How nonprofits can measure what matters in Google Analytics

Posted on July 18, 2015 by - Theory and practice, Tools and resources

Conversion funnel in Google Analytics

Nonprofits can measure what matters by setting up conversion funnels and four other key features in Google Analytics.

It seems that many nonprofits install Google Analytics but don’t know what to do with it. For years, I’ve heard colleagues in the nonprofit sector make the same comments about Google Analytics:

  • The amount of data is overwhelming.
  • The data in the tool isn’t the data that I need.
  • The data in the tool is the data that I need, but I have to dig to find it.
  • The statistics are too broad.
  • The statistics are too specific.
  • The statistics are hard to interpret.

Fortunately, there are many things that nonprofits can do to make Google Analytics much more useful. In this post, I’ll describe how to get started with five powerful features:

  1. Event tracking
  2. Campaigns (with Google URL Builder)
  3. Goals (with conversion funnels)
  4. E-commerce tracking
  5. Custom dashboards

Example from my work

Here’s a quick example to illustrate how these features can dramatically improve the usefulness of your analytics.

At the NGO where I work, we regularly publish new tools and research materials to share what we learn with our peers, partners, and donors. These groups have repeatedly told us that these materials are valuable to their work. Therefore, sharing these resources allows us to help other organizations while strengthening our reputation.

  1. By using campaigns, we keep track of which e-mails, web pages, and social media posts generate the most interest in a particular resource.
  2. Then our event tracking tells us what percentage of these visitors downloaded resources, and which ones they downloaded.
  3. In successful campaigns, visitors request even more resources by subscribing to our newsletter. We track the success rate and abandonment details through a goal and conversion funnel.
  4. Finally, we display key metrics in a custom dashboard so we can see the results at a glance.

By configuring our Google Analytics account this way, we gain invaluable insights into how to create better experiences for the people who matter to our organization. The approach also protects individuals’ privacy because Google Analytics displays all results in aggregate. This allows us to see overall patterns without allowing us to pick any single visitor out of the digital haystack.

Almost every nonprofit could improve its work by using even a few of the customizable features in Google Analytics. But before getting started, there’s one indispensable thing that you should do:

Determine what matters to your organization

Believe it or not, but this tends to be the hard part. It’s hard because many organizations haven’t decided what matters the most to their work. If you don’t know what matters, then how can you measure it?

This isn’t just a problem at nonprofits. As Richard Rumelt observed in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, “A good strategy . . . creates strength through the coherence of its design. Most organizations of any size don’t do this. Rather, they pursue multiple objectives that are unconnected with one another or, worse, that conflict with one another.”

If your organization doesn’t have a clear strategy that specifies which factors are the most important to its success, then you’ll need to figure out which factors truly matter.

Common pitfalls

Raising awareness, increasing engagement, and educating the public

When people at nonprofits aren’t clear about what they need to achieve, they often say that their organization’s digital presence should “raise awareness” or “increase engagement.” These answers are appealing because they seem like common sense, but they are actually dangerous to the organization.

They’re dangerous because they rely on the assumption that if only people knew about us, they would love us. In other words, the organization doesn’t need to change anything about how it works—it just needs to educate its donors, supporters, and “the general public” about the work it’s already doing. (Because once the uneducated public finally becomes educated, then surely it will support the nonprofit’s enlightened work . . . right?)

When nonprofits fall into this trap, their marketing and communications tend to be all about the organization, with little thought about what the organization’s stakeholders actually want or need. This is a recipe for alienating the people who matter most to the organization.

Relying on vanity metrics

Vague objectives like “raising awareness” and “increasing engagement” lead to a second pitfall: measuring success based on vanity metrics.

In a new report, the Citizen Engagement Laboratory and the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab define vanity metrics as “data that are easily manipulated, are biased toward the short-term, often paint a rosy picture of program success, or do not help campaigners make wise strategic decisions.”

Vanity metrics are often easy to measure. For example, most social media platforms are eager to tell organizations how many times people viewed, liked, and shared their posts. E-mail newsletter services give quick statistics about list size and estimated open rates. In Google Analytics, the default dashboard summarizes website traffic in a handful of tidy line graphs that look impressive but that seldom address the organization’s needs.

General metrics can be useful, but only when considered in the proper context. For example, it’s fine to keep track of how much traffic a web page received, but what did people do as a result of viewing the page? How did this affect the organization’s ability to do its work?

It’s relatively easy to increase “traffic,” “impressions,” and “engagement.” It’s harder—and much more valuable—to build mutually beneficial relationships with supporters. Vanity metrics won’t measure this by themselves. Instead, you need analytics that measure the outcomes that your organization is trying to achieve.

What actually matters?

I would challenge you to forget about analytics for a moment and think about what actually matters to your nonprofit. If you’re not sure, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What keeps our doors open?
  2. What enables our projects to succeed?
  3. Which people are most important in helping us achieve our mission?
  4. Why should people choose us when they could choose other organizations?

These questions aren’t about “clicks” or “sessions.” They’re about what makes your organization viable and successful. Here are some examples of objectives that genuinely matter to many nonprofits:

  1. Increasing donations
  2. Building and mobilizing a network of reliable supporters
  3. Strengthening a handful of crucial relationships
  4. Recruiting and empowering the right employees and volunteers
  5. Changing internal and external policies and practices

Once you identify your organization’s most important objectives, you can work with your supporters to create online and offline interactions that support these objectives.

How to configure Google Analytics to measure what matters

Now that you know what you need to measure, here’s how to configure Google Analytics so it will collect and organize the right data for your work.

If you’re not a web developer or if you’re working in a complicated environment, it would be wise to talk with your IT department or hire a consultant to help you get started. Configuring Google Analytics isn’t terribly difficult or time-consuming for experienced professionals, so a small investment in time or funding can make a big difference.

1. Event tracking

Google Analytics doesn’t automatically record how many times visitors watch videos, download documents (e.g., PDFs, Word files, PowerPoint files), interact with Flash elements, or click ads. If you need to measure any of these interactions, you’ll need to set up event tracking.

(Note: I’m going to describe the traditional way of setting up event tracking. Talk to your IT department or a consultant to decide whether it would be better to use the Google Tag Manager, which is a tool that I won’t discuss in this article.)

  1. Make sure that your site is already using the standard Google Analytics code. It should appear in the HTML of every page, immediately before the closing </head> tag.
  2. Determine whether you’re using Classic Google Analytics or Universal Google Analytics. If your organization set up Google Analytics before October 2012, you’re probably using the Classic version. To double-check:
    1. Go to your website and right-click a blank part of the page. Select “View Source.”
    2. From the main menu, select “Edit > Find.” Search for ga.js and analytics.js.
    3. If your browser finds ga.js, you’re using Classic Google Analytics. If your browser finds analytics.js, you’re using Universal Google Analytics.
  3. You’ll need to insert some code in your HTML so the web page will trigger an “event” when a visitor interacts with the element that you want to track. The code often goes in the <a> anchor tag next to the desired element, but it depends on the element. For now, let’s keep things simple and say that you want to track how many times visitors download a PDF.
    1. If you’re using Classic Google Analytics, you’ll need to insert code that follows this pattern:

      onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', '{Category}', '{Action}', {Optional Label}']);"

      Replace the {braces} with the info that you want to track. Here’s a simple example of a link that tracks how many times visitors download a PDF titled Toolkit for Field Offices:

      <a href="toolkit.pdf" onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'PDF', 'click', 'Toolkit for Field Offices']);">Download Toolkit for Field Offices</a>

      Here’s more information about how you can further customize event tracking code in Classic Google Analytics.

    2. If you’re using Universal Google Analytics, you’ll need to insert code that follows this pattern:

      ga('send', 'event', '{category}', '{action}', '{label}', value);

      Replace the {braces} with the info that you want to track. Here’s a simple example of a link that tracks how many times visitors download a PDF titled Toolkit for Field Offices:

      <a href="toolkit.pdf" onClick="ga('send', 'event', 'PDF', 'click', 'Toolkit for Field Offices');">Download Toolkit for Field Offices</a>

      Here’s more information about how you can set up and customize event tracking code in Universal Google Analytics.

Once you’ve set up the code correctly, the results should appear in Google Analytics under “Behavior > Events > Top Events.” Not only will you be able to see how many times visitors triggered each event, you’ll also be able to segment this data by channel, geography, source, and many other dimensions.

2. Campaigns (with Google URL Builder)

Most organizations need to drive traffic to certain web pages in order to encourage visitors to perform certain actions. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep track of which channels performed best for a particular campaign?

To do this, you’ll need to create custom URLs. This will tell Google Analytics that these URLs are part of a particular campaign, so Google Analytics will know to group them together and collect extra information. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Go to the Google URL Builder page.
  2. Scroll down to the URL builder form.
    1. In Step 1, enter the URL of the web page that you want people to visit.
    2. In Step 2, fill out the relevant fields. Campaign Source, Campaign Medium, and Campaign Name are mandatory.
      • Campaign Source: This could be the name of your newsletter, the name of a social media account, the name of a blog, or any other label that indicates where you’re announcing the customized URL.
      • Campaign Medium: Are you putting the customized URL in an e-mail, a tweet, a profile update, a blog post, or somewhere else? Record this information here.
      • Campaign Term: Use this only for paid search to record the keywords for your ad.
      • Campaign Content: Sometimes you’ll want an individual message to link to a single URL several times. For example, e-mails often start with a call to action and repeat the call to action several times. Use this field to create a unique URL for each link so you can measure the performance of each one.
      • Campaign Name: Create a name for the campaign. Use this name for each customized URL in the campaign. For example, if you want to use e-mail, a blog post, and a social media account to drive traffic to a particular web page, use the same campaign name for each one.
    3. Click the Generate URL button.
  3. Use this new URL in your hyperlink to the page that you’re targeting.
  4. Repeat steps 1–3 for each channel. For example, if you’re trying to drive traffic to a certain web page via e-mail, a blog post, and Twitter, you would generate three URLs—one to use in e-mail, one to use in your blog post, and one to share on Twitter. (Use a link shortening service like Bitly or the Google URL Shortener to reduce the number of characters in the customized URL.)

The results should appear in Google Analytics under “Acquisition > Campaigns > All Campaigns.”

If you’re using campaigns in conjunction with event tracking, you’ll be able to see how many visitors came to the site as a result of the campaign and then performed the events that you previously defined (such as downloading documents or watching videos).

3. Goals (with conversion funnels)

Events are good for tracking small wins, such as getting people to download an important document or watch a particular video. But what if you want visitors to complete several steps in a row? In that case, you should create a goal.

For example, maybe you want volunteers to download a toolkit and then subscribe to a discussion group about how to use the toolkit. By creating a goal, you can tell Google Analytics that there are two steps in this process. Google Analytics will automatically create a conversion funnel that will show you how many visitors completed step 1 and how many of these visitors proceeded to complete step 2. The results can help you refine your approach so you can increase the number of people who complete both steps.

Here’s how to create a new goal:

  1. Log into your Google Analytics account and go the Admin section.
  2. In the View column, click Goals.
  3. Click the button labeled +NEW GOAL.
  4. Follow these instructions to finish setting up your goal.

Once you’ve created the goal, Google Analytics will display results under “Conversions > Goals.” You can find conversion funnels under “Conversions > Goals > Funnel Visualization.”

4. E-commerce tracking

If you want Google Analytics to track donations, you can do this by setting up e-commerce tracking. Here are some links to get you started:

You’ll want to work with a web developer and a Google Analytics Certified Professional to enable and configure this feature.

5. Custom dashboards

After you’ve set up events, campaigns, goals, or e-commerce tracking, you can display results in custom dashboards. Google Analytics makes this easy to do. It’s a great way to see at a glance how various initiatives are performing.

Here’s how to create a new dashboard:

  1. Navigate to “Dashboards > + New Dashboard.”
  2. Select a blank canvas and give the dashboard a name.
  3. You can then set up the dashboard in one of two ways:
    • Use the “Add a Widget” wizard to add timelines, tables, bar charts, and other elements to the dashboard.
    • Or navigate to the events, campaigns, goals, and e-commerce pages that you created earlier and select “Add to Dashboard.” Google Analytics will add these data sets to your dashboard. You can further configure them by selecting the pencil icon in the upper-right corner of each widget.

Other resources

To learn more about measuring what matters, check out Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz’s Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster. Although the authors wrote the book for startups, much of the advice is also appropriate for nonprofits.

If you have some web development experience and need to configure Google Analytics yourself, I highly recommend completing the courses in the Google Analytics Academy.

An excellent reference book is Brian Clifton’s Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

Creative Commons License
How Nonprofits Can Measure What Matters in Google Analytics by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One Response to “How nonprofits can measure what matters in Google Analytics”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)