UTM tags in a nutshell

by Annie Clare June 06, 2020
image of a clothing tag

In my earlier post I outlined the three key ingredients for successful attribution reporting in GA:

  1. Accurate attribution dimensions (Channels, Sources, Mediums and more)
  2. Reporting metrics
  3. Campaign tagging

To get accurate, centralised and de-duplicated marketing attribution data, Google Analytics needs to be able to pick up relevant Source and Medium information for each site visit either via an integration, a recognised referral source or a utm tag. If an integration or recognised referral source is not available, then a utm tag is needed.

UTM tagging (otherwise known as utm codes or campaign tags) is worthy of a post of its own because:

  • Most marketing programs have at least some activity that requires utm tags
  • Mistakes causing lost or inaccurate data are costly and time consuming to work-around
  • Setting up utm tags is not nearly as complex or time consuming as it may at first appear!

What is a utm tag?

UTM tags are appended to your campaign landing page url. They are made up of a syntax of up to five parameters that GA can recognise: Source, Medium, Campaign, Term and Content.

There are some great tools that make generating these tags quick and easy for those of us who are not technical. It is however important to use disciplined and consistent naming protocols for each parameter, so you generate useful data.

It’s important to note that a utm tag is different to a ‘conversion tag’ that you might deploy to your site for example for a Facebook campaign. The rules for the two types of attribution are usually different, therefore the data collected in GA might not match your advertising platform data.

What the tag tells Google Analytics

There are five standard parameters available to use in utm tags: Source, Medium, Campaign, Term and Content.

Of these, the three that you will want to include in most situations are:

Source

Source is the referring origin of this link for example Facebook, Mailchimp, or Google.

Medium

This is the media type or category used for this link, usually as we to refer to it within the marketing industry or internally for example cpc, organic, email, display etc.

Campaign

Exactly as it says, the name of the campaign. Eg summersale. As a campaign may be executed against multiple media channels, capturing the campaign name enables us to group, report and compare data at a campaign level.

If you look in Google Analytics you will see that each of these are reported as dimensions in the standard Acquisition reports.

A utm tag is appended to the campaign landing page url and follows a specific syntax that talks to GA. The utm tag once created will look something like:

?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=new_year

The above snippet tells Google Analytics that:

  • My Source is a newsletter
  • The Medium is email
  • And Campaign name is new_year

When appended to my chosen landing page the url that I will use for my campaign (in this example my home page) the full tagged url will be:

annieclareconsulting.com/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=new_year

Everything before the ‘?’ specifies the landing page, while everything after the ‘?’ is communicating these attribution parameters to Google Analytics.

While this url now looks long and clunky for display purposes, you can use a URL shortener to hide all this extra detail such as the link below, which will still carry the utm parameters into your GA data.

The other two optional and very handy parameters that you may also choose to include in your utm tag are:

  • Content is a handy field when there are a number of links off a single execution, such as an Email with multiple different call-to-actions, or for the likes of Display or Social advertising where a single campaign may have a number of unique creative or size executions.
  • Term is used for capturing the keyword of a paid search campaign, and it is also a great ‘extra’ field to capture additional information for any type of campaign.

Creating tags is easy!

The good news is: You don’t need to work out the utm tag syntax for yourself.

You don’t need to be a developer to create a utm tag. You don’t even need to know the syntax rules off by heart as there are a number of ‘paint by numbers’ tools available to generate your tagged urls for you. Below are just a few of the options:

  1. Google has a simple free utm generator tool that is really easy to use if you are only generating a handful of utm codes.
  • https://app.utm.io/ is another excellent tool that helps generate many utm tags and also includes a shortener option. Its free for the entry level product.
  1. For those who like spreadsheets, here is another option (however this doesn’t include the shortener):

If you do a Google or App Store search you will find other options.

Naming protocols for utm parameters

When naming Source and Medium it’s important to use considered and consistent naming protocols, as your data will reflect exactly the names that you have used. The names you choose should reflect how you want to group and report your data.

Medium should be a high-level media category eg Social Media (the next layer of detail for the likes of Facebook, Instagram etc is better suited for the Source parameter). A basic starting list might be as follows:

  • organic
  • social
  • email
  • affiliate
  • paidsearch
  • cpc
  • display
  • cpm

I strongly recommend keeping to a succinct limited list of names to be used for Medium. I also recommend that where possible you match this list to the Mediums used for the out-of-the-box Google Default Channel Groups.

See my post on Channel Groups for more information.

Source is used to split out to the next level of granularity and the list will depend on the media you use for your marketing.

For Source and Medium, even a spelling mistake will be recognised as a ‘new’ name (and this and additional line in your reports). Using a tag generator tool that restricts naming options to a pre-approved list is helpful in mitigating this risk.

For the campaign, term and content naming protocols you are more likely to want a free-form rather than restricted list of names, however, it still makes sense to have some guidelines about what type of information to be populated in each field. Inconsistent naming can lead to inefficient and frustrating reporting and analysis.

Test your tag

Once you have generated a tag to be applied to a campaign link, you should always test the generated url with tag (or shortened version if url a shortener is used) to ensure that:

  1. It reaches the campaign landing page
  2. And it is carrying in the utm tag data when it reaches Google Analytics

To do this:

Open GA and go to Realtime reports and open the Traffic Source report:

In another window click on your campaign link (the landing page url with utm tag attached, or the shortened version of this). Once you click on the link and your web page opens, refresh your Realtime report and you should see your specified source and medium data appear for active users:

If you check the url at the top of your web page you should also see this utm tag appended (this applies even if you used a url shortener on the link click):

Final thought

Campaign tags are a key ingredient of Google Analytics attribution. By spending a small amount of time using a tag generator tool and some solid naming protocols, you will ultimately save a lot of time sorting through incomplete and possibly inaccurate data.

Good luck getting started with UTM tagging yourself, or feel free to get in touch for assistance.


Annie Clare Consulting helps brands take the guess-work out of decisions, through data-driven insights, strategies and optimisation.

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