Refresher on Adobe Analytics’ Marketing Channels Reports: Part III

People on a waterslide.

In the previous article in this four-part series, I provided a brief overview of the Marketing Channels reports and then explored the first step of the two-step configuration process for Marketing Channels reports. This post will focus on the next step of configuring processing rules to identify each of the channels.

After you’ve defined your marketing channels in the Marketing Channel Manager, you’ll then go to the Marketing Channel Processing Rules builder. Each marketing channel is identified by a separate processing rule or set of rules. As visitors enter your website from different marketing channels, each processing rule evaluates the incoming traffic based on three types of criteria and then assigns traffic to the appropriate channel.

Report Suite Manager.

Important: Even though you’ll likely tweak the processing rules after the default set are created, don’t fall into the trap of thinking it will be easier or better to create your own rules from scratch. A rule in the wrong order or with an incorrect condition can take hours to debug. The default set was created after evaluating millions of hits to many report suites.

Waterfall Allocation Approach

A unique aspect of the Marketing Channels reporting is that it relies on a waterfall approach for allocating success to individual channels. This method reminds me of a well-known landmark in Wellington, New Zealand known as the Bucket Fountain. When I was living in New Zealand’s capital city as a child, I remember watching the water cascade down the fountain through an intricate series of buckets. (Side note: The actor, Elijah Woods, actually admitted to climbing and urinating in this fountain while filming the Lord of the Rings movies—definitely a gesture aimed at endearing himself to the Kiwi locals.)

Waterfall approach.

With the waterfall approach, the incoming traffic will continue to be evaluated until a rule’s conditions are met. As a result, the order of the processing rules is an important part of the Marketing Channels setup. In general, the rules should be ordered in the following manner for the different tiers of channels:

  1. Search (paid and natural/organic)
  2. Campaigns with tracking codes (display ads, email, affiliates, etc.)
  3. Social networks and any “key” referring domains
  4. Session refresh (internal), direct access, and “general” referring domains

Campaign Tracking & Query Strings

One of the main building blocks for many of the rules associated with paid marketing channels is the campaign parameter found in the query strings of campaign landing pages. When you create a link for an online ad (display, paid search, email, etc.), the destination URL will typically have a name-value pair associated with the campaign in its query string. The query string parameter and tracking code’s prefix can be used to identify different marketing channels in combination with other criteria. If you want to learn more about campaign tracking, you can check out my free web analytics primer, which includes a section on this topic.

Image of external site and your site.

Basic Rule Structure

Before I go into specific rule examples, I want to outline the basic structure of the marketing channel rules. First, a condition statement is created for each rule. There are three main types of criteria that can be applied:

  1. Adobe detected items such as internal referrers, search detection, or the first page of a visit.
  2. Hit attributes such as the page URL, referring domain, and query string parameter that are identified when the visitor lands on a web page.
  3. Conversion variable values such as the campaign or tracking code variable. This last option is probably least popular because the values can be manipulated by plugins and, therefore, may not be as reliable.

When you have multiple conditions within a processing rule, you can adjust the logic from “meet ALL of these rules” to “meet ANY of these rules” (sometimes it’s easier to think ALL = AND and ANY = OR). When you create the conditions within your rules, you have multiple operators to work with: equals, contains, does not contain, starts with, does not start with, ends with, does not end with, exists, does not exist, is empty, and is not empty. These operators give you lots of ways to tailor your channel identification.

If-then conditions.

The second part of the rule is the action that takes place when the condition(s) is met. It assigns the channel name and the channel detail breakdown. All of the processing rules for the Marketing Channels reports will follow this basic structure.

If-then conditions.

With this in mind, I’ll dive into specific channel examples for each of the channel tiers. Rather than show screenshots for each rule set, I’ll provide a sort of recipe at the end of each tier’s subsection for some common channels.

Typically, search channels—paid and natural—should be at the top of your processing rules waterfall list. The search channel rules are dependent on the paid search detection rules that are set in the General section within the Report Suite settings. You’ll want to confirm that the query string parameter you’re using for your paid search ads is flagged in the paid search detection rules. Your paid search rule should come before your natural search rule so that any search-related traffic that doesn’t fall into the paid bucket will fall into the natural/organic bucket.

Before Google and other search engines decided to remove the search query data, I had a bunch of recommendations for the channel detail settings. Now most of them are moot because we lost the valuable search terms associated with each search visit. I still recommend changing the default channel detail setting for search channels from “Search Engine + Search Keyword(s)” to something else. For paid search, if you pass the AdWords Keywords to an eVar, then you can use this data in the channel detail. For natural search, you could use page, page URL, or page domain and path to at least get some context or clues for the type of search that was performed.

Channel name: Paid Search
Rule Condition: Matches Paid Search Detection Rules
Channel detail: AdWords Keywords evar (requires custom implementation)

Channel name: Natural Search (or Organic Search)
Rule Condition: Matches Natural Search Detection Rules
Channel detail: Page (Page URL or Page Domain and Path)

Campaigns with Tracking Codes

The next tier within the waterfall list focuses on campaign-related channels, which use query string parameters and tracking codes. Display ads, email, and affiliates fall into this campaign category (each with their own separate rule). Typically, the query string parameter is used to identify the traffic from these channels. However, without a unique identifier for the channel in the query string, the rule won’t be able to distinguish between these campaign-related channels. There are two common approaches for identifying a specific channel. You can either have a unique parameter for each channel (email = pid, display = xid) or a unique prefix within the tracking code that identifies the specific channel (email = EML, display = DIS).

Unique parameter and unique prefix.

Depending on how chaotic or complex your marketing environment is, you might want to create a catch-all “other campaigns” bucket which just looks for a parameter. It is designed to catch any campaign that might not have been formatted correctly but still has a campaign parameter.

Channel name: Email
Rule Condition: Query String Parameter equals “pid” and starts with “EML”
Channel detail: Query String Parameter equals “pid” (will populate with tracking code)

Channel name: Display
Rule Condition: Query String Parameter equals “pid” and starts with “DIS”
Channel detail: Query String Parameter equals “pid” (will populate with tracking code)

Channel name: Other Campaigns
Rule Condition: Query String Parameter exists
Channel detail: Query String Parameter equals “pid” (will populate with tracking code)

Social Networks & Key Referring Domains

This channel tier is identified using referring domain information. For social networks, you have a list of common social media sites. However, I recommend auditing this list periodically to keep it up-to-date and add in any industry-specific or regional social media sites. There are some omissions that you should be aware of that you might want to add to your list: (Twitter shortened link),, and

Even though you’ll see Google+ in the default list, it has the old referring domain for Google+ ( and it’s not a referring root domain ( is the root). I would recommend adding another condition to capture Google+ traffic with your Social Network rule where you look for “” as a referring domain (might as well include “” too). When you have more than one condition, you may need to adjust the rule logic (in this case it should be “ANY” condition is true instead of “ALL” conditions are true). While I’ve focused primarily on social media traffic, any key referring site or sites can be filtered into its own channel. For example, traffic from web-based email providers could be filtered into an “Internet Email” channel based on a list of email referring domains.

Channel name: Social Networks
ANY condition is true
Rule Condition: Referring Root Domain equals “,,…”
Rule Condition: Referring Domain equals “,”
Channel detail: Referring Domain

Session Refresh (Internal), Direct Access, and General Referring Domains

Now we’re getting to the bottom of your stack of rules for identifying marketing channels. If some of your traffic doesn’t match any of your marketing channel rules, it will fall into the “no channel identified” bucket. Ideally, you want to keep this bucket as empty as possible because unassigned traffic means you have an incomplete picture of your various traffic sources. This last tier of rules acts as a sponge that should soak up any leftover traffic before it reaches the unidentified bucket.

The first of these “sponge” rules is Session Refresh (Internal), which is dependent on a couple of conditions. It looks at the referrer to see if it matches one of your internal URL filters and then verifies that it’s the first page of the visit. The internal URL filters are another report suite setting that tells Adobe Analytics which domains are considered “internal” to your web property and shouldn’t be treated as external referrers.

The primary purpose of this channel is to capture traffic where the session timed out after 30 minutes of inactivity, which can happen when a visitor’s journey is interrupted (phone call, email, multi-tasking, etc.). Because the last-touch override setting is typically disabled for this channel, it should only appear as a first-touch channel. Sometimes traffic can fall into this bucket inadvertently when the external referrer is replaced by an internal one. This can happen in the following ways:

  1. No tags on entry page: A visitor lands on Page A, which is not tagged, and then moves to Page B which is tagged. Page A would be seen as the internal referrer and the visit would be classified as session refresh.
  2. Redirects on entry page: If a redirect is not set up to pass referrer data through to the new landing page, the true entry referrer data is lost and now the redirect page (likely an internal page) appears as the referring domain.
  3. Cross-domain traffic: A visitor moves from one domain which fires to Suite A, to a second domain which fires to Suite B. If in Suite B, the internal URL filters include the first domain, the visit in Suite B will be recorded as a session refresh since the channel rule will see it as a new visit in the second suite.
  4. Long load times on entry page: A visitor lands on Page A, which is heavy on content, and the Adobe Analytics code is located at the bottom of the page. Before all the content (including the image request) can load, the visitor clicks to Page B. Page B then fires its Adobe Analytics image request. Since the Page A’s image request never loaded, the second page appears as the first hit of the visit in Adobe Analytics, with Page A as the referrer.
  5. Cookie deletion mid-visit: For some unexpected reason, the Adobe Analytics cookie is deleted in the middle of the session.

The next “sponge” rule is Direct or Direct Access. In most cases, this traffic represents individuals who typed your web address into their web browser or who may have clicked on a bookmark in their browser to arrive at your website. The direct access rule verifies that a referrer does not exist and it is the first page of the session. Sometimes traffic might fall into this bucket simply because the referrer and the query string parameter have been inadvertently stripped, such as with some redirects or mobile apps (e.g., Facebook app).

The last sponge is a General Referring Domains channel. This is the last chance channel, and it just checks to see if the referring domain field is not empty. It’s a good idea to monitor the detail breakdown for this channel to ensure you’re not missing traffic that should be going into another marketing channel (e.g., new or regional social networks). Monitoring this channel detail data in a dashboard on a regular basis will ensure your marketing channel data remains as clean as possible and reflective of your holistic marketing efforts.

Channel name: Session Refreshes (Internal)
ALL conditions are true
Rule Condition: Referrer matches internal URL filters
Rule Condition: Is the first page of visit
Channel detail: Page

Channel name: Direct Access
ALL conditions are true
Rule Condition: Referrer does not exist
Rule Condition: Is the first page of visit
Channel detail: Page

Channel name: General Referring Domains
Rule Condition: Referrer is not empty
Channel detail: Referring Domain

Okay, we’ve finally reached the bottom of the channel processing rules (phew!). In this post, I’ve given you a baseline of channel rules to work from. Because each company’s marketing initiatives and web properties are unique, there may be exceptions to these example rules. You may need to modify some of them to work correctly within your unique environment. With all the processing options available in the Marketing Channels settings, you have the flexibility to tailor the reports to meet your specific channel needs.

In my last blog post in this four-part series, I will wrap-up with five key takeaways for configuring and using your Marketing Channels reports effectively. Stay tuned for part IV!