Otherwise you’re playing darts without a dart board (or insert some other “aim for the target” analogy here).

Let me tell you about the biggest cringe I feel as a marketer. It happens when I hear or read this:

“What are UTMs???”~ (so many marketers out there)

Now, hold up. If you’re asking this question, I’m not cringing at you. But trust me when I say that, after you’ve read this blog about why UTMs are vital to your marketing, you’ll be cringing that you haven’t used them before – or maybe just that you didn’t know that’s what they’re called. ???? Speaking of which…

UTM = Urchin Tracking Module

If you’re envisioning the character Gavroch in Les Miserables right now, you are my people.

But, since UTMs are not in face something created to track street urchins, let’s dig into why we call it an Urchin Tracking Module. Back in the early aughts of the 21st century (so around 20ish years ago), Google bought a company called Urchin on Demand in their effort to amp up the ability to track website visitors through code added to links. So the urchin stuck, and so did the immense usefulness of link tracking.

What does a UTM do?

Let’s start with what UTMs are already doing. To you. Every day.

Let’s find a UTM

Have you gotten a sales email recently? A marketing email from your favorite (or even one you only checked out once) shoe brand? Or maybe you saw a cool ad and decided to click on the “Learn More” button. Go ahead and find one of those examples and click on the link – don’t worry, we’re only looking for one thing and no buying is required.

I’ll click on a button in an email I received from Etsy. Check out the button that says “Designed to Delight.”

screenshot of an Etsy marketing email with a picture of two floral vases and a call to action button below that says "Designed to delight"
Etsy sent me a cool visual and message hoping I’d click on the button (aka CTA).

When I click on the button, I’m taken to a new website tab. (Same thing should happen to you as you click on your random marketing email or button.) Except once we get there, we aren’t even going to look at the page that loads. What we want is in the top URL bar. Check out mine:

Browser bar with a long UTM link to Etsy.com, with an Etsy webpage appearing below it
The really long URL in the browser bar is the focus here.

Does yours look super long, too? Aha, dear friends, we’ve all just been tracked thanks to a UTM link. Let’s dissect mine a bit.

Parts of a UTM link

https://www.etsy.com/featured/home-design-and-organization?campaign_label=new_at_etsy&utm_source=adhoc&utm_campaign=etsy_newatetsy_021323_brightenup_resend&utm_medium=email

You see the normal website address at the beginning (bold), right up to the ?. If you were to copy that portion and paste it in a browser, you’d get to the same website I got to. So why is all that extra coding after the ? (italicized above) necessary?

That, dear reader, is where the tracking in Urchin Tracking Module comes in.

The webpage link

Let’s say you do copy and paste everything before the ? and get to a webpage by Etsy. On the back end, their Google Analytics (GA) – which is set up to track how visitors are getting to their website and web pages – is going to mark that visit as direct. Because there’s no tracking on the link you used, GA will assume you typed the URL into a search bar and that’s how you arrived to their site.

The UTM parameters (or coding)

Now let’s take a look at everything in that URL that comes after the ? (I’ve pasted just that portion below):

campaign_label=new_at_etsy&utm_source=adhoc&utm_campaign=etsy_newatetsy_021323_brightenup_resend&utm_medium=email

Notice this time I’ve bolded a few portions of the UTM coding (because that’s what this all is – codes for tracking us, the urchins that we are). Those fields are set up for Google Analytics to track for anyone’s website traffic. Those fields never change.

What does change and is custom for every business or website are the underlined portions. The marketing team at Etsy decided on those values as how they’d like their tracking to show up in Google Analytics reports so they can easily see which campaigns, sources, and mediums are performing (or not) to get people to their website.

Let’s imagine further how this went down, because it’ll help you understand how you can use these same free tools (UTM links and Google Analytics) to really understand how your marketing is working.

How Etsy (probably) did their UTM

Here’s the scenario: Etsy marketing folks are working on their next email campaign. This one is meant to show off what’s new at Etsy. They’re putting the email together with a few different images and CTAs (calls to action) to get recipients to click on the email and come to the website. Since this isn’t the only email they’re sending out, and since they’re also using social media and other channels to get this message out, they need to see how this email performs when compared to their other marketing efforts.

So they come up with those UTM values:

  • Campaign label = New at Etsy
  • Email campaign = Etsy’s “New at Etsy” Brighten Up campaign sent out on Feb. 13, 2023
    • Oh hey, this is actually a resend so we need to indicate that in the UTM value
  • Medium = Email (as opposed to social media, a webinar, or a Super Bowl ad)
  • Source = Adhoc (they probably weren’t super focused on which single part of their email resulted in a click, as long as a click somewhere in the email was used)

Once they landed on these values as what they want Google Analytics to track for them, they created the UTM link. And no, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do this, because of …

The Google Campaign URL Builder

Remember how I mentioned all of this is free to set up and use? 100% facts! Because remember, Google bought Urchin On Demand so they could make it possible for marketers – and even non-marketers – to set up website tracking and use UTMs to learn how people are finding their website.

Choosing values to use for UTM fields

They even created this handy website where, by using a simple form, you can set up any UTM link you want.

screenshot of the Google URL Campaign Builder form with form fields
The toughest part is coming up with your field values; the rest is easy as pie!

Now I get if you’re looking at those fields and thinking, “Rachel, I don’t even know what to put in there!” And this is where I think people can get stuck. You see examples like what Etsy used for their tracking values and might struggle with making sure yours match up or look a certain way. STOP THAT. Stop it right now.

You could literally put values like “purple” in for campaign and “super_nifty_blog_about_urchins” in for medium. For source, you might really like types of trees. The only thing that really matters is how you want to organize your website tracking in a way you can understand – and staying consistent with the values you use.

Here, I’ll show you what I use. Let’s take my podcast as an example.

UTMs in action

Each week I publish a podcast to Spotify, Apple, Google, and all the mainstream podcast apps. Each episode includes show notes which include links for the listener to click on if they are interested in digging deeper into the content. One of them is a link to the Newsletter page of my website. Click on the image below to take a look.

Check out the red circled text which has the magic UTM link.

When you click on the Add us to your inbox hyperlink in the episode show notes, the webpage on this site for my newsletter opens up. And – you know the secret now! – if you look at the URL in your browser bar, you’ll see that the link you just clicked on has UTM coding that lets me track your click!

This is where I nerd out and get a little creepy, because few things give me more joy than going to my Google Analytics and seeing that people are actually clicking on those links.

screenshot of Google Analytics campaign reporting on source and medium
In Google Analytics > Acquisition > Campaigns you can see your UTM links at work.

By going into Google Analytics, selecting Acquisition, and then selecting Campaigns, you’ll be able to see the results of using UTM links. Thanks to the values we enter for Campaign, Source, and Medium, we can get super granular data to learn exactly where a website visitor clicked that led them to our domain. (GA can do waaaaay more than that, but this is enough nerding out for the blog topic.) To get more know-how from the source, visit Analytics Help for more info.

Last words about UTMs

If you’ve read all this way and have either not set up Google Analytics for your website and/or you haven’t used UTM links to track website visitor traffic, I encourage you – nay, I beg you – to start trying them out today. Otherwise you can be putting out the best omnichannel content and marketing campaigns but have no idea which of them is actually working to bring people to your website. And that, friends, is the ultimate goal, right?

Here are a few final things to keep in mind as you use UTMs:

  • Stay consistent. Use a spreadsheet or some other document to templatize how and where you use the values for campaigns, sources, and mediums. If you start flipping around values or using different values for the same efforts, your data will get parsed out in Google Analytics and you’ll have to start using math. (Yikes.)
  • Format with – and _. You’ll notice I didn’t even do this well in my UTMs. If you’re using multiple words for your UTM values, separate them with dashes (-) or underscores (_). That way you avoid any weirdness that may occur as the machinery of Google Analytics sorts out your tracking data.
  • Use a link shortener. Doubtless you noticed how long a UTM link can be once all the values are added in. To shorten up links, and even customize them, use a link shortener like bit.ly to clean things up. (Hint: There’s even a browser extension that will let you quickly create shortened UTM links for the webpage you’re on, plus it’ll save your most-used UTM values as templates.)
Thanks for reading my cathartic, cringe-avoidance blog to help us all track our website visitors for marketing. Now, let’s have some fun: what are the weirdest UTM values you’ve used in your links?

Published by Rachel

In the words spoken by Samuel Jackson in Ironman 2, “I’m the most real person you’ll ever know.” Although I have a flair for the dramatic, I’ve never been one to live behind a facade. From the moment you meet me, I can promise you an experience grounded in transparency and lively with humor. My 40+ years of life have taught me the ability to laugh and to help others enjoy the moment with me. I use my eye for detail and focus on the big picture to bring success to anything I try, and that includes the work I do for my clients.

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