Best Practices for using UTM parameters in Marketing Campaigns

How to clean up your unassigned traffic in GA4.

Understanding UTM parameters

UTM parameters, short for Urchin Tracking Module parameters, are tags appended to URLs to track the source, medium, campaign name, and other variables associated with a marketing link. These parameters enable marketers to identify which campaigns, channels, or sources are driving traffic to their website accurately.

The five standard UTM parameters are:

  • UTM_source: Identifies the source of the traffic (e.g., Google, Facebook, newsletter).

  • UTM_medium: Describes the medium of the traffic (e.g., cpc, organic, email).

  • UTM_campaign: Specifies the name of the campaign.

  • UTM_term: Used for keyword tracking in paid search campaigns.

  • UTM_content: Used for differentiating similar content or links within the same campaign.

Best practices for using UTM parameters in GA4

  • Standardize naming conventions: Consistency is key when it comes to naming conventions for UTM parameters. Establish a clear naming structure and stick to it across all campaigns to ensure accurate and organized data in GA4.

  • Avoid special characters and spaces: Special characters and spaces in UTM parameters can cause tracking issues. Stick to alphanumeric characters and use hyphens or underscores to separate words.

  • Use URL builders: Utilize online URL builders or built-in features in marketing platforms to generate UTM-tagged URLs accurately. Tools like Google's Campaign URL Builder can streamline the process and minimize errors.

  • Be descriptive but concise: While it's essential to provide enough information in UTM parameters to identify campaigns effectively, avoid making them too lengthy. Aim for descriptive yet concise parameters to maintain readability.

  • Track all marketing channels: Ensure that UTM parameters are implemented across all marketing channels, including email campaigns, social media posts, PPC ads, and any other promotional efforts. This comprehensive style of tracking provides a holistic view of campaign performance.

  • Consolidate similar campaigns: If you're running multiple variations of the same campaign, consolidate them under one overarching campaign name in the UTM parameters. Use additional parameters like UTM_content to differentiate between them.

  • Regularly review and update: Periodically review your UTM parameter strategy to ensure it aligns with evolving marketing initiatives and goals. Update naming conventions or add new parameters as needed to capture relevant data accurately.

  • Test and validate: Before launching campaigns, test UTM-tagged URLs to verify that they're tracking correctly in GA4. Monitor data in Google Analytics to confirm that campaign traffic is attributed correctly.

  • Use only on external links: Do not use UTM parameters on links or buttons on your own website. UTMs were designed to report on external traffic to your site and as such they will overwrite  your original attribution if used internally.

How to set up UTM parameters so that GA4 understands them

GA4 is a large database that uses key/value pairs for channel groupings. If GA4 recognizes a source or medium, it will bucket it together with similar sources into Search or Social traffic. Similarly, GA4 will look at the medium to decide if it’s Email, Paid or Organic traffic.

If GA4 does not recognize the source or medium that you have assigned, it will bucket that traffic into the Unassigned channel, making your marketing analysis all the more difficult.

To avoid seeing unassigned traffic, marketers must follow Google’s suggestion for setting up source and medium parameters, as Google doesn’t allow for creativity and flexibility here. Below you’ll find a sampling of the most popular parameters:

  1. Email - Source = email|e-mail|e_mail|e mail OR Medium = email|e-mail|e_mail|e mail
  2. Paid Search - Source matches a list of search sites AND Medium matches regex ^(.*cp.*|ppc|retargeting|paid.*)$
  3. Paid Social - Source matches a regex list of social sites AND Medium matches regex ^(.*cp.*|ppc|retargeting|paid.*)$
  4. Organic Social - Source matches a regex list of social sites OR Medium is one of (“social”, “social-network”, “social-media”, “sm”, “social network”, “social media”)
  5. Display - Medium is one of (“display”, “banner”, “expandable”, “interstitial”, “cpm”)
  6. Affiliates - Medium = affiliate
  7. Audio - Medium exactly matches audio
  8. SMS - Source exactly matches sms OR - Medium exactly matches sms

In the example below, a number of UTM parameters have been set up incorrectly leading to traffic being attributed to Unassigned traffic. For example, you can see Unassigned internal links (featured-product/ website) and Unassigned email campaigns from Klaviyo. Additionally, there is inconsistency with tagging as different variations have been used for the same purpose.

unassigned traffic in GA4

To attribute the above UTMs to the correct Channels in GA4, the user can remove UTMs from the internal links, and tag the email links with utm_medium=email. For tracking internal links, users may wish to tag their links with a new parameter and then set it up as a custom dimension in GA4 - that way the new parameter will not affect attribution but can still be used for reporting purposes.

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