Untangling the Gordian Knot of Campaign Tracking, Part 3

In this series, I’ve been taking a look at some of the issues and challenges in tracking online marketing campaigns’ effectiveness. More and more advertisers want to know which channels produce results so they can make smarter decisions about how they spend their money.

One challenge is they’re often using multiple systems to manage and track campaigns. Advertisers or their agencies will use ad servers, bid management tools, e-mail systems, and so on. In addition, they may track campaigns with Web analytics systems. Often, campaign management tool data is different from Web analytics system data, so one of them “must be wrong.” However, the different systems are generally measuring different things, so the numbers are likely to be different. It’s important to be clear about what’s being measured and how it’s being measured.

What’s Being Measured Where?

In general terms, campaign management systems such as ad servers and bid management systems measure “impressions” and “clicks,” that is, how many times the ad was served and how many times it was clicked on. Web analytics systems measure “visits,” the arrival of a visitor on a site. One of the biggest areas of discrepancy is between the number of clicks recorded and the number of visits observed from a particular campaign or channel. There might be a number of reasons for this.

First, clicks and visits are not the same thing. Someone clicking on an ad isn’t the same as someone being recorded as landing on a site. There are three main reasons for this:

  • The person doesn’t actually get to the Web site.

  • The person gets to the Web site but moves on before the visit is recorded.
  • The person gets to the Web site but isn’t recognized as coming from the campaign.

The first instance might be for a number of reasons, but it can occur if the site doesn’t load quickly enough. For example, users click the ad, wait, then go back to the search results page and click on another ad.

In the second instance, visitors might land on the landing page but move further into the site or off the site before the landing page visit is recorded. Most Web analytics systems used for campaign tracking use a page tag to capture the data. If the visitor lands on the landing page and then either clicks through to another page or exits the site before the tag loads, the visit won’t be recorded against that campaign. Often, the tag is placed toward the bottom of the page. If the page loads slowly or the visitor doesn’t wait for the page to load completely, it’s possible the tag won’t load.

In the third instance, the visitor gets to the Web site, the visit is recorded, but it’s not attributed to the particular campaign. One of the most common methods of tracking campaigns using a Web analytics system is attaching a campaign tracking parameter to the landing page URL. It might look something like this: “www.mysite.com/landingpage.html?source=google.” Here, “source=google” identifies that visitor as originating from a Google AdWords campaign. All the main Web analytics systems can be configured to recognize and report on campaigns in this way. The configuration varies from system to system, but the principle is the same. And if the tracking parameter is missing, the visit won’t be recognized as coming from a particular campaign.

Creating the campaign tracking parameters and attaching them to the landing page URLs is often a manual or semi-automated process, so there’s always the potential for error. Advertisers must develop and implement appropriate business processes to ensure the right campaign-tracking parameters are attached to the landing page URLs for all their ads. This can be quite a challenge, particularly if you have a number of different agencies managing different aspects of your campaigns. But with campaign tracking, it really is a case of garbage in, garbage out. If the campaign tracking parameters aren’t correct, you won’t get good data in your reports.

Also look out for the impact of using redirects. Some campaign management systems might intercept and redirect visitors between the ad and the site. They do this to record the ad being clicked in their own systems. Advertises must be careful about whether the redirect has any effect on the campaign tracking parameter and whether the parameter remains attached during the redirect process. It’s another thing that needs testing and checking.

A big difference between campaign management systems and Web analytics systems is Web analytics systems only track click-throughs and subsequent behavior. Campaign management systems can also measure impression levels and, in the case of ad-serving technologies, track subsequent conversion events. It can be a major source of discrepancy between what a campaign management system reports and what a Web analytics system reports, particularly as the conversion might be attributed to one channel in one system and to another channel in another system. This whole area of attribution management is something I’ll look at next time.

Till then…

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