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Email tracking, redirects, utm's, web identification... and sometimes problems

I don't seem to have come across an article dealing with this topic before, I'm jumping into the breach, it's good for our long tail and for web knowledge. Plus, this way I get to practice my Bible writing 😀

Originally, there was no tracking in emails, they were walking around naked like worms on the surface of the earth. Then came the redirection, the links in your newsletters became impure, their soul compromised but hey, it's pretty comfortable to know who clicks on what in our emails!

A bit of info/history before attacking the concerns that tracking can involve.

Level 1 : Rewriting links in emails

So, to sum up, ALL modern email campaign management allow you to find out who clicked on what. Simply, at the moment of sending, the router will automatically replace all the links present in your e-mails with an alternative link. When your recipients click on a link, they will first go to the tracking link, which will count the click and then redirect to the final destination.

This technique, which is nowadays totally generalized, allows most of the time to know :

  • Who clicked?
  • On which link?
  • In which area of the email? (if you put the same email several times)
  • And possibly other info, like a link category

Level 2 : Send info to webanalytics

(Editor's note: "level" should not be taken literally)

Knowing who clicks on your emails is cool, but knowing the importance of the email channel in your sales, conversions and website traffic is even better. So we added a "tag"! The idea is to carry information about the type of traffic, from the email to the website.

When we say that, there is a 50/50 chance that you will think of Google Analytics, and you are right! Even if we should not forget the other webanalytics solutions that exist on the market, but let's give an example with Google Analytics since they are the market leader (and not only a little).

So, you send purchase confirmation emails, and smart as you are, you want to track the traffic that goes from these emails to your website (and there, you will discover that some people buy following a click... on a purchase confirmation). In the world of Google Analytics, we use UTMs (for the record, UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module, Urchin being the company bought by Google in 2005 to create Google Analytics):

  • utm_medium = email
  • utm_source = transaction
  • utm_campaign = confirmation-purchase

We could even make a second example, which we will deliberately make more complex, but it is not obligatory to go that far! Let's say you send out your newsletter, you've done an AB test and you're crazy enough to want to know which link generated which reaction (you don't have to, but if you really want to, it can be automated):

  • utm_medium = email
  • utm_source = newsletter
  • utm_campaign = 20170930_news_edito
  • utm_content = version_A
  • utm_term = header_image

Summary on the use of utm's and Google Analytics in your emails ?

There are 3 utm's that are essential and that you should never omit in your email campaigns:

  • utm_medium : this is the simplest, since when the medium is email, it will always be indicated email here. It will allow you to have a global idea of the share of email in the traffic of your website. You will be able to compare email traffic with display, SEA, social networks, ... and everything else
  • utm_source : in the source, we will have a level of categorization of your different types of emails at a very macro level. Traditionally, we will have newsletter, transaction, notification, trigger, promo, loyalty, ... be careful not to enter this dimension directly in utm_medium, in which case you may not be able to clearly visualize all the email sources. Coming back to utm_source, you should not have anything that is not "stable" in time. If you want to put a date in a source... it's not a source.
  • utm_campaign: this is simply the name of your campaign. Ideally, if you have a good naming system, you should simply use the name of your campaign as defined in your email campaign management solution.

We can then make use of other utm's which will be used in a liberal way... as they are not necessarily intended for the uses we will make of them:

  • utm_content : often used for AB tests (different versions of a banner, ...) we will often use it for our emails. This allows us to have an idea of the result of our AB tests as close as possible to the conversion and the turnover generated if there is no link between the email routing solution and the website.
  • utm_term: initially, utm_term is intended to track keywords. In email, it is used for a myriad of different purposes, but the one that may seem most logical is the positioning of the link within the email (header, main cta, reassurance, ...) or its category when using taxonomy (sport, culture, dresses, ...).

Point on automation what is a little less pleasant when you have to integrate tracking in links to web analytics in emails, ... is to integrate them. It is a tedious job that it is fortunately possible to automate. Here, we are faced with two cases, either your email routing software supports automation of utm's, or you will have to find your own way of automation.

The main idea of tracking automation should be that within an email, utm_medium, utm_source, utm_campaign and utm_content are the same everywhere, and can therefore be replaced by a variable that will act on all emails at once. So they only have to be entered once. On the other hand, if you want to use utm_term, depending on your router, it might be a bit more difficult.

Level 3: Transport of the recipient's ID to the website

And there, red with anger, they grabbed each other! If the first two steps are logically well mastered since a few years (well, not always for web analytics), we are here facing a project that can take a long time. Technically, passing a (more or less hashed/encrypted) email recipient ID in a link is not very complicated. Technically, retrieving this ID from the website, and matching it with the visitors' browsing (cookies + server logs) is not very complicated either. However, using this information in an intelligent way... that's another matter. Often, this integration goes through a DMP project... which can take a very long time to see the light of day.

As I usually say during the eCRM training sessions I give, the important thing is not the technology, but the use you intend to make of it. We must therefore separate two complementary uses, but different in their implementation:

1. Use of CRM/Email data by the website

  • Pre-filling of forms on the website
  • Personalization of certain promotions according to different loyalty and attrition scores
  • Personalize content based on preferences and purchase history
  • ...

2. Use of navigation data in eCRM scripting

  • Enrichment of product preference scores
  • Influence on reactivation scenarios
  • Implementation of abandoned cart strategies
  • Sales, conversions and revenue feedback in eCRM reports
  • Predictive analysis of intentions and projects to trigger specific scenarios
  • ...

There are several ways to achieve this. The simplest is often to choose a campaign management solution that allows you to simply tag your website, but that also allows you to control the forms and certain content blocks that you will put on it. This way, the integration is greatly simplified.

The other option, of course, is to use a DMP to centralize and aggregate CRM data, navigation data, etc. and any other data that seems relevant. Finally, you could also integrate your CMS, your eCRM campaign management solution, your web analytics, ... and many other things. The most relevant path often depends on the legacy you have in your data system.

Risks and perils of tracking

Originally, I started writing this article only for this part, but I got a little carried away, and it went much further! Without minimizing the huge advantages of the 3 levels of tracking that can be set up in a emailing strategyHowever, there are some risks that we should be aware of and not be surprised by.

You may have more in mind, but I'll focus on two risks (plus a bonus, I love bonuses).

Overly massive identification

In what we have seen in "Level 3", beyond the enormous possibilities that it provides, one can be exposed to some problems.

Anyone who forwards his or her email to a friend may see his or her profile (on a pre-filled form, for example) exposed to a third party. The same is true for example when practicing auto-login, the transfer of the email can allow the person who receives it to enter the account of another.

Unfortunately, we see too many "overwritten" profiles. For example, you receive an invitation to an event, you register, you forward this email to a colleague, who does not add a registration, but overwrites yours because he stayed on your identification.

Here we have talked about email transfer, but in some configurations, the same applies to the sharing of the link of the landing page. If an ID remains in the URLs (a case to be avoided absolutely), it will inevitably be shared, and we will have the same problems as those explained above.

Mass redirections

If we go back to "Level 1", with the redirections to count clicks, we quickly realize that some brands do not hesitate to set up several successive redirections in order to inform several tracking platforms and possibly advertising solutions that need to count clicks or intro cookies.

Unfortunately, with each additional redirection comes an additional risk. The risk that the redirection crashes, and that your customer/prospect/lead never arrives at his destination. But there is also a risk from a point of view of deliverabilityEach redirection will use a different domain, and it would be a disaster in terms of deliverability.

We must therefore remain very vigilant.


This is our bonus, an indispensable bonus. If from a marketing point of view the three levels of tracking are necessarily positive, it is important on the one hand to ask yourself legal questions (mainly about the email opt-in and about the respect of the legislation concerning cookies). On the other hand, don't hesitate to put yourself in the consumer's shoes, even if level 1 and 2 are not very visible for him, everything that happens in level 3 is quite easy to spot. Not that you should hide these practices or consider them shameful, but you should ask yourself the question "Am I not becoming invasive for my client/prospect/lead? Won't he find it strange that I know so much about him?

Have fun 😉

The author

4 réponses

  1. Hey, great article! (as always!)
    I noticed a slight typo on the first part:
    Level 1, 3rd point:
    "In which area of the email? (if you put the same email multiple times)"
    => .... "if you put the same link several times
    No ?

    Good day to the BadSender team, thank you for your quality contents, always pleasant to read!

  2. Good article. Thank you.
    Attention, your button at the end of the article is not visible (inactive shortcode probably).

  3. Hello,
    I have been desperate for years to track mailto and telto in my emailings.
    Do you have any solutions?

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