The Ins and Outs of Conversion Tracking

Kyleigh Letourneau Jan 26, 2023 Kyleigh Letourneau Senior Digital Strategy Specialist Persona The Confident and Enthusiastic Emcee

Every school wants to see prospective students show their interest by taking action. Whether it’s downloading a brochure from your website, signing up for a newsletter, or filling out an RFI form, taking action is key in determining a high-quality lead from a low-quality one. In the digital marketing world, these actions are commonly known as conversions, and they’re crucial for discovering which marketing channels and advertising strategies are resonating with prospective students.

Thanks to conversion tracking, you can see in real-time which keywords, ad groups, ads, and campaigns are generating activity from potential students. You can also see what’s engaging versus disinteresting through data points like conversion volume or conversion rates, allowing you to optimize your content for a better return on investment (ROI).

To gain a better understanding of this tool, let’s dive into some of the ins and outs of conversion tracking, some roadblocks you might hit, and how to guarantee your conversion tracking is accurate in the increasing privacy-restricted media landscape.

Conversions: How they track

Let’s say your higher education institution created a brochure detailing an academic program you’re especially known for. It highlights the courses, possible electives, internships, potential careers, and miscellaneous activities that students can join as part of that major. When a potential student downloads the brochure, a small snippet of code is triggered to record it. Utilizing a conversion-tracking platform like Google Tag Manager, this conversion can be traced back to your digital marketing campaigns so you can easily see if you’re meeting your goals.

There’s a trigger to track conversions for whichever product, service, or event you’re offering, ranging from page views or button clicks to video plays and form submissions. What’s best is you can do this across any audience, whether it’s undergrad, transfer, graduate students, etc.

Cookies and marketing attribution

The word “cookie” has multiple meanings. If you’re looking for recipes for sugar, chocolate chip, or oatmeal raisin cookies, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  But even though the cookies we’re talking about aren’t edible, they’re good to have.

Cookies are files created by websites you visit that are used to track a user’s browsing history. There are three types of computer cookies: third-party cookies track your activity across all websites, second-party cookies are shared between two companies that have a data partnership, and first-party cookies track your activity on a single website. The most powerful is the first-party cookie. During your time on the website, first-party cookies collect data, remember user preferences, and store information to provide a positive user experience. Each browser—from Google Chrome to Safari, Firefox, and more—all manage cookies, their life cycle, and permissions individually. There’s a helpful tool called Cookie Status that highlights how long a cookie will last on a browser or if there are any restrictions on them.

Because cookies track a user’s journey, marketing attribution relies heavily on them. A returning visitor to your website will be recognized by the cookie stored on their browser. Now here’s where things get exciting: Say a user clicks your Facebook ad, browses around for a bit, but leaves without taking an action or “converting.” Hope is not lost! They come back a few days later and register for a campus visit. The cookie is able to recognize this user and attribute that event registration back to the Facebook ad they clicked on earlier in the week.

Roadblocks and restrictions

The first hurdle to track conversions accurately is attribution windows, which are windows of time that a click on a marketing ad can be attributed back to the ad. Attribution windows vary by platform and range from one day to 90 days. The second hurdle is third-party cookie restrictions. Popular web browsers like Safari, Firefox, and Edge completely restrict third-party cookies from tracking user behavior.

Let’s toss out a few scenarios:

  • User A clicks a Facebook ad on Monday and uses Google Chrome as their preferred browser. User A applies on Wednesday. In this case, a conversion will track because third-party cookies are not restricted on Google Chrome and Facebook has a seven-day click attribution window.
  • User B clicks a Google Search pay per click ad on Monday and uses Microsoft Edge as their preferred browser. User B applies 10 days later (well within the Google Ads 90-day attribution window), but Edge restricts all third-party cookies. In this case, a conversion will not track.

Unfortunately, Google announced last year they are following suit with Safari, Firefox, and other browsers by eliminating third-party cookies by 2024. This means your Facebook ad will no longer receive credit for User A’s application submission in the previous example. With the death of the third-party cookie comes an urgency to leverage first-party cookies to their absolute fullest. An article by Carnegie’s Chief Digital Officer Alexa Poulin states the importance of first-party cookies: “First-party data is king. The importance of collecting and building your own data will continue to grow in importance and give you your best options for advertising.”

As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into conversion tracking! You’re probably asking, how can I ensure my conversions are tracking with all these new privacy restrictions? What about offline conversion tracking like in-store purchases or enrollment deposits? Is it even possible to connect a user’s online activity to their offline actions?

The value of customer data platforms

Woohoo! A champion emerges: Customer Data Platforms (CDP).

A CDP is software that collects and stores user data from a variety of sources, like the web and CRMs (Customer Relationship Management tools), to create a complete and singular view of a user. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll refer to Carnegie Clarity™’s technology partner BlueConic. BlueConic can deploy a first-party tracking script across your website to track users’ interests and behaviors across multiple sessions and devices while also ensuring web browsers appropriately recognize cookies as first-party data.

Utilization of a CDP takes third-party cookie restrictions out of the equation. Now, Google Chrome and Edge do not restrict first-party cookies, but Firefox and Safari have some narrow windows. Firefox’s first-party cookies will expire after 45 days, and Safari takes it a step further and expires them after 24 hours. In the case of Safari, any conversion tracking will be tricky, but 24 hours is better than none.

The moral of the story: Invest in a CDP to collect and build your own first-party data source and gain the greatest visibility into conversion tracking and marketing attribution possible. The death of the third-party cookie has every higher ed institution shaken, but Carnegie is taking strides to ensure that our clients are prepared to weather the storm.

If you want to improve your conversion tracking and data analysis, reach out and start a conversation.




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