Using UTM Parameters in PDFs to Better Track Conversions

The Problem with Tracking the Click-to-Sale Funnel

Marketing is rarely a linear process. The ideal scenario of a prospect clicking on an ad, loving the landing page, and taking immediate action is rare. With the power of a single click, users can explore multiple websites, weigh their options, and postpone meaningful actions. This becomes evident in complex B2B sales, where numerous teams and approvals are involved, and consumer markets where fragmented journeys and increased purchase risks are common.

Complex purchases, whether in B2B or consumer markets, often take a significant amount of time. The larger the cost of goods or services, the more people, approvals, and conversations are required before a sale is even on the table.

ex) In consumer markets, houses are rarely sold based on a single online visit, and individuals diligently research their options before taking action.

These extended decision-making processes make it challenging to track and understand valuable user paths, particularly when each unique browser or device appears as a separate user in analytics.

To address these challenges, it’s crucial to provide visitors with comprehensive information and make our brand the first they think of when they’re ready to act. Complex purchases can take weeks, months, or even years to materialize, involving evaluations, touchpoints, and interactions across various channels. However, identifying these valuable user paths becomes difficult without proper attribution. 

In the upcoming sections, we will explore the value of UTM tagging links in PDFs as a tool for advertisers. By leveraging this technique, marketers can gain insights into user behavior, untangle the complexities of the customer journey, and optimize their marketing strategies accordingly.

Tracking PDFs with UTM Tags

Enter the lowly PDF. PDFs have been used in marketing for ages, but without much recent innovation or fanfare. In 2023, PDFs are quite often an afterthought. But what’s interesting about a PDF is that it’s not a web visit. Well, not exactly.

Sure, PDFs can be hosted online or even indexed by major search engines and found in the SERPs, but we marketers don’t receive user analytics (at least via the popular out of the box version of Google Analytics) on PDF views, so this type of content’s impact on marketing is often dark. The things we don’t see don’t often play into our decision making when it comes to marketing strategy.

Enter UTM tags.

UTM Tags Explained: How do UTM tags work on PDFs?

Not only can a PDF link back to a website, but these links can also be tagged so we can better understand their efficacy in creating return traffic to our website. By applying UTM tags to the links in our PDF, we can better understand the role these visits play in our customer’s journey.

The role of tel tags:

Additionally, as mobile web usage increased, so did click to call events.

While we won’t be able track these events like we would be able to on a website, we can apply tel tags to phone numbers in our PDF hosted telephone numbers. What’s more, we can even deploy call tracking phone numbers to analyze phone calls from PDFs separately to understand their contribution toward our marketing goals. 

How to use UTM tags on PDFs:

While many modern marketing tools, such as email marketing platforms, automatically tag links for marketing attribution in popular analytics suites, I have yet to find a PDF resource that offers this – so we’re going manual here. 

Fortunately, Google makes it relatively easy to build UTM campaigns with their URL Builder.

Campaign URL builder platform. How to enter the website URL and campaign information to produce a UTM tag

UTM Fields: ‘medium’ and ‘campaign’

The main UTM fields that are likely to be important in differentiating your PDF visits are “source,” “medium” and, at least with advertising channels, “campaign.”

Additional fields can be used to further differentiate your initiatives based on the complexity of your marketing initiatives and PDF library (“utm_content” likely being the best bet). 

Whichever direction you go, keeping your naming conventions consistent and easy to understand across your team and across your reporting platforms is most important. Bonus points for thinking ahead about how this approach might scale up over time as you find success.

The clearly you can define a system to create utm codes, the easier it will be to scale.

Considerations Before Using UTM Tags in PDFS

Before you spend too much time rethinking everything with PDF tagging, it’s worth verifying that your prospects and web visitors are engaging with your marketing PDFs in the first place.

In the recent past, capturing such events required applying event tags to a web-hosted PDF download action, but fortunately GA4 automatically collects these events under Engagement > Events, which will appear as “file_download”.

This is directionally helpful, but some additional work is required to figure out which page this happened on, etc. (as is the way with many insights using GA4). Even then, if you have multiple downloadable assets hosted on the same page (think “our resources library”), you won’t be able to tell them apart with this view.

Screenshot of "event" in analytics showing the event name as "file download" and event count of 1,511.

How to Create a System to Use UTM Tags in PDFs

Once you’ve decided to tag your links, think about a system you can grow into as your initiatives grow. Perhaps to start, it’s as simple as source=PDF, medium=PDF.

Over time, as your resource library grows, you can differentiate PDFs by applying the content field or campaign field for campaign tracking.

For example:

utm_content=case_study” or going further “utm_content=case_study_web” vs. “utm_content=case_study_ads

**Note: Differentiating your main web vs. PPC/advertising downloads will only be useful if you can control how one receives the PDF – an open web page for “web” and a PPC-specific landing page for “ads” is typically how we’d accomplish this.

With such a system, we can easily identify the class of content alongside the original source from which the content was downloaded. The beauty of UTM tags is how flexible they are; UTMs will override whichever categorization GA would natively use to classify your data. You’ll need to learn how to create GA4 explorations to really get use out of these additional fields, but that’s a story for a different post. For now, we’ll just illustrate the idea using the out-of-the-box “source” report. 

Screenshot of Google Analytics showing the number of conversions from a PDF and via Google Tel Tag on a PDF.

Understanding UTM tagged conversions

In the case in the image above we know the following:

  • The first 4 conversions took 3 web hits from our PDF to convert.
  • We can also infer that the user had either come to our website previously (from another browser/device/or perhaps cleared their cookies, etc.) to download the PDF, or at least is brand aware. Someone might have forwarded the PDF to one of the converters in the first group. 

Were these PDFs not tagged with UTM tags, these visits would by default be categorized as a“direct” source in analytics, leaving us unable to understand this touchpoint’s actual impact toward conversion.

  •  We can also see that in the 2nd row a user came to our website at least twice, gained a PDF at some point, and then came back to the site from the PDF two times before filling out the form (the ultimate conversion being measured here). 

Bringing all these disparate visits together in a clear way, where we understand each stage, might not be possible for most marketers. Things are getting more complicated in elucidating user paths due to web privacy, changes in cookies, smarter web users, etc. It’s going to be harder for us to know exactly how users behave before it gets easier. However, it’s important for us to get any help we can to guide us in the right direction. This way, we can make the most of our limited time and focus on marketing activities that will give us the best results.

Findings Over the Years:

  • PDFs can take on a life of their own. They are shared with others and often create new visits.
  • Clicks from PDFs can result in last click conversions. Over longer funnels, this is why it can be important to differentiate website vs. advertising PDFs. Knowing where the download originated can help you better understand the contributions of your marketing channels.
  • Great content results in more return visits. Yes, we expected this, but it’s always best when your data confirms your intuitions.

At the end of the day, as marketers we’re largely at the whim of our customers. Better understanding how they engage with our brand across media and across time can help us direct our efforts toward the work that will make the greatest difference. If you have PDFs on your site, and if the content is compelling, consider taking your insights to the next level. Reveal another dimension of how your visitors are interacting with your assets and reveal what’s driving meaningful action across your web properties by monitoring UTM tags in your PDFs (or any other downloadable content that could contain a tagged URL). 

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