App Development

Using Google Tag Manager for Mobile

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If you’re reading this post, it’s likely you’re in one of two camps of thought:

Camp 1: “I don’t know what Google Tag Manager is, but I want it.
Camp 2: “I love Google Tag Manager for web, and mobile will be just as easy.”

To each of these camps I reply: not so fast. Like all things tech, there are ins and outs that require careful consideration. In this post, I’ll explain to you what Google Tag Manager is, where it came from, and how it applies to mobile.

Beyond the marketing buzz words like “IT-friendly," “quick and easy,” and “multi-platform,” deciphering what exactly Google Tag Manager is can be a challenge. Most people come around to the idea that Google Tag Manager is “souped-up Google Analytics.” But what does that really mean? What does Google Tag Manager actually give you? We’ve got to look at the web’s evolution to answer these questions.

Once-upon-a-time, there was only the Web (I like to refer to this time as, “before the mobile era,” or " BME" for short). During this time, web development teams implemented “tags” (snippets of JavaScript), which fed usage information to data-hungry marketers. Marketers would constantly request tagging tweaks in their quest to increase conversions and reach performance goals. The result was massive amounts of wasted time both coordinating teams to modify event tracking tags, and waiting on test-release cycles to complete. To stay ahead of the competition, marketers needed more agility and more flexibility.

Google Tag Manager is built on a promise that marketers won’t need to rely so heavily on development teams. It places power in their hands by letting them decide for themselves what tags should be defined. Rather than developers sprinkling snippets throughout their otherwise pristine code to explicitly tag events, a single Tag Manager snippet replaces them all.

The Nitty Gritty of How Google Tag Manager Works:

Tag Manager uses the concept of a “container.” It contains the following types of configuration:

  • Tags - what to see in your report (e.g. “User Logged In”)
  • Rules - when a tag should be “fired” (e.g. “href clicked containing /login”)
  • Macros - which name-value pairs can be used in the code (e.g. “sessionTimeout=100s”)

Tag Manager containers are versioned, tested, and published on-the-fly to their websites without needing a developer to modify a single line of HTML code. On the down-side, there’s a lot of configuration to maintain for the marketer. On the plus side, there’s much more flexibility to do targeted advertising, A/B testing, and conversion tracking without spending cycles in development. Cool, right? At least for web anyway.

While Google Tag Manager was born BME and works great for web, the promise it was built on starts to fracture when it applies to mobile. Why? There are two main reasons:

  • Unlike web architecture, native mobile apps don’t have good “hooks” to tie into apps for event tracking. The triggers that typically define a rule for web (e.g. “URL contains” or “href clicked”) simply don’t work in mobile. At the end of the day you’re back to square-one with developers adding snippet-sprinkles.
  • Previewing and testing new container configurations requires special “non-production” builds and is not straightforward or easy for marketers.

Imagine having development teams explicitly push data to GTM, but then also need to create Tags and Rules for each one of them in order to forward them on to Google Analytics? These end up being pretty big turn-offs that likely make Google Tag Manager more trouble than it’s worth.

So if you’re asking whether there’s a scenario where Google Tag Manager makes sense for mobile, I would say yes, but only if you’re already married to it (i.e. it’s already a part of your workflow for A/B testing on web). If you’re starting fresh however, there are plenty of competitors that are more focused on mobile.

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