Analytics Governance, UTM Tracking, and Privacy

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Analytics Governance, UTM Tracking, and Privacy

Third party cookies.
Safari iOS tracking updates.
Ad blockers.

So many different initiatives are in progress now to increase consumer privacy (a good thing) and decrease marketing’s ability to target people (less of a good thing if you’re a marketer who relies on that data).

When other marketers ask what my strategy is to deal with these changes, my answer is always the same: focus on what you control.

You control, to a great degree, your email list and what you do with it.

You control, to a great degree, the value of the content you publish.

You control, to a varying degree, the technology behind your owned media properties, like your website’s server.

You could control a substantial part of your analytics structure.

But most of all, you control the governance around your analytics. Governance is just a fancy word for answering “who’s doing what?”, and one of the most obvious, overlooked, poorly run parts of marketing analytics governance is the humble Google Analytics UTM tag.

You know what these are; they’re tracking codes appended to the end of URLs that look something like this:

These kinds of tracking codes are typically implemented by individuals preparing content for campaigns, and by marketing automation software, from social schedulers like Agorapulse to marketing automation packages like Hubspot or Mautic. Marketers who put them in things like newsletters and social posts often do so haphazardly and inconsistently, but there’s a secret to them that will make them critical in the weeks and months ahead.

The Secret Power of UTM Tags

To understand the secret, we need to understand how analytics software works. Today, the vast majority of analytics implementations use client-side tracking:

Client side tracking

When a user visits our website, they type in or click on a URL that brings them to our site. Our content loads, and a small piece of code – a Javascript, typically the Google Analytics tracking code – runs on the user’s device, on their browser. With some of the tracking changes coming, users will either be able to opt out of the tracking code running, or depending on the browser and platform, the tracking code may not be permitted to run at all. Some browsers and ad blockers outright block trackers entirely.

More advanced marketing technologists may deploy something called server-side tracking, which collects less information, but isn’t reliant on the user. In server-side tracking, a user types in or clicks on a URL that brings them to our site. Our server logs which URL is being called for, and sends that data to our analytics software, and then the content on our site loads for the user.

Because server-side tracking is looking at what a user is consuming on our website, on our server, it is immune to blocking. You physically cannot stop server-side tracking as a user, because in order to use our websites, you have to type in an address.

What does this have to do with UTM tracking codes? In the server-side tracking scenario, our servers glean most of the information from the URL itself, and from a few basic pieces of information like device type and browser type. That’s not enough data to build any kind of useful analytics about the user. But if that URL also contains UTM tracking codes, then suddenly we have a lot more information to work with. We know the source, medium, campaign, content, and even keywords – but only if they’re in the URL the user is visiting.

Which means that if we do our jobs right and make sure every URL we have control over is properly tagged when it’s shared, advertised, or distributed, we’ll still get usable marketing information to do things like attribution analysis.

And once a user opts in – by self-identifying when they fill out a form or otherwise give us permission to contact them – we’ll have at least some data to work with.

Reality Check

Here’s the reality check: as marketers, we don’t need anonymous third-party data to do our jobs. We really don’t. Half of it is suspect in quality anyway, and what insights do we really garner from it?

Better quality data comes from the user themselves, from them willingly telling us who they are and what they want. If an anonymous user is on our website and chooses not to give us any information even after perusing our offering, then guess what?

They probably don’t want what we have to sell, anyway. If they wanted to do business with us, they would have taken action.

Does knowing that they’re a 40-45 year old Korean-American male interested in technology help us? Does it get us any closer to persuading them that our offering for our product or service is a good fit for them? Not really. Remember the lesson of Bronies: demographic information is not purchase intent or even necessarily purchase probability.

As marketers, we should be investing our time in two things that are sustainable, durable, and eternal:

Having products and services customers actually want.

Creating compelling enough marketing that people actively seek it out and want to share it willingly with friends and colleagues.

If we do those things, combined with solid analytics governance, then tracking changes and privacy enhancements will be minor annoyances instead of business-disrupting challenges.

Your to-do list after reading this content should look like this:

  1. Improve your products and services.
  2. Improve your marketing quality to make it valuable on its own.
  3. Build and enforce strong analytics tracking governance.
  4. Implement server-side tracking on all the properties you own.

Do these things, and you’ll be ready for any tracking change or privacy enhancement that comes your way.

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