How UTM PARAMETERS are the Future of Analytics in a Cookieless World
This is a transcript of episode 98 of the Let’s Get Data-Driven podcast.
I’m Lanie Lamarre and in this era of the cookie-pocalypse where your ability to use third-party cookies to track your visitors’ activities is about to go obsolete, I get a lot of questions about how tracking will work moving forward. For instance, people are rightfully concerned about how affiliate links will work or how they can see which campaigns brought the most traffic. That’s why in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how the extinction of third-party cookies will impact your marketing and the best way for you to continue tracking the ROI on your efforts.
WHAT IS THE COOKIE-POCALYPSE?
Several years ago, we started seeing changes to the way online behaviors were being tracked, and these changes have been gaining all kinds of momentum.
In 2017, Apple introduced Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) in its Safari browser, which limited the ability of third-party cookies to track people across different websites. In 2019, Mozilla announced that it would block third-party cookies by default in its Firefox browser, while Google announced plans to phase out support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2022.
In early 2021, Google announced that it would delay its plans to phase out third-party cookies until 2023, in order to give businesses more time to adapt to the changes. At the same time, Google has been testing its new Privacy Sandbox technology, which is designed to provide advertisers with alternative ways to target people without relying on third-party cookies.
This time period in internet history is often referred to as the “cookie-pocalypse” and we are moving towards an online world without third-party cookies as web browsers and advertising platforms adapt to new privacy regulations and to people’s expectations around data privacy.
So what makes cookies so problematic?
Let’s start at the beginning, when Lou Montulli, a Netscape Communications employee, is said to have coined the term with his favorite childhood snack in mind. Legend has it that he was inspired by the practice of dipping cookies in milk, which he felt was a metaphor for the way that cookies allow websites to “dip into” a user’s data and remember their preferences and activity.
Which is a fun way of visualizing what cookies actually do: cookies are small data files that are stored on a visitor’s computer by websites to track their online activity. While these have been in use since the 90s, only now are they being increasingly scrutinized for the concerns around data privacy, tracking and consent.
Hence, the “cookie-pocalypse” and the privacy issues present with the use of third-party cookies, which are cookies that are set by domains other than the one that the person is visiting. These cookies are often used by advertisers to track people across multiple websites and build detailed profiles of their behavior and interests, which can be used to deliver targeted advertising.
As such, major web browsers like Chrome, Safari and Mozilla have implemented significant changes to the way they handle cookies, and this is having an impact on the way you can and do track your website visitors and advertising campaigns.
But cookies aren’t the only method you can use to track your marketing; you also have the option to use UTM parameters.
WHAT ARE UTM PARAMETERS?
UTM parameters are these little tags you can add to the end of the links you’re sharing to promote your offers. In turn, these allow you to track the effectiveness of your online marketing campaigns and they help you better understand the ROI of your online advertising efforts. You can look at your analytics and see the traffic you attracted for which offers, from which mediums, via which traffic sources, even through which specific pieces of content to better assess and understand how your promotions are performing and make more data-driven decisions.
If you’re interested in better understanding how UTMs work, I encourage you to use the link in the shownotes to sign up for some free trainings I have to offer on using UTM parameters and if you want to cheat off my test paper with copy and paste formulas, I encourage you to join the Membership To Get Data-Driven where I have these all mapped out – literally, with workflows and everything! – for you to swipe.
TRACKING WITH UTM vs COOKIES
Unlike cookies, tracking with UTM parameters doesn’t happen automatically; you have to be intentional about adding these bits of codes to the links you’re sharing in order to benefit from their tracking abilities whereas cookies are just pervasively embedded into browsers.
Whereas UTM parameters are transparent to visitors because they’re seen as part of the URL your visitors click on, cookies are more invasive in the sense that you don’t know what’s being collected. Part of the problem with cookies is they often collect Personally Identifiable Information – or what the cool kids call PII – because they’re designed to remember things like preferences and login information and ad targeting as they track and collect information about behaviors across multiple sites.
Meanwhile, UTM parameters don’t collect any PII; they’re designed to provide you with insight as to what campaign, for what offer, through what channel someone clicked on to end up on your site, visiting whichever page. UTMs simply track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, and visitors can choose whether or not to click on a UTM-tagged URL. In contrast, third-party cookies can be used to track user behavior across multiple websites and collect sensitive data without the person’s knowledge or consent, and that’s where the problem lies and why they’re going the way of the dodo bird.
UTMs IN THE COOKIE-POCALYPSE
This means that if you’re going to track your marketing campaigns, you’re going to have to be intentional about doing so by using UTM parameters. Since these will continue to work as cookies become obsolete, this would be a good time for you to follow up on HOW the tracking takes places for the campaigns that automatically track for you and you may have taken for granted.
For instance, the affiliate links you use to promote other people’s products for which you receive a commission probably use a combination of UTM parameters AND cookies. Paste your link into the address bar and look for a question mark symbol in your link. You may have to hit ENTER as some of these function with redirects that populate the UTM afterwards, but what you see after that question mark will identify you as an affiliate and anyone using that link to purchase the product will credit you for the purchase.
Any instance where you’re using tracking that happens automatically – meaning, you haven’t put in place any intentional tracking but you’re getting insights and analytics reports for – will be an area you want to better understand HOW that tracking is taking place, and what you can do to continue receiving that type of information as automated tracking comes to an end.
Whining about the changes and how hard everything is getting in online marketing isn’t going to improve anything; being intentional with how you approach your marketing efforts will. If you’re looking for resources to help you with any of this, I have those linked in the shownotes.
As online marketers, I believe we’ve become desensitized to how creepy and pervasive a lot of our practices are. Some of the tracking we’ve become not only accustomed to but feel entitled to are things so creepy that we would never, ever dream of doing this in the real world. At the same time, it’s like we all agree that best sales referrals always seem to come from humans and relationships and collaborations. If we take a step back and see the big picture of how valuable connection and engagement is in the context of online marketing, maybe we don’t have to act so bruised about the fact that people have to consent to sharing their personal information with us; maybe we can take this opportunity to get intentional by getting back to prioritizing the relationship that goes along with collecting that type of information.
Talk soon, baiiieee!!!