A little-known industry until roughly two years ago, tag management is heating up. In 2013, a Forrester report revealed that 96 percent of marketers struggle with customer data integration, and with demand rising quickly, vendors have stepped up to the challenge.
Since last year, funding for new technologies has been free-flowing and acquisitions have been frequent. In November, one of Chicago’s fastest--growing start-ups, BrightTag, secured $27 million in funding and soon after acquired Signal, a customer tracking solution, to strengthen its tag management offering. Ensighten, another tag management system (TMS) player, recently swallowed up TMS pioneer Tagman after securing $40 million in series B funding. And Tealium, which has thus far resisted the call to eat or be eaten, has been making waves as well—Forbes just named it one of America’s most promising companies of 2014, and the Digital Analytics Association called it the Best New Technology of the Year.
“Tag management is becoming big, and at this point, there isn’t really a way around it. It’s evolving, and it should be on every CMO’s mind,” Andrew Jones, an analyst at Altimeter Group, says. But, with a hefty overhead cost and little precedent, marketers are faced with a lot to consider before taking the TMS leap.
What is Tag Management, Anyway?
From email campaigns to social platforms, marketers connect with consumers through various touch points. With vendors offering best-of-breed solutions that target different areas, marketers relying on multiple technologies that track specific parts of the customer journey are limited when it comes to piecing that entire journey together.
No technology vendor currently offers an all-in-one, fully integrated digital intelligence platform, leaving IT and marketing departments responsible for creating cohesive data ecosystems, Forrester analyst James McCormick wrote in a recent report. “The vast majority of organizations already have digital intelligence components in place from existing marketing and analytics efforts,” he explains.
“Most organizations are more likely to retain existing solutions than take on the challenge and risk of replatforming and expecting new technology to integrate with the legacy investments. Marketers pursuing digital intelligence must cooperate with their technology management counterparts to assemble a platform from multiple technology components,” he adds. That, however, is easier said than done.
Every solution that marketers deploy—be it a retargeting tool, a testing platform, or marketing automation software—requires that pieces of proprietary vendor code, called tags, be added and configured to the brand’s Web, app, and email codes. Once embedded, the tags report on the user behaviors they are assigned to track, such as a click on a designated part of a landing page.
Though this works on a small scale, companies that rely on upward of 10 solutions find that as tags are modified or added and digital properties are redesigned, the code becomes too unruly to manage. This makes even the smallest updates challenging for IT departments, which means longer wait times for marketers. What makes it worse, however, is that even if the increasingly tangled web of code works perfectly, it’s programmed to collect data on different user behaviors and compile it in disparate databases—there’s no unified view and marketers must toggle between solutions to get a full sense of the picture. Built to bring clarity to this chaos, tag management software promises to diffuse the glitch-prone mess of code by unifying all the tags and making them easy to monitor and analyze in a single data layer.
Once implemented, a TMS largely puts jurisdiction over tags into the hands of marketers, who can then use the solution to deploy tags with limited IT involvement. “Deploying a new tag or making a tag modification in a tag management system typically involves very little coding, and marketers can do it themselves. This limits the number of hands that the code touches, which also makes it less susceptible to errors and misfires,” Jones says.
Tags are notorious for slowing down Web site load times, especially when there are too many on a page, or they’re all firing at once. Often, tags are set up to load before page content, which can also contribute to a significant lag time. Tag management systems, however, serve tags asynchronously, meaning they are loaded at the same time as other content. This ensures that page elements load and display on the front end, regardless of any tag failure on the back end. Otherwise, Jones explains, a broken tag can prevent the entire site from loading, and leave customers staring at a blank page or an error message.
Tag management systems also boost accuracy by constantly parsing code to catch tags that are performing incorrectly or not firing commands at all. “Everyone is prone to human error, and it can be tough for a person to catch a tag that’s programmed twice, or notice that one line of code is conflicting with another and causing both tags to fail. Tag management automates all that and either corrects the problem, or masks it on the front end until the back-end issue can be resolved,” Jones adds.
Choosing the Right Tag Tools
Even the most basic tag management solutions can make a major difference for marketers by bringing a level of organization to data management that’s otherwise tough to attain. Ensighten, for example, worked with Sony when the electronics giant realized that its seven-year-old Web site was long overdue for a redesign. Before deploying Ensighten’s tag management solution, Sony relied heavily on its IT department to implement any new tags or code, and the marketing team struggled to understand the customer path and track how different campaigns were working.
Ensighten’s tag management technology enabled Sony’s digital marketers to add tags and new functionalities to the site easily, cut down on costs, and make data management more efficient. Almost immediately, Sony noticed an improvement in data quality, and was able to take advantage of faster collection of data and optimization of marketing campaigns, as well as in-depth psychological and demographic analyses of shopper types. With all of Sony’s tags unified across its various digital touch points, content load time and performance improved as well. After just one year, Sony’s return on investment was 18 times greater than what the company initially spent on the technology, according to a company statement.
TMS vendors with broader solutions, however, have even more to offer. While the space is still maturing, some players are already a cut above the rest. According to McCormick, they’re pushing the boundaries of tag management with solutions that play a “critical role in supporting marketing analytics solutions, integrating digital data, and serving as the foundational element in an organization’s data layer.”
A steady presence on most tag management shortlists, BrightTag (which has rebranded as Signal after completing its acquisition) is a notable vendor in the space, Jones and McCormick agree. Though it started out with just a basic tag management offering, the company has since augmented its enterprise solution with Fuse, a feature that collects and connects online and offline consumer information across devices and makes it actionable from a marketing perspective.
The tool can “sense when a visitor enters the Web site, apply a first-party cookie, and use pre-established rules to determine not only whether a visitor is a customer, but also who that customer is,” Joe Stanhope, senior vice president of marketing at Signal, says. “Fuse can then use the predefined rules to initiate an action, such as sending that customer’s data to the retargeting vendor, all in real time,” he adds. This process is unlike the standard industry practice, which involves using a third-party cookie and resetting its value during the customer’s next visit to the site, according to Stanhope.
Flash sale e-retailer Rue La La was an early adopter of the Fuse technology, and noticed a significant boost in conversion after implementing the solution. The company began working with Signal Fuse to re-engage dormant customers, and decided that the best approach would be to target those customers with relevant display ads. Executing the campaign, however, meant matching a customer’s profile within Rue La La’s CRM solution to that same customer’s profile stored by the company’s retargeting vendor—that’s where Fuse came in. After the implementation was rolled out, Rue La La experienced a 10 percent increase in conversion among dormant customers, and saw its time-to-match drop from three weeks to a few seconds.
With Fuse, Signal is extending its capabilities beyond the scope of just tag management, and into the realm of marketing, providing not only a single point of intersection for the various types of data that individual vendor tags collect, but also serving as a link between that data and marketing initiatives. In June, Signal announced that it would be developing Fuse further to create an open data platform that would make it even easier for users to share consumer behavior signals with all the other marketing partners in real time. Though the details are still being ironed out as this issue is going to press, Stanhope says that Signal’s overall direction represents a pivot point for the tag management space.
“We’re seeing a definite shift in tag management. It’s moving further away from being a strictly IT or technology implementation tool, and towards a foundational element of marketing. Making data cohesive and actionable is something that marketers have historically struggled with, and they’re seeing now that tag management can eliminate that headache for them by making data that used to just sit somewhere really usable and valuable,” Stanhope adds.
But Signal isn’t the only one making strides. Another frontrunner in the space, Tealium was among the first to harness the marketing potential that tag management solutions have to offer. In September 2013, the company introduced AudienceStream, which uses gamification to help marketers segment their most actionable audiences. The tool allows marketers to assign badges based on customizable criteria—such as how long a customer spends on a brand’s Web site—and gives them the capability to distribute those segments to digital marketing solutions that will trigger real-time marketing actions based on behavior.
Marketers can carry out all facets of their real-time segmentation and distribution strategies themselves by following a wizard that guides them through the process of defining audience groups, determining appropriate actions for different customer behaviors, and feeding those actionable segments to an email marketing provider, a CRM solution, or any other relevant platform.
“The tool is very intuitive and easy to use. Many of the prompts are customizable, meaning a marketer can adjust any of the categories to better fit his needs,” Erik Bratt, Tealium’s vice president of marketing, says. “We’re giving marketers the power to make sense of all the data they collect, and use it in a meaningful way.”
Ancestry.com, a company that helps users trace family histories, became a Tealium customer in June 2013, and has been using the vendor’s tag management solution to strengthen its marketing arm. In the first week of working with Tealium, Ancestry.com was able to get more tags live than it did over a period of seven months, Mark Fiske, senior director of digital marketing at Ancestry.com, recalls. Before working with Tealium, Ancestry.com relied on roughly 50 tags, but has added more than 150 to its data layer. Now the company is in the middle of the integration process for Audience-Stream, and is already seeing results.
“AudienceStream allows us to standardize the definition of different segments across all of our marketing channels and create a truly unified view of that customer for the first time,” Fiske says.
In the past, it took Ancestry.com roughly 24 to 48 hours to make any changes to email marketing messages because collecting data, analyzing it, and forwarding it to an email marketing solution was so complex, but Tealium’s technology cut the process down to three to four seconds by streamlining it with limited IT involvement. Ultimately, the tag-based approach to defining audience groups allowed Ancestry.com to start effecting changes in marketing messaging across all of its channels immediately, according to Fiske.
“We’re able to use a lot more of the data that’s available to influence our marketing across channels where we previously weren’t able to, and have that richness of data and richness of interaction with the customer,” he explains.
Since launching AudienceStream last year, Tealium has continued to innovate, creating what the company calls “the industry’s first data layer wizard.” While a TMS would ultimately put tag management into the hands of marketers, the initial implementation of a traditional system would still largely rely on IT. Tealium’s wizard, however, is designed to help marketers tackle that TMS implementation hurdle, and take more control of weaving their digital technology stack through tag management to create a deeply customized marketing cloud.
The wizard guides users through a series of steps to bring different solutions and applications together, grouping them into bundles sorted by channel and platform. The result is a comprehensive data layer, presented in “one common language” and one interface that enables marketers to “mix and match” their solutions across vendors, Jay McCarthy, vice president of product at Tealium, explains. Tealium’s goal, Chief Marketing Officer Tracey Hansen adds, is to provide customers with a do-it-yourself approach to the marketing cloud.
“We don’t want clients to be limited by the marketing clouds that big vendors like Salesforce.com or Adobe have built. We want to give them the chance to build their own marketing cloud, and give them the freedom to choose any number of solutions that work for them,” Hansen says. “Some customers are able to get what they need from just a few vendors and have fifteen to twenty tags on their sites, but many have hundreds of tags in place,” she adds. Currently, Tealium supports almost 700 vendor tag integrations, which makes adding a new solution or building an entirely customized marketing cloud “super simple,” Hansen says.
A Word of Caution
Despite the simplicity and depth of functionality that the industry’s top tag management solutions can offer, even the most powerful tag tools can’t solve the entire data dilemma that most companies face. While a tag management solution can help with organizing data and making it actionable, it’s up to marketers to harness insight and determine which actions to take.
“Tag management solutions can get you a ton of good information, but marketers have to make sure that their companies are actually set up to use that information. Once you get the data, you have to analyze it, visualize it, and act on it,” Scott Houchin, managing principal at eClerx, a company that provides operational support, data management, and analytics solutions, says. “Otherwise you could be spending over 10 percent of your marketing budget on tag management, and end up with all this data that you’re not acting on. That would be a total waste,” he adds.
Though tag management is not an “easy fix” for a complex problem, a powerful tag management solution could “get you halfway there,” according to Altimeter Group’s Jones. The space is maturing quickly, and so is adoption. With the right combination of business intelligence and marketing solutions to take full advantage of its capabilities, tag management can become the cornerstone of a brand’s marketing technology stack. “At this point, it’s plain and simple: You need tag management,” Jones says.
Maria Minsker can be reached at email@example.com.