Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of social is still the biggest challenge for social media marketers in North America, according to eMarketer. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that their second-biggest challenge is securing budget and resources. After all, if you can’t show the ROI, where’s the motivation to make the investment in the first place?
The good news is that there’s no reason to be in the dark when it comes to tracking key indicators of ROI like website traffic, leads, and conversions. These can all be tracked with a few simple bits of code called UTM parameters—and you don’t need to be a programmer to get them working across your website and social media channels.
Bonus: Download a free guide and checklist to help you convince your boss to invest more in social media. Includes experts tips for proving ROI.
What are UTM parameters?
UTM parameters are short text codes added to a URL to track important data about website visitors and traffic sources.
UTM parameters work with analytics programs like Google Analytics to provide a detailed picture of your social media success, from the very high level (which networks are performing best) down to the granular details (which specific post drove the most traffic to a specific page).
Also known as UTM codes, UTM parameters are a variant of URL parameters. Of course, that raises the question, what are URL parameters? Like UTM parameters, they are short codes added to a URL. The difference is that URL parameters can be used to dynamically modify content on a website and have some tracking functionality, whereas UTM parameters are for specific tracking functions only.
There are five different UTM parameters: campaign source, campaign medium, campaign name, campaign term, and campaign content. A URL with all five UTM parameters attached would look something like this:
Since that’s a pretty ungainly looking link, knowing how to shorten links is an important part of using UTM codes. We’ll get into the details of what all the parameters mean, what they can track, and how to shorten links later on in this post.
In case you’re wondering what UTM stands for, it’s obvious—Urchin Tracking Module. Okay, maybe that’s not actually so obvious. The name comes from the Urchin Software Company, one of the original web analytics software developers. Google acquired the company in 2005 to create Google Analytics.
Why your business needs to use UTM parameters
UTM parameters provide a whole new world of data that offers three key benefits for social media managers:
- Proving the value of social to decision-makers, helping you secure ongoing buy-in and boost your budget
- Giving you an overall sense of where traffic is coming from and insight into what’s working and what’s not, so you can hone your strategy by focusing on the right networks with the right kind of posts
- Allowing you to test individual posts head-to-head in classic A/B testing style, so you can get the best return on specific campaigns
Measuring and proving social media ROI
Like every aspect of marketing, for social media to be valued, it needs to demonstrate appropriate return on investment and contribute to the company’s business goals. Adding UTM parameters to your social links helps you measure and prove the value of your social media efforts by clearly demonstrating the impact on company revenue through lead generation, referral traffic, and conversions.
You can also get a clear sense of the return on investment for specific campaigns by using data from UTM tracking to find the cost to acquire a lead and cost to acquire a customer—both numbers that are important to those in the company who make decisions about how to allocate budgets.
Refining your social media strategy
Once you’re tracking and reporting on ROI, of course, it will make you look great if you can find ways to improve the results. Monitoring the impact of different social networks and campaigns allows you to clearly see where you’re getting the best bang for your buck, whether that’s in actual advertising dollars or just the internal costs of managing an organic social media strategy.
That information can help you make important decisions about where to focus your efforts. For example, maybe Twitter brings more traffic to your page, but Facebook creates more leads and conversions. Which one is a better use of your budget?
You can use that information to help set relevant and realistic goals, then track when you reach them, helping ensure you focus your social media efforts in the way that’s best for your particular organization.
Classic A/B testing or split testing allows you to test individual marketing variables on a small segment of your audience to see which works better, one at a time, before sending out a full launch. You can also use A/B testing to refine your strategy by testing and validating theories about what works best for your audience overall.
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For example, you may think that social media posts with video always perform better. But is that actually true for your audience and based on your business goals? You can begin to test that theory by sharing two identical posts, one with a video and one without, tagged with appropriate codes in the campaign content parameter.
Of course, you’ll need more than just one test to prove an overall theory. Then, if you find that videos do indeed perform best, you can move on to testing what kinds of videos work best, and so on, to further refine your strategy.
For a great example of this in action, check out our blog post on how eHarmony used UTM parameters and A/B testing to find their most profitable type of social content.
How to use UTM parameters
Now that you know what UTM parameters are, and why it’s important to use them, it’s time to set yourself up to start using them on your social media posts.
Step 1: Set up Google Analytics
There’s no point in using tracking codes until you have a way to collect and analyze the data they provide. So, before we look at how to use URL parameters to track your social media posts, you need to set your website up with Google Analytics.
- Create a free Google Analytics account and provide your website URL
- Create a Google Tag Manager account to set up a container, which is a block of code you’ll use to manage how Google Analytics works with your site
- Paste the container code onto every page of your website
Step 2: Add UTM parameters to your social media posts
UTM parameters send information to Google Analytics to track how much traffic your social media posts send to your website, and how well that traffic converts.
Here’s a closer look at the five available UTM parameters and what they track.
You can add UTM parameters directly within Hootsuite, or create links with UTM parameters using the Google Analytics Campaign URL builder that you can then paste into your posts.
Option 1: Add UTM parameters using Hootsuite
Here’s a quick look at how to add UTM parameters to your posts from within the Hootsuite dashboard.
1. Select your social profile and compose your message
2. Click Add a link
3. Paste or type a URL, then click the gear icon
4. Choose Google Analytics under Add custom URL parameters
5. Enter the parameters you want to track and their values (following the best practices for UTM naming conventions, which you’ll find at the bottom of this post)
6. Click Apply Parameters
7. Click Shrink to create a short link containing your UTM parameters and add it to your post
This video explains the process in more detail:
Learn how to get even more out of Hootsuite with free social media training from Hootsuite Academy.
Option 2: Create UTM parameters using the Google Analytics Campaign URL builder and paste them into your post
If you prefer, you can create your UTM parameters within Google Analytics, then paste the links into your social media posts.
1. Head to the Google Analytics Campaign URL builder
2. Enter the URL of the page you want to link to, then enter the values for the parameters you want to track
3. Scroll down to find the automatically generated campaign URL
4. Click Convert URL to Short Link, or click Copy URL to use a different URL shortener, like ow.ly
5. Copy and paste your short link into your social media post
Step 3: Track campaigns with UTM parameters
You now have the tools in place to gather and track data from your social media campaigns.
Track traffic and conversions with Google Analytics
To get started, log into your Google Analytics account and follow these steps.
1. In the reporting tab on the left side, go to Acquisition, then Campaigns
2. Scroll down to see a list of all the campaigns you have created trackable URLs for, with traffic numbers and conversion rates
Step 4: Analyze the data your UTM parameters provide
Now that you’ve got all this data, you need to analyze what the numbers are telling you so you can see what’s working, what’s not, and how you can improve. This is a critical step to improving the success of your social media efforts.
Rather than just tallying up the numbers, work with your team to determine and track meaningful metrics for your organic social media posts and your paid social media ads. Analyze what types of posts and campaigns are not only driving traffic to your website, but leading to conversions or lead acquisition. After all, traffic is nice, but for most marketers, conversion is the Holy Grail.
Best practices for using UTM parameters
To make sure you get the most reliable data out of your UTM efforts, be sure to keep the following best practices in mind.
Use—and document—a consistent naming convention
Take a look back at the chart of the five UTM parameters and start to think about how you will describe the various categories. Keep in mind that it is important to be consistent, because inconsistent UTM parameters will create incomplete data.
Since you might have multiple people working on your social media tracking, it’s a good idea to create a master list of UTM parameters for the higher-level items like source and medium, and create a style guide that explains what rules to follow when creating parameters for new content, terms, and campaigns.
Keep in mind that even if you’re the only person working on this now, you could move on to another position, or your team could grow. Documenting the naming conventions (rather than keeping them all in your head) helps preserve all of your hard work and ensure your company’s valuable data is correct. Make sure everyone who needs to use UTM codes has viewing access to this document, but you may want to limit the ability to make changes to one or two key people.
While it’s up to you to decide which descriptors make the most sense for your particular business, there are a couple of rules all UTM code naming conventions should follow:
Stick to lower-case
UTM codes are case-sensitive, so facebook, Facebook, FaceBook, and FACEBOOK will all track separately, each giving you incomplete data for your Facebook tracking. Keep everything in lower-case to avoid inadvertently creating data tracking problems.
Use underscores instead of spaces
Spaces are another potential area for you to inadvertently create multiple codes representing the same thing, skewing your data. For example, organic-social, organic_social, organicsocial, and organic social will all track separately (and note that “organic social” with a space will become “organic%20social” in the URL, and nobody wants that). Replace all spaces with an underscore and document this decision in your UTM style guide to keep things consistent.
Track UTM links in a spreadsheet
Once you get started with UTM codes, the number of links you’re tracking will grow very quickly. Keeping them organized in a spreadsheet will make it easier to manage all of that information and help eliminate duplicate links.
Your spreadsheet should track each short link along with the full, pre-shortened URL, all of the individual UTM codes, and the date the shortened URL was created. Leave a field for notes so you can keep track of any important details.
Create a campaign preset for multiple posts
If you’re adding UTM parameters to your posts using Hootsuite, you can create a campaign preset that saves your UTM codes so you can apply them to each post in the campaign with just a couple of clicks. This not only saves you the effort of typing in each parameter manually, but also eliminates the possibility of inadvertently using slightly different codes that will skew your data.
Easily create UTM parameters and track the success of your social efforts using Hootsuite. Try it free today.