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GA4 Transition: Expectation Setting for DMOs

By Mason Furr

May 11, 2023

GA4 Transition expectations

No doubt, the Google Analytics 4 (GA4) transition for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) is a hot topic. 

Bridging the gap between how performance has been reported with how it will be in the future requires a transition from the old and a connection to the new. 

Google’s Universal Analytics (UA) has been a reliable source of marketing analytics for travel and tourism websites for more than ten years. However, Universal Analytics is sunsetting and new data will no longer be tracked as of July 1, 2023, and historical data will be available only until July 1, 2024.

With the transition starting to really take hold, what should you expect? After all, the two analytics platforms are quite different despite having a shared DNA. Everything should be smooth, yeah?

Not necessarily. 

There are fundamental differences between the two platforms that could impact everything from forecasting to strategic planning to access to historical data. 

Google Analytics 4 vs. Universal Analytics

While GA4 and Universal Analytics may share some similarities, they are undoubtedly distinct from each other. The key differences are:

  • GA4 is event-driven, meaning all user interactions on a website are tracked as events, while Universal Analytics relies on pageviews as its primary metric.
  • GA4 provides better cross-device tracking, allowing businesses to track user behavior across multiple devices and platforms for those that enable User ID views.
  • GA4 offers more granular data controls, allowing businesses to define and track custom events and user properties.
  • GA4 includes advanced machine learning capabilities, such as predictive analytics and automated insights, to help businesses better understand their customers and improve their marketing strategies.

These differences reveal the benefits of GA4 for DMOs:

  • Better data accuracy and consistency, which helps DMOs and stakeholders make more informed decisions.
  • Improved cross-device tracking provides a more complete view of visitor behavior.
  • Advanced analytics capabilities, such as predictive analytics, help DMOs better understand their visitors and improve their marketing strategies.
  • More granular data controls allow DMOs to track custom events and user properties specific to the tourism industry, including seasonal goals.

Setting GA4 Transition Expectations for DMOs

When people are faced with uncertainty or change, they may experience fear, anxiety and resistance. And after more than a decade of Universal Analytics, there’s bound to be plenty of all three when it comes to web analytics for everyone from executive leadership to internal marketing teams to external stakeholders.

Setting the expectations now can help to build trust and confidence among stakeholders, reduce resistance to the change and ultimately, increase the chances of a successful transition to GA4.

An article from Search Engine Journal lays out 12 expectations marketers should know to understand the differences between GA4 and Universal Analytics. While all expectations are justified, a few are more relevant to DMOs in telling the theory of their impact. 

More Setup than Universal Analytics

While Google’s Universal Analytics wasn’t entirely “plug and play,” it was relatively straightforward compared to GA4. GA4 requires significantly more planning and setup time. The article quotes analytics professional Alan K’necht, “Google followed the 80-20 rule. They saw that 80% of their users were only using 20% of their reports and scrapped the other 80%. ‘Sorry’ if that was one that people were using. You now need to create a custom report.”

GA4 Turns All Actions into Events

In Universal Analytics, only a few specific site actions were set up to count as events, whereas, in GA4, everything is considered an event, including pageviews, session starts, clicks, video progression and more. Essentially, everything that is worth measuring in GA4 is an event.

Unreliable Yearly Data Comparison 

There was a big push to get marketers to transition to GA4 by July 1, 2022, to ensure comparable year-over-year data beginning in July 2023. If you had both platforms, Universal Analytics and GA4, running side-by-side, you’ll notice the numbers don’t match. This gets to a core difference, GA4 is meant to measure trends, not exact numbers. It’s worth noting that there has never been a one-to-one ratio of analytics data between products. The numbers between platforms will never match perfectly based on individual calculations and algorithms for tracking.

No Annotations are Included in the Interface

Annotations, a much-loved feature from Google’s Universal Analytics, is missing from the GA4 interface. Annotations made it easy to manually record any unusual events, like a traffic spike so that users in the future could understand what happened. Until this feature is added back, keeping a separate list to document annotations will have to be done.

Fewer Freebies, Shorter Storage 

Google has reduced the amount of free services available, including data storage which is now capped at 14 months. Instead, businesses are given a smaller, free version of BigQuery to store data until it is full, which is typically several years for most businesses. A paid version of BigQuery is available for additional storage needs. It is also important to note here that storage costs will grow over time with each month’s data stacked on top of all the previously saved data. 

Power Users: Time to Master BigQuery

Larger organizations can now leverage BigQuery and combine data from other sources, like a CRM, for example, for a fuller view of their analytics. GA4 natively connects to BigQuery for free, but other sources may require SQL, a relatively easy programming language to learn but one that might be unfamiliar to many marketers. Marketing analysts should become familiar with BigQuery and SQL for maximum benefits as their sites grow.

Data Modeling Fills in the Gaps

Data modeling in GA4 can fill data loss gaps caused by users opting out of cookies. Websites, especially those impacted by GDPR, CCPA and other privacy regulations, should start testing this feature. The modeling can account for traffic drops caused by changes in privacy updates, such as iOS updates, and help maintain accurate data tracking.

A Few More Expectations to Set

The Search Engine Journal article comprehensively outlines a few of the changes to expect, but there were a few noticeably missing. 

Recurring Email Reports are Out

GA4 lacks the option for recurring email reports. While less email might be a good thing for most people, this feature saves significant time and guarantees timely performance reports without additional work. 

Leverage Other Platforms

GA4 and Universal Analytics are helpful models for identifying website performance, but they don’t provide exact reports on every visitor. For precise metrics like how many visitor guides were downloaded or how many users signed up for the newsletter, metrics from the DMO’s CRM or ESP are going to provide an exact number of what happened. 

GA4 is a Bridge to the Future

Whether your DMO is ready or not, Universal Analytics will stop recording data on July 1, 2023. Getting ready for this day requires more than just technical setup and changes. Important conversations should happen within the team to be ready to understand performance. 

Feeling anxious or paralyzed by the change? Not sure how you’ll tell your DMO’s performance story? Reach out to Noble Studios today, and, as a Certified Google Partner Agency, we can help you make the most of the GA4 future, including GA4 setup, audits and advanced configurations

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