How and Why to Use Google Analytics Custom Campaigns

Introduction

Do you have a blog or a website? Do you actively promote your brand, website, or posts through social media, email newsletters, republished posts, web ads, search engines, or carefully placed hyperlinks? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should be using Google Analytics Custom Campaigns (GACC) and UTM parameters regardless of whether you spend money on these marketing campaigns or not.

I wrote this article to provide an overview of GACC, along with how and why to use this handy feature. With that, let’s get started!

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Google Analytics Sessions

The key to understanding Google Analytics (GA) is to first understand sessions as defined by Google. According to Google, a session is a group of interactions that take place on a website within a given time frame. This includes viewing a page on a site, but can also include other interactions.

More specifically, a GA session is created when you initially browse to a website from a desktop or mobile browser. Once created, a timer is started and the session ends either after 30 minutes of inactivity (default setting, but changeable), at midnight on that date, or if the user arrives to the site via one campaign, leaves, and then comes back via another campaign. Campaigns are discussed in the next section.

Note that the 30 minute timer is reset after each interaction (click, page view, etc.). Also note that the calculated time on a given page is the difference between the initiation of successive page-views.

Google Campaigns

What is a campaign? Think of a campaign as being the place (aka source) in which the user was directed (aka referred) to a given website. GA stores this information, and opens a new session each time this campaign value is updated.

Where does this campaign information come from and how is it updated? In order to understand this, we must first discuss the term direct traffic. Direct traffic in GA terms means that the user arrived at a site by typing the website address directly into the browser address bar, or possibly from clicking one of the following: a link inside of a pdf, a browser bookmark, a link in an email, and so on.

In these cases, GA doesn’t know how the user arrived at the website and simply records the source and medium as (direct) / (none). In addition, campaign information is not available to GA in direct traffic situations.

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So what are the non-direct traffic ways to obtain campaign information and updates? According to Google, the three primary causes of a campaign update are when a user arrives at a site via a search engine, referring website, or campaign tagged URL.

We typically can’t control a search engine or referring website’s influence on campaign information, but we can control a link’s URL (i.e., campaign tagged URL) that points to our website. That’s what GACC is all about.

Google Analytics Custom Campaigns

GACC is a hugely useful analytics resource that you should use regularly. In a nutshell, GACC allows you to append certain UTM parameters (campaign tags) to a URL pointing to a page on your site, which help identify where the links are placed within a campaign. This is incredibly useful since it can help determine where you’re getting the most traffic from, and therefore the most value for a given campaign. UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module.

These parameters are prefixed with utm_, and include source, medium, term, content, and campaign. Here is an example link URL in an InnoArchiTech blog post that points to InnoArchiTech’s homepage using GACC:

www.innoarchitech.com/?utm_source=innoarchitech&utm_medium=post&utm_term=javascript&utm_content=postlink&utm_campaign=blog

To a user, clicking this link is the same as clicking a link to www.innoarchitech.com without the parameters. Behind the scenes however, GA captures this information as the user’s session is created. This is great because not only is this information now available as session data, but it can be analyzed and reported on just like any other GA data.

Custom Campaign URLs

To ensure consistency and help avoid errors, Google recommends using their URL builder tool to create URLs with custom campaign parameters, although you can create them manually as well.

To use the tool, simply enter the values for each parameter and then click submit. The tool will generate a URL that you can use for any link pointing to a page on your site. Here is a screenshot of the tool being used to generate the link shown above.

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The real benefit of GACC comes from understanding what each parameter represents, and how to use them effectively.

The URL parameters are as follows:

  • Campaign Source (utm_source): This is used to identify the name of the source of the link, e.g., Twitter.

  • Campaign Medium (utm_medium): This is used to identify the type (or medium) of the source of the link, e.g., tweet, email, newsletter, post, etc.

  • Campaign Term (utm_term): This is used to identify the paid keywords used in the case of paid ads.

  • Campaign Content (utm_content): This is used to identify different links that point to the same URL. Examples can include a text link (utm_content=textlink) or an image/logo link (utm_content=logolink).

  • Campaign Name (utm_campaign): This is used to identify the name of a strategic campaign or promotion, e.g., summer_sale.

Custom Campaign Example and Analysis

I write and publish articles on my blog at www.innoarchitech.com. I also republish these articles on LinkedIn, Medium.com, and Quora, as well as promote newly published articles via social media, Hacker News, the InnoArchiTech email newsletter, and so on. In addition, I have links located throughout the InnoArchiTech site that point to other pages on the InnoArchiTech site.

Given this, if someone clicks a link and arrives at a certain InnoArchiTech page, how do I know where the link was that they clicked? Not only that, how do I know which sources produce the most traffic for that page, and again the most campaign value? Google Analytics Custom Campaigns for the win!

In the case of a republished post, I always include a link back to the original post on the InnoArchiTech site. For the source parameter (utm_source), I would use medium, quora, or linkedin based on the republished posts location. Here is an actual example of a link in one of these posts on LinkedIn:

Originally published at www.innoarchitech.com here on November 24, 2014.

I also include an About the Author tidbit at the end of every post that includes links to the About and Newsletter pages on the site. Here is an example of that:

About the Author: Alex Castrounis founded InnoArchiTech. To learn more about InnoArchiTech and Alex, visit www.innoarchitech.com. Sign up for the InnoArchiTech newsletter for the latest content updates, and you can follow InnoArchiTech on Twitter at @innoarchitech.

In the examples shown, the utm_source parameter is set to linkedin for LinkedIn, which is where the links were located in this case. The utm_medium parameter is set to post since this link appears in a published post. The utm_content parameter is set to originallink and aboutlink respectively, and depends on whether the link appears in the link to the original post at the beginning of the post, or the About the Author information at the end. Finally, the utm_campaign parameter is set to republish since these links are part of my republishing campaign.

Depending on the campaign, you could set the utm_medium parameter to values such as post, tweet, bio, pin, email, newsletter, ad, etc. For the utm_content parameter, you might use identifiers such as textlink, logolink, imagelink, aboutlink, postlink, originallink, biolink, adlink, pinlink, etc. Finally, for the utm_campaign parameter, you may use blog, republish, annual_newsletter, spring_sale, fall_gala, and so forth.

Once GA has collected campaign data as a result of these carefully configured and placed link URLs, the data can be analyzed and reported on in the same way as any GA data. Here are a couple of screen shots of this data over a very short custom time period.

In this case, the links with GACC URL parameters were placed in republished posts placed in a variety of different source locations. This image shows session data for various combinations of campaign, source, and medium GACC parameters.

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This image shows session data from drilling down into the republish campaign data for republished posts on Medium.com specifically, along with the utm_content (shown as Ad Content) parameter data.

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At a quick glance I can easily determine that most people arrived at a given InnoArchiTech page by clicking on a link within the republished post (45 sessions), 12 sessions were created by clicking a link in the About the Author section, and five sessions resulted from clicking the link to the original post.

A detailed discussion of GA data analysis and reporting is beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully it’s obvious how useful this information can be for any campaign.

Summary

There are many important reasons for knowing the location of a link that was clicked to arrive at a page on your website. Most importantly, this information can help determine what campaign strategies are most successful and provide the most value.

Whether you are paying for marketing campaigns and ads, or are simply promoting your brand cost-free through social media and other avenues, Google Analytics Custom Campaigns are a must use tool.