Customer Data Management, Step Zero: Choosing a Tag Manager

What do you want to do in 2017? Do you want to understand your customers better? Do you want to increase traffic and raise awareness of your product? Do you want to increase sales across different channels? Do you want to reduce churn?

I’d like to do all these things, and I’m guessing you would too. To do this online, we need data on customer experience. Knowing how to gather customer experience data on the web is a foundational skill for data-driven marketers.

The way data is collected on a website is that there are little bits of code, called tags, that keep track of user interactions on a site and send the information to wherever it needs to go. This used to be a laborious nightmare suited only to web developers and engineers. But now we have handy tools called tag managers that cut all this labor down to size, make it possible for marketers to manage data collection themselves, and improve site performance to boot. And the most popular tag manager is free.

So now everyone knows about this and we see universal adoption of tag managers, yes? Um… no. A recent survey of the top online retailers found that 42 percent weren’t using tag managers, and of those 42 percent, a third were running multiple analytics solutions.[1]

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There’s a word for this: It’s called crazy. Why in the world would marketers running multiple analytics solutions not be using tag managers? Nick Iyengar on Martech Today speculates it’s because these e-commerce leaders think the costs of using tag managers outweigh the benefits.[1] And no doubt he’s right about some cases. But I can’t help thinking that, at least for some organizations, there might be another reason related to my last post, which is that the people with the biggest stake in collecting data—marketers—either aren’t aware of the benefits of using a tag manager or don’t know how to use one.

Tag Managers Make Everything Better

Tags are required for every analytics tool, and online advertising networks require you to insert special tags as well. Before tag managers, if a change was made to your site, an engineer would need to go through all the code by hand and update the tags on all of your web pages.

In addition to being labor intensive, a proliferation of tags has another serious downside: They degrade the performance of your site. Every tag is an additional server call that has to be made when a web page loads. The more tags are installed on your site, the slower your pages will load. And website performance matters. Every additional second your website takes to load decreases conversions by seven percent.[2]

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What this means, ironically, is that the same tags used to measure the effectiveness of your website can degrade its effectiveness.

Fortunately, there’s a better way. With a tag manager, you put just one tag on your web pages. Every time you need to install a new tag, you install it in the tag manager software, once. No more laborious installation of tags on every web page; no more re-installation of all your tags every time you make a change to your site.

The single tag you install with your tag manager is actually a container that holds all your other tags. It keeps track of all the user activity on a page and determines which tag to fire when a given action is taken. Whenever you need to install a new tag on your site, you install it just once, using the tag manager dashboard. This has several benefits:

  • Your site runs faster. Tag managers load their code separately from the rest of your site code, resulting in significantly faster load times. Faster page loads lower your bounce rate and improve conversions.[3]
  • Easier maintenance and fewer errors. Since the tag code only needs to be entered once, there’s far less chance of broken web pages and lost data.
  • More accurate analytics. Fewer errors and lost data means less second-guessing whether your data is clean and accurate. And that means you can do more, sooner, with your data.
  • IT doesn’t have to own data collection. Since tags are so easy to manage using a tag manager, anyone with the slightest bit of technical skill can install and update them when necessary. No more waiting for engineering support to start a new campaign or start using a new BI tool—anyone on the marketing team with access to the tag manager can do it.

I’m In! So Which Tag Manager Should I Use?

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In the years leading up to 2012, Tag Management was a hot technology field crowded with players, and companies like Tealium, BrightTag, and Ensighten charged hefty fees for feature-rich enterprise solutions. Then, unfortunately for them, Google launched Google Tag Manager (GTM), at the low, low price of free.[4]

Since then, Google has come out with an enterprise version of GTM, Google Tag Manager 360, which features the ability to create unlimited custom workspaces for advanced version control as well as enterprise-level support.[5] But the truth is that good old free GTM is a flexible and robust tag management system that will serve the needs of all but the largest and most demanding customers. And did we mention it’s free?

The existence of GTM essentially killed the tag manager market, and the companies that survived offered lots of services in addition to tag management, even downplaying that feature entirely, as when BrightTag bought the tiny marketing software company Signal, and then promptly changed its name to Signal.[6][7]

Having said all that, large enterprises still do pay large fees for enterprise tag management solutions, and those solutions, particularly Tealium, have some passionate adherents.[8] Tealium, which now brands itself as a “Data Integration Solution,” differentiates itself from GTM with its customization features, including the ability to collect and manage custom variables, and a large library of plugins that enable its functionality to be extended in various ways.[9]

If you’re a large enterprise shopping for industrial-strength customization capabilities, it pays to consider Tealium and other tag management vendors. There are even companies, such as Segment, that bill themselves as an alternative to tag managers, because they enable data integration from various sources.[10] The fact that Segment uses GTM on their own site, however, makes this a bit of an odd claim.[11][12]

The truth is that services that extend a company’s ability to integrate data, such as Segment and Treasure Data, play extremely well together with GTM. I’ll touch on that in a later post. But all this leads to the bottom line of this post, which is: Unless you are already using a paid platform that includes a tag manager, or are a large corporation that needs to carefully research paid tag managers, you should use Google Tag Manager. It’s powerful, flexible, and so extensible that by the time your needs have reached the point that you need more power, you should easily be able to integrate new solutions with your GTM setup.

In the next post in this series, I’ll show you exactly how easy it is to get started with GTM. Until then, per data ad astra!

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Glenn Thomas Davis
Glenn Thomas Davis
Glenn Thomas Davis is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Treasure Data. He is passionate about critical thinking, metacognition, lifelong learning and agile marketing.
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