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Channel grouping in Google Analytics should be a marketer’s best friend but in most cases it’s very much an underutilised feature, with it not being configured or being badly configured.

There is a clear disconnect between analytics teams and marketing teams in how to report on channel performance, not only technically but both teams end up reporting against different objectives. Channel grouping is one way to unite both teams in talking the same language and driving against the same business objectives. A common question may be “which channels drove the most orders last month” the question won’t be “what source/medium drove the most orders last month”

The challenge with reporting on source / medium it becomes too complex for many to understand, and it’s often disjointed from the overall strategy. The one way to get around the complexity is by creating your own defined channel grouping so that it aligns to the channel mix and marketing strategy.

To take advantage of channel grouping you need to have a consistent UTM tagging approach, past audits I have done 20% of brands had a good UTM tagging approach, which is higher than I would have expected but those 20% were not using the channel grouping feature.

The goal

During redundancy worked with an e-commerce business Summer 2020 the brand was scaling but had no real insights to help understand the channel mix performance. Q1 2021 the plan was to run ATL channels and H2 to start looking at MMM. My recommendation was to rebuild how channels are currently reported which don’t align to the marketing plans which will provide indicators on the impact of ‘Brand’ activity on driving traffic and sales.

Understanding the default channel grouping set-up

How Google Analytics groups all traffic coming to the website it’s very simplistic and very broad which does not provide much insight. Google is working on the assumption that every brand has the same strategy in how they report on channels.

This is where there is a disconnect as analytics team are probably happy to use source/medium but for the marketer it becomes pointless as they can’t draw any insight from it.

Setting up channel grouping to align to the marketing strategy

How channel groupings are defined is very much open for debate, if you are using default then its wrong.

Below is a summary of the steps involved to get to better channel reporting.

In August 2020 the state of the UTM tagging and channel reporting was horrific which did make the process easier. The aim was to go in to 2021 with a solid base of channel reporting in Google Analytics.

For the e-commerce brand their focus when understanding channel performance was brand v non brand / (product), that was how the marketing plans were split. Which made the process much easier in approaching how to set-up UTM tagging and channel grouping.

  • August 2020: Both analytics and marketing teams understood the channel mix and how channels are currently reporting within Google Analytics and how they would like to report on channels within Google Analytics:
    • Worked out how to best implement UTM tagging on paid and owned channels
    • This took over a course of a month to align to an agreed approach
  • September 2020: Rolled out the changes for paid and owned channels. Over a 3 month period there were small changes made to the UTM tagging which only came from understanding the data in the reports.
  • October 2020: Started building out the channel grouping so the different teams can better understand the data and reports. Over the next few months there were small changes made in the definition and creation of the channel grouping.
  • December 2020: Early December, 3+ months later found the winning formula for UTM tagging and channel grouping.
  • January 2021: The first month no changes were made to UTM tagging and channel grouping there would be a solid base of channel reporting going into 2021.

This is a snapshot view of how the final UTM tagging was implemented. It allowed the campaign data to be cut and sliced in many ways that was not possible before.

UTM Description Example
utm_source Source of the traffic Facebook, Guardian, Google
utm_medium Channel Brand Paid Social, Non Brand Organic Social
utm_campaign Campaign name Valentines 2021, Christmas 2021, Valentines 2022
utm_content Campaign categorisation Brand, Non Brand, New Customers, Returning Customers
utm_term Product categorisation Table Lamp, Coffee Machines, Multi-Products

*This was implemented for all paid and owned channels including Paid Search which did not link Adwords to Analytics via auto tagging.

The channel groupings created was set-up under default channel grouping. In total there were 13 different channels. Some of the main caveats to understand the channel grouping:

  • Organic Search and Direct: For any traffic that landed on the homepage from Organic Search or Direct would be grouped as Brand. Any traffic outside the homepage would be grouped as Non Brand. This would align to Paid channels as well and provide consistency when reporting. Saying if any Organic or Direct traffic land on the homepage is ‘brand’ is not perfect but then it’s better than not categorising which account for 45% of traffic.

This is how Brand Organic channel (same approach for Brand Direct) would be set-up.

This is how Non Brand Organic channel (same approach for Non Brand Direct) would be set-up

  • Email: Channel split was New Customers, Returning Customers, Lapsed Customers, Brand and Non Brand. When building out the UTM tagging the categorising was split under utm_content
  • Paid Social: It was the largest paid media channel aligning to the overall channel mix the split was Brand and Non Brand. The categorising was split under utm_content.
  • Paid Search: Mainly Brand Paid Search running. UTM tags were used instead of linking Adwords to GA allowing more control in how channels are reported. The Brand categorising was split under utm_content.

This is how Brand Paid Social (same approach for Email, Paid Search, Organic Social) would be set-up

The final channel grouping. (does not include categorisation of all email campaigns)

The channel grouping aligns to the marketing plans to provide better insights. The campaign data can be cut and sliced in many ways to answer any question at any given time.

I would always recommend setting up the main channel grouping within Google Analytics. There are good options of creating channel groupings in Data Studio or Big Query. If the UTM tagging is in a good place that is 70% of the work, then the set-up thereafter is relatively straight forward if there is alignment from all parties.

Where Data Studio or Big Query may come into use is when creating a 2nd channel grouping like Brand v Non Brand which would provide additional valuable insights.

Channel Grouping Insights

This is one example early 2021 the marketing plans introduced channels such as Radio and TV, with the new channel grouping set-up it allows performance to be isolated and understand the impact on brand organic (landing on the homepage). For nearly 3 months there was a spike (30% increase for 3 months) where in the previous set-up this kind of insights would not have been possible.