Tag Governance: A Framework for Governing Your Digital Analytics and Marketing Tags

September 6, 2018 Clint Eagar

I checked out your website. And what did I find? Broken tags.

What tags? Those little bits of code required to collect analytics data, personalize content, serve advertisements, and enable retargeting campaigns. Yeah, they’re broken.

Here are the facts of life: Tags have a way of showing up unexpectedly, dropping off without warning, and breaking down on a whim. Yours are no exception.

If your website is large enough, I can say the following with near certainty:

  • There are misconfigured tags on your website.
  • There are unauthorized tags on your website.
  • There are duplicate tags on your website.
  • There are missing tags on your website.

You want to fix this. But with millions of instances of analytics and marketing tags on your website, where do you even start? In these cases, you need to implement a tag governance program with the right solutions.

What Is Tag Governance?

What does the word “governance” make you think of? Control? Oversight? Protection? Strength? All of these descriptors are exactly what marketers, analysts, architects, engineers, and developers want for their digital tags.

Tag governance is a sub-discipline within the broader discipline of data governance, focused specifically on the data collected by digital marketing and analytics tags and sent via network request. Tag governance, like tag management, is a software-dependent discipline. In the same way that true tag management relies on a tag management system, true tag governance requires the use of software. To do what, exactly?

Tag governance solutions scan the network requests sent from websites and apps in their various stages of development in order to identify potential tagging errors.

Let’s unpack that statement. Tag governance solutions:

  1. Scan network requests. Tag governance solutions crawl websites scanning for network requests sent by tags. When a digital marketing or analytics tag sends out a request, a tag governance solution will capture that data and parse it out into its component values. These values are checked against predefined rules to determine whether they are correct or not.
  2. Work in various stages of development. Ideally, any company deploying new tags to their website or app should be doing so early on in the development cycle. A good governance framework should be able to scan websites and apps within pre-production environments (such as a staging environment). In so doing, technology teams can resolve issues before a website or app goes live. In addition, a tag governance solution also monitors tag performance in the production environment, notifying appropriate stakeholders if anything goes wrong.
  3. Identify potential tagging errors. A tagging error is any deviation from tagging best practices or from a company’s internal business requirements (the predefined rules we mentioned earlier). When a tag governance solution discovers a potential tagging error, it notifies the appropriate stakeholders.

Are tag governance and tag management the same thing?

In a manner of speaking, tag governance is a way to better optimize your tag management system. Tag management encompasses adding, removing, editing, and maintaining your site’s tags. But while changing your tags, errors may arise. That’s when your tag governance system comes to the rescue.

With tag governance, your system will automatically audit and validate any changes you make to your tags. This may help dispel your fear of playing with your tags too much after initially implementing them.

Is manual tag governance possible?

While in theory you could manually spot-check network logs in search of tagging errors (many companies do), this process is highly inefficient and prone to human error. Manual spot-checks are like aspirin for heart health: the benefits are there, but they’re insignificant when you go into cardiac arrest.

It's better to adopt automation and avoid a triple-bypass on your tagging implementation.

Why should you use a tag governance solution?

With the right processes in place, you can effectively govern your digital tags on a large scale. As you do so, you’ll be able to trust your data, realize ROI on technology spend, and do it all more efficiently than you would be able to manually. You’ll get the tags you paid money for.

Critical to deploying the 6-step framework outlined below is having access to the right tools. ObservePoint's Technology Governance solution will help you succeed in all phases of the below framework. Watch this quick 9-minute demo to get a sense of how ObservePoint can help.

Now, let’s get started with the six essential steps to creating a tag governance framework.

1. Plan

Tag governance plays an important role in helping companies plan out their measurement strategy—something that unfortunately not enough companies do.

Too many companies don’t plan

39% of respondents to our most recent survey said their companies don’t document their analytics strategy. This reflects negatively on digital tag performance and causes decreased efficiency due to redundancy in measurement strategies.

Before you ever start deploying tags or configuring variables on your site, you need to create a plan—your tagging plan. This plan documents your measurement and marketing strategy—outlining what the tag is doing and why.

The planning phase allows you to map your business questions (e.g. Which segment of our customers converts best under x conditions?) against the variables that collect relevant data.

The same principle applies to tags that add features to your site: You need to have a plan for when and where they should be implemented.

Building a tagging plan

Tagging plans help you avoid data overload. When I worked for Omniture, I was once tasked with helping a client convert roughly a hundred different dashboards with around 20-30 KPIs each to Omniture data. There were so many metrics, no one actually knew what they were all for. That’s the result of poor planning without clear documentation.

The same can happen with analytics tags and variables—people start measuring all sorts of stuff without really having a good reason why.

Having a tagging plan can help minimize data overload because you have to take the extra step to plan before you implement. Part of that planning process involves discovering what you’re currently collecting and documenting it. Doing so will help you reduce analytical weight.

Tag governance solutions allow you to scan your website to find out what data you’re currently collecting. That way you can evaluate what you already have in place that might either be expendable or could meet your current needs without implementing new technology.

2. Comply

Tag governance can help companies make the necessary changes to comply with internal and external controls.

Stop talking about GDPR

GDPR and the new ICO cookie guidance policies have incited a lot of panic regarding data privacy and data protection regulations. But people are approaching these mandates the wrong way. Instead of protecting consumer data because the government told us to, we should be more proactive about protecting the customers that we’re trying so hard to impress.

The Golden Rule of Data Privacy

The other day a young colleague of mine was going on about how cool it was that we could collect so many different kinds of data we could collect about people, with the caveat that he wouldn’t want the same thing done to him. That kind of mentality can be dangerous to companies—not just in terms of legality, but as a matter of brand optics and maybe even ethics.

Most controls should come from internal sources. Of course, we have to be externally compliant, but we should use this whole concept of privacy to be a strategic differentiator.

Tag governance is the new hall monitor

As part of your tagging plan, you should know exactly what types of variables you should collect (user ID, product ID, etc.) and which you should never collect (SSN, email address, etc.). Using a tag governance solution, you can scan your analytics tags and variables for specific patterns. So if a variable value matches an SSN, you’ll be hearing about it.

3. Deploy

A company that applies tag governance in pre-production environments can fix tagging errors before they get expensive, which is right when they hit the production environment.

It doesn’t all start with developers

As we’ve already established, developers are not ground zero: there is (or should be) significant planning that goes into a measurement and marketing strategy before developers ever set their fingertips to their mechanical keyboard.

How does that planning make its way to the developer? Through the product manager, who should be as concerned with measurement requirements as she is with any other product feature requirement. Unfortunately this is not always the attitude product managers take, and tag performance is often relegated to the backburner.

A good product manager or analytics architect will ensure the developer knows exactly what sort of quality assurance measurement requirements should be met with each feature. So when developers go to create a data implementation, they have specific guidelines to follow.

Catching tagging errors before they happen

How does tag governance fit into a developer’s workflow? When a development team is equipped with a data governance solution, they can scan their tag implementations in a dev environment to make sure tags and data layer variables are populating according to the requirements included in the tagging plan.

Finding problems in a development environment is much less risky because the data is fake—you’re not working with a real customers’ data, just test accounts. Not only can you ensure that your tags are working as expected, but you can also test for instances of non-compliant personal data before you go to production and make someone upset.

4. Assure Quality

Tag governance solutions give quality assurance engineers tools to help automate tag-testing in staging environments.

QA: Your last line of defense before production

The job of the QA engineer is similar to the developer in that they are testing tag performance against tagging plan requirements before pushing to a production environment.

The difference is that quality assurance is going to take that tag performance testing to a whole new level— running iterative tests under various conditions. Those tests should include tags. When the engineer checks if a button functions as expected, she should also be looking to see if any specified measurement happened as well.

A job for QA, not analysts

Historically, analysts and digital marketers took it upon themselves to test for tagging errors in a production environment because their data was at stake.

The problem with this approach is that tagging errors in production are expensive to locate and repair. Companies have responded and started to rely more on engineers to test against measurement requirements during QA.

Tag governance and QA

As the final gatekeeper before a website moves into production, QA engineers have an important role in testing analytics and marketing tags.

Tag governance solutions help them automate their iterative tests so they can ensure tags are working under various conditions. This keeps website release cycles agile while also minimizing broken code.

5. Validate

You just published a new release to the production environment. Now what? You need to ensure nothing broke down when you went live.

Some tags get stage fright

When pushing a site live, tagging errors are common. To counter the problem, technology stakeholders may take it upon themselves to manually check for errors. But it’s an uphill battle. The sheer size of a website (and the volume of tags on the site) makes a comprehensive audit unrealistic. Plus, humans aren’t the best equipped to scan mass amounts of data for errors.

Human error happens

Humans like to take shortcuts and make exceptions. They’re not systematic like a computer program. So even if you had the human resources to check for tagging errors on each page of a website, you wouldn’t get as bulletproof results as you would from an automated test.

Replacing manual spot-checking with tag auditing, monitoring and validation can help you test your tag implementation at a more accurate rate (and much faster).

6. Monitor

You need to monitor tag performance at regular intervals. When tagging errors crop up, you want to be the first to know.

News Flash: Websites Break

In a perfect world, a fully-functioning website in production would never have problems. But it’s never a perfect world. Somehow some volatile personal data makes it into an analytics variable, or an additional piggybacking tag crops up from an ad-serving tag.

Consequently, you need to continuously test in the production environment to ensure everything agrees with that tagging plan you created oh so long ago.

Check it again. Then again. And one more time.

Tagging errors appear in production all the time. But you can’t have someone spending all their time monitoring tags to make sure they are up and running. A tag governance solution can do the heavy-lifting here, periodically scanning your live site and checking for any tagging errors.

Common Governance Pitfalls to Avoid

Now that we’ve gone over what a high-quality and functional tag governance program should look like, we also need to clarify what practices to avoid. Knowing about the common pitfalls of tag governance will keep you from adopting or falling into any inefficient or unhelpful practices along the way.

  • Unclear central management and ownership. Just because everyone can easily access your tag management system doesn’t mean everyone should. Even if it sounds easier for your marketing team to implement tags for new campaigns, having too many people interact with the governance system can lead to chaos. A well-defined group of employees should be responsible for managing your tag governance program so you can keep better track of any changes made to your tags. This group should be well-versed and knowledgeable about tags and their effect on page performance.
  • Lack of prioritization. Some mistakes come from simple omission—companies don’t prioritize their tag governance systems early enough and are left with a mess of tags and tasks to organize later. To keep this from happening, use that well-defined group of employees mentioned earlier to establish the framework for your tag governance. Have them consider the different priorities of your team. 

Implementing the Tag Governance Framework

Digital analytics and marketing tech present significant value to your company—when implemented correctly. These technologies rely on tags, and tags rely on proper implementation. By using an automated solution to govern tags at all phases of the framework, you can achieve greater data accuracy and actionability in your organization.

How many broken tags do you have on your website? You can’t really know until you check. Schedule a demo with an ObservePoint rep to get a first look at your entire tagging implementation.

Or just stay in the dark. Either way.


About the Author

Clint Eagar

Clint gets things done. He has been building websites, marketing and optimizing them for 15 years. He claims to know a little bit about a lot of things and is relied on to execute anything quickly. Clint has been with ObservePoint since the early days and has helped support, test, and promote the product. Before coming to ObservePoint he was at OrangeSoda, running the enterprise SEO team, and before that he was a business consultant at Omniture.

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