Avoid a Tagging Crisis in One Hour


A tagging crisis creeps up on you.

It won’t happen suddenly or all at once. It will start with forgetting a single tag. You’ll figure it out soon enough and you’ll be lulled into a misleading sense of false security. “Everything is fine.”

It snowballs quickly from there… months after that, you’ll be beating your head against the desk. “What arcane code is this? Why would I create such ridiculous tags?”

You’ll become paranoid… contacts have tags you swear someone else put there.

You’ll begin to doubt yourself. Maybe other people can handle tags and you can’t. Maybe tagging is just too much for you.

You’ll remember when tagging seemed so simple and useful and you’ll wonder how all this could have turned so ugly.

Rest assured, this is something every tag-using marketer usually goes through once. I say “usually once” because most people who find themselves in this situation learn a hard-won lesson so painful they’ll never make the same mistake again:

If you invest a little time upfront to create a plan, you can avoid the pain, suffering, and lost data that follows, like the sun follows the moon, from creating tags on a whim, and thinking to yourself, “That’s easy, I won’t forget that.”

It’s not, and you will.

Please learn from the mistakes of the marketers who have come before you. Heed my warning — an hour spent now, creating a plan and organizing your tagging system, will save you a lot of frustration in the future.

If you are showing the early signs of a tagging system in collapse:

  • A history of creating many tags as you go without documenting them.
  • A nagging feeling that you don’t completely understand your tagging system anymore… you can push it down, but it keeps popping up.
  • It takes a while to remember what tags do, where they are used, or when they are applied.

… I recommend that you invest in the process outlined below for planning and documenting your tags as soon as possible. You may still be able to rescue your current tagging system and so prevent having to start over from scratch.

If you are currently in some stage of grieving after experiencing a complete collapse, you’ll find the information below helpful as you reconstruct your tagging system. There is a way out of this mess, you can do it, and this post will help.

What are tags?

Tagging is a quick, versatile way to consolidate, and then leverage, information about your contacts.

You can think of tags as labels. You can apply as many labels to a contact as you need.

Tags can indicate different types of contact data:

  • Important behavior – clicks, opens, downloads, purchases, etc.
  • Status/attributes – customer, prospect, repeat customer, advocate, engaged, disengaged, geo-location, etc.
  • Interests – what links did they click, what URLs did they visit, what lead magnets did they request?
  • Subscriptions – newsletter, blog subscriber, notify of sales, etc.
  • Misc data – products purchased, lifetime value, etc.

So tagging gives you a way to consolidate many different types of contact data into a single format.

When do you use tags?

There is some overlap between how tags, lists, segments, and custom fields can be used:

Lists are like folders. You can drop contacts into them, but it wouldn’t be feasible to create different lists for all the things you’d want to track in order to create targeted messages and intelligent marketing. Tags can be added and removed on the fly, automatically, while lists are less dynamic. Lists are general, while tags are more specific.

Segments are subsets of contacts based on conditions you define. Segments are generally groups of contacts you find yourself sending emails to repeatedly. Segments can be created from any contact data, including tags, but they are different in that a “segment” is a group of contacts that match certain conditions while a “tag” is an indication of a condition.

Custom fields are data fields you can create for storing a value in addition to the default fields. You might use a custom field to track unique values like dates, numbers, etc. For instance, if I wanted to store a contact’s Slack name, it would make sense to use a custom field for that. In contrast, a tag “is what it is.” It doesn’t store a value, it just indicates something.

My rule of thumb is that I use tags when it would be easier and custom fields, segments, and lists when that would be easier (given their different purposes). Trying to store a contact’s Slack name as a tag, for instance, wouldn’t be easy —  to apply or use.

If you have a situation in mind where it is unclear which you would use, please post it in the comment section and I’ll let you know what I would use in that situation.

How do you apply a tag?

You can apply tags with automations. You use “Apply tag” or “Remove tag” actions and there is no additional set up needed:

You can also apply tags using the bulk editor:

To apply tags to a single contact, you can do that from their contact record:

During import you have the opportunity to apply tags:

And, if you have the technical know-how to do so, you can add tags via the API.

How can you use tags to target specific contacts?

By filtering contacts with combinations of tags, you can create extremely granular groups of contacts along a variety of dimensions.

For instance, if you want to send an email campaign to satisfied, engaged customers asking if they’d recommend your product to others, you could search for contacts tagged as:

  • “repeat customer for a specific product,” +
  • “clicked a link or opened an email in the last 60 days,” +
  • “indicated they are happy in after-purchase survey,”

… and see the contacts that have all those tags. You are basically saying, “show me the contacts who have all three of these ‘labels.’” By mixing and matching tags, you can find exactly the group of contacts you are looking for.

Leveraging tags to create better marketing and sales

The tags make it super easy to extract value from your data. Tags can be used for:

  • Analytics
    Know which lead magnets/content are performing (generating opt-in contacts). Know which products your contacts are interested in by applying interest tags on product page visits.
  • Creating case studies 
    A lot of valuable data remains hidden in statistics… interesting outliers disappear into a single aggregate number. Case studies are a great way to examine edge cases and exceptions to rules. You may be able to gain new insights and better understand your customer base. A contact’s record is a rich source of data — tags, Site Tracking data, location data, notes you’ve applied, etc. help you to understand who a contact is and what they’ve done.
  • Triggering automations
    Automations can begin when a tag is applied so you could begin several automations at a time with a single tag.
  • Adjusting lead scores
    Adding (or removing) a tag can be used to automatically adjust a contact or deal score.
  • Within automations
    Track the outcome of automations by applying a tag.
  • Creating segments
    Tagging really shines when it comes to creating segments. When a tag is added or removed, a contact can automatically be added to a dynamic segment.
  • Personalizing message content
    Tags can simplify the process of using the Conditional Content feature so that you can hide or display content on the basis of how a contact is tagged. For instance, if they are tagged as interested in a specific product, you could use Conditional Content to display that product image within the email.


A process to plan out your tagging system

1. Start with defining how you will use tags…

Do you want to…

  • Deliver content targeted to your contact’s interests?
  • Track attendance to your webinars?
  • Build a detailed contact profile before passing leads to your sales team?
  • Record specific link clicks, URL visits, or email opens?
  • Recommend products based on a contact’s purchase history?
  • Send highly segmented email campaigns?
  • Identify “bad” customers and “raving fans?”
  • Indicate prospects who are “sales ready?”
  • Begin other automations?
  • Track your contacts interests and analyze data to improve your content marketing?

Defining your use cases is foundational to how you organize and structure your tags.

2. Create a spreadsheet…

Plan out your tagging system in a spreadsheet so you can visualize what is going on and really get a feel for the structure and what would be most logical. Besides being essential during the planning stage, you’ll want to keep this up-to-date with your latest tags, notes on what they are doing, and how you are using them, so that you prevent a “tagging crisis.”

Here’s an example ActiveCampaign user Anne Headon shared with us.


3. Decide on the structure of the tags themselves…

My experience has been that tags should be organized by category first, and then become more specific. So, for instance, if you wanted to keep track of content your contacts requested you might use a structure like:

Category – subcategory – specific
Content download – white paper – “7 steps to flawless macro photos”
Webinar – attended – “How to run a wedding photo shoot like a pro” – 10/14/15

And this is where the ideal tagging system becomes debatable. One school of thought, the one I subscribe to, is that tags should be descriptive (you read them and it’s obvious what they mean). The criticism is that this makes big, ugly tags that wrap across lines and you can mess up typing them by misplacing a dash or space.

The competing school of thought is that, to be as short yet information-packed as possible, tags should basically be like codes and to figure out their meaning, you’d have to know it from memory or reference a spreadsheet. They might look like this for the same tag:


In my opinion, it is usually best to avoid being cryptic. Abbreviations, codes, etc. only obscure the meaning of tags and, by causing you to constantly reference outside docs, undermine the speed and simplicity that make them advantageous.

You may find that a mixture of abbreviations and descriptive words is a perfect compromise between the two extremes. For instance, you could abbreviate the category because that is consistent so you’ll become familiar with it and won’t have to reference a document.

EDIT: Here’s a tag formatting protip from ActiveCampaign user, Matt Mintun… after importing a big list and accidentally adding a tag that triggered a message sequence he didn’t want to send, Matt started noting which tags begin automations with a [trigger] label to make it obvious when he is using a tag that begins other automations. 

Avoiding a tagging crisis

Use tags only when needed
The more simple your tagging system, the better. You may be tempted to use tags for every little thing, figuring that more data is better and you’ll use it at some point, but this often isn’t the case. What will probably end up happening is that your tagging system becomes so overwhelming and confusing you can no longer use all the data you’ve collected. With tagging, as with so many other things, less is more.

Use your spreadsheet to plan out the purposes of your tags and resist the temptation to tag outside of how you actually plan on leveraging tags to produce better marketing. If you are tempted to create new tags, see how they fit into your spreadsheet/overall plan before creating them.

Use tags when appropriate
There are times that segments may serve the same purpose as a tag, but have the benefit of keeping your tagging system streamlined. For instance, if you are tagging contacts as having opened an email, you could keep them in a segment rather than applying tags.

Organize and prune tags regularly
By keeping your spreadsheet up-to-date you’ll be able to visualize your tagging system in its entirety and get a feel for when it is getting out of control, spot duplicate tags, and have a back up resource for when memory inevitably fails you.

Use our tag manager and its merge function to combine tags that are serving duplicate purposes.

How to merge tags


The move from list-based organization of contacts to tag-based organization has been a huge leap forward in contact management. But, without putting in some planning upfront, the advantages disintegrate, you’ll find yourself frustrated, and you’ll lose valuable data, so I hope you invest the time now to avoid such an unnecessary struggle.

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  • Matt Mintun

    Fantastic article!! I personally manage about 15 different applications and having a robust system to manage all the different tags in the system is essential. I HAVE had a personal crisis (hence the creation of a management system like you describe). Accidentally adding 10,000 people to a sequence without realizing it by importing a new list and adding a tag that triggers a sequence is not fun :) I personally subscribe to the way Anne does it except I label “actions” as “triggers” so it’s completely obvious that adding this tag will TRIGGER SOMETHING!

    • Brian Gladu

      Hi Matt —

      That’s a *great* tip… labeling tags that trigger automations makes a lot of sense. Mind if I add that tip to the post (and give you credit)?

      • Matt Mintun

        of course! Would love to be a part of it :)

        • Brian Gladu

          Thanks, Matt! Added it in.

  • GREAT post, and I usually don’t read them …read this to the bottom…

  • Nice article.
    Two things that would make tagging easier and more useful in ActiveCampaign is:
    1. If you could add a note, or at least a label next to tags in the Tag Manager, similar to the labels you have on the Automations screen.
    2. Get rid of the silly “feature” that when you change the name of a Tag in the tag manager, it doesn’t actually change the name of the Tag inside any Automations you may be using. At the very least have a modal popup or something that asks “Do you want to change the name of this tag inside your automations” Yes or No

  • Gary Meeker

    Regarding “Merge Selected Tags”, I am using webhooks and adding tags to new members who purchase through one source and the Membership site source itself creates a different tag. If I merge the two, will one of them loose its original tag and assume a new tag? Or will the merge create a new tag for both? I would like to merge but worry I will loose the original source tag.

    • Javier

      Hey Gary – Once you merge a tag, you can select wich one will overwrite the other > http://screen.ac/2a2L0i2L3K2F So in the end you will have only one of them.

      • Gary Meeker

        Thanks for the clarity. I believe my best bet would be to combine and create a List in order to combine those tags and keep their original identifiers.

  • Robert Royster

    Trying to figure out what is important in my B&M restaurants and when to use tags and segments. We have a coupon tracking system from signup on website to redeem in store (and direct email or FB ad) that we use a lot, really everything is sent to the get coupon system. So we have 5 (moving on up) coupons running. We have Coupon, date claimed, date redeemed. Someone could have all 5 coupons or just 1. Fields in AC? Tags in AC? Can’t be a segment. Thoroughly jumbled at this point. Also have interests, Food, Beer, Events, Music, etc. And where they came from Coloring List, FB ad, website signup, comment card, etc. Any Clarity for me?

    • Brian Gladu

      First of all, let me say how impressed I am with the marketing automation you are using as a restaurant owner. Unfortunately, I think this puts you in an exclusive minority. I’d love to hear more about what you are doing and the results you are seeing. I think this would make a great case study. Let me know if you would be interested in doing that.

      I would use tags for the coupon claims, keep the dates as custom fields, and then create segments looking for the coupon tags. I may be missing something though. Let me know if there is some reason that isn’t ideal.

      The interest tagging based on their reason for visiting your restaurant is brilliant. Definitely keep that as tags. I’d create segments looking for those tags as well.

      Their lead gen source is more tricky. You could use a custom field with checkboxes if your tagging system is becoming confusing, but ideally I think that would be a tag too.

      If it’s difficult keeping these organized, I’d use a category identifier at the beginning of each tag like:

      – SOURCE: Coloring list
      – SOURCE: FB ad
      – SOURCE: Website

      – INTEREST: Beer
      – INTEREST: Food
      – INTEREST: Music

      – COUPON: 10% off
      – COUPON: Free drink
      – COUPON: Free dessert

      If you reply with complications I may not be considering, I’ll work with you to find a better system.

  • Thanks for the article. I’m just looking to set up my AC so want to really lay out the structure ahead of time. I’ve worked in large CRMs and also Infusionsoft, so I’m quite familiar with the concept of tagging (which I love). I’m interested particularly in your recommendations around when to use lists vs tags. My inclination is to create ONE list and then to use tags for Customers, Lead Magnets, Event Reg, Event Attend, etc. Would there be any compelling reason to create, for example, different lists for customers vs leads? Thanks.

    • Hi Pam,
      I tend to run with two lists, Main and Customers (with customers being on both lists). The reason being, all of the marketing messages come from the Main list and if a customer decides they don’t want the marketing any more and they unsubscribe, that is it. I can’t talk to them any more. If they are on a separate Customers list I can at least still send them non-marketing related messages like, product updates, etc.

      Others run with a List for each product. No hard and fast rules.

  • TQ Senkungu

    It may be me, but the spreadsheet you attached says I need permission to access it. Could you please make the link visible by anyone or approve my access please so I can put your good advice to use?

    • Brian Gladu

      Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I’ve removed it from the post for now. I’ll find another way to share it.

      • TQ Senkungu

        Attach a pdf maybe?

  • can you add multiple tags at once using commas?

    • Brian Gladu

      Yes, when you press the comma button, the tag is automatically added to the contact. Here is a short video demonstrating this: http://screen.ac/251g3J2u023h

      • Sweet. Now can i create tags BEFORE a person joins a list or automation? I used to be able to do this in IFS

        • Brian Gladu

          Yes, as long as you have their email address, you can apply tags and populate contact fields without having them subscribed to a list or in an automation.

  • Milane Hughes

    Hi Brian, I have a retail client with 2 customer markets: carpet cleaners AND steam cleaners. We want to break the contacts into carpet cleaning leads or customers, and steam cleaning leads or customers. What do you suggest is the best way to do this? Have 1 LIST with ALL contacats, then just apply multiple tags to each contact. For example, one contact might have 2 tags: ‘CARPET CLEANING’ and ‘CUSTOMER’. Is this the best way to do it? Thanks! :)

    • Brian Gladu

      Hi Milane, Based solely on the information you’ve given, I would think that a single list system would work fine, if that’s what makes sense to you. Another option would be having four lists: CARPET CLEANING – CUSTOMERS,” CARPET CLEANING – PROSPECTS,” “STEAM CLEANING – CUSTOMERS,” & “STEAM CLEANING – PROSPECTS.” It’s not a ton of lists, so it shouldn’t feel overwhelming, and the benefit is that going to the Lists Overview page would give you an overview of the number of contacts you have in each group. You can also do that by filtering your contact list by tag, but visiting the lists page would be easier.

      Let me know if you have any other questions or if you want to talk this through more… I’m here to help!

  • Great Article ! Abbreviations, codes, etc…for tags make sense for me since I need outside of AC trigger, on my website, web personalised experience through lightboxes based on category. Only way for me is to pass on the categorisation code to my tag codes in AC.