“Tagging” Credit When Credit Is Due: Understanding Digital Campaign Tracking
Imagine a website…It’s a good website. It deserves visitors.
Those responsible for it agree, and the marketing / communications plans initiate:
- Press / news releases are issued
- Advertising is purchased
- Keywords are bid on
- Emails go out
- Social media gets conversational
Good news! Website visitors start showing up…
Lots more visitors…
Image credit: Penguins sculpture, by Nao Matsumoto
And right in the middle of all the celebrations, you get the dreaded question. Someone asks you which marketing or communication effort did the trick.
They start pummelling you with questions – which effort brought the visitors? Which didn’t? How did the efforts compare? Which should we do more of? Less of? Should we double down on any of them? Or discontinue any of them?
And once they hit you with all the ‘quantity’ questions, they then want to know the ‘quality’ questions: which effort(s) brought the right visitors for the campaign objective?
And you slowly back out of the room…
I am pleased to tell you there is good news – you can answer all those questions, and with flair and panache. The bad news is that it does take some advance planning.
Campaign tracking is about taking – or ‘tagging’ – credit
Web analytics tools attribute visitors to 1 of 2 ‘default’ traffic sources: the “Direct” (aka No Referral) or the “Referral” source:
“Typical” split measured as by web analytics tools
Direct is traffic a measure of brand awareness
Direct traffic website visitors are those who arrive by bookmark or memorized domain or URL. Think of this source of visitor traffic as a measure of brand awareness; visitors must have had previous exposure to your brand or URL, to recall or type it into a browser window and / or bookmark it.
Referral traffic is closer to publicity
By contrast, the Referral traffic source ‘refers’ (get it?) to visitors arriving via a third party website. However, to make Referral more useful, we immediately segment those third parties into more specific organic (or unpaid) sources. Examples include:
- Search: traffic from commercial search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN/Bing or About
- Social Media: traffic from social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram
- Publishers such as online newspapers, magazines or bloggers
- Institutions such as universities, hospitals or government websites
Think of these referral sources as a kind of publicity (for good or bad). And, as wonderful as all that referral traffic generally is, it can be challenging to secure, and it can be unpredictable. When it does show up, it is fabulous. And when it dries up, it can be scary.
To combat the unpredictable nature of referral traffic, we have another category of traffic source, known as “Campaigns”.
Campaigns are sources of traffic that you have defined in advance of your effort / spend
The definitions are unique to your organization’s marketing / communications / advertising efforts. When those definitions are aligned with your digital campaign tracking efforts, you’re able to isolate those visitors and report on them separately. You can answer questions such as”
- Do particular campaigns bring more new leads vs. other sources?
- Are those visitors of a higher quality? Do they read more content? Do they exhibit higher engagement?
- Do they convert at a higher rate?
Campaigns are sources of traffic unique to your organization’s efforts to drive traffic
Campaigns might include:
- Emails sent to your newsletter subscribers, prospects or customers that drive traffic back to your site
- Display advertising (banners, buttons or other ad units) you purchased or traded for
- Keywords you bid for via networks such as Google AdWords or Bing Ads
- CPC (cost per click), CPM (cost per thousand) or CPA (cost per action) media buys from publishers
- Social media updates posted to your organization’s profiles / feeds
- Press or news releases distributed to your networks
- Affiliate / partner websites where you negotiated placement; and even
- “Offline” efforts such as print or radio ads (where you included a unique, or vanity URL)
As they typically require additional effort or cost, campaigns are those sources of traffic you’d like to measure return on, compared to the default direct and referral traffic sources. To do that, we need to isolate campaign visitors from Direct or Referral traffic sources.
But how do we isolate campaign visitors?
By tagging those sources of visitors:
Like marine biologists who tags wildlife to identify an animal later, or farmers who tag livestock to identify animals in a larger herd, digital analysts ‘tag’. We tag sources of visitor traffic to identify different segments in a larger herd of visitors to a website.
It’s just that we do our tagging via campaign tracking tags, otherwise known as “utms” codes in Google Analytics. FYI, ‘utm’ stands for Urchin Tracking Module. Urchin was the predecessor technology to Google Analytics, and the legacy term has stuck.
Examples of tags
Animals are tracked via physical tags that are attached to them. And digital campaigns are tagged via ‘extensions’ to the URLs we send visitors to.
Every digital analytics tool has a unique set of extensions available to track campaigns.
As a result, the specifics of campaign tracking implementation differ depending on whether your organization uses Google Analytics, Webtrends, Adobe Analytics or another tool.
Below, I’ve provide campaign tracking tags for Google Analytics vs Webtrends:
Google Analytics campaign tags
Webtrends marketing campaign or paid search tags
Web analytics tools recognize their own campaign tracking tags
When visitors arrive at your website via URLs that contain your campaign tracking tags, your digital analytics tool will recognize them as belonging to particular segments of traffic, and will attribute their arrival to the correct segment for you. Here’s how the magic happens:
When you create content that drives visitors to your website, you typically provide a link: http://www.mysite.ca
In digital analytics, we consider that an “untagged” link. And, regardless of which analytics tool you use, visitors who arrive via untagged links are attributed to the “Direct” source of traffic.
If you want to attribute visitors to a different source of traffic, you need to tag the link accordingly. To tag links, you ‘extend’ the link with extra information. And – the best part is that the extra information does not interfere with the way the web page is displayed to visitors.
Here’s an example of a tagged link:
What makes the link above special?
Seriously. It’s the question mark.
The question mark signals that the link is what’s knows a ‘parameter’, and in the case of particular parameters, they are contain messages recognized by particular technologies, and ignored by others. So web servers ignore campaign parameters. Internet browsers ignore campaign parameters. And thus, there’s no impact on the user’s experience of your content.
Parameters have a particular structure: a question mark followed by an ‘equation’ separated by an equal sign:
So, if the parameter name were “source”, then you might decide the parameter value is a publisher or your house email list.
Or if the parameter name were medium, then you might decide en the parameter value is a banner or a particular email edition or issue.
Or, if the parameter name were campaign, then you might decide the parameter value is a campaign name like thanksgiving or rrsp-season-2013.
Examples of untagged links:
Examples of those same links, tagged:
Notice how there are actually three parameters in there, all strung together by ampersands?
Examples of those same links, tagged in colour:
In the first URL, I’ve shown the parameter name in blue:
And, in the second URL, I’ve shown the parameter value in red:
Once you’ve tagged your URLs with campaign parameters, or utms, and distributed them via email, social media, or as the destination URLS for your display ads, those visitors will appear in your campaign reports.
Where do the tagged visitors appear in my reports?
Look for them in your Traffic Sources, or Acquisition reports:
Campaign-tagged visitors are found in campaign reports in Google Analytics, Webtrends or other digital analytics tools.
Each parameter represents one report. Thus, the values of your campaign parameter utms will will appear in your Google Analytics campaigns report:
And, your Source and Medium parameter values or utms will will appear as secondary dimensions in your Google Analytics campaigns report, and as a stand alone Source/Medium report.
How do I tag my emails with Google Analytics utms?
In the code of an HTML email, an organization can include links to their website. And those links can be extended, inside the HTML, with campaign tracking tags or utms.
So, again – instead instead of attaching a tag to an animal…we tag the link inside the HTML code in the email that brings visitors to the website. The tagged links inside this email might look like:
How do I tag my social media with Google Analytics utms?
In a social media update, organization can include links to their website. And those links can be extended prior to being shortened, with campaign tracking tags or utms.
How do I tag my display advertising banners with Google Analytics utms?
When providing creative to your agency or to the publisher you’ve purchased advertising with, you also provide them with the URL you want them to link to. The button and banners above might have the following tags:
In the examples above, the value of the source parameter is the name of publisher where the button ran (publisher-a vs b), the value of the medium parameter represents the size of the ad unit (250×250 vs 720×90) and its placement (run of site vs business section) and the campaign name represents the offer: the city and pricing codes.
How do I create my utms?
You can certainly create utms and tag URLs manually, using something like Google’s URL builder:
But, it’s far more efficient to do it via a spreadsheet, which will help you create and organize Source, Medium and Campaign naming conventions. That way, over time, you’ll maintain consistency, adding more value to your reporting and analysis efforts. In addition, you can use very simple formulas in Excel to automatically build the URLs and thus eliminate potential tagging errors.
Below is an screenshot of an example spreadsheet I created for my clients:
And with that – congratulate yourself! You’re now ready to ‘tag credit’ for your brilliant campaigns!
And of course, you’ll be annotating your Google Analytics reports throughout to provide context to the changes in traffic, right?
If this intrigues you enough to begin developing your organization’s digital campaign tracking strategy, contact me to request my campaign tagging spreadsheet template.
When you and your team are ready to roll up sleeves and dive in, we would be happy to provide a proposal to provide your team with training or consulting to implement digital campaign tracking for yourselves.