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Few innovations have made marketers’ lives easier than UTM codes.

First created by Urchin Software in 2002, the UTM, which stands for “urchin traffic monitor,” was designed to give marketers insight into the return on investment (ROI) of individual marketing campaigns.

Read on to learn how they work, how you can use them, and what the future holds for this humble and resilient bit of code.

The anatomy of a UTM code

To better understand how UTMs work, it helps to see one in action. Let’s take the UTM code for this article. If you found it on LinkedIn, it will look like this:

https://blog.adroll.com/trends/utm-codes-uncharted-territory-for-marketing?utm_source=linkedin_organic&utm_medium=social_organic&utm_campaign=thought_leadership

This URL’s UTM is in bold. At first glance, it may look like a long string of unrelated marketing terms and random characters, but it actually has three main components:

  1. Source: The source field tells your analytics where your marketing message was sent from, whether it was an organic social post on Linkedin, or a display ad sent by AdRoll. Here, it’s utm_source=linkedin_organic.
  2. Medium: This is the broader marketing method you used to send your message, like social media, display advertising, or search advertising. Here, it’s utm_medium=social_organic.
  3. Campaign: The UTM’s campaign component allows you to attribute the marketing message to a larger campaign. Here, it’s utm_campaign=thought_leadership, as this blog is a part of our thought leadership campaign.

How UTM codes became ubiquitous

Because UTM codes were such a dramatic improvement in measuring marketing success, they quickly became widely adopted. Their popularity rose even further after Urchin was acquired by Google, resulting in Google Analytics, and further still after the release of Google AdWords.

More than 10 years later, UTM codes still solve the vast majority of attribution problems, for three simple reasons:

  • Structured: allows easy data analysis
  • Widely adopted: they depend on URLs; the backbone of the internet
  • Easy to use: writing UTMs only requires changing a few text fields

How to build UTM codes

Think about how you want to structure your traffic and analytics, and incorporate that into your UTM. The components you choose will vary depending upon your needs, but campaign medium and campaign name are typically the most vital elements.

And while UTM codes are simple to write, you may prefer a more automated method of generating them. In those instances, I recommend using a simple UTM generator.

Common UTM code misconceptions

Despite the widespread adoption of UTM codes, many marketers misunderstand UTM code best practices. Here are the three most common mistakes:

1. UTM codes only work when they’re set up from the outset.

If you launch a campaign without UTM codes, you can’t add them after the fact. That data is forever lost. As many marketers can attest, nothing is more frustrating than a missing—or even worse, an incorrect—UTM code.

Solution: Don’t forget to add correct UTM codes. Just don’t.

2. UTM codes don’t work if your customers don’t click.

If a customer sees your ad and visits your site without clicking that ad, the UTM code will lose track of them.

Due to the elaborate technology involved in advertising, there isn’t yet an easy workaround. It’s high time Google brought impression beacons to the masses via Google Analytics.

Solution: You have to bridge your click attribution data from Google Analytics with your view attribution data from your advertising provider.

3. UTM codes don’t go away when you share a URL.

If you click a link from Twitter that contains a UTM, and you share it, your analytics will attribute the resulting traffic to the wrong source.

Take this URL on Rihanna’s fandom of Lebron James that just graced my Twitter news feed:

http://www.complex.com/sports/2016/06/rihanna-lebron-james-thirst-history?utm_campaign=complexmag&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social

Currently, the UTM code shows traffic from Twitter. Of course, you can reconcile some of these errors via Google Analytics referrers, but it’s easy to forget.

Solution:

Find or write a third-party plugin to remove UTM codes on page load. AdRoll hopes to release an open-source solution soon.

The future of UTM codes: hacking for fun and profit

While the UTM code was invented more than 13 years ago, marketers are just beginning to scratch the surface of its creative possibilities.

Google was among the first to make creative use of the UTM, with the Google AdWords gclid. This automatically-included code helped AdWords users track the conversions and purchases they derived from search advertising campaigns.

More recently, Product Hunt, which has quickly become a thriving discussion forum for the newest and coolest tech products, has used UTM codes to boost its profile and help its posters attribute adoption of their products.

Now, when you click “Get It” on a product, Product Hunt will automatically add this UTM code to the product landing page:

http://leadin.hubspot.com/lead-flows?ref=producthunt

This is genius: ensuring the developer will know precisely how many found their work from Product Hunt. That means marketers can clearly see the benefit of their forum activity, even if they weren’t involved in posting. Every product that drives traffic on the internet should incorporate such an elegant growth hack.