MailChimp's best hidden feature

Get to know Groups and your view of MailChimp will change...massively

by | Jul 26, 2018

I wish for many things…

I wish the Cincinnati Bengals could win a playoff game…

I wish I didn’t get a cracking headache in the morning after a single beer…

I wish I’d gotten a small portable air conditioner so my home office doesn’t turn into a sauna in the summer…

…and I wish MailChimp called it’s way of categorising people as tags and not groups.

I think it’s fairly obvious to all that i’m a big fan of MailChimp.

It does everything a small business needs in terms of email marketing. It’s robust and once you get a feel for it is quite intuitive in it’s design. It’s the biggest Email Marketing Service (EMS) in the world, which means it’s always pushing hard to be at the forefront of email deliverability (remember, if MailChimp can’t deliver your email to an inbox, it’s not meeting it’s prime purpose), and it’s got a number of pretty cool features for a mass market tool… many of them available on a free account (forms, automations).

…but MailChimp isn’t perfect.

Nope… there are a few things I’d definitely change… and probably my first proclamation as King of MailChimp would be to change the name of Groups and call them Tags… because pretty much everybody understands the concept of a tag. Groups… less so.

(UPDATE SUMMER 2018: …and I know that MailChimp have just changed their system using “Tags” as a replacement for “Static Segments”… but it’s not great and doesn’t give you the flex that Groups do)

…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Making a Mess of MailChimp

One of the biggest problems I see from people using MailChimp is a misunderstanding of how to make the most of how it stores data.

Typically, people start off with a single list, and are all happy with the hosted sign up form that MailChimp provides.

…but then decide they want another form and realise that to get one, they need to create a new list… and before you know it, you’ve got an account with 7 lists and data all over the place.

Make no mistake, having more lists then you really need is very bad for your MailChimp account and your email marketing. I wrote a whole blog on why it should be avoided (11 reasons why you shouldn’t have more than one list in MailChimp).

Had MailChimp marketed “Groups” as “Tags”, then I believe a lot more people would have understood what they actually were and started incorporating them into how they manage their MailChimp data.

(side note… I used MailChimp for about 5 years before I really got to grips with Groups… and never realised how useful they would be in building a marketing system that works for me, and that I could implement for my clients – so if you’ve been using MailChimp for a while, but never realised their potential… don’t worry – I was exactly the same!!!)

Fortunately, just because they are not called Tags, doesn’t mean they don’t work like Tags and consequently, Groups are a massively powerful element that you should look to harness in using MailChimp.

… and knowing the difference between Lists, Groups, Fields and Segments will help you massively.

Lists, Groups, Fields and Segments – How to make MailChimp “Really” work…

(here’s a video I recorded a few years ago which will outline the differences)

…but if you want the edited highlights of the video…

  • Lists – The fundamental building block.
    People subscribe and unsubscribe from your lists.
    You get charged per number of active email addresses you’ve got on each list.
    You CAN have an email address on more than one list, but you CAN’T have an email twice in the same list.
  • Fields – Specific information about a person.
    e.g. Email Address, First Name, Company, Date of Birth, etc.
    If you visualise a spreadsheet, a field is usually a column of data.
    A field is “discrete”, i.e. it’s an A or B or C option, not A and/or B and/or C.  When it comes to fields, you’re either one or the other.
  • Groups – A collection of records that have something in common (i.e. a tag!!!).
    Completely defined by you and people can be in more than one group (multiple tags!).
    Groups can represent many things – e.g. The Entry Point onto your list, The level of relationship with you, Different elements/interests in your business.
    Unlike fields, someone can be in more than one – i.e. A and/or B and/or C.
    MailChimp lets you categorises groups under a main category. e.g. Group Category = Entry Point, Groups = Home Page Form, Lead Magnet, Webinar, Direct Addition, etc.
    Groups are so powerful as they are the best way to segment your database into predetermined areas… and you can then target people in a specific group with a communication, trigger automations because someone has joined a group (nice!) and even have emails show different information based on what group someone is in (very nice!).
    Groups are the way you get around having multiple lists – be having multiple groups, and have people join those groups.
  • Segments – Segments are like Groups… but where as Groups are like pots you’ve already set up that you can put people in, segments are a way of creating “on the fly” pots once you’ve got someone’s information.
    They allow you to interpret data and find people who meet specific conditions.
    i.e. People who joined in the last 30 days, who have a “@gmail” email address and who aren’t in the home page entry point group
    You can also identify things like people who have/haven’t opened/taken an action.
    Segments are great for interpreting data, but I personally prefer to use Groups to manage my data more than Segments.

It’s down to you how you manage your data, as it’s your data!… but if you want to manage data effectively in MailChimp, then you should look to have:

  • As few a lists as possible (ideally one!)
  • Groups to put people into predetermined buckets… or to “tag” them.
  • Fields of information you are only going to use in email marketing (i.e. I don’t like using MailChimp to store addresses or phone numbers.. it’s an email tool, not a CRM tool – small addendum: MailChimp are currently beta testing a facility to send physical post cards – which requires having the address in the system!)
  • If the info is discrete and specific – I use fields
  • If the info can be categorised – I use groups
  • …and I use segments as a way of interpreting my data, learning how people are interacting and to target people at a very detailed level.

Get it right… and not only are you in a good place today… but also tomorrow.

…and make it easier to send the right message to the right person at the right time.

Using Groups… Like A Boss

So now you understand the difference between a list, a group, a field and a segment… how do I use them?

  • One List – to rule them all.  I hope you get the idea on this by now!
  • Groups at point of any data capture – No one joins my list (or any of the client lists I manage) without being put into at least 2 groups.
    They automatically get added to a group called “welcome“, which I then use to trigger a series of welcome emails – and since an automation in MailChimp can only really be sent once, if they complete a form elsewhere, they won’t get the automation again.
    They also get added to a specific group for that entry point, which allows me to either tweak the “welcome” message to make it specific to their entry point (referring back to how they got on your list is a great way to help them make a connection with you in their brain), or to send a separate email (ideal for lead magnets etc).
  • Fields for specific info about the person – If they are registering for some training or a webinar, I put a date field in…
  • Segments for data tweaking and spotting people who are/aren’t doing something – e.g. lapsed or non-active people
  • Groups to manage people through my funnel – Once someone has completed an automation, I use the last automation in the series to change their status, which can then be used to start a new automation sequence!

Wrapping Up

As I’ve said at the top of this post, MailChimp is NOT perfect.

…but just because they used the word “Groups” to describe their “Tagging” function, doesn’t mean the function doesn’t work.

Getting your head around the difference between groups and lists is fundamental to your MailChimp success… and once you do, it opens up a whole world of possibilities.

Go get tagging!!!

For your interest, here are a number of related posts on organising data in MailChimp

Robin Adams

Robin Adams

Robin Adams is a business owner who is passionate about helping businesses build effective marketing systems that work and don't waste money. Having a lifetime of Marketing experience (he's got a degree in Marketing before there were degrees in Marketing!) and having worked for big and small businesses and both client and agency side, he understands not only the theory, but the systems that are required to underpin everything.
51% marketer and 49% Chimp, Robin is the main man behind and the Mailchimp Answers Facebook Group - the world's biggest Mailchimp User Group. Connect with him on Linkedin.


  1. Sue

    Thanks for explaining the difference between groups & segments. Very useful!

    “(he’s got a degree in Marketing before there were degree’s in Marketing!)”
    degrees – not degree’s
    Plurals don’t have apostrophes.

    And what’s a “Cincinnati Bengal playoff game” ? No idea.

    Perhaps you could start off with something a bit more generic that includes a globalised world 😉


    Thank you for posting this awesome article. I’m a long time reader but I’ve
    never been compelled to leave a comment. I subscribed to
    your blog and shared this on my Facebook. Thanks again for a great article!

  3. Tera

    Appreciate the recommendation. Let me try it out.

  4. Kelly

    This was very helpful! Great video! Thanks!


    Use groups to sort your subscribed contacts based on their interests and preferences. Groups function like categories, and are an excellent way to manage diverse contacts in the same Mailchimp audience. Groups can be the basis for building audience segments for sending to targeted audiences.


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