September 19, 2017

Understanding the effectiveness of your eMarketing efforts with Google Analytics and UTM tags

If you are posting your work online (as a blog, art, writing, products for sale etc.), you probably want to make it visible to as many people as potentially possible. You likely spend quite some time on social media sites, communicators and other places where you try to grab some attention and (hopefully) some clicks to your content.

You spend hours on Facebook, perfecting your posts to assure that they will attract peoples' likes, you check your Twitter timeline every few minutes, to re-tweet or comment on any valuable content posted by your contacts, you pin all of our products and their variants on Pinterest, your try to crawl through the sea of reblogs on Tumblr to find any original content worth a like. With some luck and lots of efforts you may get some results - the visitor counter provided by your website starts to show a number bigger than the number of times you checked if your page looks good yourself.

You got encouraged and as a result, you decided that sleeping is not that important, you discovered that it's possible to survive with just a few snacks a day (and many mugs of coffee), that life without an extended USB charging cable is very miserable as the battery in your cell-phone was build for people who don't plan to actually make use of it.

O.K., it may be not that bad... but social media can be very addictive, especially when you see that things you create do catch some viral fire. Still, there are only 24 hours a day and you have to prioritize your efforts and focus on those activities which bring most (any) results for you.

Tweet this:
Read this if you spend too much time promoting your #creative work and not sure if your efforts bring any results?

But do you know which of your on-line marketing efforts actually bring those results? Which platform drives the most traffic to your content and which generates the most sales?
  • Having only one hour - would you rather spend it on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit?
  • Would you post a link to your page in the post (risking the social platform will limit your organic reach) or in the comments underneath?
  • Does all the time you spend promoting your stuff across groups and forums generate any payback?
  • Which type of content works best? Shall you be posting simply links to your products, product images, or maybe it's better to invest time and effort to create mockups to present your stuff in "real-life" situations, or maybe even videos?
  • Or maybe all your efforts are meaningless, as the majority of traffic (and sales) come from organic traffic... and you shall rather be head-down creating new stuff and writing nice descriptions (to get discovered by Google Search).

If you sometimes wonder about the above, keep reading, to learn how Google Analytics can help you with solving those dilemmas.

First - It's Hard To Improve Something You Don't Analyze

As obvious as it can be, if you do not measure and analyze your traffic, it might be very difficult to make any improvement. Some sites you might be providing simple view counters to let you know which of your creations are popular, but this won't be enough to make informed decisions about your digital marketing strategy. Hence, before going any further, make sure that you have Google Analytics (GA) tracking properly configured on your content. While you can use other analytical tools, GA is free for smaller amounts of traffic (but not that small to limit most of us), and many sites (print-on-demand, blogs, publishing, arts, etc.) do have built-in integration with GA.

I won't be going through a step-by-step process of opening a Google Analytics (GA) account here, nor through the ways you then configure your site(s) to feed data to GA - there are plenty of guides and tutorials on that on YouTube, and each site shall have their own guide on how to setup their system to use your GA tracking ID (UA-XXXXX-X code).

If the goal of your site is to sell, and your site operator does support sending the sales data to Google Analytics, you shall go to the GA's Admin console and make sure to enable the Ecommerce Settings. Having this enabled will tell GA to generate for you some additional reports about your sales performance - and what's most interesting sources of traffic which did generate each sale.

Analyzing Traffic is Awesome

Once you start analyzing traffic with GA, you'll quickly learn how much valuable information is there (If you never did this before, I'd encourage you to go through all of the available reports to learn what kind of insights are available for you). 

However, with only default settings, your understanding of sources of the traffic will be very limited, in most cases, you will see only the referring domain - this won't answer yet all of your questions, but will at least tell you that Twitter users hardly ever click on links you're posting...

UTM tagging - a simple solution to get your analysis to the next level

There is a solution to this (and other) limitation. You can tell GA explicitly how it shall categorize incoming traffic - not only based on the source of the traffic but also considering the content you have posted, the location where you placed your link and a theme/topic you try to promote.

How do links (and referrer recognition) work?

When you go on a social media site (let's say Facebook) and post a link like this:

Whan a user clicks on this link, their browser makes a request to your page and is typically passing also the information from where they came (here it would be as on that website was the link clicked). This is what you can get from a sample report above. However, some websites will not be allowing the browser to pass the information about the source of the visit - and traffic coming from them will land into the (direct) category (which is also for visits where the user entered the address from the keyboard or opened a bookmark).

Use UTM tags to get reliable insights about your traffic acquisition

To make sure, that you (GA) will always be able to recognize the source of the traffic and know which specific link was clicked you'll need to provide some help to GA. You will need to make each and every link which you're posting unique - allowing Google Analytics to recognize:

  • the source of the traffic - where the link was posted - e.g. facebook
  • the medium you used to attract your visitors (e.g. was it a post on your fan page, a post to a group, a comment, etc.)
  • the content you posted (was it a plain link, a photo, a picture, a video, etc.)
  • the campaign (this can be a promotion - like Helloween or valentine's day deals, or maybe a topic related to your post)

This is achieved by adding to links additional text, which will not influence how your page is presented but will be captured by GA and used in reports. This additional text consists of name=value pairs (tags), each pair representing one piece of information.

There are 5 tags supported by Google Analytics:
  • utm_source - to indicate the source of the traffic
  • utm_medium - to indicate the medium used
  • utm_content - to indicate the type of the content
  • utm_campaign - to indicate the campaign
  • utm_keyword - to indicate the keyword (used in paid search)
To add those tags to the link, you need to make sure that they are listed as a single line of text (no spaces or other special characters), each tag shall be separated from others with the & symbol, and that they are added after a ? symbol (in the so-called query string).

For example, the link mentioned earlier, posted to Facebook, in a post containing a picture, and related to this tutorial may look like this:

You can read more about UTM tags in the official Google Analytics Help:

Now, when opening this link, the browser will open the same page, as usual, and will also pass values you entered into UTM tags to Google Analytics. GA will use them in reports - giving you additional insights about which exact link was clicked for each visit to your site.

Now, when you open GA, navigate to the Aquisition >> All Traffic >> Source/Medium reports, you will be able to see what actually works best for you - what drives visits, new users as well as sales.

Note, that, here I selected the secondary dimension to be Advertising >> Ad Content to get the view presented above. Here I have this sorted by a number of sessions for each source, but you can switch the view to Ecommerce Conversion Rate or Revenue using select lists in the data column header.

Tweet this:
Using #UTM tags lets you understand which #emarketing efforts are best to promote your #blog #designs #art #writing

Easy, but time-consuming

As easy as it is, this means, that now each and every link you're posting must be uniquely tagged. To make the insights mentioned above, it's no longer enough to get a link to your newest blog post and within few minutes paste it into Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, and other social sites. You will need to get a dedicated link to each site, and even more, if you plan to post it in several locations on a site (facebook fan page, personal page, groups etc.), you'd need to further make each link unique. This means quite some text editing at best.

If you want to post your link to 8 sites, you now need to create 8 links...

Another challenge is to maintain consistency in your tag values and meanings. Once you decide that when you post a video content you will use the utm_content=video, you shouldn't later change this to movie or avi, as this will break the unity of your reports.

There must be an easier way ;-)

Indeed, there is, more than one. One solution is Google's URL builder. It will let you enter the URL, tag values and will generate for you a nice URL with all UTM tags.

There is also a tool I created for myself and decided to make it public - available here:

My Tag builder, like Google's tool, will create tagged URLs for you, however it will also allow you to create and store a dictionary of tag values you're using - to prevent you from re-typing the values each time you open the tool, and to help you maintain consistency in your tagging.

I use it daily, and you're welcome to use it as much as you need.
I plan to record a short YouTube video explaining how to use the tool.

PS I also plan to make it look "nicer" over time, but no promises here ;-)

PRO TIP - Use URL shortening

As URLs with UTM tags, are becoming pretty long, and some research show that people are less likely to click a long link, you may want to use a link-shortening site like to make your URLs look nice and short again :-)