It is estimated that 50% of leading websites will have adopted tag management technology by 2017. Tag management use by the world's top 100,000 websites has already increased 600% since May 2012, according to eConsultancy. Many digital marketing agencies have already declared 2014 as the "year of tag management" based on projected investments that their clients are planning to make in tag management as a means of controlling the efficiency of on-site technologies.

Several tag management vendors have seen triple-digit year-over-year revenue growth since the technology debuted four years ago as a solution for allowing non-technical business users to have direct control over 3rd-party digital marketing tags and pixel beacons that enable analytics, attribution, targeted advertising, social sharing, etc.

For those who are still unfamiliar with tag management (or TMS), it is essentially a content management system for digital marketing tags. It is a permissions-controlled, workflow-driven software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that enables real-time modification of the rules and conditions under which on-site tags and pixels are invoked outside SDLC release cycles. The solutions also extend to mobile tagging via native SDKs.

TMS is a foundational component of Plug-And-Play Marketing, which I've written about before. It is a key enabler to customer-centric, data-driven marketing in organizations pursuing agile marketing and that desire to make heavy use of data convergence, lean analytics, responsive campaigns, and test and learn programs. Effective tag management is viewed as a necessary pre-requisite to realizing the vision of a unified customer data stream that can be piped into a marketing data management platform to enable even greater customer segmentation in presenting personalized offers in the right place at the right time.

Since we are in the midst of the growth explosion in enterprise adoption of TMS, I want to call out six topics that every organization should consider before getting too far along in the TMS vendor selection process as a way of avoiding pitfalls that could derail your projected implementation timeline and possibly disrupt the broader digital capabilities roadmap and strategic goals.

  1. Bundled vs. Standalone: TMS solutions come either as standalone products (Tealium, Ensighten, TagMan, Qubit) or bundled in a suite of digital capabilities (Adobe, ValueClick, Google). There are decided advantages and disadvantages to both, mostly centering on account management, technical support, scalability, support for third-party technologies, integration with competitor tools, and ongoing operating cost. Not all TMS products are created equal and any initial RFI should include both product types to ensure balanced consideration of different vendor types.
  2. Architectural Model: Another way in which not all TMS products are alike is in their core design architecture. There are 3 dominant solutions on the market today: client-based, client-server, and server to server. On the surface, all commercial TMS solutions offer the same "table stakes" functionality. Under the hood, there are dramatic differences that must be evaluated against enterprise policies around cloud-based solutions, data handling and retention, content serving, browser-based caching, security controls, and so on. Again, any initial RFI should include a cross-section of approaches minus any that are non-starters for the enterprise.
  3. Cross-Functional Stakeholders Participation: At the earliest stage possible, build out a cross-functional team of stakeholders to inform the vendor selection process and the contents of the RFI/RFP. Representation from development, architecture, security, legal, governance, content management, and other key participants beyond the marketing business team is critical to avoiding pushback against the concept of TMS later in the effort. TMS products are SaaS-based solutions which represents a massive disruption to current policies and standards in more cautious enterprises who have yet to embrace cloud technologies for customer-facing applications. If affecting a paradigm shift in application delivery is necessary prerequisite to deploying a TMS, then it's best to get those conversations going sooner rather than later.
  4. Data Persistence: Every TMS handles data differently, some of which is driven by the architecture. Server-to-server solutions, for instance, queue tag requests as a means of limiting data loss. Some vendors offer extensions to their TMS to enable cloud-based storage of all data collected by the tags and pixels. This is typically to create a unified data stream (the holy grail of customer data). Other TMS vendors refuse to store any data an only route data to either a 3rd party vendor or an enterprise data warehouse. Get familiar with the native data handling and extended data-related products for every vendor considered as a potential RFI/RFP participant and try to include a cross-section of approaches minus any that are non-starters for the enterprise.
  5. Use Demos to Eliminate Vendors: One advantage of a TMS is the ability for non-technical business user to configure tags, their firing rules, and conditional logic with an intuitive user interface. A vendor features matrix in Excel is useless in getting actionable insight into usability since every vendor can check the box on "table stakes" capabilities such as managed user access, tag publishing workflow, multiple pre-production environments, and tag performance reporting. As soon as possible, schedule a series of vendor-led demos to give your anticipated power users a first-hand look at the range of product offerings. If ease of use is a priority requirement, then use this format to formulate a high-level vendor stratification or possibly eliminate some TMS solutions altogether since some products are more technical than others.
  6. Create a Tailored RFI: When eliciting input from vendors for an RFI, avoid overreliance on generic software evaluation questionnaires. These are generally inadequate for pre-assessment of TMS solutions and their unique systems features to support on-site digital marketing use cases (variable architecture, cloud-based data transformation capabilities, and out-of-the-box integration with other SaaS-based technologies). Similarly, proceed with caution when using some of the boilerplate TMS selection "how to" guides that are circulated online. Many of these are proffered by the tag management vendors themselves (read the fine print) and many canned RFI/RFP templates and questionnaires specific to TMS are intentionally written to weaken or even exclude some vendors in final ranking. Executives for several of the leading TMS vendors have told me that internally-developed questionnaires that are crafted to your specific requirements and grouped by technology, business, security, and regulatory categories are the best way to initially assess the range of TMS vendors and prioritize their capabilities heading into a formal RFP. You can then validate the quality of your questions and comprehensiveness of the questionnaire by referencing an external Buyer's Guide from a reputable, independent source such as Forrester, Gartner, or eConsultancy.

At the close of 2013 the relatively young technology landscape of tag management was still very crowded with 12-15 vendors. Many analysts expect significant consolidation in the TMS space in 2014, similar to acquisition of Satellite TMS by Adobe Systems .

But until the strongest survivors emerge in this tagging and tracking ecosystem, it is critical for any organization that is pursuing a TMS solution to narrow the number of vendors for inclusion in a formal RFP to a maximum of five in order to get through scoring and technical proofs of concept in a reasonable time. The six considerations discussed above are a few ways to narrow the options. Of course, every organization is unique in its tag management requirements, so use these topics as springboards to refine and shape your own approach to vendor selection.