Why marketers need to implement GA4 now
Grant Collins dissects Google’s new analytics platform GA4, explaining why it has great potential for marketers.
While privacy is not a new battleground in Big Tech, it has become a lot more pointed in recent years. Californian privacy law updates, GDPR (where opt-in rates are as low as 30 percent) and Apple’s updates to iOS14 are already changing the options available to marketers.
Consumer sentiment is shifting and you’ll no doubt have read many reports of the death of cookies. Well, the time to plan for that is already upon us. We’ve been discussing with clients how to navigate the change since the end of last year, and one of the first and most important steps is setting up Google Analytics 4 (GA4). The earlier the transition, the less disruption to your marketing capabilities.
More acronyms? What is GA4?
GA4 is Google’s replacement service for Universal Analytics (UA); which will become unreliable for measuring online activity. As an analytics tool, GA4 is Google’s answer to increasing challenges around data privacy and tracking users in a cookieless world.
The underlying data model has completely changed, so it will take a bit of getting used to. It has been designed to be ‘future proof’ with advanced modelling for behaviour not just data collection. By shifting from a focus on ‘sessions’ to an event driven solution, the new GA4 promises to be extremely flexible and has exciting potential.
An evolving tool
There are benefits to the change and one major highlight for me is the access to The Analysis Hub, which is a feature of the highly priced subscriber-only GA360. It allows extensive custom reporting options and we’re confident it will become a heavily used addition to any data led marketing team.
In a move that recognises the often fragmented customer journey, a user’s interaction across apps, websites and online properties are being brought together in one dashboard. Which will offer a lot more value in cross-domain/cross-platform tracking.
User ID’s themselves are more anonymised in GA4, and from what I read there are evolving plans for FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), Google’s new approach to ‘grouping’ individuals for advertising. While bounce rates and Goals have been removed, Google has also moved from session to event based tracking. It can potentially provide a more holistic view for marketers than is currently on offer with UA.
A greater level of customisation and reporting capability is available through GA4, but this comes with a big learning curve. I’ve noticed that some features and reports which were automatically available previously, now need to be built from the ground up. Additionally, there are currently weaknesses around ecommerce data and less attribution modelling straight out of the box. But I’m hoping that some of the analysis features with UA may come later as Google has stated that the current version “…will allow you to start gathering data and benefit from the latest innovations as they become available…”.
Thankfully, the majority of important metrics can still be tracked.
Potential set-up pitfalls
My advice is to consider GA4 as a different tool from the start, rather than an update to UA. It is more robust but potentially not as mature as advanced users may like.
The ‘Assistant’ that has been baked into analytics is actually very straight forward. Provided you have GTM (Google Tag Manager) already in place the basic ‘default setup’ can be done in under 10 mins. One consideration I see regularly missed is the user data retention setting. By default, this is set at two months, so if you are wanting to more effectively compare year-on-year, updating this setting to 14 months from the outset can be valuable.
Other important configurations to consider are:
- Taking the time to understand the difference between data available when ‘Enhanced Measurement’ is enabled versus Google’s own ‘recommended events’, which you may need assistance configuring.
- Review your referral exclusions in Universal Analytics. You should map these to the new function in GA4 known as ‘List unwanted referrals’. This can be found under ‘More tagging settings’ as a control in your GA4 property’s ‘Data stream’.
- If your legal department approves the extra considerations required from Google’s additional terms of service, the insights that are possible with the increased level of data ‘Google Signals’ offers when enabled are truly incredible.
Impact for marketers
The actual impact will depend on just how heavily UA is embedded into your tech stack. The drastic change in underlying data, will mean heavy lifting for existing integrations.
I mentioned the time to act is now. That’s because marketers will need to pivot to this new platform at some point and you can only collect data once it’s been implemented. There’s no chance for collecting retroactively. As more documentation and improvements have been made available, since its release the past October, many have set up their systems to have both at the same time.
Running GA4 in parallel is the very least we advise clients to start so they can collect data immediately and ensure they have year-on-year reporting and analysis capability. Not all features are going to translate over from the previous edition, so setting up now, gives you time to understand where your differences may lie. This approach will also allow early moving teams the advantage of comparing GA4 dashboards with UA side by side to get an idea of the tracking differences for their own ecosystem.
When Google announced the sunset of its Google Analytics SDK, there were 14 months from announcement to legacy data becoming inaccessible. Leaving it until the last minute may result in knowledge gaps.
The expectations around data storage, privacy and what consumers are willing to share is evolving. Marketers that set up their foundations with the new capabilities early, will be better prepared when UA finally shuts down potentially as early as next year.
Grant Collins is the head of digital experience at Alpha Digital.