Being able to track the performance of your marketing campaigns is a fundamental challenge for all businesses. This is where UTM tags come into play. They are the building block of marketing attribution on the web and something everything marketing team must understand.
In this article, I’ll cover the basics of UTM tags which are important but I also want to show you how companies use them in the real world. Less theory and more practical advice.
Let’s start with a short history as to where UTMs came from and how we got here.
The history of UTM parameters starts the very beginning of web analytics. There used to be a company called Urchin which created a product for analyzing web traffic which would eventually become Google Analytics.
Before Urchin was acquired though, they ran into a problem. They needed a way to identify where a user was coming from but there wasn’t much information in just a link. They decided to create URL parameters that could be appended to any URL which would automatically provide context on how a user got there. They called them Urchin Tracking Module or UTM for short as we know them.
These URL parameters would become known as UTM tags and it included 5: campaign, source, medium, content, and term. When Google took over Urchin and subsequently made Google Analytics free, these vendor-specific UTMs became a standard across the web and other tools started tracking them by default.
You’ll see them all over the web in the address bar of your browser:
Analytics tools will capture them (usually by default) and will then let you run attribution models: last touch, first touch, and even data-driven models are fundamentally built on UTM tags. Make sure your tracking plan includes the tracking of these parameters.
All questions around marketing performance (and even in product analytics) will in some way rely on UTM tags as this is who we can tie conversions (signups, purchases, etc) to a marketing campaign or ad. Ensuring that these parameters flow throughout your entire marketing stack is critical for growth.
You’ll also see this idea of parameters on the glicd (for Google Ads), fbclid (for Facebook Ads, and other platforms. URL parameters provide more context to important links.
As I mentioned in the previous section, there are 5 UTMs that you can use. You could also create your own but that’s an advanced concept. Let’s stick to the 5 core ones and look at the potential values for common marketing channels.
Social Media (Non-Paid):
As you can see, you don’t need every single UTM possible however, you should always strive to have campaign, source, and medium in any link that will bring users from external sites to your website.
The external note in the previous sentence is important. Do not add UTMs to internal links within your site unless you know what you’re doing. This will mess up your analytics data since UTMs are reserved for external links.
Finally, the naming convention matters a lot. You should aim to be consistent across multiple campaigns which means using similar values especially for medium and source which tend to act as “categories”. I’m a big fan of following the recommendations from Google on their expected default channel definitions.
Building URLs with UTMs doesn’t need to be rocket science. I’ll give you three options for how to do this at scale.
Option 1: Google Analytics Builder
The Googe Campaign builder makes it easy to quickly add UTMs to an individual link and give you the correctly formatted final product.
You can even make this into a shorten URL using bit.ly. This is highly recommended to make sure that UTMs don’t get accidentally deleted or cropped off.
Option 2: UTM Spreadsheet
The second option is to use a spreadsheet template that will store UTM values for you and create the final formatted link. You can create this on your own or take one of the many available templates out there. Here a few options:
Option 3: UTM software
The third option is to use a software solution to manage all of your UTMs. They take everything the spreadsheet does and makes it even better. This is a great choice for bigger teams who have multiple people managing campaigns and you need a consistent way of keeping everyone on the same page. Look into options like UTM.io.
UTMs scale from startup to a global unicorn. Let me show how some of the biggest companies in the world use UTMs and you’ll see the same fundamental principles but at scale.
Let’s start with Slack, the internal messaging platform. We’ll go find a paid ad from Google which looks like this:
After you click the link, you will get taken to a landing page. The URL of the landing page is quite short (https://slack.com/intl/en-ca/lp/three) but it has quite a bit of parameters including UTM tags.
The complete URL is this (I highlighted the UTM tags):
Let’s now look at a slightly different example. We’ll go find an ad for Airbnb which looks like this:
In this case, we get taken to the home page landing page (https://www.airbnb.ca/a/). The URL doesn’t contain UTM tags as we know them but they are still there in some form.
The URL for this page with parameters is:
What’s interesting about Airbnb is that they moved away from the typical UTMs but they are still passing unique information through parameters e.g. sem_target=kwd-12026464216 which is gibberish to us but means something to them. This is a more advanced way of tracking marketing campaigns.
Finally, let’s look at an example in-between Slack and Airbnb: Spotify. Here’s the ad I’m clicking:
The landing page URL (https://www.spotify.com/ca-en/premium/) is once again quite simple but we do see some of our familiar UTM tags.
The final URL contains campaign, source, and medium.
UTM tags are a simple concept that can eventually become quite complex. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or looking to level up your attribution efforts, this needs to be there.