How to Segment Contacts Using Lists, Tags and Custom Fields

Lists and tags and custom fields, oh my! This guide explains how to use all three of these functions together effectively, in order to get the most out of ActiveCampaign's segmentation capabilities.


Segmentation is important because with the right approach, you can scale personalization within your marketing, strengthening the overall effectiveness of your messaging.

In ActiveCampaign, you have lists, tags and custom fields at your disposal to segment your contacts with precision and efficacy.

We encourage you to take advantage of all three. This may sound like a lot to juggle if you’re used to depending only on one. But with floating features like our segment builder, and a flexible platform overall, it’s easier than you might think to execute an effective segmentation strategy that uses all three capabilities.

This guide will run you through the basics of lists, tags and custom fields, and explain how to use these functions together in order to segment your contacts like a pro, improving the precision of your targeted marketing efforts and boosting the quality of personalization in your messaging.

Let’s dive in!

Segmentation 101

Segmentation is the act of grouping your contacts by either attribute or action.

An attribute is a quality or feature about a contact. For example, a contact’s gender and interests are attributes.

An action is part of contacts’ behavior when interacting with your business—what actions do they take? For example, does a specific contact repeatedly view your sales page and leave, or purchase your service? Does the same contact read every campaign you send, or leave most of your emails unopened?

Behavior-based segmentation is key, because when you segment by behavior you’re not only listening to what your customers are telling you they want, you’re also monitoring what they actually do.

The ActiveCampaign platform is designed to help you combine the use of lists, tags and custom fields to segment contacts primarily by behavior, as well as attributes.

To understand how to use all three functions together effectively, think of segmentation as a funnel split into three sections.


At the top of the funnel are lists, which are the broadest form of segmentation you can employ. Lists are based on one broad interest that is shared by all contacts in a list.

Tags make up the middle section of the funnel; they are the first level of targeted segmentation. Tags represent a condition or a set of conditions that often are not permanent; they can easily be applied or removed.

At the bottom of the funnel are custom fields, which are the most targeted form of segmentation you can employ. Custom fields represent data that is either permanent or unlikely to change often/easily.

Note: ActiveCampaign does not limit the number of custom fields and tags you can create, so you have the freedom and flexibility to use as many as you need!

When you use all three of these functions together within ActiveCampaign, you unleash the power inherent in automation to personalize the customer journey for every lead that enters into your contact database.


A single list is intended to represent a broad spectrum of contacts who have one main interest in common. For example, you may have a Customer list, which represents a segment of your contacts who share a common interest in your business as customers. And you may have a Prospect list, which represents a segment of your contacts who share a common general interest in your business. When a contact from your Prospect list purchases a product, you move that contact to your Customers list.

Lists help you send the right type of message to the right group of contacts, especially if you need to send a number of varying communications. For example, if you’re running multiple businesses from within one ActiveCampaign account, or if you sell a diverse array of unrelated products, lists can help you organize your contacts into groups according to the type of messaging that is most appropriate for them.

Note: In ActiveCampaign, a contact is represented by an email address. So even if a contact exists on more than one of your lists, that contact (email address) will only count once toward the total number of contacts in your account.

To learn more about using lists in ActiveCampaign, read our guide on the subject.


The primary purpose of tags is to organize the contacts in your database. When your contact database is well-organized, you can easily access segments of contacts on the fly. So tags in ActiveCampaign are meant to provide a non-cumbersome way to quickly group your contacts.

We don’t recommend using tags for everything, but below is a list of specific types of tags we do recommend using, based on your needs.

Note: When naming your tags, it’s good practice to include the tag category so you always have context around which attribute the tag tracks and why the tag exists. That looks like this:

Tag Category – Name of Tag

  • Source tag – Use to track where your leads originated from. (Example: Source – Live Event)
  • Status tag – Use to indicate a contact’s status in a process. Status tags are updated whenever an action is taken—the status changes based on a contact’s actions; these tags are useful when you want to track engagement. (Example: Status – 30 Days Not Engaged, or Status – 60 Days No Purchase)
  • Trigger tag – Use to initiate processes by triggering an action. Trigger tags typically begin automations with the “Tag is added” and “Tag is removed” start triggers, end automations, or serve as criteria to achieve a Goal that advances contacts to specific steps within automations. Note: When using the addition of a tag to trigger an automation, the tag must be added after the automation is created; it will not be triggered retroactively for contacts who previously were assigned the tag.
  • Product tag – Indicates which product a contact has purchased. (Example: Product – Online Course, or Product – Tee Shirt). For example, you might have a Customer list in which all of those contacts are tagged with the product they purchased.
  • Action tag – action tags are related to status tags; they signify behavior that alters a contact’s status. (Example: Action – Visited a product page, Action – Downloaded ebook, Action – Attended event.) This type of tag can be used to describe any kind of contact behavior.

There is another way you can use tags in ActiveCampaign—to trigger conditional content. This capability is exclusive to our platform and provides yet more opportunity to be very nimble in your segmenting: Use tags with conditional content in campaigns to decrease the number of emails you send and ensure that all content in every email you do send is hyper-relevant for each contact.

To use conditional content, access the email designer (either from Campaigns or Automations), and click on the gear that appears on the right side of a block of content. Select the option to make that content conditional:


For instance, let’s say you’re sending out a newsletter campaign to share your most recent content and updates with all of your contacts. Let’s also say that you’re running a workshop next month that has a few remaining spots, and you want to include a button linking to your registration page at the end of the email—but only to the contacts who have not already registered for the event.

You can make the button conditional by configuring it to only appear if a contact does not have the “Status – Registered for Workshop” tag. For contacts that already have that tag applied, the button would not appear in the email.

To learn more about using tags in ActiveCampaign, check out our guide to tags.

Custom Fields

Custom fields are the most targeted and personalized level of segmentation. There’s no way to achieve a high level of customization without custom fields!

There are a few different types of custom fields that you typically see on contact forms:

  • Text field – Single line input, generally short and succinct. This type of custom field is used to collect information such as your name and email address:


  • Date fields – Date fields are similar to text fields in ActiveCampaign, but are used to collect information in the form of a specific date (month, day and year).
  • Drop-down menus – A drop-down display of previously unseen data revealed when you click; allows you to scroll through and select your choice from the menu:


  • Radio buttons – These are similar to drop-down menus, but employ an OR functionality instead. Meaning, only one of a set of options can be selected at any one time. Generally you would use a radio button to display a smaller number of options (for example, the four seasons of a year) and a drop-down menu to display a larger number (for example, the 50 states):


  • Check boxes – Check boxes employ an AND functionality, which allows you to “check” as many options as apply:


  • Multi-selection – Allows you to select multiple choices by holding down the “Shift” button on your keyboard when you select an option:


To learn more about using custom fields in ActiveCampaign, check out our guide to custom fields.

Tags vs. Custom Fields

You might say tags and custom fields have opposite strengths. It’s not always easy to determine which segmentation method would would work best for a particular tactic in your marketing strategy.

Whereas tags represent temporary data and are therefore easy to apply and remove, custom fields represent permanent data that is less easily changed. Think of tags as your clothes—you put them on and take them off daily. They represent contacts’ recent statuses and actions.

Custom fields are like your DNA—your physical make-up, which doesn’t change. Custom fields represent data that is permanent or not easily changed, such as a contact’s email address or birth date.

Tags and custom fields also differ in their visibility within and outside of our platform. Tags are only visible internally; you can log into ActiveCampaign to see which tags you have applied to contacts’ records, but contacts cannot see which tags are currently or historically have been applied to them.

Custom fields display information that is visible both internally and externally. You can view custom field data internally when you log into ActiveCampaign, and you can represent custom field data in your external messaging to contacts through the use of personalization tags. A personalization tag is a simple bit of code inserted into your messaging that pulls contact field information from ActiveCampaign; its purpose is to make your messaging more personal.

For example, the personalization tags %FIRSTNAME% and %PET_PREFERENCE% used in a site message would insert a contact’s first name (a default field in ActiveCampaign) into the text and a contact’s preferred type of pet (a custom field that you would have added previously).

You type in:

Hi %FIRSTNAME%, you mentioned you like %PET_PREFERENCE%.

And the contact will see:

Hi Tom, you mentioned you like dogs.

Note: In ActiveCampaign, what are known as “personalization tags” may already be familiar to you as “merge fields.” It’s the same concept!

One final distinction between tags and custom fields is the way they trigger action. To trigger action with tags, you first have to swap out one tag with another, or swap the nonexistence of a tag for the existence of a tag.

For instance, let’s say you have a “Status – Confirmed” tag for contacts who have confirmed their attendance at an upcoming event, a “Status – Unconfirmed” tag for contacts who have not yet confirmed, and an automation that sends different messaging to those contacts, based on their status tags. So when a contact is tagged as “Confirmed” you must remember to remove the tag “Unconfirmed,” otherwise that contact will receive information meant for both confirmed and unconfirmed contacts.

Some custom fields (such as radio buttons), however, are an OR functionality by default. This means that a contact can only have one status at a time—either Confirmed or Unconfirmed. So when you update a contact’s status from one to the other with a custom field, the previous status will automatically be removed…no tag swapping required!


Remember, the purpose of segmentation is to scale personalization for a database full of contacts, thereby sending each contact off on a unique customer journey through your business.

This is achieved through the combined use of lists, tags and custom fields. We hope this guide has helped you understand these functions in ActiveCampaign, and why it’s best to develop a segmentation strategy that leverages all three!

How could you employ the use of lists, tags and custom fields to improve your marketing? Let us know in the comments below.