The most popular thread from our community forum is a back-and-forth about whether there should be one list or multiple lists for organizing contacts and customers.
There’s debate because ActiveCampaign doesn’t force a structure. It’s flexible — you’re free to organize contacts however you want — you can use a single list, multiple lists, tags, custom fields, or a combination. Pretty much anything will work.
But, nearly unlimited flexibility means you have to decide what’s most appropriate for your business. Even among the experts, there’s differing opinions on what is “best.” This can lead to uncertainty and confusion.
To help you find the right contact organization scheme for your business, I asked our community of email & marketing automation experts to give their advice.
What is a “list” in ActiveCampaign?
Before we dive in and hear from the experts, it will be helpful to make sure we’re all on the same page. What is a list?
A list is a way to organize a group of contacts that you have in ActiveCampaign. Sometimes there is confusion about how to use email lists because ActiveCampaign also offers “tags,” a feature that helps with segmentation.
Here’s a good way to think about it.
- Contacts are on a list. A list is a collection of contacts that have been deliberately grouped together.
- Contacts have a tag. Tags are attached to contacts as you get more information about them. You can sort contacts to see everyone with a given tag, even if they aren’t on the same list.
The flexibility of lists and tags means that you can often use either one to achieve a goal. And you’re about to hear from experts on what they think is best.
Importantly, this is possible in ActiveCampaign because a contact can be on multiple lists without any problem. Some platforms double-charge for having the same contact twice, but ActiveCampaign does not.
With that background behind us, let’s get some expert opinions. We talked to 10 experts about their favorite way to set up their lists. They’re answers can help you with questions like:
- When it makes sense to add another list
- How multiple lists can help you manage your integrations
- The situations where tags and lists are interchangeable (and when they aren’t)
- How to manage unsubscribes
- Where custom fields fit into the picture
Let’s dive in.
Dan Dewitte: Prospects and customers
Founder of ActiveRelay, simple order forms for ActiveCampaign
Recommends: A list of prospects and a list of customers (subdivided with tags)
“There are many ways you can segment your contacts in ActiveCampaign, all of which are powerful, but some which I believe are simpler and more effective.
The first and most important thing to do is to take a step back and evaluate what you would ultimately like to know about your contacts/customers. This will determine whether they go in a “list” or are assigned a “tag” so let’s break it down.
I’m a huge fan of keeping two lists. I have a “Master List” and a “Customer List” the names are pretty obvious but on a high level I can see if this contact is a customer or a general email prospect that hasn’t converted yet.
So that’s super basic and a great building block to begin more complex segmentation. Cue Tags, I love these because they are unlimited and versatile! BUT a word of advice, keep an Excel spreadsheet or make sure you put a description on the tags in the tag manager because it can get very messy, very quickly!
I like to categorise my tags to keep them clean. For example: If your prospect is interested in dogs, running, and had downloaded a lead-magnet your tags would look like:
- “INTEREST: Dogs”
- “INTEREST: Running”
- “DL: Lead-magnet name” (DL = downloaded)
Using this example: You want to send a sales email to everyone who’s not a customer but interested in running and has downloaded “your lead-magnet name”. You would send to contacts in the “Master List” that have “INTEREST: Running” & “DL: Lead-magnet name” Tags.
Ultimately your segmentation will reflect your brain and business needs. Take as much information as you can from this blog post and the brilliant ideas of the Other ActiveCampaign partners, find the flavour you and grab a cuppa, pen, and paper, then map out what information you would like from your contacts.”
Carl Taylor: Prospects, customers, and content
Certified Consultant and founder and CEO of Automation Agency
Recommends: A list for prospects, a list for customers, and a list for content nurturing.
“You can certainly do the one list and just use tags approach however it does have a downside…
What happens when someone (who is also a client) unsubscribes from your newsletter which unsubscribes from the list meaning they no longer can get ANY email communication from you!
The thing to remember is Lists are permission to mail, so my approach is to have 2 maybe 3 lists and no more.
List 1. Master List (this is essentially the 1 list idea that you use tags to segment)
List 2. Client Communication (this is where you send clients important information about the product/service they have bought)
This is a bare minimum in my opinion if you are a service business. I personally also like to break out another list for my ongoing regular broadcasts that aren’t special offers, but are content.
List 3. Newsletter / Nurture list (this is the weekly or monthly newsletter or blog posts you send out)“
Edward Haskins: Master list, customer list, and integrations
Founder of ActiveAutomations, power tools to turbocharge ActiveCampaign
Recommends: Master list and customer list. Separate lists as needed for integrations.
“There’s no right or wrong when it comes to how you decide to use Lists inside ActiveCampaign. For me, I typically setup my client accounts using two Lists: Master List and Customer List. All Leads are added to the Master List and remain there. Only once a Lead makes a purchase of any kind do they get added to the Customer List.
In certain situations, additional Lists may be appropriate. The most obvious is when a 3rd party tool doesn’t integrate at the Tag level. That often forces you to add them to a separate List so that you can properly Tag the Contact via Automation.
When possible, keep the number of Lists to a minimum and make use of Tags and Custom Fields for Segmentation.”
Barry Moore: One list with tags (plus integrations)
Recommends: One list with tags. Additional lists as needed for integrations.
“Like many folks I try to keep contacts consolidated onto one list and segmented with tags and/or custom field data.
However, I do resort to multiple lists every now and then. Some of the times that additional lists work well are when using an API from another system that only integrates at a list level.
If the other program allows you to specify a list only (with no tags), it is difficult to segment your contacts based on that optin channel. I use what I call action lists to take the inbound contacts, tag and process them, then add them to my main list. That way I can segment all incoming subscribers based on source and still maintain an accurate master list.
I also tend to use additional lists for temporary promotions, just because it is easy. But again I make sure all contacts get tagged properly and added to the main list in the end.”
Jason Henderson: Don’t worry about lists vs tags
Certified Consultant and creator of ACVideoTracker
Recommends: Don’t worry about it.
“As someone who has been doing email marketing for themselves and clients since 1996 (Yes, that’s over 20 years), one of the biggest wastes of time for ActiveCampaign users in my opinion is the subject of tags versus lists.
Having worked with multiple companies who do over seven figures a month (not to mention the countless clients who do seven figures a year) and use high-end email service providers like ExactTarget, I’ll tell you how many of them have worried about eliminating lists or even asked about this subject.
Why is that? It’s simple. There are so many more things email marketers can be focusing on that will actually make you money.
Lists are, and always be, the simplest and most efficient way to organize contacts (Especially when using ActiveCampaign) and targeting the right message… to the right person… at the right time. Plus, there’s nothing preventing you from using both lists and tags for further segmentation and targeting.
Lastly (for now), every single “reason” I’ve seen for eliminating most, if not all, lists are personal preferences. In fact, you can turn most of their reasons into why you want to use lists more.
This is why ActiveCampaign rocks. You get the best of both worlds.”
Alex King: Lists for demographics, tags for action
Certified Consultant and CCO at Alex King Creative
Recommends: Lists for demographics and tags for actions & interests.
“I believe that business and marketing systems should be as beautiful and organized as they are effective. I think that just like you feel more at peace when your house or desk is clean, your business can function more effectively with organized and structured systems. I can’t tell you have many email marketing platforms I’ve logged in to of my clients (some that even earn millions of dollars) and seen a complete disaster of a management system.
I see lists with contacts that have unsubscribed and haven’t been deleted.
Potential Client: “My list has 150,000 contacts”
Me: “What’s your average open rate”
Potential Client: “Uhh… Erm… Ahem…”
I see tags with no descriptions or clear references.
Stuff like… “TR MPW 2016 20X – DO NOT DELETE”
I see entire accounts that have been passed from “expert” to “expert” and not one of them has thought to create a structure or formula for organizing the client’s account.
We can do better…
The most important thing for me is to trigger Automations based off Tags being added / removed and NEVER from being added to a list. Most of your automations are triggered by a circumstance. Like someone buying a specific product or opting in to a certain funnel. Use these “triggers” as Tags.
I like to use lists to create “demographics” within my ActiveCampaign accounts and prefer to use tags for showing actions or interest.
I find that with the different plugins and integrations that end up being built around a sophisticated marketing system, it’s easy to add a contact to a general or master list without being too worried that they’re in the wrong place. But a tag needs to have specificity to it, because it needs to trigger the right automations – and only those automations.”
Charl Coetzee: Lists to manage relationships
Certified Consultant and Senior Managing Partner at Real Fortune
Recommends: Lists for relationships and levels of intimacy.
“Here at RealFortune, we believe in having different lists based on the level of intimacy in the communication. For example, you would speak one way to your general broadcast list. You speak differently to your low-value clients who have purchased one or two small products. Then you speak another way to your high-value coaching clients. The different relationships map to different lists and different levels of intimacy in the way you speak to your contacts. The likelihood of people leaving a list gets smaller as their level of intimacy increases. As people become disengaged, we move them to a fourth list and purge them from the account every few months, thus protecting your sender reputation and saving money.
By managing lists based on the relationship, we can then refine our criteria to define even more granular segments of your lists. In most cases, we create three lists: a general broadcast and marketing list, a customer list, and the bucket list which we flush from time to time for list hygiene. We typically segment the general broadcast and marketing list based on interest and demographics. You segment the customer list based on purchases and current activity.
This system makes list management a whole lot easier. We can easily exclude people from certain messages because we’ve defined the segments beforehand.”
Kristoff Henry: The housekeeping list
Recommends: A list for each type of content and housekeeping lists for automation.
“To me there are two types of lists: a content-driven list and a housekeeping list. For a content driven list I ask myself: do I need to send a different type of content to certain contacts. If yes, what do I want to happen if they unsubscribe? If I don’t want them to unsubscribe from everything, but just from that particular type of content, then I will put those contacts in a separate list.
Sometimes, I also have lists that trigger automations for housekeeping: adding tags, changing field information, sending notifications and finally adding the contact to a content-driven list. Once the actions have been carried out, the housekeeping list no longer has a purpose for that contact. This is particularly useful when using third party forms to track where the contact comes from and adding that information as a tag.
For anything else I use tags to build a contact profile and to use as segmentation criteria.”
Sean Tierney: One list with tags
Director of Sales & Marketing at Pagely and ActiveCampaign power user
Recommends: One list segmented with tags.
“I have yet to find anything that can be accomplished with lists that cannot be done better via tag. I prefer to set up one master list and segment everyone within that based on tags. As best I can tell the arguments for doing multiple lists revolve around one of the below (I’ve put my rebuttal to each after describing the argument):
- Giving users a more granular way to unsubscribe without nuking their subscription to everything <- IMO this should be achieved with link that sets a segment-specific opt-out tag and you should have conditional logic in your automations that suppresses sends upon presence of this tag. Same thing for campaigns you exclude any segments that have the suppression tags from sends.
- From an admin perspective it provides a more convenient way to see how many people are at which stage or subscribed to which list. Same can be accomplished via saved segments and saved searches. Having multiple lists IMO leads to sprawl and multiple ways to accomplish the same thing. All things being equal I would rather have one bulletproof way to do things and not have the cognitive load each time of trying to decide whether it should be a list or a tag.
- Tag sprawl <- this is addressed by having a sensible tagging taxonomy strategy. One of the useful things I picked up from my time as an Infusionsoft consultant is this nested () nomenclature of doing tags in a way that shows hierarchical structure. So for instance I’ll do (Segment)(Demographic)(Male) or (Flag)(Training)(Sales) with the most high-level category on the left. This allows you to run searches on the top-level category and keep your tags organized. Tag sprawl can occur independent of this notion of using multiple lists so you should come up with whatever taxonomy strategy is most beneficial given your circumstances regardless of whether you choose to consolidate to a single list or not.
The reality of our situation with Pagely is we started using multiple lists and the overhead of changing that setup now doesn’t merit the advantages of consolidating so but such is life. Anyone I coach at this point setting things up from scratch I steer towards the One List gospel. I would love to hear the arguments from anyone who is a fan of the multiple list approach and will happily stand corrected if there are valid arguments for doing it that way.”
Chris Davis: Consider custom fields
ActiveCampaign’s Director of Education
Lists are a powerful feature in ActiveCampaign but often confusing because their capabilities are mistaken for basic list functionality found in platforms that provide only email marketing.
I like to view, and teach, our users to look at list as the most broad means of communication. That means that people who exist on a list are at the top of the targeting funnel. As you progress downwards this funnel you get more targeted with your messaging thus necessitating the need to use tags and custom fields.
Overall you should use lists for broadly segmenting your database. As your segmenting needs increase you will need to start implementing tags and custom fields.
One thing to note is some third party tools only integrate with ActiveCampaign on a list level. For those types of integrations I recommend you creating a list specific to the third party tool and move contacts to the list of your choice once they have performed some type of engagement after being added via third party.
Tags, on the other hand, are a lot more flexible and targeted than lists. They can be applied, and removed, multiple ways and have the ability to represent a more targeted group of contacts. For instance, you may sell apparel and have two separate lists for outerwear and underwear. With tags it’s possible to target all males across both lists. Thus, giving you more flexibility than lists provide at sending targeted messages.
The usage of tags should help tell a story of what the contact has done, is doing, and help predict what they might do. For that reason I recommend using tags on the most important actions in ActiveCampaign as well as using tags to identify your most important segments. It is very common for users to have a minimal amount of lists (1-3) and use tags to further segment their contact database.
Custom fields are the most permanent data the exists in ActiveCampaign. Out of all of the 3 segmentation options custom fields are the only feature that allows you to display its data to your contacts. For instance, if you have captured the type of pet someone owns you can then display that value in outbound communication to make it more personalized.
A good rule of thumb for custom fields is to use them when data will not be changing quickly and you would like to display the value to your contacts in any outbound messaging from ActiveCampaign.