Issue #024

Don't use tags to segment your list

"What should I tag new subscribers with..."

"How to use tags to better market to my list..."

"From tagging to knowing which emails convert and how long it takes to convert..."

"I think I would be completely lost and ConvertKit would be a hot mess of rules and tags and I would have no idea why I created them..."

When new subscribers join my list, I ask them what they're struggling with. (Maybe you remember when I asked you this?)

Tagging comes up a lot.

Tagging is, without a doubt, the default and obvious way to segment your email list. Tag your customers. Tag your highest engaged subscribers. Tag specific types of customers. Tag people with particular interests. etc.

So it might surprise you to hear that none of the 2,500+ subscribers of Create & Sell are tagged.

I'm not using tags, but I have a ton of segmentation data.

...How does that work?

Why I don't use tags to segment my list

I try my best to be forward thinking.

What will C&S be like when I have 10,000 subscribers? 50,000? What if I get to 100,000+?

And while the list is relatively small-ish (2,500) at the moment, from the beginning I decided to not use tags to segment.


Because I saw first hand with Double Your Freelancing (50k subs) along with just about every client who's hired me to clean up their email marketing that tags are frickin' dangerous.

No, I don't think you'll be murdered by a gang of tags in a dark alley. But I do know that, left unchecked, as your email system becomes more complicated keeping on top of how you segment will become increasingly harder.

Allow me to illustrate...

Let's say you run a membership site.

You give people a 7-day trial. If they don't cancel during the trial, they become a paying customer (they pay you monthly.)

And, unfortunately, people can also cancel their membership.

Pretty straightforward, right?

OK, so now you have your membership site talking with your email database:

  • When someone starts a trial, tag them as "trialing"

  • When someone becomes a paying customer, tag them as "customer"

  • If someone cancels, tag them as "canceled"

Now that you've got that figured out, it's time to start doing your email marketing thing with this information.

You decide to promote the membership site to everyone who hasn't signed up for a trial or become a customer yet. To do this, you target people who don't have the tag "trialing" or "customer"

That works well enough.

How about sending a limited time offer to those who started a trial but never converted? Target people with the "trialing" tag who don't have the "customer" tag.

That also works.

...You think. It does on paper at least, right?

Now you want to email everyone who canceled. "Please come back, the community is so much better now!"

So you email everyone with the "canceled" tag.

But, oh crap. A few customers are replying to that email and they're pretty confused.

What the heck is going on?

And then it dawns on you:

Oh! They had canceled their account, and then later decided to sign up again and were put in another trial. But they're still tagged "canceled" from when they canceled way back when.

That makes sense... so you decide to fix this by removing the "canceled" tag (in case it exists) when someone starts a new trial. And you might as well remove the "trialing" tag when someone becomes a paying customer.

But in doing all this, you've now ended up with a hot mess of rules that say "when 'trialing' is added, remove 'canceled", etc.

And your confidence in knowing WHO is a customer, WHO is currently trialing, WHO actually has canceled... well, it starts to dwindle, doesn't it?

And it gets worse ...

"Well, I don't have a membership site. I just sell a simple course."

OK, how are you ensuring that people who asked for a refund or failed to complete a payment plan aren't being treated as a paying customer?

Are you pairing the "Bought Course" tag with "Refunded Course"?

See where I'm going with all this? 😀

How about simple segmentation, like tagging someone based on what they're interested in?

You create a series of link triggers that, when clicked, tag someone based on what they clicked. In the above example, someone either:

  • doesn't yet have a business

  • has a < $500/mo business

  • has a > $500/mo business

...What if someone clicks the wrong link, and then a second later clicks the link they meant to click?

...Or ends up clicking everything?

...Or gets an email from you a few months later that asks them the same question, and their situation has changed (they went from "no business" to "< $500/mo")?

How can you target any of these people with certainty?

You can't – unless you set up yet another set of rules that remove tags B and C when tag A is added, removes A and C when B is added, and so on.

OK, so what's the fix ?

The fix is to use custom fields.

Most people think to use custom fields to store, well, custom information – like a first name.

It would be stupid to have a "People named [FIRST NAME GOES HERE]" tag, so you just set a field called "First Name" to [FIRST NAME GOES HERE].

Most marketers aren't using custom fields to segment, they're instead using them to customise emails, a.k.a. "mail merging" – sticking someone's first name at the top of an email.

But custom fields also make for GREAT segmentation.

Remember our membership site example from above?

  • 3 tags: "trialing", "customer", "canceled"

  • 3 automation rules: when "trialing" added, remove "canceled"; when "customer" added, remove "trialing"; when "canceled" added, remove "customer"

This can be simplified with a single custom field: membership_status

When someone starts a trial, set the value to "trialing". When they buy, set it to "customer". If they cancel, "canceled".

The clean-up happens automatically. There are no additional rules that you need to mess with. If you want to send an email to everyone who's canceled, it's as easy as targeting membership_status=canceled.

Same for things like purchase status.

When someone buys Mastering ConvertKit, I set mck_status=purchased. If they pay in instalments, I set it to "instalment" and once they pay it off it switches to "purchased". If they ask for a refund, I set it to "refunded".

Targeting all non-customers is as easy as looking for subscribers who don't have that field set. A customer update goes to anyone with the field set to "purchased" or "instalment". An offer to pay off the remainder of an instalment goes to those with just "instalment".

Easy peasy.

And this makes sense because someone can't be both a customer and a non-customer at the same time. You can't be both trialing a membership site and also be someone who canceled their subscription.

With tags, you can be many conflicting things at once. With custom fields, you can't.

Send emails with confidence

Once you move away from tags, your segmentation does become much more obviously intuitive.

In my case, I've ended up with a subscriber list with a wealth of information that I can mix and match.

The only real downside is that many of the email marketing platforms and the things that integrate with them are heavily biased toward tagging. I can't help but think it's because they just haven't thought things through 😉

That can make it a bit of a challenge to get, say, your membership site platform to write custom fields instead of applying tags. As a customer of these services, however, make your voice known. The more pressure put on platforms to help you segment right, the better it is for all of us.