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Tag management systems: How do I choose?

Published by Josh West on July 29, 2013 All posts from Josh West

Since I joined Web Analytics Demystified a few months ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time deep-diving into the various tag management tools. I had worked with most of these tools previously, but I’ve had the chance to meet with their leadership and development teams, and really get a feel for where they’ve come from, where they’re heading, and where the industry is at generally – so I figured I’d share a few thoughts.

In the early days of tag management, the leading tools either offered only professional services and no product (“Hey, just let us write all your analytics code for you in a central place”), or just made a developer manage tags in yet another environment that they weren’t familiar with. These tools are much better now, with the idea of a data layer, “tag templates”, and the ability to easily connect your data to your tags.

Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and in my view there isn’t one single tool that addresses all of the challenges that a dynamic, data-driven organization faces in their quest for rapid deployment, data integrity, and marketing agility. Here are my top three questions that a company must answer when choosing a tag management vendor:

  1. Am I trying to remove my development team from the tagging process – or am I trying to free my tagging process from my development team’s deployment cycle?
  2. What role does testing and optimization play in my organization?
  3. How do I prioritize scalability, speed, and tool usability in my selection of a tag management system?

Question #1: Am I trying to remove my development team from the tagging process – or am I trying to free my tagging process from my development team’s deployment cycle?

The historical schism between Marketing and IT becomes the central question when it comes to tag management: how can the enterprise improve their analytical efficiency? On one hand, the development team doesn’t want to “waste” time and effort on tagging anymore; on the other, the marketing team is frustrated by the lengthy release cycles their development team offers them to release new tags.

If you’re trying to solve for the first part of the question, you may be in for an uphill battle and might end up disappointed. Even the most user-friendly tools don’t totally remove the need for a developer. After implementation, a marketer may be able to add the simplest conversion or remarketing tags, but web analytics tags like Adobe Analytics (formerly SiteCatalyst) are complicated, especially with dynamic interactions to be tracked after a page has loaded. You should plan on needing some development help even after implementing a TMS, though it will be less than before.

It’s a much more realistic goal to address the second question and separate your tagging from traditionally lengthy release cycles. Your development team may still need to help you write some code to target a particular page event, or write some custom JavaScript to manipulate a particular value in your data layer for a new tag – but (ideally) they can do it without being tied to a release several months in the future.

Regardless, these questions aren’t as much a TMS selection question as an internal process and governance issue. When you have answered the question your TMS choices will narrow, but if you don’t address this question “head on” no TMS will help you.

Question #2: What role does testing and optimization play in my organization?

Optimization is becoming increasingly critical for data-driven organizations, and unfortunately, it’s the most difficult use case for a tag manager to address. This is because according to best practices, testing tags must load synchronously on a page to function properly. For example, the Adobe Target (formerly Test&Target) “mBox” blocks everything below it from loading, by design, until Adobe returns the new content.

On this specific point I see the current TMS vendors as being differentiated. Ensighten is the current leader in providing easy integration with optimization tools; it is also the only tag management system whose best-practice implementation starts with a synchronous tag. Conversely, Tealium and BrightTag use an asynchronous tag, which has several advantages, the most common being no page blocking. This is ideal for almost any tag except optimization tags. Both these tools offer a synchronous deployment approach and other alternatives to prevent “flicker” when the page loads, but they are not as simple to implement.

On the question of testing, at least for now you will need to decide if you value an asynchronous tag or the ability to stick with a standard tagging strategy for your optimization program.

Question #3: How do I prioritize scalability, speed, and tool usability in my selection of a TMS?

As I mentioned earlier, each of the tag management leaders have strengths and weaknesses. Three important factors to consider when choosing a TMS are scalability, speed, and usability – and there isn’t a single tool currently available that has cornered the market on all three.

  • Scalability: You want to choose a tool that can grow with your organization. Ensighten and BrightTag both utilize a tag that combines client-side and server-side technology. IT departments and security teams often worry about overloading the DOM – and while there is a limit to what you can do with a purely client-side solution, I’ve found it to be more of a “theoretical” limit. If your TMS-deployed tags are still slowing down your site, it’s probably not the tool’s fault! You can succeed with either approach if you plan well and execute on that plan – but it’s up to you to decide what works best for your tagging roadmap.
  • Speed: The flip-side to that additional server-side request is speed. Every bit of code delivered by Tealium can be served from a static CDN (like Akamai), which means it can potentially load much faster than a tool requiring server-side technology – and they, BrightTag, and Ensighten support the bundling of your most commonly-used tags, which speeds things up even more. With careful planning around your tool’s scalability and speed constraints, any of these tools can likely yield a successful implementation – but you need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your tool.
  • Usability: The first releases of the leading TMS tools were clunky from a usability point-of-view. Instead of being able to manage your tagging code within your CMS, in an environment you were comfortable with, you had to cut and paste your tags into a less familiar tool. Now, all the major tools offer “tag templates”, which simplify and standardize the implementation of the leading tags. Right now, Tealium’s template library and collection of helpful extensions is the richest and most user-friendly, and now everyone is heading in that direction. A good tag manager will have the capability to access critical data on the page – BrightTag’s data binding features, for example, are great at this.

Two last points before I wrap up:

  1. I’ve intentionally tried to focus primarily on strengths, not weaknesses, of the products I’ve mentioned – to identify areas where a particular product does something really well. But don’t read too much into not seeing a product mentioned with a particular topic. Plus, I value our partnerships with the various tag management companies – and I obviously have lots of friends and former colleagues scattered throughout the industry.
  2. It’s quite possible your company uses or has researched a tag management tool I didn’t specifically address. For the most part, I tried to stick to the tools our clients use most frequently, because they’re what I’m most familiar with. But there are a few other tools I really need to get my hands on, and as soon as I do, I’ll share my thoughts on them as well.

In summary, when you choose your TMS, it will be critical to identify your top requirements and make sure you pick a solution that covers them best. You’ll likely encounter some trade-offs along the way, because there’s not a perfect tool out there. But any of the solutions can make your life easier and improve the speed with which you can deploy your tags.

At Web Analytics Demystified, we’re excited about the trends in the industry – and we’d love to talk more with you as you consider which tool works best for you!

Categorized under Uncategorized

  • Rudi Shumpert


    This is a very interesting article, I would love to see more of your research that you did while digging into the TMS space. Our leadership & development teams did not get an opportunity to talk to you about how Satellite not only addresses but excels in all of the items you detailed in your post.

    I would like to address some of the points in your top three questions as well.

    #1 “Am I trying to remove my development team from the tagging process – or am I trying to free my tagging process from my development team’s deployment cycle?”

    Why must you chose between the two? With Satellite we have a solution that focuses on the real underlying problem that the other vendors have missed. If you are focused purely on the tag and the development then you are missing the true value of a TMS system. The focus should be on solving for the business questions that plague the companies in our industry, not a narrow focus on the commodity of tags.

    #2 “What role does optimization play in my organization?”

    You have named another vendor as the current leader regarding the ability to deploy mBoxes (T&T) based on the easy integration & the only vendor to start with a synchronous tag. Both of these statements are just false. I was part of a project that spent months and months working with the development team at the vendor you crowned the leader to attempt this very feat and because of serious limitations in their architecture this was not possible without an enormous effort of custom development and code that had to live outside of their system. It makes no difference what role optimization plays in the organization if the system being used is fundamentally flawed.

    If you have any data, screenshots or other information on how Ensighten has changed recently to deal with these issues, I’d love to see it. Maybe things have changed in this regard?

    #3 “How do I prioritize scalability, speed, and tool usability in my selection of a tag management system?”

    Again…why must you chose between these? With our combination of self hosting options there is not another solution that can match our speed and scalability. And as a user that has spent thousands of hours using the other solutions in the market, there is simply no contest on the usability of the tool. Promoting the use of “Templates” as a workable solution to TMS is playing to the lowest common denominator. It is far superior to have a tool that is flexible enough to handle any of the data collection scripts in the market, than to rely on vendors to give you a cookie cutter method of how they think your site should behave.

    Hopefully you will get a chance to speak with our leadership & development teams soon to help provide further clarification on these topics. This insight will help you see why Satellite has never lost a head to head proof of concept to any other TMS vendor in the space.



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