Tag Management’s Role In A Data-Driven Future

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tagTraffic accidents are more orderly than the backend of most websites. At any given moment, a multitude of information fires off a page — information about who a visitor is, where she came from, her operating system or device profile, which ads are being served up, which videos are being played, etc.

This has created an opportunity for providers of tag-management systems (TMS), which are designed to organize that explosion of data. Investment in TMS is on the rise: A June 2013 Forrester Research report predicted that by the year’s end, “marketers will spend an average of 9.2% of their marketing budget on tag management, a year-on-year increase of 35%.” Measurable ROI around data distribution will drive this growth.

But this need for measurable ROI around data also catalyzes investments in data tools beyond what TMS has to offer. As a result, companies with marketing clouds or data-management platforms (DMPs) like Adobe, BlueKai, Turn and x+1 have incorporated TMS into their stacks. Like early providers of social media listening tools, the days of TMS companies as standalones seem limited.

Tagging TMS

Tag management emerged to help marketers corral multiple data exchange mechanisms (tags), streamline the spray of backend information and keep it from slowing down a website’s performance. Implemented correctly, TMS enables businesses to provide a better customer experience — knowing immediately, for instance, that an individual visiting a site is responding to an email message about the newest ski gear allows an advertiser to surface a relevant ad around the 2014 model goggles.

The key is that marketers themselves are empowered to make those customer experience decisions. Without a TMS, tags are managed by IT departments. Traditional tag manipulation requires JavaScript coding — not a skill mastered by most marketers.

Unfortunately, IT’s traditional role in the tag-management process creates a number of problems. First, IT staff have responsibilities beyond managing tags and they likely won’t prioritize marketers’ requests to rejigger the way tags are firing. Second, it creates a lengthy process such that if marketers want anything done on the website, they have to relay the request to IT, creating a game of telephone rife with potential miscommunications. And this limits what digital marketers are willing to do.

“Marketers will never try anything remotely challenging when you’re playing a game of telephone,” said Evan LaPointe, director of product management at Adobe Dynamic Tag Management.

Kevin Geraghty, head of analytics at digital agency 360i, said that in the absence of a TMS, his team usually works with a client's IT or dot-com department.

“The tag-management solution is great from the perspective of empowering marketing departments,” Geraghty said. “It’s definitely an improvement in process that we’re almost always happy with. Sometimes we run into incompatibilities [i.e. the TMS must work with a tag requiring a new integration process] that we have to figure out, but it’s not so much an issue anymore. The tag managers have cleaned up their act.”

While Geraghty’s improved experience with different TMS tools demonstrates the technology’s maturation, it also indicates that the nominal function of tag management is becoming commoditized, such that the basic ability to work with tags from numerous vendors and ad networks simply isn’t a differentiator anymore.

“I gotta be honest with you. I can’t think of any time I put tags in that we couldn’t get the data out of them,” Geraghty said.

TMS Vs. DMP

As the traditional points of differentiation become table stakes, the onus is on providers of TMS technologies to find other ways of positioning their products. Pure-play TMS providers are trying to underscore that tag management is, in the words of Jay McCarthy, Tealium's VP of product marketing, “the foundation of all your digital marketing efforts.”

McCarthy said TMS is the beginning of online customer interaction and data collection. “We want to be a rich source of data and we want to fuel other marketing initiatives through the collection and enrichment of visitor data and send it back to the appropriate digital marketing vendors, even to DMPs (data-management platforms).”

TMS providers are quick to point out the complementary nature between TMS and DMPs.

“DMPs ingest data, look for insights and push out those insights,” said Jon Baron, co-founder and CEO of Tagman. “TMS does the data collection at the first-party user level.”

In other words, TMS serves as a collection mechanism for online visitor data coming through desktop or mobile browsers — which it can send to a DMP. A DMP aggregates first- and third-party data coming from disparate sources and intelligently pumps that information to whichever business unit requires it.

Adobe’s LaPointe insisted that the DMP, which unlike TMS requires JavaScript coding to connect with different data sources, “isn’t the end-all, be-all.”

“Say I’m on an iPhone,” he said. “I’m in Salt Lake City and accessing this website from a Google search. I know all of that without touching the DMP. I can make decisions without the DMP.”

[Edit 12/4: LaPointe clarified his quotation, stating that while the TMS and DMP can act independently, the solutions combined are more powerful. "A TMS without a DMP can understand a person in a web browser right now," he said. "You’ll understand they came from a specific traffic source, or what they have in their shopping cart. There are some very powerful scenarios that you can drive from that understanding.

"With a DMP, you’ll understand historical behavior. You might understand what happened in an ad network, or qualitatively about that person based on profiles they’ve filled out or data that you’ve married with a CRM system.

"The point we’re trying to drive is that TMS is extremely powerful and can do a lot on its own. But it’s a quantum jump in sophistication when you add the DMP to the TMS."]

Collecting Functionality

Whether paired with a DMP or not, tag management needs to be part of a greater solution as marketers look for technologies that integrate all channels, not just online.

“The fact is tag management is a wonderful tool, it makes our lives easier, but it’s not a business solution,” 360i’s Geraghty said. This is why some TMS providers have expanded their capabilities beyond the nominal reach of tag management.

Qubit’s flagship product, for instance, might be a TMS but the company emphasizes technologies that optimize conversion rates. Tag management is simply a step in making digital marketing more sophisticated.

“Our initial entry with Qubit was around the attribution element of tag management, so some of the main pain points [were around] the efficiency of getting a tag onto the site,” recalled Rachel Waller, digital marketing manager at online fashion bazaar Farfetch.

What used to take four weeks to manage, Waller said, now happens in a single day, allowing the company to quickly make necessary changes to its marketing channels. As an additional soft benefit, Farfetch has freed up the engineering resources to build out a business intelligence unit.

Farfetch has since expanded its relationship with Qubit, adding the vendor’s conversion optimization tools to see what sort of benefits (like free shipping) pushes conversions for different types of individuals, accounting for factors like location or whether they’re returning or new customers.

But these new capabilities are not traditional TMS capabilities. While its tag-management deployments are still limited — Qubit predicted that the technology will reach 50% penetration by 2017 — TMS as a standalone may soon be a thing of the past.

One reason Farfetch uses Qubit is because the company wanted a single point of contact for its various technologies: analytics, testing, personalization and TMS. One of Qubit’s draws was that it had a full solution, not just a TMS tool. Standalone TMS providers will likely need to do the same — or hope they’re acquired by providers of marketing solutions.

Certainly Tagman's Baron understands the single-provider mentality that benefitted Qubit.

"We are after customers who want fewer vendors," he said. This is why pure play TMS providers like Qubit, Tagman and Tealium have been building out functionality like attribution tools or audience discovery platforms. They are "developing upstream," in Baron's words, while DMP providers like BlueKai, x+1 and Turn develop downstream by building out or acquiring TMS tools. Baron posited that eventually these two worlds will combine and TMS providers will become DMPs.

“There’s probably a need for consolidation,” he said. But even this might not be the TMS tool’s final journey. “The interesting question is whether big marketing companies might buy both DMPs and TMS and bring it closer to the CRM database,” Baron said.

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