How to Track External Custom Campaigns in Google Analytics

Every business needs to measure its marketing campaigns. Being able to asses each and every marketing effort allows them to tie their marketing investment to sales and revenue.

You probably also spend a lot of time and efforts trying to increase the traffic and get more customers to your website. Most likely, you’re doing banner advertising, guest posting, emailing, newsletters, social media posts and many more. But how do you track these off site campaigns? How do you know which online camping is successful and which isn’t?

One of GA’s most valuable tracking features is called “Custom Campaign tracking” and it allows you to precisely track each traffic driving marketing initiative that brings customers to your website.

What are Custom Campaigns?

Think of a campaign as the place (aka source) from which the user was referred to your website.

For each user that comes to your site, Google Analytics automatically captures two dimensions, about where the user came from. These two dimensions are:

  • “source” – this is the name of the website that referred the user to your site.
  • “medium” – this is the mechanism, or “how” the user got to your site.

For example, if a user comes to your website from Google’s unpaid search result, the “source” for his session will be “google” and the medium will be “organic.”

And if another user comes via a referral website, the “source” for his session will be “referral”.

Google Analytics detects three mediums without any customization:

  • “organic” – this is the traffic that comes from organic (unpaid) search results.
  • “referral” – this is the traffic that comes to your site from another website that’s not a search engine.
  • “(none)” – this medium is applied only for users that come directly to your site by either typing your URL into a browser or clicking on a bookmark.

These three are also called default mediums, because Google Analytics recognizes them without any customizations.

For each medium, GA can also automatically apply a source. By default, Google Analytics recognizes the following sources of traffic:

  • direct – this source is applied to the medium “(none)”,
  • name of the search engine (google, yahoo, bing, etc) – this source is applied to the medium “organic”,
  • name of the referring website – this source is applied to the medium “referral”
  • name of social media websites (facebook, google +, and others)

The user and sessions data from the “default” traffic sources is automatically collected by Google Analytics and you can find it in All Traffic > Sources/Medium.

Google-analytics-source-medium-report

Typically you can’t control the campaign information and collection from the “default sources”, because you can’t control the links of your website that appear in SERPs and on third party websites.

But you have control on the links which you place by yourself (no matter if they’re on another website, in a newsletter or on social media). That’s what Custom Campaigns are all about.

The main idea behind Google Analytics Custom Campaigns (GACC) is to use a process called link tagging to create customized sources of traffic in Google Analytics. Link tagging is adding special UTM parameters to the links that users click on to get to your site. The UTM parameter overwrites the default categorization that GA would normally assigned to the incoming traffic.

This will allow you to track more precisely your offsite marketing efforts and to calculate their ROI.

What Are UTM Parameters?

So, a custom campaign in GA is any ad campaign that contains unique UTM parameters.

UTM parameters are simply tags that you can add to any link pointing to a page on your site. They are prefixed with utm_ and they don’t impact the destination URL .

When a “tagged” link is clicked, the user is successfully transferred to the URL of the web page and the UTM parameters from the links are sent to Google Analytic.
Google Analytics uses the parameters to identify where exactly this visitor is coming from and creates a new user’s session based on the information from the UTM parameters.

This is important because from now on all the data from this session (page visits, page views, conversions) will be attributed to the new source of traffic that you’ve created (by using UTM parameters). It will help you to determine where you’re getting the most traffic from and calculate the ROI of a given campaign.

How to use UTM Parameters in Google Analytics

There 5 UTM parameters that are available for use in GA. Only 3 of them are required:

  • utm_source (required) – This is Campaign Source Tag
    Use this to tag to tell Google Ananlytics where a user would have came from. It could be a search engine, a website, newsletter name or another.

Example: utm_source=google OR utm_source=facebook

  • utm_medium (required) – This is the Campaign Medium Tag
    This is the advertising or marketing medium, used to find the link. It could be: cpc, banner, email, newsletter, organic, etc.

Example: utm_medium=cpc OR utm_medium=email OR utm_medium=organic

The “Source” and “Medium” tags allow you to overwrite the source and medium that would ordinarily get set by default.

  • utm_campaign (required) – This is the Campaign Name Tag
    Use it to identify a specific product promotion (product, promo code), a keyword or a specific ad text.

Example: utm_campaign=spring_sale OR utm_campaign=christmas_waffle

  • utm_term – Also called Campaign Term Parameter
    Use it only for paid search ads to identify the specific keyword.

Example: utm_term=luxury+bags

  • utm_content – Also called Campaign Content Tag
    This is just an additional tag that you can use to differentiate links that point to the same URL. It is very useful when you have different versions of an add on the same website. It allows you to do a simple A/B testing of content-targeted ads.

Example: utm_content=newsletter_1 and utm_content=newsletter_2 – when you have two different versions of an email newsletter.
utm_content=name-of-picture-link – when you have different banners pointing to the same page.
utm_content=text-of-the-ad – when you have different text ads that contain the same link.

Why Google Analytics Custom Campaigns are important?

Let’s say you have two versions of a display ad and both ads are running on the same web site. The first ad does not have any campaign tags but the second ad does.

When users click on the first ad, they will be identified as referrals coming from the website hosting the display ad. This visits will be recorded in Acquisition -> All Traffic -> Referrals:

Google-analytics-referrals-default-report

But Google Analytics will not collect any campaign information because there were no campaign tags and the visit will be treated as any other visit coming from a referral website.

On the other hand, when users click on the second ad, they will be identified as coming from a named campaign, because the ad contained the campaign tags. Their visits will be recorded in Acquisition -> Campaigns. Here you will see an overview of your various campaigns as tagged using the utm_campaign UTM parameter on your links.

Google-analytics-campaigns-default-report

In the Campaigns report, you can click on each campaign name to see additional details as tagged using the utm_source / utm_medium parameters on your links.

As you can see, if you don’t tag your campaigns properly it can lead to incorrect data in your reports.

Use custom campaigns only for offsite campaigns

GA’s custom campaign tracking should only be used for external campaigns driving traffic to your website (email, social media, cpc, etc). Never use UTM parameters on links on your own website!  

You may find some articles stating you can use custom campaigns on your own website (to track internal banners, links in on-site messengers, button clicks). Indeed, this was possible till the summer of 2011. But in August 2011 Google changed the way sessions are calculated in GA.

In the current model of calculating sessions, GA ends user’s session every time when campaign information for that user changes. And campaign information includes: utm_source, utm_medium, utm_content, utm_campaign.

For example: if your visitor entered your website from Google’s results, GA had automatically recorded a new session and it’s source of traffic is “google” (utm_source=google). But if you have links tagged with UTM parameters on your website and the same visitor clicks one of these links, GA will immediately end his session and will record a new session whose source will be the one you specified as utm_source in the tagged link.

At the end Google Ananlytics will count two sessions from two different sources for the same user.

That’s why GA Custom Campaign tracking can only be used for external campaigns.

Now, after you’ve learned how custom campaigns work and why it’s important to use them, you’re ready to set up your first custom campaign. Read my next post to learn how to setup Google Analytic Custom Campaigns in 5 steps.

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