The Art of Email Segmentation: Tags, Lists, and Segments Demystified

email segmentation

Have you ever wondered what’s up with all the different ways to do email segmentation? We have lists, we have tags, custom fields and then we also have “segments”. 

A lot of people wonder what’s the difference between these four. How can you even tell when you should use one over the other? This is especially confusing when the same categorization can be done with either lists, tags or custom fields. How do you even choose?

Today, we are going to take the opportunity to unwrap some of the confusion and see how all the pieces fit together. In the end these are all just different ways to differentiate subscribers, so that you can do more effective personalization. 

The truth about lists and tags

From an organizational standpoint, lists and tags aren’t really different. A subscriber can be assigned to multiple lists. You can also assign multiple tags to a subscriber. 

email segmentation

Technically, you can take any subscriber parameter and define it as either a list, or a tag. So for example you might have a “paying customers” list, or a “paying customer” tag.

So what is the difference then? Well, a lot of it has to do with how email marketing evolved. Originally all we had were lists. And initially, we only made lists based on how the person signed up, because this is how we keep track of what they subscribed for.

Over time, marketers started getting fancier and using lists for anything you can imagine. Eventually, this led to a situation where you would end up having way too many lists. This was pretty overwhelming to even look at. You would see marketers using lists to:

  1. Track overall broader topics or interest (Whether they signed up for newsletter A or B)
  2. What source they came from (“Facebook ad source traffic leads” list)
  3. Engagement (“High open rates group”)
  4. Specific product or campaign interest (“Shown interest in launch for product X”)
  5. Demographic data (“People in California”)
  6. Business data (“Leads from medium-sized companies”)
  7. Purchase data (“Purchased a product”, or “Purchased multiple products”)

As you can already tell, this can become quite overwhelming, and it becomes quite clear why we moved on beyond just lists.

So how do you decide if something should be a list?

There are no hard and fast rules around this, but it helps to think about how sending campaigns works. Whenever you create a campaign, you choose the lists to send this to. And then any other parameters are optional, and just a way to personalize things further. List membership is always the first and mandatory parameter. 

If you’re brand new to email marketing, you would just send the same email to everyone on a given list. You might send a different email to the “customers” list versus the “leads” list, but you wouldn’t go beyond that.

Think of everything beyond lists as a way to enable further personalization and finer targeting. Segments, tags, custom fields and events are how you give different people on the same list a different experience.

The easy way to figure it out

I think it’s good to pretend that we’re in the 2000s, and that tags, custom-fields, events and segments don’t exist yet. The only way to classify your subscribers is by using lists. Oh, and you only have 10 lists available, not hundreds. What would you do?

As it turns out, some patterns have evolved among experienced marketers, and you would probably do something similar. In general, we find that marketers base their lists on one of two things. 

They might base lists on the source of the sign-up. Or, alternatively, if it makes sense, they can treat each list as a “business of its own”. I’ll explain what this means in just a second. 

email segmentationGoing back to the source situation, you will see that some marketers have lists by way of signup (“Demo Request Form”, “Free Trial”, “Newsletter”). This makes a lot of sense as this is a static category. There is only ever one original source for a lead, and it doesn’t change over time.

In other businesses however it makes more sense to base it on the broader interest group. A common example is you offer different services that could just as well be separate businesses. 

So you might have the “Yoga and Pilates” list, the “CrossFit” list, and then the “Weight Lifting” list. I think you can see how each of these lists could be a separate business.

You might also see marketers create lists based on demographic data (“Students”, “Adults”, “Parents”). This is again related to the idea they could be different businesses. For example take a studio that separately offers classes for children, and then for adults. The marketing and business structure might be completely different.

I hope this helps, and if you’re still not sure, I would say to err on the side of having fewer lists, rather than create too many. I’d rather see an account with just one single big list and lots of segments, than an account with too many lists.

So everything else should be a tag then?

One of the most common mistakes you will see amongst marketers is having too many tags. This isn’t wrong from a technical point of view. The platform can handle as many tags as you want it to. However, the marketer won’t be able to handle it. After a certain number of tags it just becomes difficult to maintain a “mental model” that tracks how everything fits together.

At that point, you arrive at the same scenario we described earlier. Whereas in the good ol’ days you had marketers with hundreds of lists, you now just have hundreds of tags. This isn’t any better. Fortunately,  we have a couple of other data-gathering features to help us:

– Custom fields

– Events

– Segments

So how can you tell if something should be tracked through tags or one of these 3? I think this is easy if you use a simple rule of thumb. If a piece of information can be tracked with one of these other 3 formats, then it shouldn’t also be a tag. But we’ll look at more specific examples as we go more in depth on each one separately.

Understanding custom fields

I think that examples really make it clear where custom fields shine. So let’s look at a couple of examples where custom fields are undoubtedly superior.

email segmentationFor example, let’s say that you want to keep track of a certain status. You want to track if a person is just a subscriber, a lead, a member on your free plan, on one of your paid plans, or an ex-customer. If you used tags to keep track of this status, you would need to maintain 5 different tags! 

The even worse part is that you have to do 2 things in order to change status. You have to assign a new tag such as “paying customer” and remove the “on free trial” tag. Whereas with custom fields, you just have one field called “status”, and you change the value there. 

Another even more outlandish example would be keeping track of demographic data with lots of possible values. Imagine that you had a tag for every state or country that you work with. That would involve a lot of tags! Alternatively, with custom fields you just have a field called “location”.

Where events come in

The term “events” comes from programming lingo, and it just means something which happened due to a user action. For example a user opening an email is an “Event”, so is placing a product in their shopping cart, or viewing your pricing page.

I think the main way to understand why events exist is to look how impractical it would be to keep track of this data in custom fields or tags. 

Let’s say that you have many products, and each one can be bought multiple times. Would you have a “purchased product X tag” for each possible product? You could, but what if they purchase again 2 days later? Are you going to have “purchased product X a second time” and “purchased X a third time” tags? Obviously not. The best way to track this is with “purchased product” events. 

It’s a similar situation if you think about it in terms of custom fields. To replicate events you would need to have a custom field called “First purchase time”, a field called “First purchase URL”, and a field called “First purchase type”. Then you would need to create another three fields for each subsequent purchase. Highly impractical as you might imagine.

Tags and events work together

Events don’t replace tags entirely, in fact, you can and should use them in tandem. Let’s go back to the “purchased a product” example. You can also have a tag called “purchased a product”. This is a tag that signifies they have bought something, anything at all. This is a useful distinction if you’re a marketer. 

Sometimes you want to simplify personalization. You don’t need to have a separate campaign for every possible combination of events. You can just build a segment based on several criteria, one of which is that they have this tag (purchased any product at all, at any time).

This is an example where you would use both tags and events. The tag to get a simplified distinction. And then you would still maintain a log of events to have precise data on exactly when they performed which action. Think of your events data as your precise “source data” that you can use to derive more simplified categorizations.

I think another good example is leveraging the events we track automatically for you. This includes email opens and email clicks. A common pattern for marketers is to build an automation based on opens or clicks. So, you might have automations that assign an “opened weight-loss email” tag, or a “Clicked upsell offer” tag.

Once you have some tags derived from events, you can use those tags to adjust campaign targeting, personalize email content and build finer segments.

The role of segments

Segments are a bit different from the other types of categorizations in this guide. Everything else that we discussed can be used as a type of “source data”. Segments on the other hand are always a form of derived data.

What do I mean by this? Well, unlike a list, you can’t just manually assign someone to a segment. The only way for a subscriber to belong to a segment is if they match certain criteria. You define the criteria, and then let our platform add or remove people to a segment for you.

This typically means that you use the other data-organization methods to allow for finer and better crafted segments. You organize your lists, tags and custom fields in such a way that you can build a really smart segment based on their values.

email segmentationBut I think this will be a lot more clear with an example. Perhaps you want to send a campaign to get more demo bookings. You’ll first want to build a segment for all subscribers that seem like “hot opportunities”. So you might define a segment that includes all subscribers who:

– Belong to the “Requested whitepaper” list

– Don’t have “Booked a demo” tag

– Have opened an email in the last 12 days

I’m just drawing a random example here. You might for example have the segment rely on whether people have the “visited pricing page”. It all depends on your business model and what you’re trying to achieve.

For example, if you need a segment for win-back campaigns, you might build a segment more like this:

– Have the “Purchased a product” tag

– Also have the “Opened Topic X Emails” tag

– But haven’t opened an email in 3 months

If you want to learn about segmentation and segments, feel free to check out super popular guide: How To Utilize Market Segmentation for Maximum Profitability

Feeling overwhelmed? It doesn’t have to be complicated

If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I love helping businesses grow faster by adopting simplification. By this, I mean that it’s always easier to start by implementing the high-return basics first, before you try to implement everything else.

Please remember one thing. All of these data-categorization and data-tracking techniques have one goal in the end. They exist to help you personalize your marketing to finer and more granular levels. 

The more data you have, the more granular levels of personalization that you can achieve. However, the more data, the more complex it becomes to manage and store all of that data. This is where all the mechanisms like tags, segments, events and custom fields come into play.

However, just because you do something, it doesn’t mean that you have to do it. It is completely fine to keep it simple and focus on the basics. It’s ok to start out with just one main list, and decide on storing only a half dozen or maybe dozen values. Some of these will make more sense as a tag, others as custom fields. Then, create a couple of segments.

Don’t forget that personalization itself follows the 80-20 rule. Whilst you can get super fancy and granular, even basic personalization achieves quite a lot. That means sending slightly different emails to the different segments will do a great job. 

But also remember that at Emercury we came up with this special feature called “Smart personalization”. It is super easy to use and straightforward. With smart personalization you can have the same email show different content to different subscribers. Again, whilst you could have hundreds of tags, you don’t have to. You can still get some amazing results by personalizing off of a limited number of tags.

Get A Strategic Partner On Your Side

There’s no need to go at this alone. While we do put out a lot of free content to help you, nothing beats a one-on-one conversation. In these articles we try to help clarify things as best as possible. However, every business is different, so we have to generalize.

If you want to understand better how to implement email marketing in your specific business, let’s have a chat. At the moment I am still able to do some free demos, so be sure to book one while I can still do these.

I would love to hear about your specific needs, challenges and any confusion you might have about email marketing strategies, including email segmentation. And then, help you see how you can use Emercury to improve your bottom-line.

Alternatively, or in addition to booking a free demo, you can also grab a username for our forever-free-plan while we still have it. It’s probably the most generous email marketing automation plan on the planet. We include almost every feature in this plan, with very few restrictions.

Remember, you get to keep this plan for life, for free… Provided that you grab a username while registrations are still open. Note that we might decide to pull this way-too-generous offering at any point. So click that link to check if we still allow registrations.

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