What is UTM Tracking? Guidelines + Best Practices for Nonprofits
UTMs, or urchin tracking modules, are tags that allow you to better understand where your web traffic is coming from and how supporters get to your site. They can give your nonprofit a deeper understanding of direct and organic traffic. While they are most commonly utilized within Google Analytics (soon to be GA4), you can also apply these parameters in many other marketing platforms, such as Hubspot.
UTM tracking provides your nonprofit with a way to understand how supporters get to your website and how interactions and engagement differ depending on the source. It’s the starting point for understanding audience behavior and optimizing your website for a variety of users and journeys in order to meet your nonprofit’s goals.
UTMs are necessary for campaign and program tracking. They help to measure performance and see how far along you are in meeting campaign goals or even a secondary goal, like cultivating and engaging audiences.
UTM tracking can help you deepen the understanding of your different audiences based on their acquisition source. For example, a supporter who lands on your site from a paid advertisement will likely interact with your site content differently than someone who is coming in from one of your emails. By ensuring tags are applied to every link directing traffic to your site, you can start building up a treasure chest of data to help your organization better customize user journeys and drive more impact.
UTM tracking is essential for tracking your campaigns and goals—but they need to be standardized and set up correctly to work. It is now more vital than ever to ensure UTM tracking is in place correctly. There have been recent changes and updates to Google Analytics, particularly the move to GA4—read our full assessment here—and you must update your UTM parameters to ensure they meet GA4 requirements to fully unlock the platform’s tracking potential.
UTM tracking works in three ways:
1. At the most basic level, Google Analytics tracks sources automatically through referral tagging for specific websites. If someone comes to a site from Facebook and the URL isn’t tagged with any parameters, Google will auto-assign it as a referral source from Facebook.
2. Manually tagging takes a bit more work but is the best source of data you can get. It allows for more control over the provided and tracked information, allowing you to get more granular and manually control the values (like a specific campaign, channel, etc.). You can track sources that don’t automatically have a source applied, such as emails. Adding manual tags on social platforms can differentiate the link between a post, a page, or native referral tracking. It allows you to see how your website content floats around without your directed assistance through community-driven traffic. You can find a quick guide to manual tagging in Google Analytics here.
3. Auto-tagging is available within a handful of paid platforms, such as Google Ads and Bing. This setting enables your organization to automatically collect the source, medium, campaign, term, and content information associated with each of your paid campaigns, offering a great deal of efficiency in the production process. You can learn more about the auto-tagging process here.
- Source: Used to track and identify the platform, site, or publication where your visitors are coming from. Examples include Facebook, MarketingCloud, Instagram, etc.
- Medium: Used to track the advertising or marketing medium where your site visitors are coming from. Examples include email, PPC, referral, display, etc.
- Campaign: Used to track the campaign associated with your site traffic.
- Term: Used to track the keywords in your paid campaigns that drive traffic to your site. This parameter should only be used for paid search.
- Content: Used to track specific pieces of content that users are clicking on to get to your site. Examples include email_header or cta_button.
- Source Platform: The platform responsible for directing traffic to your GA4 property (such as a buying platform that sets budgets and targeting criteria or a platform that manages organic traffic data).
- Creative Format (not available in the platform yet): The type of creative used in your promotions and marketing efforts. Examples provided by Google include display, native, video, and search.
- Marketing Tactic (not available in the platform yet): The targeting criteria applied to a campaign. Examples provided by Google include remarketing and prospecting.
Tip: The source must always be applied for the UTM to be tracked. We always recommend including utm_source, utm_medium, and utm_campaign.
1. Ensure that UTM parameters will plug into GA4’s Default Channel Grouping Logic.
GA will automatically group traffic sources into various channels (such as email, paid search, organic search, etc.) based on predefined criteria. In GA4, this criteria is not customizable, meaning that straying outside of the default channel grouping logic will prevent your organization from being able to report on bigger-picture channel performance accurately and efficiently.
2. Be descriptive and clear in your campaign and source parameters.
Establish standardized naming conventions in a sheet to share with your team so that every person is working with a consistent and accessible understanding of tracking measures and reporting in GA4. We also recommend controlling the values for input across all UTM fields based on an approved set of parameters to support consistency. This will help improve the consistency of tracking values such as “email1” and “em1” in the proper fields.
3. Be consistent with campaign names across channels.
If you’re driving traffic to your site for the same campaign across multiple channels, be sure that the utm_campaign parameter is named consistently across all links driving traffic to your site.
4. Use a UTM tracking link generator as a quality control tool.
Never form links by hand—rely on a spreadsheet to generate links to your site at all times.
5. Use lowercase letters for all tracking as a quality control measure.
Google Analytics will treat values with different casing as separate, unique values. For example, “Email1” and “email1” would be considered two different sources.
6. Use underscores if you need to track multiple pieces of information within one parameter.
Never use spaces, special characters, or points of punctuation.
7. Avoid placing UTM parameters on internal links.
UTM parameters are intended to track incoming site traffic from external sources (such as from your owned email and social media networks). When UTM parameters are added to internal site links (URLs driving from one link on your website to another page on your site), like lightboxes or donate buttons, a new session will start for the user once the link is clicked. This will then remove the original acquisition information and inflate sessions.
8. Avoid using “organic” as a value within the utm_medium field.
Google Analytics groups traffic with utm_mediums equal to “organic” into Organic Search. If you include this value in links from email or social media, the traffic will get bucketed into the wrong channel.
With the shift to GA4 being ongoing, quite a few items have yet to be rolled out, and we will share updates and recommendations on standardizing values within those fields once they become available.
UTM parameters unlock analytical capabilities to better understand where supporters are coming from and the behaviors they follow across the entire user journey. While it can be a big undertaking, the rewards are huge.
Media Cause can help develop naming conventions so that everything is accessible and properly tracked across your nonprofit’s marketing efforts. This will allow you to lean into UTM tracking as a form of data measurement for evaluating success and performance.
Ready to get started? Contact us today.