Explainer: Everything you need to know about Google Analytics 4

We find out how marketers must prepare for the shift from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 digital marketing measurement

Google Analytics has become an essential tool for digital marketing. So when Google makes changes to this flagship analytics suite, it has a significant impact on the world’s marketers.

But this latest iteration, dubbed Google Analytics 4 (GA4), is the most significant since Google released its last major update, Universal Analytics (UA), a decade ago. As a result, GA4 is causing more than the usual level of upheaval.

Many of the changes coming with GA4 are in line with existing trends towards protecting users’ privacy, and according to chief executive officer of the digital marketing services organisation The Pistol, Jaime Nosworthy, they also deliver a raft of benefits.

“GA4 brings data unification and privacy to the forefront, while championing AI [artificial intelligence] to provide marketers a more cohesive view of their user journey,” Nosworthy tells CMO. “This evolution to event-based tracking, as opposed to historical session and device tracking, provides marketers with valuable information on user journeys and customer lifecycles, enabling richer, actionable insights.

“Also, with privacy and data protection a critical focus for marketers, GA4 does not collect IP addresses or cookies, and allows users to determine what data is collected and how it is used. Machine learning fills the data gaps and predictive analytics help marketers draw meaningful insights and effectively forecast.”

While there is plenty to gain through the upgrade, existing analytics users will have little choice other than to embrace GA4, as Google plans to discontinue UA in July 2023 for users of its free version, and in October 2023 for enterprise customers. While users will retain access to historical data for a period after that date, they will be unable to bring new data into UA.

Google head of tech partnerships, Angus Beattie, says the company has been working with customers on a staged rollout program since GA4 was first released in 2020, starting with dual tagging.

“For different cohorts of advertisers, the implementation effort will be different,” Beattie says. “If they are currently using Google Tag Manager or gtag.js, which are two of our collection frameworks, they can deploy the Google Analytics 4 tag relatively easily and start collecting data now alongside their existing Universal Analytics implementation. That is what we are recommending customers do, because it is a different measurement framework.”

Beattie says Google has already deployed significant education resources to help marketers and agencies get up to speed with GA4 and the changeover and will be rolling out additional education support through the remainder of 2022.

“The phase we are in at the moment is best labelled as readiness, so we are encouraging customers to take that existing base Google Analytics 4 implementation and start to incorporate features they use within their existing Universal Analytics. They can then get more of a like-for-like experience,” he says.

Suncorp's early adoption

One organisation that has taken an early adopter approach to the arrival of GA4 is Suncorp. Executive general manager for brand and marketing, Mim Haysom, says her team has embraced the transition as part of the financial services giant’s marketing transformation roadmap.

GA4 has been live across Suncorp’s portfolio of brands for over a year now, with a full deployment across its Web properties to ensure measurement of all acquisition-focused activity. Haysom’s team is now working to deploy GA4 across mobile apps for its mass brands as well to support retention, loyalty and digital adoption.

“Our teams have been provided with training on the platform, and we’ve started to integrate the platform as a source in our planning processes with campaign reports now being delivered,” Haysom explains. “By the time UA stops collecting data in 2023, we will have over two years of data to support insights and reporting. This is critical for a business like us to ensure we have a strong foundation of data to inform decision making. This will also help us take advantage of new predictive audience capability.”

Not all marketers will count themselves so lucky. According to Nosworthy, while July 2023 might seem like a long time from now, there are disadvantages in not moving quickly.

“Google will sunset UA in July 2023, so if you haven't already upgraded to GA4, your year-on-year reporting will have holes in it this time next year,” he warns. “GA4 is significantly more sophisticated, accurate and powerful, while providing marketers more flexibility than ever before to draw meaningful insights from their data. By acting now, you have time to learn, adjust and optimise your reporting to prepare for the future of measurement.”

Digital marketing, analytics and optimisation expert and co-founder of Loves Data, Benjamin Mangold, agrees, and says that while Google has given people a fair amount of time to shift, the transition is still catching some people unawares.

“There are still people who are not where they should be,” Mangold says. “It is not a Universal Analytics upgrade - it is an entirely separate thing. So there is a bit of a learning curve.”

Over time, Mangold says marketers will need to build their understanding of the other significant changes that GA4 delivers, including its powerful reporting capabilities.

“There is definitely a mind shift though, because in essence it is a totally new product,” Mangold says. “For example, the way you name things in reports is entirely flexible, whereas Universal Analytics had quite tight parameters around the amount of information you could send and where things showed up.

“There is also a whole lot of stuff happening automatically - things like measuring clicks and scroll and all those interactions – that used to require more effort in Universal Analytics.”

Fundamental new capabilities

The most significant changes may come in how GA4 forces a rethink in digital marketing strategies, especially in relation to the use of first-party data. According to Charles Farina, Seattle-based head of innovation at Google marketing specialists, Adswerve, one critical change is the transition from device-based IDs to user-based IDs.

“For marketers to make the most out of user IDs, they first and foremost need to have a robust set of user IDs to work with,” Farina says. “This may mean investing in logged-in experiences or other offerings like loyalty programs, gated content or other rewards-based programs.”

Farina says it’s not realistic or possible for some companies to generate user IDs. As an alternative, Google has invested in its own identity graph of consented and logged-in Google Users, called Signals.

“The shift to first-party data is something that is on top of mind of marketers, especially as brands are making the shift toward completely eliminating third-party cookies usage, as well as heightened concerns surrounding data privacy regulation,” Farina says. “With these priorities in mind, GA4 will make it easier for marketers to fully focus on first-party data sets with new updates to the system.

“By sunsetting UA, Google can focus its GA4 platform to better leverage first-party data and help brands to think differently about their users and ease into the shift to first-party data sets. With Google Signals and GA4, marketers can leverage Google’s massive user base to better track users across devices and browsers improving attribution, reporting, and behavioural insights.”

Farina says GA4 also brings benefits in the form of new measurement tools and capabilities, including easy integration with Google’s enterprise data warehouse, BigQuery.

“GA4 also now allows data analysts to build funnels that accurately measure the time between interactions,” Farina says. “These trending funnels offered in the new GA4 have improved features including the ability to analyse how a funnel performed over the past year.”

Rethinking measurement

Nosworthy is most excited about enhanced measurement capabilities in GA4, such as scroll tracking, file downloads, site search and interactions with embedded YouTube videos on sites.

“These additional signals provide rich insights around the quality of the interaction and can inform personalised retargeting strategies,” she says.

For Nosworthy, the transition represents an opportunity for marketers to assess their account structure and the data they are drawing from Google Analytics, and then audit any integrations, before mapping out the metrics that matter.

“Once you have a clear understanding of your ideal reporting state, keep this in mind as you migrate to GA4,” she advises. “Next, set up your GA4 property, create the data streams, and activate Google Signals and Google Ads. From there, you're ready to map your UA metrics to the GA4 equivalent.

“There won't be perfect alignment, so ensure you're monitoring the data over a four-to-six-week period and adjusting once there is sufficient data pulled into your instance.”

The next stage is to commence work on creating appropriate dashboards and optimising them to suit the needs of the business.

“Lean-in to the automated reports, but don't get lazy. Just because you're sitting on a gold mine of data, doesn't mean strategic analysis and activation isn’t required off the back of it,” Nosworthy says. “Finally, make ongoing optimisations a priority and ensure your reports evolve as your business does.”

Modern marketing alignment

For Haysom, Suncorp’s adoption of GA4 has been tightly aligned to its marketing transformation roadmap aimed at helping it navigate trends and market complexity.

“We don’t want to on-board tech for tech’s sake,” she says. “The starting point focused on understanding our current measurement and activation objective gaps across the business, identifying how GA4 could help solve for these. We also identified the key changes we needed to make as a business to ensure we were ahead of the changing privacy landscape.

“Adoption is a big part of any technology program. In our business we have marketing adoption leads, who are key in bringing new capabilities through our marketing team. It’s an ongoing process, and there’s lots of education, communication and training continuing across our teams.”

Suncorp will continue running UA and GA4 in parallel as new features in GA4 are tested. “GA4 is new and new technologies always come with excitement, however it can’t do everything yet, so we need to make sure we take a staggered migration approach,” Haysom says. “Ensuring our teams remain outcome focused too helps us prioritise our transition.”

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