4 Step Email Segmentation: How to Start Slow Now…and Step It Up Later


What’s email segmentation and why does it matter? Let’s use a bar scene to illustrate what email segmentation is not.

Let’s say you are single and you walk into a crowded bar on a Saturday. You start yelling out, “Who wants to date me?” to the whole room. Then and because everyone ignores you, you proceed to walk up to each person and say to them one-on-one, “Hey, let’s go on a date.”

You probably won’t get a date with anyone, and you might even get thrown out of the bar. Why? Because no one in that room had an interest in you, to begin with and because you were not selective at all in your efforts—or your ask.

That is what a lack of email segmentation looks like: Sending the same message to everyone out there, no matter who they are or what interests they have.

This same “bar scene” segmentation might look very different if you do it right. Let’s consider that you walk into the same crowded bar and start scanning the room to see who is attractive to you and who seems attracted back by making eye contact. You start talking to one of these people and get to know them a little. If it is not a good fit, you excuse yourself and move on to the next person. If this one is a match, you keep talking and eventually suggest that maybe the two of you meet for coffee or a drink at some point.

Can you see how that method would get a much better result than the first crazy-person method?

Email segmentation does not require you to talk to each person on your email list one-on-one. (Not that this technique, wouldn’t be a stellar one! Just think of the personalization potential! Would it, however, be cost prohibitive? Oh boy, yes!) What email segmentation requires you to do though, is to get to know the people on your list as groups or categories, and then subgroups and subcategories, until it is kind of like you did sit down with each one of them individually.

Is email segmentation worth it? (Do fish swim??)
Do you want a “date” or don’t you?

Do you want to sell stuff or not? Yes, you want, the more you sell, the better. That is why you are using email marketing in the first place, right? Segmentation will help you get there.

According to Email on Acid, marketers got the following benefits from segmenting their email lists:

  • 39% of marketers experienced higher open rates
  • 28% decreased their unsubscribe rates
  • 24% improved deliverability
  • 24% got more sales leads
  • 24% increased revenue
  • 21% improved their customer retention rate

That is a nice list of benefits, and those are just the highest numbers. Marketers have experienced other payoffs by segmenting beyond what’s on this short list too.

If you have not yet convinced yourself that you need to dig into segmentation, try the crowded bar method. In case you have already understood its power though, let’s have a closer look at some useful tips that will enable excel your segmentation practices.

1) Email segmentation for beginners

If you start searching for email segmentation best practices, you will find much information – in fact much more than you were expecting. If you are a beginner, this might be overwhelming and way more than you are ready for! You will most probably get a headache, click the Back button, and go to Facebook or Pinterest or LinkedIn instead. Who can process so many tips at once? Nobody!


Starting slow is okay! So let’s do that. Let’s look at some basic ways to segment your list based on information that you already have or can easily get. (More on that “easily get” part later…)

Start with some questions to begin with your segmentation. For each name on the list, ask yourself:

Where are they located? Knowing where your subscribers live can give you insight into what kind of messaging they will be receptive too. For example, you probably wouldn’t market your winter coats to people who live in Kauai. That practice can also help with seasonal messaging. You can be pretty sure those people residing in London have a very different kind of winter in comparison with those people living in Italy. So let that insight add value to your email marketing practices.

What is their “life role” right now? All of us have “life roles” and usually more than one at a time. For instance, a woman can be a mother of one adult child and of one who is about to head off to college. In that “life role,” she is the mother of older kids as compared to the mother of toddlers, who will have very different concerns. The same woman can be a daughter, sister, friend and a professional of some kind. Those life roles all shift around; some are taking precedence over others depending on what’s going on in our lives, and some always are staying at the forefront. When you know at which point exactly your customers are and the role or roles they are playing, you can target your messaging in a much more accurate way.

How old are they? Similar to the life roles above, age influences what does or doesn’t appeal to us as consumers, so knowing your subscribers’ ages is very useful. The 18-year-old teenager trying to choose a college, for example, has very different concerns when compared to the 32-year-old who is getting married for the first time, or who just bought his first house. This also is a good time to point out that your subscribers might migrate from one category to another as they age! Pay attention to your lists demographics. Do you see a generational difference between what kind of purchases different age groups make? Then don’t keep someone on a list once they “age” out of it.

What gender are they? How you market to a male should probably differ from how you market to a woman.

If you are scratching your head saying to yourself, “That is great, but I do not know any of this info about my subscribers!” rest assured that you can get this information little by little if you need to.

Here are some ways:

  • Ask. Email them and ask for a bit more information—not much!—being clear that you are only asking so you can do a better job of emailing them only the kinds of stuff they are interested in.
  • Request reviews. As part of the review process, you can ask for a little more information.
  • Check the data you have elsewhere. If you have mailing addresses for customers, you can append that data to find out geography, for example.
  • Track their browsing and buying behavior. Relate this information to your customers’ record (you might need to check into using a relational database for this).

You can also change your signup form for new subscribers so you can start asking for additional data from day one, such as interest, gender or age. Just remember only to ask for one or two things at this stage!

2) Take it up a notch

Once you have gotten started with email segmentation, you have put processes in place for gathering the basic information, and you are using it to segment and target your messaging, you will be ready to take it up a notch.


That only means asking more questions to get to know these customers better. Those kinds of questions may be:

What are our customer types? You probably know them already, even if you have not pulled it together as part of your email marketing strategy. You might have the extremely loyal ones who buy monthly all year, the seasonals who only show up on occasion but spend a lot when they do, those who spend very little and infrequently, etc. Start figuring out your customer types (or categories) and make that insight part of your segmentation.

What kinds of problems do they have? When customers show up at your website or store, there’s a good chance they are trying to solve a problem. It might be they need something to wear to a wedding, a graduation gift, a tool for a household project, a laptop…they have a need, and they see if you can meet that need. If you see categories of customers based on the problems they are trying to solve, segment your list that way too. It will help you create more targeted emails.

What color do they like? No, seriously, when you step it up, your email segmentation is going to go a little into the nitty gritty. Color preference, sizes, brands or styles—when customers browse and buy, they tell us all of this about them. I get emails from a clothing brand that I love, but they frustrate me because they do not segment based on my size. Everything I have in my favorites folder on their website is a size Small, yet they will email me about a dress that’s on sale…and only available in extra large, which I do not find out until after I have clicked on the relevant link.

Those are just a few ways to take your email segmentation up a notch. You can also consider turning to the experts on this topic since there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel!

EmailMonday posts, like this one, offer in-depth and practical advice on smart email marketing segmentation.

Email on Acid offers great tips in their post titled “8 Ways to Segment Your Email List to Maximize ROI”, while you could probably have a look for more segmentation strategies on the Zapier blog as well.

There are tons of similar blog posts out there, so if you do not see the email segmentation tips you seek in any of these examples, just keep on looking!

3) Figure out what you are sending to your segments

Once you are segmenting, whether at a primary level as in Step 1 or a more sophisticated level as in Step 2, you need to figure out what you are sending to these different groups or categories of customers. They will want different content showing up in their inboxes! This is why you are figuring out all of this segmenting stuff in the first place, remember!

Keep in mind that this email segmentation might affect your frequency too: Some customers might want to hear from you more often and others less often. With segmentation, you can take all of those preferences into account!

4) Make sure it is working

After you have implemented your email segmentation strategies, including content and frequency, make sure you see results. Are open rates going up? Click throughs? Conversions? Are unsubscribes down? Determine your metrics and then track your email marketing program post-segmentation.


Test as you are getting started and test along the way too, to make sure your assumptions about the content and frequency preferences of your different customer types are correct, then adjust as needed.

Email segmentation is not only for those who are new to email marketing but if there’s one discipline you should get into sooner than others, it is probably segmenting—more than design, more than list building even. Those things can come later, but if you lay a good foundation for segmenting from the start, one that can grow in complexity over time, your email marketing program should deliver ROI for you in a consistent and cost-effective way.