With fierce competition, evolving markets, and rapid changes in customer buying habits, digital marketing campaigns are expected to perform and prove ROI (return on investment). This makes tracking campaigns and the individual elements within them both a smart decision and a necessity. Now more than ever as marketing budgets are tightening, savvy marketers determine what’s most effective to optimize campaigns based on data and modify or eliminate poor performers.
UTM (urchin tracking module) parameters are important tools designed to help you make informed decisions about your digital marketing efforts. Below we define what a UTM is and outline best practices related to UTM parameters, including when and how to use UTMs and how to set them up.
What is a UTM?
A UTM is a small piece of customizable code added to the end of a URL (web address). UTMs track where your web traffic comes from and help you separate the traffic you send to your site due to marketing efforts, versus traffic coming from elsewhere.
UTM tags allow analytics software (like Google Analytics) to track digital campaign traffic, giving you valuable insights into campaign performance. You can even track by campaign name, source, medium, key words and phrases, and content. We’ll get into these details later in this guide.
Below is an example of a simple UTM that tracks Google as the source—the place where you shared the link that sent traffic to your website. Notice that UTMs are placed after the question mark, which is added after the URL extension.
URL example without a UTM parameter:
URL example with a simple UTM parameter:
What is the difference between a UTM and a URL?
A URL (uniform resource locator) is the address you put in your browser to take you to a specific webpage. It's like the house address for the blog post you’re trying to read or the landing page of your favorite online store.
Meanwhile, the UTM (urchin tracking module) is what’s attached to the end of a URL. UTMs are like bread crumbs allowing you to track metrics, such as the website traffic's source, medium, campaign, or even the specific word the user clicked.
Both URLs and UTMs are important, but they serve different purposes. The URL functions as the way people access your online content. Thehe UTM, on the other hand, isn’t needed by the user. Instead, it’s an analytics tool that gives you insight into “how” and “why” people stop by. UTMs are like tracking URLs that can help you measure the effectiveness of your marketing strategies so you can optimize them over time.
Why use UTM parameters?
Let’s look at an example of UTM parameters in action. Say you’re a marketer, and you have multiple campaigns running at the same time across different platforms like Facebook, Instagram, email newsletters, and more. You're seeing traffic on your website and you’d like to pinpoint exactly where it's coming from. That's precisely what UTM parameters work to do.
UTM parameters empower you to track the results from your marketing efforts with more precision. These tags that you add to the end of your URL help you determine which specific campaign, platform, or even type of content is driving traffic to your website. If you’re running the same promotion on Facebook, Instagram, and your email newsletter, then having distinct UTM campaign parameters within internal links for each medium will let you dissect which marketing channel is responsible for the increase in traffic.
How marketers use UTM parameters to make better decisions
Digital marketing campaigns are usually spread across multiple channels. For example, you may promote a new product via Google Ads, with an email blast, and on social media. How do you know how much traffic each of these is individually driving to your website? UTMs offer an answer. Just apply a unique UTM tag in the link for each.
UTMs indicate the origin of traffic and can be used to track specific marketing tactics throughout your online marketing endeavors. UTMs are especially useful when you’re conducting an A/B test. From a marketing perspective, A/B testing, also known as split testing, is a method of comparing two versions of a webpage or marketing element to determine which one performs better.
Here are some ways that UTMs can be applied to your digital marketing initiatives.
Without UTMs, tracking the sources of ROI in social media campaigns can be difficult. For example, if you place a display ad with a link to your website on Twitter and Instagram, you can determine which social media platform delivered the most traffic to your website using separate UTM parameters that identify each social network.
The individual parameters for these platforms could be “Twitter_Ad” and “Instagram_Ad.” Now, when you glance over your analytics, you'll clearly see whether it was the tweet or the Instagram post that drove more traffic to your site.
Understanding the origin of your traffic will help you know where to double down and where to rework your strategy, giving you greater control over your marketing outcomes.
Let’s say you’re sending emails with click-through capability to current customers and previous customers announcing a new product. By using different UTMs for each customer group, you can determine how much traffic is being generated by each customer group, not just the overall email performance for all customers.
The beauty of email marketing is that it allows you to segment your audience and tailor your messages accordingly. UTM codes are valuable because they help you understand exactly how each segment behaves.
Here, UTM tags such as “current_cust” and “previous_cust” added to URLs within each email will track which customer group contributes more to traffic and conversions on your website.
In addition to measuring the overall results of your email campaign, you can also underscore which customer segment is more engaged or responsive. This can help you refine your future email campaigns, content, and even product development.
Display and banner ads
Attaching a UTM tag to your URL link in a digital display or a banner ad helps you identify the volume of traffic each delivers to your website. In fact, you can take it a step further. If you’re running a different ad on each for a specific product or service, assigning different UTMs will tell you which ad copy is driving the most traffic.
Suppose you have two captivating banner ads promoting two different products—a sleek laptop and a premium smartphone—both displayed on various tech blogs and websites. If you assign each ad a unique UTM like “Laptop_Ad” and “Smartphone_Ad,” then you won't just be seeing the total traffic in your analytics but also the specific traffic each ad is bringing to your website.
This information gives you the tactical edge you need to fine-tune your marketing decisions. You'll know which product people are more interested in and what kind of ad copy works best. You may even find out what type of websites are working well for your ads.
Have you ever uploaded the same blog to different blog sites and then wondered how much traffic each site drove to your website? You can identify this by attaching a unique UTM tag to each link.
For instance, if you’re distributing your blogs across different blogging sites—Medium, BlogSpot, and LinkedIn—having UTM links (like “Medium_blog,” “BlogSpot_blog,” and “LinkedIn_blog”) will show you which platform is most effective for garnering visitors.
However, if you're looking to simply measure the overall traffic your blogs are generating from all platforms, a common UTM tag across all links would do the job.
Pay per click (PPC)
Now, you might be wondering—why would you need UTMs when most PPC platforms have their own tracking systems? While built-in tracking is useful, it may not always integrate seamlessly with your CRM (customer relationship management) system.
UTMs for PPC are especially valuable for companies that don’t have integration between PPC channels (Google and Bing) and their CRM technology.
UTMs offer a consistent way of tracking performance that can easily port into your CRM system. This lets you see the entire customer journey, from clicking on a PPC ad to completing a conversion on your site—regardless of the platform. They help ensure that every penny spent can be tracked, optimized, and evaluated for effectiveness, making your advertising efforts and budgets more efficient.
Videos are becoming an essential marketing tool, along with the use of video platforms such as YouTube or TikTok. For example, UTM tags on YouTube ad links enable you to identify which videos are generating the most traffic.
TikTok has quickly become a must-have platform for marketers, with its unique blend of short-form video content, music tie-ins, and a youthful demographic. Using UTM codes in TikTok video descriptions gives you an incredible opportunity to understand the success of your video marketing campaign.
These codes can help you track inbound traffic from specific videos. You could have a dance challenge video or a company explainer video and assign each of them their own UTM. That way, you can see which types of campaigns are generating the most interest and engagement.
Other video platforms include Instagram Reels and Snapchat’s Spotlight. Both of them offer similar short-form video features to their users. Using these UTM parameters can help you track and compare across multiple platforms.
How do you generate UTMs?
Adding a UTM parameter at the end of a URL seems simple enough, but it takes more than a simple add-on to get the best performance from UTM tags. Before you begin generating UTMs, create a well-developed strategy focused on consistency, naming convention rules, and other policies. One of the most basic things to adhere to is keeping your UTMs easy to read and non-redundant.
Applying these principles to create the best UTMs is easier than you might think, however, thanks to UTM generators such as the Google URL Builder.
To use a UTM builder, you'll first insert your URL and then fill in the details for each parameter you want to include, such as campaign name, source, and medium. Keeping these tags precise and non-redundant is important because it ensures easy tracking and analysis when looking at your data reports. For example, instead of “socialmedia_facebook” as a source, use “facebook” to keep it simple.
That said, manual creation can sometimes be a tedious process, especially for large-scale campaign tracking. Thankfully, AI models like Bing Chat and ChatGPT can help generate UTM codes. These AI models can even analyze and implement your favorite ways to create UTMs and apply those rules—reducing human error. For example, AI can ferret out missing or misplaced question marks, slashes, hyphens, underscores, and other punctuation marks that impact whether a web address with UTMs will or won’t function.
With any AI tool, you’ll find a dependency on the specific capabilities of the AI model, and may experience a learning curve to understand its full potential.
5 Types of UTM parameters
You can add any of five types of traffic-tracking UTM parameters to a URL, singly or in combination.
1. Campaign name, utm_campaign
The campaign name parameter, identified as utm_campaign, indicates the name of the custom campaign being tracked. This could include a product launch name, a service upgrade name, a contest name, a specific promotion name, or other similar designations.
2. Source, utm_source
The source parameter, referred to as utm_source, helps identify the location where you shared the link, which is the traffic source. This could include platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or newsletters. For instance, if a product demo video on your website is shared through both a LinkedIn post and a Facebook post, then assigning descriptive source UTMs will help determine which platform generated more traffic.
3. Medium, utm_medium
The medium parameter, known as utm_medium, identifies the type of traffic from which the visitor originated. This could include categories such as social media, email, display ads, or CPC (cost per click).
4. Term, utm_term
The term parameter, referred to as utm_term, is used to track key phrases or keywords for paid search advertising. For example, if you’re running a new Google Ad campaign with the keywords “pet sitter” and “dog walker,” you can use UTMs to determine which search keywords generated the most interest and resulting traffic to your website through the paid ads.
5. Content, utm_content
The content parameter, known as utm_content, allows you to track different ads within a campaign and compare their performance, which is particularly useful for A/B testing. For instance, if you have two ads promoting a new software product across various channels—with one offering a free two-week trial and the other offering one free month with a one-year subscription—assigning a unique content UTM to each ad will help you determine which promotion resonates better with customers.
Examples of UTM tags
With the appropriate strategies and processes in place, generating basic UTM tags is straightforward. Below are examples of UTM tags for each of the five UTM parameters using the URL http://yourexcellent website.com. (To use these examples, you would substitute your own website URL instead of the “yourexcellentwebsite” placeholder.)
Example of URL with campaign UTM:
Example of URL with source UTM:
Example of URL with medium UTM:
Example of URL with content UTM:
Example of URL with term UTM:
These simple examples, however, aren’t typically used in practice because marketing managers usually want to track multiple variables. This is done by using two or more UTM parameters together in one link, separated by an ampersand (&) symbol.
Example of two UTMs in one link—campaign (holiday sale) and source (Facebook):
In most cases, you’ll want to use “campaign” as a “foundational” UTM tag, making sure it’s labeled the same way when using all other UTM types with it.
Example of three UTM tags in a link—campaign, source, and content:
Tips on using UTMs
When creating UTM tags, make sure they’re easy to understand and descriptive, rather than vague and cryptic. Here are some ways you can lean into more user-friendly UTMs:
- Be specific. Vague UTM tags or tags that are too high level hinder you from tracking specifics, so make sure to be specific. For instance, if you’re running a digital ad on Instagram, use Instagram or “Insta” in the UTM versus social media. Even if you start out only using Instagram for digital ads, plan ahead to develop a naming convention that will remain useful as you branch out.
- Create a consistent pattern and naming convention. Without consistently using the same format when creating UTM tags, your campaigns may show up on different lines in Google Analytics, resulting in the need for an extra step of manually totaling the results.
- Lowercase parameters. UTM tags are case-sensitive. Using lowercase tags helps Google Analytics categorize sessions correctly. For example, utm_source=facebook is different from utm_source=Facebook. Using lowercase only as a rule helps you avoid this kind of mistake.
- Don’t share a link with the parameters. Sharing a link with a long string of UTM parameters can confuse recipients and appear sloppy. Instead, create a branded link (a shorter version of a URL) to share online. Alternatively, you can use a link shortener.
- Track your UTMs. Establish a spreadsheet or another means of easily tracking all the UTMs you’ve created and used. This helps avoid redundancy and keep members of the marketing team who use the UTMs in sync. AI can be used for tracking help too.
UTMs aren’t the only solution to understanding the performance of your digital marketing campaigns, but they can provide valuable insight and enable you to make data-driven decisions that ultimately prove and improve ROI.
If you don’t have available staff or staff with the appropriate experience and knowledge to create UTM best practices, then consider staff augmentation. Using staff augmentation increases the talent capacity of your team, filling the gaps with high-quality, independent professionals who have the right skills.
Creating effective UTM strategies requires expertise, and Upwork can help with that. As the world’s largest work marketplace, Upwork provides businesses with a direct line to digital marketing pros who specialize in UTM creation and analysis. And if you’re looking to find clients who need a UTM expert, Upwork is a great place to showcase your skills.
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