Track incoming site traffic using UTM

Estimated read time – 5 minutes

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Education is finally starting to catch up in understanding the importance of quantifying web traffic and justifying spending. Most often I have heard colleagues consider online branding campaigns or social media “black holes” with no way of showing the value. The same could be said though about the print flows, TV commercials, and billboards that we see so frequently. While they’re partially correct, you can never fully determine the total outcomes of traffic, there is a simple way to measure the minimum impact that your efforts are having: UTM.

UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module, but you will only need to know that for the most obscure trivia nights. Urchin was founded in 1995 and was purchased by Google in 2005 to form Google Analytics, which is likely the tracking software you use on your site. One important feature was the standardized parameters that are appended to your link to allow you to do custom tracking of links. There are 5 UTM parameters that you can set:

Medium (Required) 

A medium is the larger bucket that generalizes the traffic. It’s best to use an accepted medium that will work in a Google Analytics segment, so try to stick to these if you can: cpc, referral, email, or social. CPC refers to paid traffic, your digital advertising. Referral traffic is traffic coming from other websites, such as Niche or Wikipedia, back to your site. Email and social traffic should be self explanatory, you can make the email source the segment that’s being sent to or the email system you use. Others that you may see, but won’t need to set, would be direct and organic. These are people coming to your site directly or through a search engine. Direct traffic comes through with a medium of (none) and a source of (direct).

Source (Required) 

The source of the traffic can be defined as a website, marketing partner, or other way that you want to define this. A source can be associated with several mediums, for example a source of “Google” can appear in both organic (meaning it came from a search result click) and cpc (meaning it came from a paid ad). Setting your source manually is most helpful when using UTM in email and texting campaigns or ensuring standard naming in social media and partner sites. 

Campaign

This is the campaign that the traffic is associated with. Campaigns should be specific enough that you will know what it is referring to, so calling it Recruiting or Visit isn’t going to be as useful. Think about campaigns such as Fall 2019 Open Houses or Out of State Branding as options. Create a shared spreadsheet (keep reading for an example) that lists campaigns so that you can track and compare outcomes of your multichannel campaigns. Using the same campaign name will allow you to pull up all the source/medium results in one dashboard to compare traffic volume and quality.

Content

The content parameter is a way to track your A:B or Factorial Testing results or the placement of the same link within an email. When you are viewing the results of a campaign in Google Analytics you can add the secondary dimension of Campaign Content to view your different results.

Term

The term parameter will likely not be used for its intended purpose as it’s now easier to pull reports in Google Analytics and Google Ads about search term traffic. However, consider this: you can use it differently to measure your highly segmented email campaigns. If you had a fall visit email you could send it to both prospects and inquiries, segmented by major interest. In this example the source could be “prospect” or “inquiry”, the medium would be “email”, the campaign could be “Fall Preview Day 2019”, the content could be “Email 1” or “Email 2” if you’re testing, and the term could be the major or major cluster that the email is going to. You would be able to granularly see the differences, or lack thereof, between an inquired student interested in biology who received the first version of the email and a prospect of the same profile. Brainstorm with your team and I’m sure you can come up with many test cases where you can study your emails or digital marketing in this way.

Implementing UTM

Let’s look at how it appears in practice. There’s a tool that will build the URL for you, so let’s start there. You need only plug in the parameters you will be using and copy the URL. The final link

www.yourschool.edu?utm_source=EI&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=Blog

has four parts: The URL, source, medium, and campaign. The first parameter always comes after a query (?) and each following parameter is joined by ampersand. The source is EI (Enrollment Insights) the medium is a referral, and the campaign is a Blog. You will want to make sure to be consistent with your cases for tracking, EI and ei will show up as different sources in Google Analytics. You should work with anyone who might be creating links to determine if they will be capitalized or all lower case. To keep things organized, here is a handy template to keep track of what is in use on campus.

Screenshot of the UTM Tracking Document.
Get the spreadsheet

An important thing to note: UTM should not be used for internal traffic! I have seen it done. What this does is destroy your data integrity. Traffic comes in as one source, medium, campaign, etc. and then is overwritten and appears as new traffic. If it converts after clicking a reassigned link you will not get the true value of external sources. So please, never use UTM internally. How do you track internal traffic then, such as when you have multiple links/buttons on a page going to the same place? I’m glad you asked!

Bonus! Tracking Internal Traffic

You can track incoming traffic and not affect your underlying data using query strings. A query string is a query (?) followed by some identifier that you want. If you’re doing an optimization test you can see which button is clicked more often using ?A or ?B to be as simple as possible. While you can’t follow all throughout the site as easily as with UTM, you can by using the Behavior Flow chart in the Behavior menu.

Screen shot of Google Analytics behavior flow.

If you would like to connect and talk more, you can find me on LinkedIn or Twitter. Happy tracking!

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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