How Google GTM Destroyed a SaaS Vertical and Maybe the Future of Martech

Tag management may be the single most important piece of marketing technology. However, very little is widely known about tag management since it is seen as a solution to a technical issue rather than a marketing problem. That they have turned out to be the same thing as we move into the next decade is a testament to Google and the foresight/control advantage a company that employs tens of thousands of engineers has on marketers and entrepreneurs.

Once a new and thriving SaaS vertical, Tag Management is now dominated by a free product, Google Tag Manager or colloquially GTM. This may seem like a similar story to Google Analytics/GA but it is in fact a very different one. GA is about collecting data and reporting on it. GTM is about connecting data and activating it. Connecting data is an infinitely more scalable and valuable business to be in. Exploring what and why Google came to own this essential data management presents many lessons and guides to the future of Martech.

The Rise of Tag Management

According to tag management vendor Signal (previously known as BrightTag) the average site today has 50-150 third party tags. This number does not reflect piggybacked tags often appended. For years BuiltWith has provided a great service to show what tags are on any site. Staples.com is a representative e-commerce site having 153 tags, 44 of which are analytics and tracking and 31 of which are advertiser tags. Staples has also removed 137 vendor tags over the last 9 years.

 

These tags are all pieces of javascript code that send information about visitors back to a database. A database not owned by or freely accessible to the brand. These vendors the brand has contracted with provide some kind of technology/data solution or service. BuiltWith breaks these products down into:

Marketing Automation

A/B Testing

Cart Abandonment

Conversion Optimization

Lead Generation

Email Marketing

Applications Performance

Visitor Intelligence

Personalization

Audience Measurement

CRM

Advertiser Tracking

Tag Management

Social Sharing

Ad Network

Ad Analytics

Audience Targeting

Remarketing

Ad Exchange

Dynamic Creative

Data Management

I shit you not, I could keep going here. For a while….

This is the very definition of “software as a service.” Almost everything in SaaS related to marketing and consumer data is derived from a tag. If tags are the lifeblood of digital marketing then tag management is what makes that blood flow. It is the heart of digital marketing.

Tag management as a SaaS solution started in 2008 most notably by Tealium, a company founded by a group of people from the web analytics space. It caught the big-time by 2012 with BrightTag, Tealium and Ensighten all raising large VC rounds that year. Also in 2012 Adobe rolled out its tag manager and most notably of all that year, Google rolled out its version…and just like Google Analytics, it was free.

Early tags on websites tended to do analytics. But with the rise of the targeting and personalization technologies from 2008-2012 for onsite, email, media and everything else in between, more and more javascript was going on websites. The platforms were in the game too with Facebook and Google having multiple tags. Everyone wanted to put .js on the site and provide you with measurements of their success. One of the biggest objections I faced from VCs when I was raising the A round for Yieldbot in 2012 was that existing tag bloat would prevent our adoption. This proved to be very wrong and tag managers or as many referred them, “containers” were a big reason why. 

This was the golden-age of vendor tags and with it data leakage. Tag management was there to keep it all together. The future looked bright. And speaking of VCs their dreams were coming true. A new SaaS vertical had been created out of a real problem.

Managing the Craziness

The use cases for tag management were and are very real and painful. All these tags are pinging servers and waiting for connections to send data in the background on who you are and what you are doing on a website.. Literally calling another domain, making a request and waiting for it to load into the site code through a distinct connection. Depending on where you put the tag on your page. It could provide different information or no information at all. This became the main reason sites are slow to load. And when your site loads slow both consumers and Google are not pleased.

One of the early ways that the browsers and content management systems, worked around the slowing down of web pages due to tags was to start loading pages asynchronously. This meant the browser didn’t have to wait for every piece of content to load the page (synchronous), which was a great fix. Of course as sites moved from synchronous page load 1.0 to async page load 2.0 lots of tags were left behind screwing up a lot of data and creating headaches for engineering strapped brands and publishers. In general tags are rarely removed or audited. It seems tags are the blackhole of the web.

These were just some of the problems Tag Managers were solving. You could see how this was going to be huge. Create a container for all the other tags to go in. One tag that controls all tags. Tag management made everyone’s life easier. Brilliant!

Let’s pause for a moment.

Despite a lot of excitement for this vertical from engineering teams responsible for managing the tags and marketing teams and agencies that wanted to get them on page, this wasn’t really seen at the time as needing much more than a free solution. So lots of people got on GTM. It’s also important in the historical context of Google. Our 2012 watershed year for tag management was six years after the launch of Google Analytics. 2012 was the same year GA “Universal” unified the Google cookie. Maybe most importantly it was the year Google Analytics and Ad Words were able to be connected. More on that billion-dollar handshake in a bit.

As the years have gone on GTM has advanced tremendously from what from what it was.  The product today really has some awesome power. In many ways it’s hard to think of another company outside of the largest tech companies on the globe that could have kept building a solution to such gnarly problems as configuring, codifying and unifying controls of the web data layer and marketing systems with an abundance of javascript. Since none of the VC backed tag managers were acquired and folks like Mozilla weren’t interested outside the browser and Facebook was focused on front-end UI, the building of this data integration layer of the web rested on one company, the company that was insanely focused on the web’s data layer, Google.

Getting Triggered

Google also saw where marketing technology was going in the future, namely the cloud. It saw the most advanced applications rise out of the world of open-source. Even fueling a bunch of these projects themselves as Apache Software was/is a large part of Google. There is no irony, when you use GTM you are using an Apache 2.0 license.

So Google took advantage of the web layer Google used GTM to effectively create their own Google data layer in between the web data layer and the marketing and advertising. data layer. Most importantly this marketing and advertising data layer it connected to included two other ubiquitous Google products Analytics and AdWords.So it is in this Google layer where the data link between what happens on the web, what happens with your customers and what happens at Google exists. It is where Google’s ID is passed from Search to your site and back to AdWords (you can’t see that, sorry).

So yeah, this is a pretty big deal. Everything that happens for you on Google namely, your search spend is becoming more and more reliant on these data joins and handshakes. Yet, this data connection doesn’t really seem to ever have received the attention it deserves. We know critically about marketing technologies and the role of marketing technology. We know about the advantages and leverage that Google has with data. Google Tag Manager as the stitch seems to get lost in that entire conversation, something I’m sure they are fine with. My belief is GTM is the linchpin to the entire go forward strategy of Google because it is focused on connecting data from other outside systems into Google.

Of course like any good data layer there is an API. The original API came out with V2 of GTM in 2014. V2 was released in 2017. Google continues to upgrade the API. For example in June they launched “Trigger Groups.” Trigger groups allow you to create audiences and perform specific actions based on events that occur on your site. I’ll let Google explain triggers:

“Tags fire in response to events. In Google Tag Manager, a trigger listens to your web page or mobile app for certain types of events like form submissions, button clicks, or page views. The trigger tells the tag to fire when the specified event is detected. Every tag must have at least one trigger in order to fire.

Triggers are evaluated when code on the page or app is executed, and associated tags are fired or blocked when the trigger conditions are met.”

 

Let’s talk about how some of these triggers can be used. 

Cart Abandonment

Lead Form Engagement

Visitor Intelligence

Remarketing

Audience Creation

Sound like a few SaaS verticals listed earlier in there. Why do I need a cart abandonment software or lead generation software or visitor intelligence software when I can create an event in my GA or other Analytics service and use it to fire a trigger to Google to create new audiences to modify my bidding strategy? How about all the people that visited a product page and never added to cart? Let’s trigger something to happen to them. All those people that used onsite search and added to cart but didn’t purchase? Trigger. All the people that clicked our PLAs? Trigger. All the people that came from social? Trigger.

Literally based on anything you can pass through the API a specific action/event or multitude of actions/events can be a trigger in the GTM/web data layer. It can be incredibly advanced and can be coded right in GTM which recently upgraded their UI to create “Workspaces” for engineers, analysts and marketers who code to do exactly that. And here’s the kicker for every vendor, it’s all real-time and all stitched through to Google.

The Real Slim Shady

Though you are blind to Google’s ID, you are implicitly joining data to it anytime you connect to GTM. You might want to read that again and let it sink in.

Google is also passing audiences data into its GTM settings more explicitly now as well. In new settings just released GTM can auto connect a browsing behavior on the website with bid modifications and audience creation. If Google was missing some important data this was it. You can of course choose not to enable this feature.

As mentioned earlier, one of the things that can be passed in GTM is a unique ID. Of course brands have their own customer IDs and tables associated with customer behavior and history. This is of course the precious data Google does not have. This is where all the leverage, maybe the only leverage, brands have with Google will persist in the future. 

First-party brand ID also gets around all privacy restrictions related to ITP and cookies because first party data is being passed and collected between the browser and what that browser is doing on your site and connecting that through Google ID into your marketing efforts. 2 years worth of data is a lot bette than 7 days (ITP 2.2). In addition if you have enabled GA’s GDPR settings it is not collecting certain information that a brand might collect themselves with a first-party domain collector.

Still, Google has its own aces in the hole as it relates to data consent and privacy. One is the browser connection. 65% of the market. Let’s not even get into email and search share. The explicit use of Google as first party data collector is incredibly advantageous over any other type of technology that’s out there and as data gets more expensive many brands will feel they might have enough from what Google is collecting about customers if conversion rates justify it. 

Forecast: Cloudy Days 

What we’re witnessing is nothing less than the full maturation of the marketing tech stack 15 years to the week of the launch of Google Analytics. That mature martech stack is Google Analytics, Google Tag Manger and Google Search Ads 360. Under every VC’s nose who ever asked a Martech founder, “what if Google does this” is that Google has done it. They did it by creating a new data layer in the web with GTM which is under their control and connected to all things Google. It’s genius really. 

And if ITP isn’t destructive enough to marketing and ad tech SaaS the ability for brands to now have to stitch their data together under a common ID and send those audiences/segments/cohorts to synch with Google ID might be. If anything it may force Google to open up their ID system as first party data sharing. This in turn may force Amazon to follow into a future of ID wars. This of course is the nuclear option for the Martech and Adtech Lumascapes. What is clear is that you can begin to see how vendor value as technology middleware evaporates in a more connected data sharing future between the brands and the platforms that attract customers for their products and services.

This is all good news for brands. Brands already know they need to staff up their engineering teams and with the rise of open-source front end development tools as well as the open source tools for data pipelines and data management (what every vendor is built on anyway) there is much work that can be done now. A future where the web data flow is streamlined, user experience is improved and more advanced machine learning and automation can be accomplished via APIs that connect to the web data layer means the next generation of marketing technology will be a whole lot better (and cheaper) than the first. Relevance will truly improve for consumers and brands will win based on merchandise, price and CX. All powered in real-time by data…and Google.

 

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