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I had started in early December with sorting through my files and cleaning up my computer and desktop. I removed and decluttered everything that I hadn’t looked at in months. You can call it minimization, simplification or simply housekeeping … in any way, it felt darn good to get this done.

When I finally had some space, I started my re-organization project.

And one aspect of that was learning how to make better use of my Email Marketing Tool: MailChimp.


At the beginning of last year, when I decided that I wanted to direct my full focus on workflow creation in Trello, I started a new mailing list which developed surprising growth rates as the year came to an end.

I wasn’t doing anything spectacular with it. Sending emails in a more or less regular rhythm, but I knew I wasn’t using the special features that this tool had: namely tags, merge tags and groups.


As the new year approached, I want to do that differently.

I needed to understand the difference between tags, merge tags and groups in MailChimp.

I wanted to learn what tags, merge tags and groups are capable of doing. And, how I would have to use them to professionally manage my mailing list and track my subscriber’s interests.

What I already knew at that point was, that I wanted to be able to send targeted emails. But for this to happen, I had to know what exactly my subscribers were interested in. But which of the three features would I have to use for that?


My mailing list developed.

When I started with the mailing list, I wasn’t thinking much about asking for personal preferences from subscribers. I was busy with getting everything off the ground. It simply wasn’t the time to spend too much time with details.

Then, GDPR came and forced me the first time to look a bit closer into my MailChimp account, its capabilities and the new legal requirements.


That’s when I became aware of the existence of merge tags.

I found out a few very interesting things about these three MailChimp features. I had to do several online searches to find answers to my questions and even started a quite long chat with a MailChimp support staff to get those questions answered that I couldn’t find answers for online. And since I rarely come across really helpful articles about MailChimp features, I thought I am going to write an article about it. Chances are that other folks are similarly interested in learning how to use tags, merge tags and groups in MailChimp to grow a mailing list.

tags merge tags and groups in mailchimp email marketing inspirITing

Making Sense of Tags, Merge Tags & Groups in MailChimp

1. Tags

tags, merge tags and groups in MailChimp inspirITIng

Tags are made and managed by the owner of the MailChimp account. So, if you have a MailChimp account, you first have to set up a tag before you can populate it with some data.

Tags are defined per list. To define a tag, first, open the list you want to create the tag for. Then click on Manage contacts and choose Tags.

tags merge tags groups MailChimp inspirITing

Updating tags

Tags cannot be updated by a subscriber.

Only the account holder can do so. To do this manually, you would have to open a subscriber’s profile, click the + sign next to Tags and choose one or more tags from the list.

That’s the manual way, but there is also an automated way of updating a tag in MailChimp.

You can use automation with a post-send action to automatically add tags to subscribers for you, for example, after they’re sent a specific email from you

Zapier is the only automation platform I am currently aware of that offers an automated way of adding an existing subscriber to a tag within a list.


Can I send a campaign to subscribers with a certain tag only?


Here’s how:


tags, merge tags and groups in MailChimp inspirITing

Is a subscriber able to see the tags I created when they update their profile?


2. Merge Tags

With merge tags, you can add dynamic information to your subscriber’s list. A merge tag functions as a placeholder, waiting for the correct information to be filled in and then stored in your list.


What do merge tags do?

Merge tags customize your email campaigns. The information stored within is used to insert personalized content into the campaigns sent. In other words, with merge tags, you can provide shortcuts to individual (=dynamic) data content. Merge tags aren’t used for organization purposes inside the list.


How do merge tags look like?

Here’s how a merge tag looks like this: *|ABCDE|*. Two asterisks on each side, then two pipe characters. The most popular merge tag is probably *|FNAME|*, which stands for the first name of the subscriber.


Use cases for merge tags

Merge tags are used to automatically pull in unique values from your subscriber’s list.

For instance, when you write an email, you can use the merge tag

  • *|FNAME|* – to personalize your mail, and say Hey Andrea! instead of just Hey!,
  • *|UNSUB|* – shows the unique unsubscribe URL for each subscriber (yes, every subscriber has its own unique unsubscribes URL!),
  • *|UPDATE_PROFILE|* – gives your subscribers the opportunity to change their profile information


The merge tags mentioned above exist in and work for every MailChimp account. Here’s the Merge Tags Cheat Sheet, if you want to have a look what is there to use.


Define your own merge tags

On top of that, you can define your own merge tags and add them to a list. If you have more than one MailChimp list, make sure to use the correct merge tag for the list you plan to send to.


Can a subscriber update merge tags?

Except for when a subscriber gets added to a mailing list, they cannot update or influence a merge tag.


Can I send a campaign to subscribers with a certain merge tag only?

No. That’s not what merge tags are made for.

☆ Here’s a tip how to make the link look pretty ☆

Hide Merge Tag Behind Hyperlink Tags Merge Tags Groups MailChimp inspirITing

A merge tag is kind of an ugly link. It spans 3-4 lines and is really not nice to look at.


Simply write a normal line, like “Please update your profile here!” and hide the merge tag in the hyperlink, like that:




3. Groups

If you want to jot down preferences of your subscribers, groups would be the best feature for that. Groups can be freely defined by you, the account owner. There are no naming requirements or whatsoever.

How to set up a group in MailChimp

There are different setup scenarios for groups that you should know about.

A group can be set up

  • as checkboxes (select more than one),
  • as radio buttons (select only one), or
  • as dropdown lists (select only one).


You can also opt for a group to be invisible.

Add Groups MailChimp Tags Merge Tags Groups MailChimp inspirITing

When you set up a group in MailChimp, make sure you pay attention to the initial settings, as these cannot be changed afterward! If you do need to change them, you will have to delete the group and create a new one. Any data already entered will be lost, however.

Updating groups

Groups can be updated by both the account holder and the subscriber.

If you as the MailChimp account holder want to update a group entry for a subscriber yourself, you need to open the person’s profile and look for the section “Groups” on the right side. Click on Edit and select the eligible groups.

Updating Tags Groups Tags Merge Tags Groups MailChimp inspirITing

Undoubtedly, it’s best to have the subscriber update their preferences or interests.

The best way to do that is to send them an email with a merge tag to update their profile information. The perfect merge tag for this is *|UPDATE_PROFILE|*.

Can a subscriber update the information in a group?

Yes. As mentioned above, group content is stored in either checkboxes, radio buttons or dropdown lists. Your subscribers can select what applies to them. But typing data in as they like is not possible.


Can a subscriber see hidden groups?



Can groups be updated as part of an automation/workflow?

I don’t think so. As of today, I haven’t found an automation platform that offers such action as part of their integrations. – If you know one, please leave a comment below!


Can I send a campaign to subscribers of a certain group only?


tags, merge tags and groups Campaign to a Group in MailChimp inspirITing

How Tags & Groups look like in a List in MailChimp

When your subscribers updated their profile information (for groups), or you or a Zap updated their tag information, you will be able to see this in your list:

List Tags Merge Tags Groups MailChimp inspirITing

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