Email Marketing Segmentation: The Essential How-To Guide

Melanie Balke
December 6, 2021

When it comes to email marketing, you always want to be learning. Ideally, you want to check in on the industry’s best practices regularly, and your email campaigns should evolve alongside your business.

A photo of well-sorted yarn with overlaid header text: “Email Segmentation: The Essential How-To Guide.”

Learning is the name of the game, and that’s why I’m constantly posting more email marketing strategy guides.

If you’re ready to get down and dirty in the pits of email marketing implementation, then it’s time to dive into the world of email marketing segmentation!

Join me, follow along with this blog post, and let’s look into how you can utilize this essential tool to boost your marketing emails.

Getting Started: The Basics

To kick off the blog post, let’s look at this essential marketing tool.

A photo of organized papers with overlaid header text: “Getting Started: The Basics of Segmentation.”

Like interactive emails, segmentation is a way to boost engagement and deliver relevant content to your subscribers. It’s an email marketing multitool, and it has plenty of uses.

What Is Email Marketing Segmentation?

Let me set the scene a little…

After lots of hard work, you’ve finally built up a veritable army of loyal customers, and your marketing emails are thriving. However, as your list grows larger, you realize something: people aren’t sticking around for very long! All of your hard work is starting to fall apart.

You sit down to think about your marketing strategy, and you realize that you can’t possibly deliver truly relevant content to every subscriber without a way to group customers and subscribers.

What you need is segmentation.

That is your definition.

A shareable graphic with a colorized photo of the Santa Monica pier. Overlaid text reads, “What Is Segmentation?” Beneath this are two paragraphs of smaller body text: “Segmentation is one of the best ways to make an email marketing campaign pop! It’s all about organizing and sorting your subscribers. Depending on what ESP you use, you can have as many segments as you want!”

Email marketing segmentation is a way to group customers. Depending on which email service provider you’re using, these groups may be as small or as large as you want.

(Psst! Here’s a tip from a pro: for truly powerful email segmentation tools, then your best bet is going to be Klaviyo.)

How Does It Work?

So, now that I’ve demonstrated what it is, it’s time to pull on your waders! We’re about to get down and dirty with this tech and examine how it works.

At its core, marketing segmentation is built on organization.

Programmers have a leg up in this division because segmenting customers is a series of if/else statements. For non-programmers: think of it as a process of sorting email subscribers into increasingly specific groups.

A photo of a beach. The overlaid header says, “How Does It Work? Segmentation.” Beneath this is smaller body text: “At its core, segmentation is all about sorting. The goal of this tool is to create easy-to-access segments, each of which will cater to certain audiences.”

This is a bit of a technical explanation, so I’ll make it easier with an example. Let me introduce you to Bob McBuyer. He signed up after buying something from your store, and he regularly opens your email campaigns.

So, let’s segment Bob!

Because he regularly opens emails, he is one of your active subscribers. He is interested in receiving more messages, and your email service provider has flagged Bob as a male. Crucially, he should also be marked as a former customer.

Now, with non-segmented emails, poor Mr. McBuyer will likely be receiving email marketing that is not optimized for his tastes. All of this irrelevant information can easily turn loyal customers — such as Bob — into former subscribers.

Let’s compare this to segmented campaigns!

When a promotional email is segmented, it will only be sent to individuals who match its criteria. So if a campaign is meant for previous customers with high engagement, Bob will receive the email. Conversely, if a campaign is meant for women with low engagement and no prior purchase history, Bob will not receive the message.

Similar but Different: Segmentation and Personalization

All of this may sound similar.

“Oh!” you may be saying. "This is just personalization!”

Nope! You can segment your email list to create personalized content, but segmentation is not the same as personalization.

A photo of downtown Los Angeles, where The Email Marketers is based, with overlaid header text: “Similar but Different: Segmentation and Personalization.”

This may seem like a trivial issue, but terminology is important.

Using the right words at the right time is a critical part of creating truly successful email marketing material, so I’ll be taking a moment to briefly outline why these two strategies are not synonymous.

What Is Email Personalization?

I like to think of personalization and segmentation as the chicken and the egg. They’re similar, they’re in the same family, and there’s plenty of debate about which came first.

Email personalization is — like segmentation — a strategy. When you engage in personalization, you create truly unique experiences for individual customers.

Now, you can use segmentation strategies to create personalized email marketing, but they does not mean that they are the same thing.

Let me quickly explain this with an example…

An example of a personalized email from GasBuddy. The main content is divided into three images. The header reads, “Your May Driving Scorecard.” Beneath this are individual statistics on mileage, gas use, and trip length.

In this email campaign, we see a wonderful personalized message. The user is receiving an individualized report, which demonstrates statistics that are unique to them.

In comparison, segmented email campaigns might address the customers based upon their purchase history or mileage. However, these campaigns will never deliver individualized reports.

How Can I Use Segmentation in My Email Marketing Campaigns?

I’ve ironed out the basics and explained some of the specifics. Now, it’s time to examine how email marketing segments can be used.

A photo of Los Angeles with overlaid header text: “How Can I Use Segmentation in My Email Marketing Campaigns?”

This nitty-gritty implementation stuff is my favorite part of every blog post, so buckle up!

Know Your Email Subscribers

I’ll open with the most basic application of this strategy.

When you segment your email list, one of the first things you’ll notice is clarity. You’ll be able to easily browse through your email subscribers and find out what they’re like. Depending on your current settings, you may even be surprised by what you find!

This information is yours, and your email marketing campaigns should be built upon what you discover as you segment your email list.

Knowing who your subscribers are is crucial to consistently send the right message, and targeted emails are effective ways to gently push customers down your sales funnel.

Create Targeted Marketing Campaigns

Once you create segments, you can assign future email campaigns more rules.

What I’m saying is that you now have the ability to send highly specific emails, and your email marketing strategy will undoubtedly expand and grow from this point.

In fact — while I’m talking about creating segmented campaigns — there are some marketing strategies that rely upon segmentation. These specialized campaigns include:

Schedule and Send Targeted Campaigns

Once you’ve set up your segments, it’s time for the final step. Now, you can use your ESP to schedule and send your new segmented campaigns.

Keep in mind that there are many email service providers, and they all have different coding under the hood.

Some platforms offer more segmentation strategies than others. MailChimp, for example, locks many of its advanced segmentation tools behind a paywall. Alternatively, Klaviyo provides users with plenty of email segments — albeit for a higher subscription fee.

How to Start Segmenting Your Email Subscribers

This is all exciting information, right?

A photo of a cargo barge with many neatly organized cargo containers. Overlaid header text reads, “How to Start Segmenting Your Email Subscribers.”

There are plenty of demonstrable benefits to segmentation, but you must know the ways of the segmentation force before you reap the benefits.

An Introduction to the Different Email Segments

As you begin to build your segmentation strategies, you’ll notice that there are many — and I really mean many! — different ways to segment your email list. Again, the depth and complexity of your segmentation options will depend upon which of the many email service providers you use, but each one offers some form of segmentation.

In all honesty, it would be foolish for me to try and list all of the ways that you can segment your email list, so I’ll be focusing on some of the most common approaches.

As you work your way through this section, keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list.

At the end of the day, your segmentation strategy is only limited by two things: your creativity and your email marketing platform.

The Big Picture: Demographic Segmentation

If I were to segment this article’s key points, then demographic segmentation would be one of the largest and most important parts.

This is just a fancy way of saying that you’re sorting customers based on their individual status. There are many demographic data points that you can choose from, and the ideal options will depend upon your business’ industry, but classic examples include:

  • Age, typically done as ranges (e.g. 18–26 or 50–70)
  • Gender
  • Education
  • Family or relationship status
  • Income
  • Profession

Geographic Location Segmentation

The second overarching way to segment subscribers is geographic location. This is a fairly self-explanatory strategy, but I still want to explain it thoroughly. (After all, a half-hearted lesson isn’t a very good one!)

When you segment your email list based on geographic location, you’re essentially classifying your subscribers based on their home base. This is great for businesses that host local events or region-specific deals.

Jack Wolfskin — an outdoor recreational equipment company — has a great example of how this type of segmentation can be used to give engaged subscribers intriguing and relevant content.

An example of an email using geographic data for its segmentation. The header is, “Discover Your Local Trails.” Beneath this are two call-to-action buttons: “For Men” and “For Women”.

Here, we see plenty of email marketing basics at play. It’s an amazing and well-designed email message, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to how geographic segmentation enables Jack Wolfskin’s marketing team. Using customers’ geographic data, these smart marketers engage existing customers with relevant, local information.

Additional Uses for Behavioral Segmentation

Behind the scenes, geographic segmentation data can also be used to help ensure your emails reach the right audience.

If you’re running a global business, you need to take regional information into account.

This data can also be used to refine the target audience of an email message. For example, a subject line that relies upon a dialect in one region may not land well in a different location.

Behavioral Segmentation

Outside of the broad segmentation categories, there are also specialized ways to implement this marketing tool. One of the first examples of this category of segmentation strategies is behavioral segmentation.

(Before I continue, let me add a quick note. Depending on your email service provider, this may tie into your email automation. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s something to keep in mind. Don’t panic if your “behavioral segmentation” and “email automation” get used interchangeably!)

A shareable graphic with a colorized photo of palm trees. The overlaid header reads, “Types of Segmentation.” Beneath this is smaller body text: “When you’re trying to really narrow down your audience, you can use behavioral segmentation. As the name implies, these segments will be built based upon how subscribers interact with your content.”

When digital marketers tap into a user’s personal purchase history, they’ll often see information that offers up clues about an individual’s habits.

Marketers will use this information to their advantage. With the right email marketing tools, small business owners (and their marketing teams!) can craft campaigns based upon a user’s place within the buying process and past purchases.

Many follow-up email campaigns will use information to update users on the status of their order or ask them to provide their buyer satisfaction level. In other situations, new customers may be sorted into a unique group, which will receive a welcome email and any associated early email campaigns.

This type of segmentation enables and ties into another form of subscriber-behavior-based sorting, which is…

Customer Engagement Data

Segmentation based upon customer engagement can be triggered by both action and inaction, and it’s the core mechanism for re-engagement and unsubscribe campaigns.

With a powerful email marketing platform, you can automatically add customers to a list or segment based on their behavior. This means that this marketing segmentation strategy doubles as a quick way of gauging how certain campaigns are faring.

Engagement can also be used to determine exactly what is causing individuals to become inactive subscribers. These unique customers can be sorted into their own groups and used for A/B testing, which will ultimately help improve your marketing funnel.

Psychographic Segmentation

When you’re creating a truly advanced segmentation strategy, you’ll also want to look at your users’ psychographic information.

Don't panic: that's just a fancy way of referring to users’ personalities and interests.

A shareable colorized photo of a building in Los Angeles, California. The overlaid header reads, “Psychographic Segmentation.” Beneath this are two paragraphs of body text. The first paragraph reads, “This might be a big word, but the concept is simple.” The second paragraph says, “This type of segmentation depends upon personal preferences and traits. Generally, you have to obtain this information through surveys and by examining a customer’s purchase history.”

Obviously, this type of segmentation won’t happen overnight.

New subscribers will need to voluntarily provide this information on the signup form. One way to obtain this data is through surveys, though these will require plenty of testing to achieve maximum success!

Some examples of psychographic segmentation include:

  • Favorite hobby
  • Genre preferences
  • Personal habits
  • Pets owned
  • Preferred style

How to Create Segmented Emails

A photo of downtown Los Angeles with overlaid header text: “How to Create Segmented Emails.”

I’ve gotten through the basics of email segments, and now, I want to show how these tools can be applied. In other words, I’m about to discuss how to create these amazing campaigns.

Try Reverse Engineering Your Email Campaign

If a marketer isn’t quite sure what kind of segments to use, then I always give them this advice: try reverse-engineering it.

This approach involves three steps, and it’s one of the faster ways to develop new segmented email campaigns. Here’s how it works:

  1. Determine the desired action
  2. Figure out which subscribers will be more likely to do this action
  3. Choose the relevant segments

To really amplify your email campaign, you can also add a fourth step: determining what these users care the most about.

A shareable graphic with a colorized photo of Los Angeles, California. The overlaid header text reads, “How to Create Segmented Campaigns.” Beneath this is smaller body text: “One of the fastest ways to start creating segmented campaigns is to reverse engineer your campaign. This process has three steps, and they look like this: 1. Determine what your goal is. 2. Find our who is the most likely to fulfill the goal. 3. Pick the relevant segments!”

It’s a fairly simple process, and it can be used with almost any campaign!

Think About Your Email Marketing Campaign

Another way to approach segmentation is to look at existing or prior campaigns.

Sometimes, these marketing efforts may not have been your best. Perhaps you were less experienced at the time, or you may have had fewer email marketing tools available. Regardless of your reasoning, re-running a campaign is never a bad idea!

As you examine these campaigns, think about your current subscribers. Ask yourself some questions, such as:

  • Did or does my email subject line appeal to my target audience?
  • Have you gained more active subscribers?
  • Have your subscribers changed?
  • How can you guarantee you’re sending the right message?
  • How many inactive users do you have?
  • Is my marketing funnel fully optimized?
  • What kind of demographic data is available to me?
  • Will new subscribers enjoy this email?

Of course, this isn’t a full list of the questions you should ask. Whenever you’re creating a new email marketing campaign, you want to really think about things.

Remember that your segmentation strategy probably won’t materialize overnight. Rather, you’ll need to work with your marketing team to create truly effective and engaging content.

Segmentation Tips and Tricks

Now that I’ve finally finished explaining the process, it’s time for me to give you some expert tips on using segmentation to amplify your digital marketing.

A photo of an empty classroom with overlaid header text: “Email Segmentation Tips and Tricks.” The Email Marketers’ logo is centered near the bottom of the image.

Like everything in life and business, there are certain things that you should and should not do with your segments.

There are ways to optimize your content and deliver content to customers based on their interests. Then, there are ways to deliver content that is so relevant that your customers feel uncomfortable.

If you want to improve the potential of your lead magnets and create innovative campaigns, then be sure to take a peek at these tips and tricks!

Be Respectful and Tactful

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a marketer is to stuff your welcome email with requests for information.

Aside from the fact that this sort of thing should be included in a signup form, this practice is one of the best ways to turn lead magnets into lost customers.

People do not want to feel like they’re being interrogated. While you can certainly space out your requests for information, it’s better to determine what kind of data is essential and stick to it. This will also prevent you from losing contact data to spam filters.

Segmenting customers may be fun and useful, but you shouldn’t be constantly bombarding your subscribers for personal information to do so.

Don’t Forget to Mix Things Up

Now, once you’ve created your segments, it’s time to use them.

When you create campaigns, check to see if you can assign multiple segments to your email. Many ESPs provide a fairly robust offering of segmentation tools, and these can be used to create overlapping campaigns.

Amazing marketers will know how to properly combine segments.

In fact, with some cunning and insight, businesses can send out campaigns that touch the border of personalization.

At the same time, you don’t want to overdo your segment use. Mix in a few non-segmented campaigns.

Keep Things Simple

“Wait!” you’re probably saying, “Didn’t you just say to go wild?!”

Well, yes! I did! However, that was not meant to be a green light for all of your complex segmentation ideas.

It takes a lot of training and experience to understand how to properly layer segments.

A shareable graphic with a colorized photo of Los Angeles. The overlaid header text is, “Mix It Up: Segmentation.” Beneath this is smaller body text. The first paragraph reads, “When you’re creating new campaigns, think about the segments that you have. Don’t be afraid to mix and match your segments!” The second paragraph reads, “At the same time, don’t overdo your segments. If you’re ever unsure whether or not a combo will work. then the simple option is always better.”

Think of it as bagging things at the grocery store. If you put the wrong items in the same bag, you’ll end up with cans of beans that are covered in crushed eggs. And, with segmentation, conflicting segments will produce useless campaigns.

Keep in mind, too, that improper segmentation may just produce campaigns that are sent to the wrong users. Users may feel as if they are not important customers. Even worse, they may take advantage of codes and deals that were never meant to reach a wider audience!

If this happens, you’ll need to backpedal and apologize... and that is a huge mess!

Outsourcing Is Your Friend

If there’s one thing that all small business owners can agree on, it’s the fact that there is constantly way too much on our plate!

A colorized and shareable image of a beach near San Francisco. Overlaid heading text reads, “Outsourcing Segmentation.” Beneath this is smaller body text: “Don’t be afraid to outsource your segmenting needs! When you enlist a team of marketing experts, you gain all of their expertise and reclaim some of your own time.”

That’s smart business owners outsource their email marketing needs.

With a dedicated digital marketing team, business owners have more free time to dedicate to the internal affairs that keep a business running.

Wrapping It Up: Examples of Segmentation

We’re reaching the end of the lesson, but it’s not quite time for class to be dismissed!

A photo of a sloping street in downtown Los Angeles. Overlaid header text reads, “Examples of Email Segmentation.”

Before I wrap things up, I want to offer up a few examples of amazing segmented email marketing! After all, learning by example is one of the most effective strategies for retaining new information.

Charting Geographic Location Campaigns

Not every brand can pull off a geography-based campaign, but those that can reap huge rewards.

An email from Natural Retreats. The main subject is, “Why We Love Taos, New Mexico.”

In this example — courtesy of Natural Retreats — the segment was customers based in or near Taos, New Mexico. All of these customers were sent this email, which provided them with a delightful list of reasons to check out local events and sights!

Layering Things Up With a Welcome Email

This visually stunning example from Artgrid is a bit complex, but multi-layered perfection.

An example email from Artgrid. The main text is, “Welcome Onboard.”

In this example, we can see two segments in action. The first segment is obvious. Brand new subscribers are being delivered a welcome email. However, beneath this, there’s a second demographic: free users.

Requesting Psychographic Data

While this example probably used a bit of automatic segmentation, this email from Zapier is a good way to ask people for a little bit more information.

An example email from Zapier. The heading reads, “Let’s Stay Connected.” Beneath this is text, which encourages the user to confirm their preferences. The CTA is, “Confirm Your Email Preferences.”

In addition to the bold and catchy design, this example showcases how users can be gently directed to the preference center. Remember: your marketing should be subtle.

Winning Back Previous Customers

Remember what I said about re-engagement and win-back campaigns? Well, here’s a good example of using segmentation to latch onto re-engaged subscribers.

An example email from Outdoor Voices. The main text is, “You scored $20!”

This Outdoor Voices campaign is simple and sleek, and it’s the perfect example of how marketers can use smart segmentation to create campaigns that have the potential to increase revenue.

Need Even More Help?

I know this was a lot of information. (Most of my posts are!)

If — after all of this — you’re feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, then that’s okay!

I want to invite you to browse through my other posts, which cover a wide range of digital marketing tips and tricks.

Still feeling a little confused?

Don’t be afraid to reach out! I’m always happy to help, and we can discuss how the amazing team at The Email Marketers can help you build campaigns that blow your competition out of the water!