The Tag Management System (or TMS for short) landscape is evolving quickly and it’s becoming harder to make sense out of the technical jargon and vendor claims. As a member of the TagMan’s Advisory Board, an early player in the field, I had to wrap my head around this market. So here are the top picks I think you should look into when selecting your vendor – but first, let’s demystify “what is Tag Management”.

Tag Management explained

From TagMan’s website:

“You rely on JavaScript tags to let you measure results from your online marketing campaigns, reward referring channels, and plan future campaigns accordingly. However, without a system for keeping track of the inventory of tags on your site, you can find your web pages littered with dozens of duplicate, outdated and non-functioning tags. This proliferation of tags can be difficult and expensive to manage, and can produce misleading data.”

A tag management system allows you to manage and maintain tags from within a single application, enforcing workflow and processes, leading to many distinct benefits:

  • Accuracy of overall analytics data;
  • Efficiency of adding tags at the right point in the development cycle;
  • Freedom of managing tags from multiple applications, flexibility in adding and testing new tags and reduced dependency on suppliers;
  • Ease-of-use of management through a system specifically designed for the task that free up valuable IT resources;
  • Control of site compliance to technical best practices, privacy and other mandates;
  • Performance improvement in page load time streamlining tags and serving them only when appropriate.

The videos available on the TagMan site makes a good job of visually introducing the concept of tag management, why attribution is so important and how smart tag loading can be beneficial.

1.    Features

It’s a given that all vendors will claim an easy approach to tags management – be it “one tag to rule them all”, “easy containers”, or a “filtering machine” of sort. However, be wary of “set it in half a day and forget it” claims. Along the same lines, thinking you can “get rid of IT” – some marketers dream – is just unrealistic. If, like me, you have some implementation experience behind your belt, you know better: a robust implementation is a serious collaborative endeavor and is never really over. After all, if you couldn’t put those darn tags on every page what makes you think you will because of TMS?

What happens if you want to do anything advanced like custom business rules/logic to for pixel firing beyond the basic “fire a tag based on OnClick behavior”? Advanced tagging is usually required in the applicative section of your site – exactly where IT and your web team can have a critical role to play.

2.    Reliability

There are only a few ways to manage the underlying infrastructure of tag management: hardware middle-tier, on-premise server and cloud-based service. TMS basically introduces a new middleman – you better trust him or you risk not only losing your precious web analytics data, but even your whole site. If using on-premise hardware or on-premise servers, you should seriously consider Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) – especially if the vendor claims to bring more control to marketing by bypassing  IT! If cloud-based, inquire about the cloud service being used, its availability and its performance track record. Going for TMS usually means you are serious about data quality and see it as an asset to the business – do you really want to use a TMS relying on the “cheapest” cloud-service option available or worse, their own unknown in-house infrastructure?

Ask for a detailed mapping of the tag management infrastructure and full disclosure of their partners (ex. Which cloud-service they rely on), their performance and availability track record. If they don’t want to disclose it/don’t have it… you’ve got your answer!

3.    Attribution

Affiliate network offers “pay us only if we deliver an incremental purchase to your business” – this sounds quite appealing. After all, why pay for clicks when you can pay for conversions? Most of those networks strictly work on a “last click” model. The issue is when multiple affiliates claim the same conversion, which is the case as soon as you use more than one partner, leading to siloed views of conversions. A TagMan study from 2009 revealed that, on average, marketers are overpaying 18% of the time [1]. This, in itself, can justify the cost of a solid TMS platform. “By implementing TagMan on its site, Thomas Cook found it could immediately identify which channel and affiliate delivered the ‘last click’ and now saves 25% of its spend on affiliate commissions through effective deduplication.” [2]

4.    Performance

Top or bottom? Sync or not? From a technical standpoint, there’s a significant impact whether the tags loads synchronously/at the top of the page (worse) vs asynchronous containers of synchronous tags (good but not so good!), vs fully asynchronously (best). This is easily exemplified by Google Analytics switch from old/synchronous tags to the new async ones – the newer method provides increased performance and better data quality. You should also be aware Google SERP ranking is impacted by page load performance and errors. Everyone claims they can speed up page load times, yet few have produced any evidence of this [see “Smart Loading Tags to Accelerate Your website’s Performance”]. Optimization is serious R&D work – inquire about the number of in-house, dedicated engineers. Unfortunately, there is a lot of FUD being spread out there. “Async” has become a cliché at this point in the TMS space. There are very big differences in how tags are delivered. Is it truly async tags or just an async container running sync tags? Of course, preventing unnecessary tags load is an easy and important performance lift. How are events and Flash interactions handled? Some vendors will rely on a heavy “listening” script library in order to capture any conditions. This approach basically defeats any potential performance gains brought by the use of TMS for the rest of the page.

5.    Pricing model

This is certainly a sensible point and likely the most difficult to get true figures without going into a formal RFP process – per domain? Per module? Per number of containers being loaded? TagMan’s model is based on this, which is directly aligned with most web analytics vendors’ calls volume pricing. As with any good procurement practice, negotiation is key. Some vendors start with a very high price and suddenly reduce their prices once they see the client starts to slip… one even has to wonder about the ethics of such practice.

My take

The good

Unless your site is very small and marginal, there is no excuse not to look into a solid TMS solution. In the past I have often proposed a JITT (Just In Time Tagging) approach to my clients. A poor man’s approach that falls short in many ways: no management interface, no enforced process and very limited optimization. Lastly, if your online marketing efforts involve more than a single network, it is very likely the lack of proper attribution costs you real dollars.

The bad

I have often heard people rejecting the TMS concept by fear of allowing uneducated marketers throwing out new tags on production sites without proper validation. To the contrary, a serious TMS will enforce and structure a workflow around tag management that can follow strict approval cycles – with a history log.

The other objection I’ve heard is that, basically, a TMS gets access to the DOM of the page, allowing code injection or worse, if the TMS service is compromised unscrupulous code could be injected in pages. From a pure security standpoint this is certainly the case – as it is with any of the numerous scripts being included in your pages today. The huge difference is with dozens of tags on a page, “unplugging” them in case of emergency becomes virtually impossible, while removing a single misbehaving tag – or even stopping the TMS altogether – becomes very easy with a TMS.

The ugly

The worse approach – largely prevailing – is intermingled tags within pages or middle layers closely coupled with the application code. For example, do not use onclick=’fire my tag here’ on links – this will quickly become error prone and a real maintenance nightmare! Slapping new tags on a page can be done in seconds

Now it’s up to you to investigate which TMS platform would answer your needs. While I am personally on the board of TagMan, Cardinal Path works with (and has implemented) several  TMS providers to offer the best tool to address individual client needs.

Update, March 8th, 2012: Some people asked for a list of TMS, here’s a couple: