UTM Best Practices for Content Campaigns

You have a great piece of content. It’s driving pageviews, pulling leads, checking all the boxes. There’s one problem: you have no idea where traffic is coming from. This means you’ll have a hard time repeating this success.

The answer? UTM campaign tracking.

UTMs help marketers contextualize direct traffic reporting with added detail and nuance. This information plays a critical role in tying content to ROI. In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know.

What are UTMs and UTM parameters?

Urchin Tracking Modules (UTMs) are tracking codes that you append to the end of URLs. UTMs offer detailed information about the URL to help analyze the effectiveness of referral traffic sources for multi-channel campaigns. 

UTM parameters are identifying labels used to track specific information related to the campaign and URL. The five UTM parameters are:

  1. campaign
  2. medium
  3. source
  4. content
  5. term

UTM parameter meanings and use cases

In a URL, the parameters follow a question mark (?) at the end of the standard site address. Think of each parameter as a question you want answered for campaign traffic.

utm_campaign: Why is traffic going here? 

This typically references a specific content piece or campaign, like a product launch or sale.

Example: utm_campaign=new_product

utm_medium: How did the traffic get here?

Use this to label the digital marketing channel, such as email or social media for unpaid campaigns, and paid or cpc for paid campaigns.

Example: utm_medium=paid

utm_source: Where did this traffic come from?

Source offers specifics within the medium. For example, if you’re tracking social engagement, the source would be the individual social site like LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

Example: utm_source=google

utm_content: What link was clicked? How is this link different from others?

Content can reference several things, e.g., link placement or A/B testing. Use it to differentiate between a click on a graphic vs. on a text hyperlink, or between multiple text or graphic options.

Example: utm_content=headline_one

utm_term: What did someone search to find this link?

This parameter is reserved solely for search campaigns and helps target an audience based on keywords.

Example: utm_term=analytics

Example of a UTM tracking campaign

Using the examples above, the end result would look like this:

Looking at this UTM, we know this traffic:

  1. Visited our “Get a Demo” page…
  2. As part of our brand awareness campaign… 
  3. Because they searched “analytics” in Google… 
  4. And clicked on the paid ad… 
  5. With the first headline option as part of an A/B test.

When to use UTM URLs

UTMs aren’t necessary for every link. In fact, you shouldn’t use them for internal site links or organic search results. Why? Because the UTM can disrupt the referral path and override SEO data. Plus, Google ignores them anyway (unless they’re part of a paid campaign).

However, there are plenty of opportunities where UTMs are helpful for tracking traffic information. Distribution methods like email, social, paid, and offline campaigns all benefit from UTMed URLs. 

Newsletters are one of the most popular uses for UTMs because email often shows up as “direct” in your referral data. If you don’t append UTMs consistently to your newsletter content, you can’t always discern how newsletters are impacting your traffic.

Adding a UTM offers additional insight into what is most interesting to your newsletter audience, by topic, content format, and more. These insights can be compared to other traffic sources and applied to future newsletters to improve effectiveness.

UTM parameters best practices

The problem with UTMs—ironically—is tracking them. The more you use them, the more difficult it is to keep track of them and associated data. Use these recommended best practices to set yourself, and your UTMs, up for success.

1. Be specific.

Always double and triple-check your UTMs. Accidentally mixing up parameters or making a spelling error can result in confusing or unusable data.

Be clear and concise when choosing a parameter. For example, utm_campaign=leadgen is too vague, likely creating more questions than answers when reviewing the data. Instead, try something like utm_campaign=leadgen_conference2022 that offers more specifics regarding the target audience and where they’re coming from.

Tip: Shorten your URLs with a tool like Bitly. People often avoid clicking long URLs fearing they lead to nefarious consequences like malware or scams. Shorter URLs also typically perform better.

2. Be consistent.

Consistency is key, especially if multiple people create UTM URLs. One /small change in a parameter can result in data discrepancies.

Tip: UTM parameters are case-sensitive, so use all lowercase as your standard. Spaces interrupt the parameter, so use hyphens, dashes, or underscores instead (pick one format and stick with it across campaigns).

Say your team wants to gather more information about LinkedIn referrals but one UTM uses utm_source=linkedin and another uses utm_source=LinkedIn. Despite the similarity, they will display as two separate sources. 

Create a definitions document that lists parameter descriptions and examples, your standard UTM parameters and naming conventions, etc. Make it easy for everyone to use UTMs easily and effectively.

3. Track transparently.

Make sure everyone using UTMs has equal access to tracking information—this helps reduce confusion and democratizes content analytics

In your UTM definitions document, include UTM URLs, defined parameters, campaign information, and anything else that makes the data more understandable.

Tip: Quickly and easily build UTMs with Parse.ly’s Campaign URL Builder, a great place to start tracking your campaigns.

A screenshot of the top portion of the Parse.ly Campaign Builder spreadsheet

How to analyze UTM data

UTMs provide the granularity you need to learn as much about your referral traffic as you want. Use one UTM or multiple UTMs within a single campaign to pinpoint more specific click instances. Group together related sets of UTMs to keep track of higher level campaign performance.

This data will help you extract information like:

  • Conversions from specific sources (to attribute ROI)
  • Audience preferences on topics, graphics, text options, content formats, and more
  • Performance of specific campaigns compared to others
  • Exact click points of a campaign
  • Comparative engagement across channels and sources

See it in practice

Let’s look at a real example from the UTM campaigns Parse.ly’s marketing team uses. For this exercise, we want to understand what content we should be sending via email to convert readers into leads.

We sort our campaigns by Conversion (Last Touch) for the past 60 days. Under the Medium filter and email line item, we find the top-converting campaigns are Performing a Content Audit and The Content Marketer’s Toolkit for Q4 Planning.

A view of the Parse.ly dashboard that shows the Medium selected. Under the Campaign column, "contentaudit" has 244 conversions.

We surmise our email newsletter audience views content planning and content strategy as valuable topics. And guides and toolkits are our top-converting content format. So, moving forward with an informed content strategy, we’ll focus on creating more guides and toolkits centered around related topics.  

How to track UTMs in Parse.ly

Setting up UTMs

As long as you use standard UTM parameters, nothing is required to start implementing UTMs with Parse.ly. Parse.ly automatically recognizes UTM URLs and starts tracking. (Yes, it’s that easy!)

Using Campaign Groups

Parse.ly also offers a unique feature called Campaign Groups, which allows you to assign campaigns under different umbrellas. This is especially helpful to tie similar campaigns together, attributing traffic for misspelled or mislabeled values to the correct identifier.

For example, we have a  “Social” campaign group that houses any campaign with a social medium. Similarly, we also use a “Paid” group to easily view paid sources of distribution in a collective report.

Access UTM data

To look at reports for your UTM campaigns in Parse.ly, log into your dashboard and select the Campaigns tab. This page offers real-time and historical performance data on any and all of your campaigns in the selected time period. 

A view of the Parse.ly dashboard Campaigns page. It shows a selected time period with 3,000 page views.

This report is fully customizable to help you narrow data to desired parameters. Here, you can sort by conversions, pageviews, visitors, etc. and filter by parameter, author, tag, and more.

Still have questions? Check out our Campaign FAQs and schedule a demo on tracking UTMs in Parse.ly.