What is Tag Management?


To understand what tag management is, we first need to define “tag.” A tag is an invisible piece of digital information — usually JavaScript code or a single-pixel image — embedded into digital content. It’s designed to trigger events (e.g., serving an ad) while also collecting information about users and their behaviors as they interact with an organization’s digital channels, most notably websites, mobile apps, and email.

Tags support many key marketing technology functions. Principally, they have been used for web analytics, ad-serving, remarketing and conversion tracking. More recently, they’re being used to launch digital functionality, such as surveys or live chats. Innovative businesses have gotten more savvy with tag implementation by beginning to embed tags in internet of things (IoT) systems to track usage and spot defects — information that can also be very valuable to digital marketers.

Because of the proliferation of digital marketing channels (and now a new generation of technologies like IoT), the work of managing tags has grown dizzyingly complex. Tag management historically involved highly manual processes, with spreadsheets and emails flying back and forth between marketing and IT, with the latter typically doing the work of actually embedding multiple tags in digital content. IT teams, which were bombarded by requests to add, edit or delete tags, often failed to keep up. As a result, marketing teams regularly found their projects delayed or even canceled.

Out of this struggle, tag management systems (TMS) were born, including Google Tag Manager, Tealium iQ and Adobe Launch. These solutions have two principal functions:

  • Managing tags: A tag management system enables non-technical marketing professionals to create, implement, manage and delete tags in a coordinated way across their digital channels.
  • Tracking digital activities: Tags provide a centralized data repository — usually called a data layer — that tracks tags, and thus user behaviors, for digital channels.

In this way, tag managers help marketers efficiently deliver more personalized, relevant experiences to customers and prospects.

The Business Benefits of Tag Management Systems

In the digital age, effective tag management supports critical marketing functions, including personalization, web and mobile analytics and campaign analytics. By speeding and automating the tag management process, the right TMS can deliver significant business value, including:

  • Reduced costs: By automating the process of embedding, managing and sunsetting tags, a tag management system can provide significant savings through increased marketing and IT productivity. And skilled marketing team members and developers can spend more time on value-added activities rather than scrambling to track and manage multiple tags.
  • Increased data accuracy: With any manual process, errors eventually creep in. And erroneous tag implementation can lead to diminished customer experiences, money wasted on less-than optimal campaigns and decreased confidence in customer data. By centralizing and automating tag management, you significantly reduce the possibility of errors and associated losses.
  • Increased tag performance: Tags involve hundreds of lines of code, and for many reasons, they can break or otherwise stop working. With an enterprise-grade TMS, marketers can detect faulty tags — and even malicious tags that put your data and cookies at risk.
  • Increased performance across digital channels: Because tags trigger browsers to read hundreds of lines of code, old or erroneous tags can impede performance of digital properties. A TMS makes it easy to remove tags that are no longer applicable. In addition, tag managers enable asynchronous tag deployment. That is, tags can load and begin working at the same time as other page elements, further speeding performance.
  • Increased marketing agility: Tag management systems can increase agility in two key ways. Marketers don’t have to wait on IT to implement codes, which means they can act quickly when opportunities arise. And because tags gather and organize data about marketing campaigns’ performance, marketing teams gain data-driven insights that help shape more effective campaigns going forward.

How Tag Managers Work

As mentioned above, tag management systems have two basic functions: 1) the centralized management of tags and 2) the centralized tracking of digital behaviors, from pages viewed to conversion rates and beyond.

Managing Tags

Tag managers enable non-technical users to embed a tag within a piece of digital content without relying on developers. Likewise, marketers can then edit or delete tags on their own via a web interface.

To make the work of marketers easier, many tag management systems include a “tag marketplace.” Marketers simply click on the logo of one of their organization’s martech providers that require the use of tags. This allows them to quickly select the channels and pages in which that vendor’s tags should be embedded.

When a consumer accesses a piece of content with that tag, the tag triggers the appropriate action to be performed by the martech application, which can range from serving an ad to opening a chat box that helps a consumer answer a question or resolve an issue.

Tracking Digital Activities

A central repository, usually called the “data layer,” stores information about all the behaviors that an organization’s tags are designed to track, such as web engagement, ads served, mobile activity and e-commerce transactions. This data can help do everything, from serving up more personalized content in real time (e.g., ads that are more likely to be relevant) to supporting longer-term strategic analytics — though this generally requires migrating that data to a separate business intelligence/analytics system, especially if you want to do analysis on historical information or include offline attributes.

Note that, in order for the data layer to fuel analytics, it must be clearly defined so that data is delivered to analytics systems in a useful form.

In addition to these essential capabilities, enterprise-grade tag management systems may also provide more robust capabilities, such as:

  • Security and privacy controls
  • Data governance
  • Regulatory compliance

What is the Difference Between a Tag and a Cookie?

While tags and cookies have much in common, it’s important to understand the difference between them. Both collect data about user behavior in order to deliver more relevant  experiences. However, they work in very different ways and solve different challenges.

Cookies are text-only code that actually sit directly on a user’s device. They are most often used to optimize the user’s online experience, for example by remembering a user’s preferences, past activities and the items in their online shopping cart.

Like cookies, tags collect user behavior data, but they then share this data with other systems and trigger appropriate actions. In short, cookies can affect a user’s experience with a specific digital channel. By contrast, tags are used to:

  • Set cookies
  • Ask browsers to collect certain data
  • Load third-party content, including ads, social media widgets and video players
  • Send data to martech technologies for multiple purposes, such as tracking and analytics

What Are the Most Common Uses of Tags?

As we’ve said, tags can serve many purposes. Here are three of the most common ways marketers use them.

  • Digital advertising: Tag management systems make it much easier and faster to deploy the tags necessary for delivering and tracking relevant digital ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and any other platform. Tags track user behavior and trigger systems to deliver relevant ads, whether based on real-time activity or in retargeting campaigns.
  • Web and mobile analytics: It’s invaluable for marketers to understand which pages customers are browsing. Many businesses rely on third-party web analytics, such as  Google Analytics, to measure web activity. Tag managers can make it much easier to set up and implement Google Analytics events and Google Analytics event tracking — and also to scale tags across multiple web domains. Importantly, tag managers also let you manage and change tags to meet changing business requirements. For this reason, tag management systems have been widely adopted for web analytics.
  • Affiliate marketing: The ability to track and attribute conversions is essential to affiliate marketing. A TMS can make the management of each necessary tracking tag far easier, more accurate and more effective.

Top Tag Management Solutions

The leading tag management systems include Adobe Launch, Google Tag Manager and Tealium IQ.

  • Adobe Launch: A rules-based TMS, Adobe Launch gives marketers more control over each of the elements that make up a tag, providing more precision control.
  • Google Tag Manager: Google’s solution offers many different trigger types and almost 20 variable types, enabling you to use tags in a wide variety of use cases.
  • Tealium IQ: With Tealium IQ, you get customizable tag templates, which provide greater flexibility. The data collected by tags is analytics-agnostic.

There are dozens of other providers with varying degrees of sophistication and price points, including Ensighten Manage, ObservePoint, Signal Tag Management and Qubit Opentag. Each tag management solution has its strengths, as well as its limitations.

Limitations of Tag Management Systems

For companies with limited resources and budgets, tag managers are a great way to make your IT and marketing teams more productive, improve returns on marketing investments and provide at least some degree of personalization for both prospects and customers. However, every tag management tool has limitations, especially when compared to newer technologies such as enterprise customer data platforms (CDPs), which are designed to provide a holistic view of a customer’s relationship over time, across both online and offline channels. In particular, TMS technology can suffer from:

  1. Lack of depth of data: Because they were originally designed to serve ads and other content in real time, tag managers typically only store data over the short term (30-90 days).
  2. Lack of breadth of data: Tag managers were engineered to handle data about interactions with specific digital properties, but not other kinds of interactions, such as data gathered in stores, call centers, payment systems and more.
  3. Lack of robust analytical capabilities: Tag management systems were not designed to be analytical engines. While they can “understand” and trigger events in various marketing systems, they weren’t meant to support human-led analytics and BI, nor the kinds of insights that machine learning, artificial intelligence  and other advanced analytics make possible.

It should be noted that certain tag management providers have rebranded their solutions, calling them CDPs, without addressing some or all of these underlying limitations. Before investing in one of these CDPs, it’s important to take a look under the hood.

To be clear, it’s not a question of choosing between tag managers and CDPs. Tag managers serve a critical function for modern marketers, but they’re not a replacement for a true CDP. The customer data they generate, when fed into a CDP and combined with other kinds of data residing in the CDP, help digital marketers discover profitable new opportunities and capitalize on them with unprecedented speed and agility.

Learn More

Want to learn more about how you can harness your customers’ and prospects’ behavioral data — whether online or offline — to create outstanding customer experiences? Read our blog post on customer intelligence platforms. And if you’re ready to dig deeper into how you can deploy authentic customer experiences at enterprise scale, contact us today to schedule a conversation with one of ActionIQ’s marketing technology experts.

Florian Delval
Florian Delval
Director, Technical PMM
For the last decade, Florian’s mission has been to empower enterprise organizations in their digital transformation process via the definition and deployment of a strong Customer Experience Stack. Florian educates enterprise organizations to increase the value of their technology investments in a complex and ever changing environment. Find him on LinkedIn.
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