one list vs multiple lists
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

Dan Dewitte

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 

Carl Taylor

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

Edward Haskins

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)

Barry Moore

Certified Consultant and Expert ActiveCampaign Coach
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

Jason Henderson

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.
Zero.
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

Alex King

Certified Consultant and CCO at Alex King Creative
Recommends: Lists for demographics and tags for actions & interests.

“I believe tha