What Are UTM Codes, and How Can Higher Ed Leverage Them?

When implemented strategically, UTM codes have the power to help you measure the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns and make better-informed decisions moving forward.

11 minutes
By: Jackie Vetrano

Have you ever hoped to determine what types of content drive the most traffic to your website from Facebook? How about what channel was responsible for the spontaneous spike in visits to a particular website story last week? Or even coming to a conclusion, once and for all, on the effectiveness of those website banners you spent half your monthly budget on?

It’s possible, it’s free, and all it takes is a few keystrokes.

What Is a UTM Code?

The secret is in UTM codes, uncommonly known as Urchin Tracking Module, and better recognized as the long string of letters and symbols at the end of some website URLs. This code system is read by Google Analytics and easily lets you know where your users are coming from as well as which of your efforts got them there.

UTM codes provide incredible insight on users’ habits including click-through rates from social media posts or other channels, time spent on a particular page, and even how many high school students filled out an inquiry form thanks to that video post on Facebook last week.

Most often, UTM codes are used in multi-platform digital marketing campaigns (even organic ones) which all direct to the same landing page. They help determine whether efforts such as an organic Facebook post, radio advertisement, or Twitter advertisement was the most successful or had the greatest engagement.

It may appear complex, but with an understanding of how to read the appended code, you’ll be determining ROI and learning new insights in no time.

Why Bother With UTM Codes?

To put it simply — because data is cool! And, it helps make better decisions in the future. UTM codes provide incredible insight on users’ habits including click-through rates from social media posts or other channels, time spent on a particular page, and even how many high school students filled out an inquiry form thanks to that video post on Facebook last week.

Aside from measuring successful social media posts or advertising campaigns, using UTM codes on a consistent basis will also guide and shape social media strategy by providing hard data regarding engagement habits of your audiences on each platform when considering each piece of content. UTM codes allow you to analyze the variables that are most important and interesting to you and your team, whether it be assessing video posts compared to link previews, cute dog content over graduation photos, or admissions content compared to academic content.

Marketers are always looking to understand the effectiveness of different campaigns and organic efforts on their overall goal. Consider creative ways to leverage the variables, especially the content field, to answer the questions you never had the chance to before.

If you haven’t guessed, UTM codes also help develop more detailed reporting when it comes time at the end of the month, quarter, or year. Instead of addressing only the top-liked posts on your social media channels, you can also provide details on how your social media efforts are contributing to overall traffic to the institution’s website, platform by platform, or give more accurate counts on the number of conversions from them — whether it be clicks on the “apply” button, or generous gifts from alumni during fundraising season. All the data you’ll need to reference will be housed within Google Analytics, a trustworthy spot for data collection that doesn’t change its method of measurement or remove your data after a few months (I’m looking at you, Facebook). If you’re already well-established in your data collection thanks to a social media monitoring tool or even within the native platform, UTM codes will only enhance what you’re already analyzing. This will allow you to understand a much more complete picture about what your audience likes, dislikes, and spends time engaging with.

Let’s Get Started!

First, let’s take a look at a UTM Code before we start building them ourselves.


Now, really look at it. Can you already tell what the codes are tracking? UTM codes operate with a series of variables which are listed at the end of the URL. The parameters are read by Google Analytics and returned within your account in a clean report. The parameters are:

Source: This is where people are coming from. More simply put, “Where did you put the link for people to find it?” Typically, this is the social media channel (“facebook,” “twitter,” or “linkedin”) but can also be used for other efforts including radio, banner ads, or even postcards.

Medium: Along with the source field, this is also required by Google Analytics. It gives a more specific answer to our original question, “Where was the link?” Did users get to your site from a Facebook post? What about a blog post or button in an email campaign? The medium field works in concert with the source.

Campaign: This identifies exactly what it sounds like. For example, if you’ve created a summer course promotion campaign which includes paid and organic efforts on social media as well as an email marketing component, every link for these individual pieces of content would have the same campaign name. This should be something simple that you can easily understand, such as “2019-summer-course-promo.” Even though you’ll be using this field every time, it’s important to note that it is also a required field.

Term: This field is not required, and is best for measuring Google AdWords campaigns. The term field is a spot to help differentiate between purchased keyword efforts that are all part of the same campaign or lead to the same landing page.

Content: While not required, this might help you and your team assess other variables that are of interest. For example, to help show results for each academic department, use content fields such as “english,” “business,” “biology,” and other departments to tag the shared content. Then, this field can help you explain the number of visitors who visited content related to each department, as well as their habits.

3 Examples of UTM Use in Higher Education

Enrollment Marketing

When it comes to enrollment marketing, there are plenty of touchpoints for prospective students. UTM codes help organize these efforts and also give a more definite understanding of attribution for information form completions, applications, or even learning more about a particular program on campus.

In this example, consider a multi-platform campaign promoting the upcoming application deadline. You’ve organized three components:

  1. A paid Facebook advertisement
  2. An organic Instagram post
  3. An email to applicants who have started but not completed the application, with a “continue application” button

With this campaign, the goal is to drive students to ourschool.edu/application, in hopes that they will click the apply button on the page. UTM codes will help determine which effort drove the most traffic, plus the steps users took after they made it to the page including clicking “apply.”

Here’s what the UTM codes could look like for each effort:

  • ourschool.edu/application/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=paid&utm_campaign=app-deadline-2019
  • ourschool.edu/application/?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=app-deadline-2019
  • ourschool.edu/application/?utm_source=email&utm_medium=button&utm_campaign=app-deadline-2019

The campaign for each URL is identical (“app-deadline-2019”) to keep these efforts together as one campaign. Because the Facebook effort is a paid advertisement, the medium is “paid,” compared to the organic Instagram “post.” Finally, the link to the website in the email was through a button, which is then used as the medium for the email to applicants.

Measuring What May Be Hard to Measure

While digital platforms such as Facebook provide native analytics data, there are other marketing efforts that are equally important. But how can you measure something that can’t be physically clicked? Efforts such as postcards, radio advertisements, or even podcasts seem challenging to measure, however, using UTM codes and link shorteners will provide equally helpful data as a digital campaign.

Consider the big mailing you’re about to drop in an effort to help increase registration numbers for the upcoming summer reunion on campus. The mailer has a direct call to action, “register today!” with “ourschool.edu/reunion” listed underneath. Without UTM codes, there’s no way to know how many people read the mailer and decided to sign up, and therefore you won’t really be sure how to answer the question, “How did that mail campaign do for registration numbers?”

In this case, the URL could be: ourschool.edu/reunion/?utm_source=mail&utm_medium=postcard&utm_campaign=reunion-registration-2019

Using the source “mail” can encompass future mailings, which could include written salutations and appeals, or even thank you notes from gift officers. Because of this, the medium “postcard” allows for specificity with this campaign.

This full URL, of course, is not something to print on a postcard for users to manually enter. Instead, after the URL is created with UTM codes, the entire string should be passed through some sort of link shortener to create a link that is easy to remember and makes sense to the audience. For example, our.school/reunion-sign-up.

A/B Testing

This type of testing can be applied to paid social media efforts as well as organic efforts in order to determine a variety of success factors for your content. To put it simply, A/B testing considers only one variable in order to determine which is most successful based on the overarching goal.

For example, determining if video content on Facebook or a direct link drives more traffic to a story on your website. All elements of the post would be identical — the copy, the audience, and the headline — aside from the image or video.

The UTM codes for each post could look like:

  • ourschool.edu/great-story/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=great-story&utm_content=link
  • ourschool.edu/great-story/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=great-story&utm_content=video

The source, medium, and campaign parameters will remain the same, because both of these organic posts are on Facebook and part of the same campaign. The content parameter is added in order to differentiate between the post that contains a link preview and the post that contains a video.

While Facebook will provide this data, UTM codes allow for a deeper analysis. Facebook will provide important information such as impression and reach for each version of the content, as well as click-through rates, which could determine an immediate winner of the A/B test. With UTM codes, you are now able to access user behavior once they arrive at the site from each type of content. Consider habits such as time on page or bounce rate. Does one type of content bring more engaged users to the site than the other? Using UTM codes in this instance will provide a more detailed understanding of your audience’s behavior with Facebook content and the website.

Best Practice for UTM Implementation

The first and most important tip for using UTM codes is consistency. While Google Analytics is pretty darn smart, it is sadly not smart enough to understand “Facebook,” “facebook,” and “facebok” are all the same platform, due to capitalization changes or spelling errors. It also considers “2018-campaign” and “2018 campaign” as different names thanks to using a dash or a space. Therefore, if multiple members of your team are developing UTM codes for landing pages it is incredibly important to decide naming conventions before diving in. It is always advised to use lowercase (even in your campaign names that include proper nouns), as well as a dash in place of a space when developing variables for each parameter.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to use UTM codes as long as they make sense to you and your team, and they’re providing helpful insight. Because UTM codes are used most often for social media and digital efforts, common variables are:

Sour/Medium chart

As we saw in a previous example, once you have all the variables added to your URL it looks pretty awful. No way are you going to print Learn more at www.ourschool.edu/learnmore/?utm_source=mail&utm_medium=postcard on your postcard that you’re going to mail out to high schoolers. For print campaigns, or in other instances when you want to track specific efforts with a memorable URL for your audience, use a link shortener on the URL with UTM codes (bit.ly and goo.gl are popular). This way, the URL for the user will still be memorable, but will also track how effective the postcard was for website traffic, or even form completions — if that happens to be on your landing page.

Building Your UTM Codes

The simplest and most straightforward way to develop UTM codes is with Google’s UTM Builder. After entering variables in each field, the link is auto-generated.

Screenshot of Google Analytics Campaign URL Builder

While not required, it is also advised to develop a system for storing and managing your URLs after UTM codes have been added to them. Especially when working on a team, this helps with consistency in variables (especially campaign names) and ensuring that UTM codes are only created once per effort. Most often, a shared Google sheet will do the trick.

You can create your own means of logging your UTM codes in a central place for your team, or use a template to build your codes straight in the sheet. It requires a little knowledge of formulas in order to make it work, but you can also borrow this template instead of re-inventing the wheel. All you’ll have to do is enter the variables into each cell, and the URL will generate based on what is inserted. This also provides a means of cataloging UTM codes that are already built, in order to keep tags consistent and readily available in case they’re needed in the future.

Example of UTM URL tracking spreadsheet

Reading a Google Analytics Report

Everything you need to know will be found in the Acquisition section of Google Analytics, under Campaigns. By selecting secondary dimension and selecting source/medium, the campaigns will be sorted by most number of users from a particular source and medium within a campaign.

Because you’ve been using consistent naming conventions (right?), you can also choose a primary means of sorting the data, such as choosing source as the primary dimension and medium as the secondary, which will help reveal which effort is most effective in a specific way, such as paid Facebook campaigns compared to organic Instagram posts. You may find some interesting variables in source or medium, including:

  • direct/(none) – the user typed the URL manually or saved it via a bookmark
  • organic – the site was found using a search engine
  • referral – the user made it to your website thanks to another site (it “referred” your site)

If you are interested in learning more about the traffic from a specific campaign, find and click the name of the campaign when the primary domain is campaign and no secondary dimension is selected. It will open to reveal the source and medium traffic information within that particular campaign.

Behaviors and other measured variables in Google Analytics

Users and new users measure the number of people who visited your site thanks to that particular campaign. Much like it sounds, new users counts the number of visitors who are arriving on your site for the first time within the date range you selected.

Sessions count the number of interactions with the website thanks to that campaign within the selected date range. Often, this number is higher than the number of users for each campaign, because a person who visited the site three times from the campaign would be counted as three sessions and one user.

Bounce rate is the percentage of users who enter the website and immediately exit without visiting other pages (they “bounce” away from the website). A higher bounce rate means that a higher number of users came to the site and left immediately. Depending on your goals, this isn’t always a bad thing, but in the common example of inviting users to learn more or read a story with the intention of them investigating your website further, a good benchmark is below 50%.

Depending on your goals, you may want to consider other measured variables that Google Analytics delivers in its reports. Google Analytics offers several courses in their Analytics Academy that are completely free, and you will be able to access their demo Analytics account to play around with data without the fear of breaking anything!

In Conclusion

  • Tag, tag, tag. UTM codes are only truly effective if each of your efforts are being tagged with them, and therefore measured. Unfortunately, data is only available in Google Analytics for your own website, which means that using UTM codes on a third party blog post will provide insight to only them, and you will need to rely on other means (such as native Twitter data) to understand behavior such as click-through rates.
  • Be consistent. Because Google looks to match variables letter-for-letter and case-for-case, be sure to develop a detailed naming convention for all fields with your team, and lean on a shared Google document for tracking the UTM codes that are already created.
  • Think about how UTM codes can help. Marketers are always looking to understand the effectiveness of different campaigns and organic efforts on their overall goal. Consider creative ways to leverage the variables, especially the content field, to answer the questions you never had the chance to before.
Jackie Vetrano

Jackie Vetrano

Online Marketing and Social Media Manager

Jackie Vetrano is the online marketing and social media manager at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this role, she assists the social media and web content teams by analyzing data to make strategic decisions online. Vetrano is the co-host of Higher Ed Social, a weekly podcast breaking the silos in higher education through unique conversation. The podcast is also part of the ConnectEDU Podcast Network, a network of podcasts for higher education, which she founded. Vetrano spends her free time running, trying new foods, and posting photos of her cat on Instagram

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