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Common Challenges with Email Links and Tracking Parameters

Why is link tracking important, and what are some common mistakes to avoid?
links and tracking parameters in email

Before we get into tracking challenges, you might be wondering: Why do we even append tracking parameters to links in email at all? Doesn’t the ESP/MAP already tell us how many people clicked each link?

Yes, the ESP does tell you how many people click each link. It takes the link you have in your html, and then wraps/re-codes each link, so that when a recipient clicks, they are first taken to the ESP’s server (which records that person X clicked Y link) and then they are immediately redirected to the actual destination URL of the link. The redirect happens so quickly, users will likely never notice.

Why are tracking parameters important?

The reason tracking parameters are added to links within emails is that after that quick redirect through the ESP when a click happens, the recipient is taken to the link’s intended destination. In many cases, this is a page on your organization’s website. You probably use website analytics software like Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics on your website to track web traffic. The data analytics or marketing team will then want to know where web traffic came from, which is where tracking parameters come in. The tracking parameters added to a link tell the analytics software on your website where visitors are coming from, be it a social post or email link or other communication channel.

Unlike traffic that clicked from another website, traffic from email will almost always show as ‘unknown’ or ‘no referrer’ in the website analytics, which means your analytics team will be in the dark…unless you add tracking parameters. So really, you’re adding the parameters in order to make your site analytics more accurate, and so you as a marketer can see how that email-sourced traffic performed once it hit the destination.

That’s all well and good, but only if link tracking doesn’t cause more work and pain for your team. To some people, where the ? and & go in a link is a dark art. And that brings us to some of the most common link tracking challenges that stand in many marketers’ way.

Building your string of parameters

In most cases, a link won’t just contain one tracking parameter, but a string of tracking parameters. That results in a link that looks something like this:

Notice how the link mentions “utm” three times, with each parameter and it’s value (the “maturity_model”, “newsletter”, and “email”) following each time. To build that string, many companies often have a spreadsheet with a home-built ‘builder’ that takes a handful of discrete inputs, and concatenates them together into the string of parameters (putting the ? and & in the right place). Often, someone will accidentally change the formulas in the spreadsheet, or input an invalid character, breaking the formulas and resulting links for everyone. Not fun! This is amazingly easy to overlook until it’s too late and the email is deployed, entirely screwing up the site analytics and the resulting downstream data from that email traffic. This gets even worse and has a much higher chance of error if people are manually adding these tracking parameters by hand into an email.

Using slightly different links within one campaign

Another challenge is that people will want to tag different links within an email with slightly different parameters, essentially keeping the same overall campaign parameters, but adding element, or link level parameters. This is often done to separate out tracking for links with the same destination URL, such as wanting to see which CTA button someone clicked on…the one at the top or the one at the bottom of the email, even though they’re pointing to the same landing page. Or perhaps you want to tag the headline, image and CTA differently even though they all point to the same place. This element-level tracking is either done manually (yuck!) in the code, or by using a platform like stensul that allows marketers to do this more easily, without any chance for error. If you automatically append the tracking parameter string at the ESP/MAP level, link-level tracking within an email isn’t possible, since the ESP is just going to append the same string to every link in the email.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Another challenge around link tracking for emails is consistency across teams. Because the parameters are often case sensitive, even small differences between “Email” and “email” as used by two separate marketers or marketing teams building emails can cause data issues downstream. Some companies try to solve this by making a ‘universal tracking parameter generator spreadsheet’ or something similar, but then you land right back in the first challenge we mentioned around spreadsheet issues.

The only way to really solve this consistency issue is to use a platform that can enforce governance rules about what parameters can be added (such as choosing from a dropdown, not entering freeform text) and having those tracking parameter rules defined upfront by an admin. Stensul enables exactly this. But while stensul helps with email creation, this challenge does still exist when an org does multi-channel marketing, and different teams control different channels, with each channel needing its own tracking links.

Using multiple analytics platforms

Lastly, while it is always easier if an entire organization uses one analytics platform across an organization, there are plenty of cases in which a company uses both Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics, or others, across different business units or even within the same web property. If this is the case, there are different solution paths, so you’ll want to connect with the experts at your email creation platform on how to best set up your modules, module libraries and tracking parameters to ensure clean data gets to the right place downstream. It will take a little more setup and organization upfront, but is definitely solvable.

Taking the potential for these headaches out of email link tracking will make everyone’s job easier, ensures your downstream data and analytics are clean and helpful, and sets you up for success as you grow.

Want to learn more about how to avoid these challenges when setting up tracking parameters for your email campaigns? Sign up for a demo so one of our email experts can walk you through the process and answer any other questions you might have.

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