Tag management, at its core, is a relatively straightforward marketing technology — but one that has taken on new life with the rise of the home-grown, heterogeneous marketing cloud.
First, a brief orientation on tag management:
Many marketing software applications require marketers to insert little snippets of code — “tags” — into their web pages to enable things like visitor analytics, remarketing, A/B testing, visitor profiling, personalization, etc. Large sites can end up with dozens of these things.
While adding or editing a tag isn’t rocket science, it is an enormous pain in the rear to do it manually at speed and scale. And it has to be done carefully — a malformed tag, such as a missing quote or semicolon in the wrong place, can break your pages. Hunting down which tag broke which page can be a study in tedium. And if you have to rely on a third-party to do this for you — your IT department or an external agency — the time required to make a “simple” tag change can seem interminable. (“We’ll schedule that urgent tag change for you, mmm, two weeks from Thursday, okay?”)
The solution: tag management systems. Insert a single “container tag” on all your pages once. The tag management system then uses that to dynamically insert (“fire”) all the other tags you might want on a particular page. You can control which tags are fired on which pages in your tag management console — no need for anyone to go digging into the pages themselves to add or edit tags. It makes it faster, easier, and (to a certain degree) safer.
That’s helpful. But the real game changer in tag management was the data layer.
Think of the data layer as a shared whiteboard on your pages that your different marketing software packages can read and write to. You can write (“push”) into the data layer all kinds of programmatic information about the page, the visitor, the context in which they arrived at that page, their behaviors on the page, etc. The tag management system — and all the tags for other marketing applications contained within it — can then read that shared data.
Through this shared data layer, tag management lets you synchronize data among many different marketing software packages — without those packages having to talk directly to each other.
It’s a clever integration technique.
And it’s why I think of tag management as quintessential marketing middleware. It’s marketing software that helps your other marketing software work together better.
Of course, it has limits. It can only synchronize data shared through that data layer. Once the data gets shipped off to different destinations, those copies of the data may diverge independently. And configuring all the reading and writing of data can grow complex, particularly if you have different rules for what data is being shared on different pages.
- Slick user interfaces, such as drag-and-drop integration with hundreds of other marketing software products and graphical ways of taming the complexity of all the rules for when and where to fire tags and which data to pass along to each.
- In addition to acting as the switchboard for routing data to other marketing systems, distilling all the data themselves into a master repository of audience insight.
There’s intense competition in that second cluster. CRMs, marketing automation platforms, data management platforms (DMPs), customer data platforms (CDPs), etc. are all vying to be the “go to” source for that insight. But by inherently being on the front-line across a wide spectrum of digital touchpoints, tag management is in a strategically advantageous position to innovate with all the data it has access to first-hand.
It’s “marketing middleware with benefits” — as it not only helps distribute data across the rest of your marketing technology stack, it also delivers its own value-added insights to the river of data flowing through it.
Note that several of the big marketing cloud providers — notably Adobe and IBM — have incorporated tag management into their portfolios. However, not all of the marketing cloud players have their own tag management, and few seem to have leveraged the second-order effects of that layer to same degree as their leading independent counterparts.
It will be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next year. Perhaps even more interesting now that Google is offering its own free tag management solution too, another step into the enterprise beyond its foothold with Google Analytics. (Am I crazy to think that Google may yet enter the full “marketing cloud” business itself someday?)
But the independent tag management providers have now become some of the greatest advocates for the “build your own marketing cloud” movement. They are, indeed, a key enabler for companies to make heterogeneous marketing technology environments work — which, as I’ve written before, gives the marketer more control over their own destiny. This post was inspired by reading a great little guidebook by Tealium, Five Reasons to Build Your Own Marketing Cloud, which includes the illustration featured at the top of this post, and succinctly makes the BYOMC case.
I should also mention that Tealium has signed on as a sponsor for MarTech. And if you’re interested in the trade-offs of whether to build or buy your own marketing cloud, you should come to the event to hear Travis Wright, an independent marketing technology advisor, give a terrific presentation on that very question.