December 16, 2022

What The Heck is a UTM?

If you’ve ever heard the term UTM and immediately feel a fog descending on your brain, then you’re probably not alone. At every organization we’ve worked at, UTMs have been a source of frustration and inconsistency.

It’s easy to understand why – these unattractive strings of letters at the end of a URL are fiddly and brittle, and demand close attention to detail to get them operating optimally. 

But we still love them. 

“We” are Jayden, the Media Buyer, and others responsible for analytics and insights at WS, and we will keep going back for more UTM action no matter how badly they treat us. Let us tell you why.

What are UTMs?

Imagine you’re sorting laundry for a family of eight kids (true story ask us later). If they chuck all their clothes in together, you’ll have a tough time knowing what clothes belong to who.  But a tagging system will make things easy in the end, provided that it’s consistent and legible. This is the beauty of UTMs: knowing what traffic belongs to what source.

But seriously,- the acronym UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module, a legacy from a software company that Google acquired in 2005. A UTM is text that you can add to the end of a link that will tell your analytics tools (for us it’s Google Analytics) information about where your traffic is coming from. 

Campaign, source, and medium are the fields Google says you must have in your UTM, but there are also content and term fields Google Analytics can sort all your incoming traffic by these fields, so you can organize your data 

A typical WS campaign UTM looks something like this:

Campaign: A code we’ve assigned to the campaign and client – eg. Bond-007

Source: The platform the traffic is coming from, or a vendor name – eg. Facebook

Medium: How the content was delivered – eg. Display ad

Content: What was the ad content – this one is great when testing ad types eg. Bond PJs vs Bond Socks

Term: We usually don’t mess with this one, but Google Search automatically populates with the search term that triggered the view – eg. Buy Bond socks

We like to think of UTMs as a way to organize our traffic filing cabinet. They aren’t mandatory or magic, but they can be a game-changer when you’re measuring campaign performance, especially when working with heaps of ad types and vendors.

Why do they suck?

Our biggest complaint about UTMs is that one inconsistent term can collapse the whole tracking plan easily, and once a campaign is running, you can’t fix it without a lot of fiddling and data loss. 

UTMs leave a huge margin for human error, and usually, it’s no one’s fault – the fields are open to interpretation, and don’t require a set format. They’re also misunderstood little beasties, and this combination leads to inconsistencies that sometimes make measurement impossible. 

They also don’t play nicely with redirects, which are a necessary evil in some campaigns. If you have a vanity URL like, which redirects to, the redirect may strip the UTM text from the end of your URL, and then you’re back at the laundry basket with no idea where all the traffic came from. 

Why do we need them?

In the world of media, UTMs are often our best option for tracking traffic and understanding it at the end of the day. They’re not perfect, but wouldn’t you rather have a decent laundry tagging system than none at all? 

When they are set up and working properly, UTMs can feel magical. 

In a single campaign, a media plan can hold 4 different media publishers. Those four publishers will each use three separate tactics throughout the campaign and the clients will request that you use two separate landing pages. The first question you might ask is who is the mastermind behind this media plan? The second question you will get around to is how will you measure the data that will come from the campaign. This is where UTMs come to the rescue. 

UTMs do a great job of telling advertisers exactly how we are receiving this data. The four elements of a UTM (source, medium, content, campaign) bridge the gap between the Media Buyer who can add multiple tactics to a campaign and the performance team that needs to make sense of this data coming in. Labeled correctly we can pull transparent data and give the client a clear picture of how each media source had performed. 

A campaign without UTMs is hard to interpret in Google Analytics. Some platforms (i.e. Twitter), don’t speak well to Google. Traffic from the ads you worked so hard on may come through as referral, or unassigned traffic. You can’t be sure whether it’s from an ad or a true organic referral, so you can’t honestly include it in your campaign results. 

What do we love about them? 

It’s not all bad! As we mentioned above, when UTMs are done right, they are unbeatable. Consider UTMs in a print ad QR code for example. This is one of our only ways of measuring the success of print tactics. 

UTMs are Google tools, so they speak excellently to all the other Google children. Your Google Ads tactics will be auto-tagged with UTM fields that match your campaign structure, so you don’t have to worry about those guys.

Want us to worry about UTMs for you? Contact us today!