If you’re a startup founder, a growth marketer in an early stage startup, a developer working on side projects, an aspiring professional blogger or simply someone who wants to be a data-driven decision maker, this post is for you.

When product your is past its minimum viable product (MVP) phase and in a growth phase, you can afford premium analytics tools. In the early stages, however, you probably don’t have a lot of data, so using one of the many available free tools to help you collect conversion and engagement metrics can be a smart choice. The data you’re able to collect and analyze in the early stages of product development is not only important in illustrating what channels and tactics work best, but it can also be crucial to your startup’s success or failure.

While there are many analytics tools available, none can claim the large-scale adoption and proven value of Google Analytics. For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you already have Google Analytics tracking set up on your website and dive straight into some conversion tracking instances that don’t require additional steps from a site owner or developer.

The Basics – Conversion Tracking Using Google Analytics Goals

Effort: Minimal – you define your goals in the Google Analytics UI with no code updates required.

You can set up goals for your main non-sale conversions like email sign-up, free account/trial sign-up and product activation. These can help you understand your conversions from site visitor to member, trial member or email subscriber. For many products, you can also add goals as steps that indicate product usage, allowing for certain functionality that enables users to evaluate your product and its value.

To get started, go to the Admin tab, click “Goals” and then “+ NEW GOAL.” From here, there are two simple ways you can define goals:

  1. Use a unique URL path of the page that indicates a task completion such as /email-signup or /regi/welcome.
  2. Use a unique name=value string that your site might already be using to indicate some other completed action. For example, you might be redirecting a user to the page they were on prior to creating an account and appending ?regi=true or ?email-signup=yes or a similar parameter to indicate to your application that the user just joined the site or mailing list. This can be used to display a custom welcome message or launch a tutorial-style widget to tell the user more about your site or product.

NOTE: Google Analytics allows you to assign a monetary value to a goal, but unless you’re actually using Goals to track sales or other actions you monetize (like automatically opting in your members to partner email lists or products during the registration process), I recommend not doing it. An exception would be if you only sell one product at one price point, like an ebook. You can actually use Goals to track your sales in this case, so you don’t need to read the rest of this post if this is your planned use for it!

Email <> Web Engagement Tracking Using Google Analytics Goals

Effort: Medium – depends on how and where you currently manage your emails.

If you send emails of ANY kind to your customers, make sure to tag all of them, marketing and transactional, with utm_ parameters. (If you’re new to utm_ parameter tracking, check out this guide.) At a bare minimum, pass utm_medium=email on all links in your emails to attribute your traffic, engagement and sales to the Google Analytics “Email” channel. Many email providers have click tracking disabled by default (SendGrid, MailGun, among others), so make sure to enable it and define values.

If your email links don’t pass utm_medium=email, your stats will be attributed to catch-all “Direct,” “Referral” or “Other” channels depending on the email provider you use and the email clients your subscribers use (some of those will appear under the Referral channel). Once you add utm_medium=email, your stats will shift from one or more of the other predefined channels in the Email channel.

IMPORTANT: utm_medium should always be set to “email” for your email links. Some email providers automatically append this parameter to all your messages (leaving no room for you to make a mistake), while others will allow you to define the values of some or all Google Analytics utm_ parameters yourself (like BigMailer). If you set utm_medium to something you came up with yourself and it isn’t a convention, like email-[provider], then all your data will be attributed to the Other channel.

Conversion Tracking for Pay-per-click (PPC) Campaigns

Effort: Medium – requires your developer to drop the code in the right place but without customizing it.

If you run any PPC campaigns, simply drop the conversion tracking code (aka “pixel”) from your network to your subscription confirmation page. PPC platforms such as Google AdWords, Facebook and Pinterest (and many others) all offer the option of adding a tracking code to your site. This allows you to track the return on investment (ROI) for your campaigns and ads inside those platforms.

Advanced – E-commerce Conversion Tracking

Effort: Medium to Large – requires a developer be familiar with the checkout setup to drop the code and add values from the application into the code.

The best thing you can do for your conversion-to-paid tracking is to add e-commerce tracking from Google Analytics and pass the value of the sale or initial (first month/year) subscription from the sale/subscription confirmation page to Google Analytics. This will assign sales/revenue to the appropriate channel automatically, and you’ll even know what landing page the user originated from (i.e., an individual blog post).

GA e-commerce revenue by channel

Report Example: Google Analytics E-commerce Data by Acquisition Channel

IMPORTANT: If you sell in more than one country and display prices in multiple currencies on checkout or receipt/confirmation pages, make sure to convert the value to your desired currency before adding the information to the e-commerce tracking code. Your e-commerce data in Google Analytics will otherwise be an irrecoverable mess until you fix it.

Special Case – You Offer a Free Trial

Effort: Large – requires development work, including database work.

Typically, when someone signs up for a free trial that requires a credit card, they’re moved to a paid plan after the trial period ends. If your product supports this model, then the goal and e-commerce tracking described above will only track your free trials and not the actual revenue you collect unless you’ve included a custom step in which a user manually upgrades and chooses a plan or adds a payment method.

One way to track your sources of revenue beyond a free trial is to record them to your database during the conversion to trial step. This will provide a referral source for each trial record. To implement this process, record a referral source (check HTTP referer and/or utm_ parameters on query string) into a cookie, and then record the source from the cookie into your database with the account record during the trial sign-up step. You can later cross-reference that record with subsequent renewals and determine your churn, loan-to-value (LTV) ratio and ROI for all of your channels.

For more on custom conversion tracking, check out Building Your Own User Analytics System in SQL from Periscope, which was written for developers and outlines an implementation in great detail (data tables, columns, etc.).

Happy conversion tracking and growth hacking!