make it very user-friendly and they bury the darn thing in their support knowledgebase. Why… I have no idea. But, it is there and it is pretty much the de facto way to create these links unless you have some shortcut tool to do it for you.

google-url-builder

If you’re using Chrome, you can also install the Google Analytics URL Builder add-in, which will allow you to easily set these URL up on the fly.

One thing to keep in mind is that it is best to plan these tags out a bit before you use them. You can literally type anything you want into these tag fields, so it’d be really easy to complicate your reports if you don’t have some kind of consistent naming convention.

For instance, if you had your campaign source set to “email” in some places and “e-mail” in others, that would go into your reports as TWO different campaign sources, even though they mean the exact same thing.

So, take a little time to plan out some naming conventions and keep it consistent.

When To Use (And Not Use) UTM Parameters

To be able to track referral traffic and what they do on your site, it would be ideal to add UTM parameters to any link on another site which points to your’s. This would also include emails from your list. Essentially, anything on the web which you could look at as an ad for your blog, use UTM parameters. This would include:

  • Social media link to your site
  • Paid advertising
  • Podcast calls to action
  • Links on Youtube or any other video site
  • Links embedded into a guest post written for another site
  • Links from your own emails (remember, links in an email are still off-site links)

There is one place that you definitely DO NOT want to use UTM parameters and that’s internal links.

I’ve made this mistake myself. It is easy to assume that UTM parameters are a big link tracker tool, so using them for internal calls to action would make sense. For instance, you link to your own product from within a blog post and you add UTMs, right?

Wrong. You don’t want to do that. The reason is that those UTM parameters would OVERWRITE any UTM tags on how that person actually found your site. Let’s say you shared a blog post on Twitter and you added UTMs to that link. So, you now know this person came from Twitter. But, then they come to your site and click on a call to action with UTM tags. You just OVERWROTE the fact that they came from Twitter.

Use UTM parameters for incoming links to your site, not for internal links within your site.

How To Track These Things To Your Actual Leads And Sales

Now, all these fancy-dancy UTM parameters are cute and all, but if you can’t track them through to the metrics that really matter in your business then it is a useless exercise. For instance, knowing that traffic from a particular source converts super well for you would be pretty valuable information.

First, you can actually pass these UTM parameters right into your subscriber’s profile when they opt into your list. It requires a little bit of geekery, though. Essentially, you’re passing the UTM parameters into the person’s profile using hidden fields right on the opt-in form.

Personally, I don’t really need this information stored on a per-lead basis (although Ontraport does track it for me). What I need is a global, collective look at exactly where my opt-ins and sales are coming from.

You can set this up manually inside of Google Analytics. By defining Goals inside your Analytics profile and then running reports on those goals, you can see where the people who took those actions came from.

I like things even simpler than that, though. I am using Improvely to keep track of it. With Improvely, I can set up my own tracking links which have UTM built right in. Additionally, Improvely will automatically pick up UTM parameters passed over even if they were using an Improvely tracking link. Improvely will also keep track of each individual person for me and give me the breakdown of what they’re doing.

Here’s one where I can clearly see that this person who signed up for Blog Monetization Lab came from my podcast.

Improvely

Improvely also gives me global reports filtered by the type of goal I’m tracking. So, on one screen, I can see which traffic sources are converting.

I like Improvely because it tracks all the way through to conversion. Another tool which looks quite handy is Terminus.

Terminus_-_Powerful_UTM_URL_Builder_for_Marketers

Terminus does a much better job of maintaining consistency with your UTM parameters. You can easily reuse tags… even write plain-English notes to yourself on what the different tags mean. Very handy. Terminus does not, however, have conversion tracking built-in.

A Little Tip On Using URL Shorteners

URL shorteners like Bitly are nice and are used by a lot of online marketers. Many bloggers also use plugins like Pretty Link to create shortened links.

Hot Tip: Bake your UTM parameters right into these links.

For instance, if you’re going to create a short URL to mention on a podcast or in a guest post, put your UTMs right into it. Then you’ll know exactly who came into your site via the link and you’ll be able to track it right through to what they do.

For instance, I’ve been a guest on many podcasts over the years. I really wish I were thinking about tracking during all that time. All guest appearances allow me to URL drop at the end… and I could have given them a unique URL which had my UTM tags built right in. To this day, I’d still be able to see if any of those guest appearances are resulting in opt-ins or sales.

BTW, you can also do this using URL forwarding. You can buy a new domain with the sole purpose of forwarding to another landing page. But, you can run that forwarder right through a tracking link with UTM tags built in.

For instance, I own BlogMonetizationLab.com. This domain simply forwards to the sales page for Blog Monetization Lab, using Namecheap’s URL forwarding. But, it goes through a tracking link and is tracked using Improvely.

Tracking: Mind-Numbing But Important

Some people really get off by diving into numbers and metrics. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. Doing all this tracking, metric calculation and conversion rate stuff doesn’t come naturally to me. I used to write it off by saying it was just extra work.

It is actually insanely important.

Online business – actually, any business – is just a glorified numbers game. In the end, you need to make more than you spend. From a marketing perspective, you need your marketing to make more than it costs you to run it. It’d be really hard to do that if you don’t know which marketing is actually working.

What if you were wasting your time producing some kind of content which just wasn’t producing anything in terms of opt-ins or sales? You were spending your time doing it… thinking it was important. But, actual analysis would show you it wasn’t having any impact.

You’d never know these things if you weren’t tracking it.

And tracking means you can spend your time, effort and money on the things which are working and stop wasting your time on the things which don’t.

That’s why this stuff is important.

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  • Connor Rickett says:

    David,

    This is really cool. I’m going to fold this into my next email campaign and see what sort of data I can scrape from it. Personally, I like playing with all the numbers, but I go a little nuts trying to make it all actually work the way it’s intended to.

    Thanks for the article!
    Connor

    Reply

  • Sergio Felix says:

    Hey David, I had no idea you would overwrite an UTM parameter if you were using UTM links on site.

    I think I’m going to take a very deep look at this because on our e-commerce store, we have several UTM links on site to track how banners are performing.

    I’ll have to double check how those acquisition metrics are really behaving after some testings because we may have been showing skewed reports for a while without even knowing.

    Thanks a lot man, I really appreciate this!

    Sergio Felix

    Reply

    • David Risley says:

      Cool. Yeah, its not like it’ll break anything… its just that it’ll kinda mess up the referral metrics in the Analytics reports. Of course, if you have something like Improvely that tracks activity to the individual user, it’d get around that. At least that’s my understanding.

      Reply

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