A Developer’s Perspective on Features Every Tag Management System Should Offer
Almost 2 years ago I wrote a blog post on some of the major questions companies face when choosing a tag management system. I very carefully crafted a post that talked about the main trends in the industry and some of the strengths of the major products in the industry. I wasn’t prepared for the response that post received, though in hindsight I should have been: I heard from nearly all the major TMS companies, and each seemed to feel a lot more strongly about any perceived weaknesses I mentioned than about any of the strengths. But that post taught me an important lesson about the weight that a Demystified opinion can carry throughout the analytics community, and about the competitive nature of the tag management space.
Since then, I have chosen my words very carefully when mentioning any of the 5 leading tag management systems. I always preface my comments by saying that we have clients using all of them, and doing so quite successfully. I even refer to the companies by listing them in alphabetical order, and then explain the reason for the order I have chosen – lest anyone think it’s an unofficial ranking of my fondness for any of them (in this regard, DTM benefited a lot more from its acquisition by Adobe than Signal did by rebranding!).
However, seeing how I lead Demystified’s tag management practice, it’s probably time to dangle a toe back in treacherous water. I’d like to provide a list of what I call “essential features” that any tag management system should offer. In some cases, the feature is offered by all of them, and in others, by only one or two – but I will leave you to research that, rather than pointing it out for you. A few caveats before I get started:
- You’ll find no mention at all of delivery network (100% client-side versus client/server hybrid). I find that both approaches offer such a dramatic improvement in page performance over traditional tagging that I have little interest in picking nits one way or the other.
- I feel similarly about the synchronous/asynchronous argument as well. There are compelling reasons for both, but you can deploy any system either way (though it may go against the vendor’s best practices). Just remember to make it clear to each vendor you talk to if you plan on deploying synchronous tags (like an A/B testing tag) through their system, and find out whether such tags are supported, and any special considerations for implementing them.
Creating a list like this is a bit tricky because some of the tools are free. While it’s obviously much more palatable to forego a particular feature when you’re not paying for the tool, there are some features that are important enough to me that I’d have to have them whether the tool was free or not. Without further ado, here is my list of essential tag management features:
3. The ability to handle frequent, repetitive tasks without a developer. The original promise of tag management was that you could add third-party tags to your site without a developer. The past few years have proven the fallacy of that idea – but it sure is nice to let your marketers make basic changes to tags. If you decide you want to capture the page title in an Adobe eVar, or that you need to pass the product name to Adwords or DFA, those are simple changes you shouldn’t have to send to a developer. It should be easy to get data you already have (and have already configured in your TMS) to other vendors that want it.
4. The ability to send the same data in a slightly different format with little effort. If you’ve spent even the slightest time looking at what data you’re actually sending to your tag vendors, you’ve seen some common threads. They all want the same things: which products a customer purchased, how much they paid, the unique ID generated to a web lead in your CRM, and so on. But they likely want this data in a different format: one vendor may want a list of products delimited by a comma, and another may want them delimited by a pipe. A good TMS has integrations that don’t require you to customize the format of all this common data – it will do it for you.
6. Consideration for tag optimization and caching. Besides decoupling your IT release process from your digital marketing and tagging effort, it’s possible that the greatest potential benefit in migrating to a tag management system is the improvement it provides to your website’s performance. But the TMS should allow you the flexibility to fine-tune that performance benefit by loading only the code and logic required for the tags on that page, rather than loading the code and logic that could be required for all tags used across your site. Even if all that logic is cached, it still needs to be run on page after page after page. In other words, there’s no reason for your homepage to load code that doesn’t actually need to run until it’s time to fire order confirmation tags. I also love it when a system allows you to cache code and reuse it throughout the site when you need the same basic tag throughout your site. If you load a Doubleclick tag on 50 pages on your site, and the only difference is the ‘type’ or ‘cat’ parameter, there’s no reason for the TMS to reload an uncached version of that logic on all 50 pages – load it once and have it run again and again from the browser cache. If the TMS allows you to manage those subtle differences in a single place rather than in 50 different tags, this also offers a huge benefit to the folks managing your tags, who now can support a single tag implementation instead of 50. Even small optimization features can make the end-users of your TMS and your website very happy.
So if you’re new to tag management, hopefully this list helps you choose the tool that will be the best fit with your organization. And if you adopted tag management earlier, hopefully it it helps you make sure you’ve got the right system in place – and the right processes to manage it. I’ve tried to come up with a list of features that will appeal to both developer and marketer end users, because both play an important part in a company’s digital marketing efforts. And in the end, that’s what tag management is really about – all these tags serve no useful purpose on your website if they’re not allowing you to run your online business more effectively.
Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson (Flickr)