Google Analytics 4: A Guide for Nonprofits — Plus 4 Steps to Upgrade Now
Google’s Universal Analytics — the version of Google Analytics that most nonprofit websites still use – will stop processing data on July 1, 2023. From that point on, only organizations that have installed the newer version, Google Analytics 4, on their websites and apps will continue to receive Google Analytics user behavior data.
Google Analytics 4 isn’t just a small update to Universal Analytics. It’s a new paradigm and way of thinking that’s not necessarily intuitive to even experienced Universal Analytics users.
As such, while it’s designed to improve our understanding of prospective donor behavior, in the short-term, the forced shift to Google Analytics 4 is a disruptor to both immediate users of Google Analytics and higher-ups who rely on the analytics and insights derived from it. This includes fundraisers and nonprofit leaders.
Five New Features of Google Analytics 4
If you’ve used Google Analytics for years, you might expect to be able to open Google Analytics 4 and make sense of it. How hard can it be, right?
Actually, Google Analytics 4 is fundamentally different to previous versions in a number of ways that will make it harder for many to pick up and use without some training, so I’ll uncover some of those key features and how they’re relevant to fundraisers and nonprofit professionals.
1. New Report Structure and Metrics
While there are familiar elements throughout the Google Analytics 4 interface, the structure of reports has fundamentally changed. The main menu has evolved from the Universal Analytics structure to the simplified Google Analytics 4 format.
In Google Analytics 4, the “Reports” menu item expands into a sub-menu that focuses on the supporter life cycle and user information. Three of the four life-cycle stages — “Acquisition,” “Engagement” and “Monetization” — then expand further into a number of further sub-reports.
The overview report of each stage includes a limited number of summary cards presenting top-level metrics that answer common business questions about user behavior. Click on these widgets to jump to a more detailed report page on that specific metric. So, for example, in the “Acquisition overview” report, click on the “View user acquisition” link to jump to that report page.
Google has drastically consolidated the number of default report pages. In doing this, it feels like Google is trying to simplify access to the basic reports that the majority of users are looking for. If you want to dig deeper with your analysis, set up custom reports or dive into the “Explore” section.
The terminology and metrics in Google Analytics 4 reports has also evolved a lot from Universal Analytics, focusing more on events, engagement and user metrics, and less on volume metrics, like page views. For example, an “engaged session” is a session that lasts 10 seconds or longer, or includes at least one conversion event or more than one page view. “Engaged sessions” is prominent in the “Engagement overview” report, and is used to calculate other metrics, like engagement rate.
Overall, in terms of structure and metrics, it seems that Google is trying to push organizations to:
- Think strategically about customer life cycles and more meaningful metrics.
- Simplify access to basic reporting metrics.
Fundraisers are no strangers to life-cycle thinking. Strategizing journeys from prospecting/engagement to donor acquisition and retention is our bread and butter. But some fundraisers need to evolve their supporter relationship thinking from a direct mail cycle paradigm to the modern, digital paradigm.
So for example, rather than looking at donor conversion as the point at which a meaningful relationship starts, we can follow Google’s perspective on the first touch point as the moment a (non-financial) supporter is acquired. Following this, Google Analytics 4’s life-cycle stages can be translated to nonprofit supporter life-cycle stages.
|Google Analytics 4 Life-Cycle Stage||Supporter Life-Cycle Stage|
|Acquisition||Lead generation or online community growth (including first website visit, social media interaction/follow, etc.)|
If you want to delve deeper than the simplified “Reports” section, you can start an exploration in Google Analytics 4’s new “Explore” section.
According to Google, an exploration is an “advanced technique that goes beyond standard reports to help you uncover deeper insights about your customers' behavior.” Explorations allow you to take your analysis beyond the level of standard reports, digging deeper and more flexibly into the data.
Google provides six exploration templates along with a “Free form” from which you can start a new, blank slate exploration from scratch.
Most templates are evolved versions of Universal Analytics reports. For example, “Path exploration” borrows from the Universal Analytics “Behavior Flow” report, but features nicer interactivity and allows you to cut the data flexibly with metrics, dimensions, user segments and other settings.
Explorations are prominent and take up a fair bit of real estate in the Google Analytics 4 property. Again, it seems like Google is trying to raise the general level of user behavior analysis. It’s a challenge to Google Analytics users to up our collective game.
Mastering these reports certainly will up the game of fundraisers who can get their heads around them. If you want to master digital marketing, the concepts in the six exploration reports are a great foundation.
3. New Data Model: Events
One of the biggest components of the Google Analytics paradigm shift is the data model. Whereas Universal Analytics uses a session-based model that groups user interactions, Google Analytics 4 is based on standalone events.
Events aren’t a new concept in Google Analytics. Experienced users will know that configurable events have been a part of Universal Analytics for years. They can be thought of as interactions that the user has with your website, or milestones the user reaches in your funnels, like clicking on a specific button (for example, “submit my donation”) or reaching a certain part of a form.
The difference is that in Google Analytics 4, Google has shifted to all interactions being classed as events. The platform can track certain interactions by default — page views, scrolls, outbound clicks, site search, video engagement and file downloads. And then with some further setup, you can track any other interaction you want as an event.
This may not make much sense to novice Google Analytics users, but the conceptual shift is profound. Again, it seems to me that Google is pushing us to think more strategically about the behavior of people on websites and apps.
Rather than thinking about how many times a page was viewed, for example, Google wants to push what people are doing more to the fore, and force us to think more in terms of the little interactions that together can tell us more insightful stories about supporter engagement and development.
Fundraisers who get their heads around Google Analytics 4 events — and how to configure and use them to understand supporter journeys — will be better equipped to optimize their online funnels, processes and forms to maximize engagement and fundraising.
4. Cross-Platform Reporting
Another major shift in Google Analytics 4 is its consolidation of customer behavior into a single view across all an organization’s platforms and devices. This is huge for organizations that run Android and iOS apps next to websites, as customers nowadays have complex cross-device behaviors; for example many of us do piecemeal research on one or two devices over several weeks or more before making a purchase on a third device.
Of course, it’s less relevant to the majority of nonprofits that have just a single website and no mobile apps or other properties. But even in this case, Google Analytics 4 may still provide more accurate intelligence on how your supporters use your website across multiple devices, like in a segment overlay exploration.
To achieve this cross-platform view, Google uses a hierarchy of identity spaces, including website/app user IDs, Google signals (data from people signed into Google) and device IDs.
The proportion of total donations made online nowadays is significant for most charities. A stronger understanding of how donors and prospects are using your website (and apps if they’ve got them) across different devices better positions you to optimize user journeys and cross-device funnels for conversion.
5. Automated Insights and Predictions
Analytics intelligence is a “set of features that uses machine learning and conditions you configure to help you understand and act on your data.” It uncovers insights, which are intended to help you find anomalies, trends, trend changes and predictions that flag opportunities or issues for further analysis. Insights can be automatically derived by Google or custom-defined by you.
While analytics intelligence and insights are also features of Universal Analytics, it feels like they’re being brought more to the fore. In Google Analytics 4, they have their own dashboard, linked from the homepage, and are gradually being made more prominent across the platform.
Google is also more frequently promoting the use of the search bar to pose human language questions. For example, “How did organic search traffic last week compare to the week before?” yields a straightforward answer.
Google Analytics 4 requires a minimum volume of data sent through the platform to start producing insights, and will produce more as that volume of data increases. So don’t expect it to start producing insights from day No. 1. It’ll take some time, especially if you have a lower volume website.
To be honest, I have yet to see Google provide “insights” deeper than what a simple glance at the data would tell you. Taking the example below, I could see from a standard traffic source report that views from the source “Google” dropped significantly toward the end of the reporting period. The fact that it’s slightly lower than the lower end of Google’s prediction range doesn’t tell us anything really, unless we really dug into how it derived that range.
To be fair, the insight does flag something that’s worth looking into, namely “Why is our organic traffic dropping so much?” But you or your digital team should be looking at traffic source reports regularly and spotting these clearly visible trends. That’s not a complex or hidden metric.
However, while the jury is out on the current utility of automated analytics insights, these should become more useful as the system gathers more data, and it sees what you interact with and report on. Artificial intelligence is the way of the future; its output will increase in utility and value as it learns and becomes more sophisticated.
Four Steps to Transition Your Nonprofit to Google Analytics 4
What you need now isn’t more information, but a list of next steps you need to take to start using Google Analytics 4. Here’s that list:
1. Install Google Analytics 4 Code ASAP
With less than a year to go before Universal Analytics stops processing data, install Google Analytics code on your website today.
Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics are not mutually exclusive. You can have them both running side-by-side. In fact, it’s preferable to have a period of overlap during which you still have the familiar Universal Analytics reports to fall back on while learning the Google Analytics 4 reports.
2. Use It and Learn Regularly
Once you have it installed, spend the time in these two areas weekly, and you’ll steadily build your mastery.
- Use it. Go into your Google Analytics 4 property and start using reports, explorations and other features.
- Learn. Run through explainer articles and videos on features you want to know more about.
There are tons of good learning resources, informative articles and videos out there. Google promotes the Skillshop courses on Google Analytics 4, but there are more out there to suit every learning style.
3. Determine How to Customize Events for Your Unique Case
Events are super important in Google Analytics 4, which tracks six types of events by default. But you’ll want to go further than that to maximize insights you can use to optimize your results.
Working with a colleague or two, map out the primary business objectives of your website and the user tasks that deliver on those objectives. Then identify all of the small decisions and steps a user takes in the journeys to complete those tasks. That’s a good start for a list of tailored event candidates.
You might want support from an expert who can advise on event configuration best practices and guide you based on experience.
4. Export Data From Universal Analytics
You may want to review your old website analytics reports or run queries on your Universal Analytics data at some time in the future. Therefore, it is a good idea to export Universal Analytics data and reports to ensure you have access to them into the future.
You can do this via common Universal Analytics report export methods or the Google Sheet plugin. If your technical data skills are more advanced, you can also export your data to BigQuery. Unfortunately, you can’t import your Universal Analytics data to Google Analytics 4 as the two systems are based on different data models.
Google Analytics 4 isn’t coming. It’s here now. If you haven’t started using it, you need to do so or migrate to another analytics program very soon.
While the paradigm shift entails a steep learning curve for some, there are benefits. Google Analytics 4 is designed to deliver more actionable insight on how your supporters interact with your digital properties, which should allow you to optimize your fundraising and engagement results. Google also seems to be promoting more strategic ways of thinking about the supporter life cycle and journeys.
If you haven’t already, take action today to get Google Analytics 4 code installed across your website.
James Herlihy has spent more than 16 years in the nonprofit digital space, founding and developing digital teams at nonprofits (including Amnesty International and ActionAid) and agencies in Australia and Europe. He has held roles from senior management to consultant, digital production and marketing, and has been active in strategy and product development. He has run digital campaigns on every continent, with standout projects including Soi Dog’s “I Didn’t Know” campaign, which acquired more than 110,000 donors, millions of dollars in revenue and achieved significant real-world change for animal welfare in South-East Asia.
James is a thought-leader in the digital nonprofit space, regularly publishing articles in international fundraising media and presenting at conferences and in webinars. He is also active in the cryptocurrency and blockchain space, working part-time as a core contributor to web3 startup, Amasa.