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Category: Digital Analytics

Why Your Email Campaign Tracking Might Be Wrong

We all strive for more granularity in our analytics data. For email campaign tagging, we want to know the campaign name, the time it was sent out, the list name, and much more. This is great if all links within the email are using the same UTM campaign parameters.

What if you decide to put the area of the email or the link name itself in the utm_content parameter so that there are a lot of different Google Analytics UTM campaign parameter values within a single email?

Houzz Email Newsletter Example
Houzz Email Newsletter Example

Do you think this could cause a problem with your analytics data? It sure does, especially in a long, high engaging email newsletter like Houzz’s Updates where the user is likely to click multiple links.

We’ll help you understand the implications and provide a custom email campaign tracking solution for this so that you don’t have to sacrifice important granular data. Plus, make it easier for you to take action on your email data!

The Setup: Houzz’s Impressive, but Long Emails

One of our team members is huge fan of Houzz.

The other day he received his weekly Houzz email with captivating headlines (like “A Country Home Built on Dreams and Determination”) and over 80 photos of Victorian, Rustic Sophistication, Midcentury Modern, and other picturesque home styles.

He ended up clicking on many of them, and being the analytics geek he is, he realized that this could cause a problem.

So he checked the campaign tracking implementation, identified the suspected issue, and asked me to share our enhanced email campaign tracking solution.

Let’s set the stage by walking you through the scenario in question:

  • Step 1: Say you are interested in the first headline within the email ‘Houzz Tour: Hugging the Rocky Cliffs in Big Sur »’ which sends you to
  • Step 2: You read the Big Sur article, and then go back to the email and click on the next interesting headline ‘Houzz Quiz: What’s Your Decorating Style? »’ which brings me to
  • Step 3: Finally, further down the email, you click the headline ‘Kitchen of the Week: Victorian Style the Nonconformist Way »’ (because who the heck wants to conform), which brings you to

Houzz is doing a lot of things right with their email campaign tagging:

  • They’ve correctly set the utm_medium to ’email.’ They can segment and analyze performance of the email marketing efforts, as well as compare to other marketing mediums.
  • They’ve set the utm_source to ‘Houzz.’ This is fine, but if I knew that they used multiple email providers and types, I might want to get more granular on this.
  • They’ve set the utm_campaign to ‘u472.’ Not very descriptive, but I’m sure Houzz knows what that means…right? Assuming it is the specific email newsletter ID so they know which newsletter drove the visit.

So What is Wrong with their Email Campaign Tagging?

The issue is with the utm_content parameter.

See how it differs on each of the three links that were clicked (gallery0, gallery1, and gallery3)? It seems to indicate the position within the email I am clicking on. This can give you some great data to understand the click thru and engagement rates of users based on the position in the email. Love it!

There’s a problem though…

In the above scenario, what do you think Google Analytics is going to show you? Think about it in the context of sessions. In Google Analytics, a new session is defined any time a new campaign or referral source is introduced. In Universal Analytics, pretty much anything different except for direct traffic constitutes a new session. In Google Analytics (classic and universal), it is going to show 3 visits. This presents a big problem when you think about it.

You’ll have 3 visits, 1 unique visitor, and likely at least 2 visits with a bounce.

  • This drives up your bounce rate,
  • lowers your pages/visit,
  • lowers other metrics like duration of visit,
  • and will lower your conversion rate (since you have more visits that don’t convert).

This adversely impacts the story that your data will tell!

You get granular data about which part of the email they clicked on, but at what cost?

This visitor session example is a common scenario for engaging emails with lots of linked content. To best understand the visitor’s experience (i.e. multiple clicks from an email newsletter within seconds or minutes of each other), it should not be broken up into 3 separate visits.

What is a Better Approach?

You’ve talked to your stakeholders and convinced the business that their utm_content usage is impacting the story that their data tells and that they should fix it.

Let’s say the business comes back and says that they absolutely want to know how content groups/areas within the email template are performing. This is a reasonable request, and we need to give them this info. So we need to find a creative solution.

Here’s what we propose. Let’s use a new querystring parameter. It doesn’t matter what we call it, but for simplicity, let’s say it is called ‘section.’

New URL is going to look something like:

You can see that utm_content has been re-purposed to capture the list-name instead of the section name.

Now that we have the section of the email in its own parameter, we need to capture it in Google Analytics. There’s not a defined place for this by default, so we will define a new custom dimension.

The next question in your head should be what is the scope of the dimension:

  • hit,
  • session,
  • or user level?

The correct answer is ‘hit’ because the other two custom dimensions cannot have more than one value during a session/visit (Google Analytics always uses the last set value). With a ‘hit’ level dimension, we get to see how many times a specific value is incremented. We also get to see the total number of clicks within a session and we get to produce a nice looking report that shows us exactly what we wanted originally. This approach makes it much easier to extract the insights that you were looking for and this is what people need. More

Email Section Performance in GA

Note: The above report is a fictitious representation of what the data might show. This is not Houzz’s actual data.

Custom Email Campaign Tracking Code

For those that need some technical help to accomplish this email campaign tagging solution, here’s the tracking code to grab the section querystring parameter if it exists and then set it in dimension 2:

The last and important step, should be to exclude the ‘section’ parameter in the Excluded Query Parameter setting in the profile view setup. This URL Query parameter exclusion will prevent jumbling up your reports with separate variations of this page.

Exclude Section Parameter in GA

Just because Google Analytics doesn’t have a built-in feature for tracking what you want, don’t settle for something less at the cost of the quality of your metrics. Instead, use GA’s vast capabilities in the form of custom metrics, custom dimensions, and more. Contact Blast if you need creative solutions to combat complex campaign tracking situations that lead to a lack of trust or inability to act on your data. I promise you; we’re pretty darn great at it.

Joe Christopher
About the Author

As Vice President, Analytics at Blast Analytics, Joe leads a team of talented, analytics consultants responsible for helping clients understand and take action on their vast amounts of data, to continuously improve and EVOLVE their organizations. With over 20 years of experience in analytics and digital marketing, Joe offers a high-level of knowledge and guidance to clients across all industries. He is an expert in all major analytics platforms including Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics, as well as various tag management systems such as Tealium and Adobe Launch. He also consults on data visualization, data governance, and data quality strategies. Having extensive expertise in many areas, has enabled Joe to become a well known thought leader and speak at industry events such as Tealium’s Digital Velocity series. Joe remains on the pulse of various information technology, programming languages, tools and services, keeping Blast and its clients on the leading edge.

Connect with Joe on LinkedIn. Joe Christopher has written on the Blast Digital Customer Experience and Analytics Blog.

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