User Experience Depends on Data. Data Depends on Tagging.

Posted by Taylor Haney on Thu, Sep 19, 2013

We have another helpful post about user experience and design from Sebastian Gard, SVP, Director of Social Media at Arnold Worldwide. Sebastian discusses how you can improve your user experience and relevance with tagging. If you are interested in guest blogging e-mail taylor [at] mitx [dot] org.

Sebastian Serious[1]Sebastian Gard serves as SVP, Director of Social Media and is responsible for building social media strategies and concepts into client campaigns, as well as helping to build and manage the social media practice at the agency. Sebastian has a diverse background in consumer marketing, consumer product management and software engineering. He has worked with a long list of Fortune 500 brands, including Bing, JCPenney, Microsoft Windows and Zune. He previously held the Social Media Director position at Modernista!, and before that he was Strategic Account Director at Context Optional, where he drove social media strategy. Prior to that, he was the Digital Marketing and Social Media Manager, Search Business, at Microsoft, where he was a founding member of the Search Business Unit. Sebastian also held positions at Onfolio, Inc., a consumer web startup that was later acquired by Microsoft, Scansoft (now Nuance, Inc.) and Xerox.


The history of successful online services shows us that customers value relevance above all else. Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and the others are all defined by their ability to quickly get the right content in front of the right person at the right time. In cases like these, the website is the product, and the entire business depends on it’s design. With this much at stake, logic usually rules design decisions. For the rest of us, where the online interactions we create are either an extension of our product, or a means of communicating it, logic does not always prevail, and many times it’s because of disconnects between marketing and IT.

As online interactions become more important for all products, the IT / marketing rift has been a hot topic of debate. In August, Accenture released The CMO-CIO Disconnect, a lengthy analysis of their 2012 CMO-CIO Insights survey. The article suggests five imperatives to improve the interplay between marketing and IT. All five are interesting and useful, but I'd like to suggest a simpler starting point: get basic site tagging right. In most cases, tagging is how you get data, and data is how you get relevance.

When companies neglect tagging, their paid media is less effective, their site is less useful to customers, and it’s harder to convert site visitors into customers. This sounds like a bad deal for the marketing folks. However, tagging can also introduce security risks and add to site build and maintenance costs - things that IT groups try to avoid. It’s possible that this disconnect can be improved with more precise language and some common sense prioritization.

Useful Definitions of Tagging

Tags are HTML codes that give instructions to the browser about how to show content to the user, and what else to do when the page loads. For example, if you wanted a user to see some text in bold on your website, you would use the tag, <b> at the beginning of the text and </b> at the end. It’s not simple formatting tags like this that cause problems between marketing and IT, however. Tags that invoke third-party applications to help track user behavior are the ones that have the biggest risks and opportunities.

Earlier this year, the IAB released a startlingly good primer on tagging. In this document, they define a tag as “a lightweight fragment of code implemented on a website that, when called by the browser can facilitate real-time transfer of data between the originating site and another party.” The use cases for tagging to vary dramatically depending on the nature of the website using them, but they mainly boil down to understanding behavior of site visitors, improving the performance of media and customizing the site experience. That’s only one side of the story, however.

Dangers of Tagging

The IAB report also has a nice section on the potential downsides of tagging for data. If you are in the marketing department, this is an excellent primer on how to be empathetic to the legitimate concerns of your IT compatriots. Do not discount any of these objections. Instead, use them to help to show that the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

arnold blog

With some additional understanding of each side of the debate, we can make small but real progress. The question is, where is the common ground? Where does the benefit outweigh the cost? Let’s look at two examples where tagging can dramatically improve the customer experience.

Step 1: Tagging to Improve Online Advertising

Observing how online services use display advertising gives you a glimpse into the future. These companies use display simply to syndicate relevant chunks of their website to prospects. All of the intelligence comes from knowing what item is relevant to what person, and which people buy enough products to be worth bringing back. For companies with huge inventories of potentially relevant products, and mature logic for measuring the lifetime value of a customer, this exercise is relatively simple. For other brands, creating relevance depends on understanding what message or call-to-action is most relevant at any given time.

We can’t all be Amazon, but my experience tells me that it’s likely that someone on your media team is giving you some pretty good pointers about how to move in that direction, and, unfortunately, they might not be taken seriously. Find out what tagging requirements your media team is pushing for, and help them. You will get a better cost per action, and your prospects will get more useful ads.

Step 2: Tagging to Create Better User Experiences

Amazon knows what you want to read, Netflix know what you want to watch, so why doesn’t your bank website know where you live so they can give you customized search results and product messaging? It’s because they haven’t prioritized tagging. In every industry there are similar small, smart customizations that can get you in the relevance game, but they all involve storing some notion of what the site visitor wants or needs, and flexing the site accordingly.

Getting better isn’t a complex technical exercise, but it is a complex business exercise that involves bridging the gap between marketing and IT. Bring the debate down to the tangible level of site tagging, and you my find a useful strategy emerging from a series of tactical decisions. Small steps like these could remove the paralysis of analysis and create a culture of cooperation that leads to more logical decisions.

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