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Extending the Google Analytics measurement platform with Custom Variables (Part 1 of 3)

Monday, April 11, 2011 | 11:23 AM

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Custom Variables allow website owners to extend Google Analytics’ measurement capabilities and track information that is meaningful to them. In this series of three articles, Barbara Pezzi, Director of Analytics and Search Optimisation for Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, shares how she makes use of custom variables to understand how to engage more effectively with her customers. – Ed.

One of the latest features of Google Analytics that I’m excited about is Custom Variables. Google Analytics has a very extensive list of default dimensions and metrics, such as time on site and traffic sources, that it tracks for your website. While these dimensions and metrics cover most websites’ needs, every website and business is unique, with its own set of objectives and goals. You might want to track certain visitor segments or user behaviour that is not reflected in the default set of metrics.

Custom variables allow you to extend Google Analytics’ default metrics and dimensions to track information that is meaningful to you by labelling interactions with your site at three levels: visitor, session and page. You can then segments and run custom reports based on these variables. You can learn all about the technical implementation of custom variables in the Google Analytics Code Site.

The possibilities are endless with custom variables. You could for example:

  • identify segments of visitors based on a specific landing page that they visited
  • identify staff-visits vs non-staff visits
  • identify and analyse sessions during which a visitor posted a comment on your blog or subscribed to your newsletter
We use custom variables for a number of purposes on our Fairmont and Swissotel websites. Over the next few weeks, I will walk you through three examples, one for each variable type (visitor, session, page).


Loyalty Members – Visitor-level custom variables
A segment of our customers that we focus on because of their value to us are our loyalty program members. When a customer signs up to our Club Swiss Gold program, they start as a ‘Classic’ member, and then progress to become an ‘Elite’ member.

We want to understand the difference in behaviour and purchase patterns between our Classic and Elite members. Google Analytics can’t easily provide us with that insight by default, but with visit-level custom variables, we can answer this question.

Visitor-level custom variables allows us to distinguish categories of visitors across multiple sessions. We are essentially bucketing our users into our own custom categories. Visitor-level custom variables are best used for attributes of a visitor, such as their membership level or product preference, that you wish to track over multiple visits.

On our Swissotel site, we set the visitor-level custom variable whenever a member logs in by inserting a line of code into our Google Analytics tracking code. The code involved is very simple: a single function placed above the _trackPageview() call on the same page:

_gaq.push(['_setCustomVar', 1, 'Membership', 'logged_in_classic', 1]);


We are now able to distinguish between members and non-members as well as membership levels. Within the custom variable report, I can now see at a glance information like site usage, goal conversion data, and ecommerce data, which is broken down by membership levels.

I can use this custom variable to create an advanced segment for additional insights, such as countries of our classic members and conversion rates across countries. We use these insights to identify any potential deficiencies in language coverage or regional product preference.


Or, we can look at which property classic members book the most and use that insight to create more offers for popular hotels and increase bookings for less popular properties.


We are now in the process of updating our loyalty program, and these insights are invaluable in helping us make improvements based on our customers’ preferences.

Stay tuned for part two of this series, in which I’ll cover how we use session-level custom variables on Fairmont’s sites.

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