How does Mailchimp store your data?

Understanding Mailchimp’s database – and why it’s so important

…and when did Mailchimp get this complicated?

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Oct 28, 2019

A long time ago, I came very close to wrecking my car’s engine.

It was a brand new car and as pulled in to fill up the tank, I naturally went to the diesel pump, as my previous car was a diesel.  Of course, my new car had a petrol engine and just before I depressed the pump handle, I realised I was about to make a big mistake.

Fortunately, I managed to stop myself before I did something wrong (I know a few friends who haven’t been so lucky), but whenever I think of Mailchimp’s database and why you really need to understand how it fits together, my mind goes back to that incident with my car.

Just like a car, you need to make sure you put the right thing in the right place, otherwise you’re likely to end up with a few issues.

You wouldn’t put water in a tyre, oil in the gas tank and petrol into the windscreen wiper bottle, you need to make sure you’re putting the right information in the right place in Mailchimp.

Mailchimp’s Database

Now I know that it’s likely that some of you may be zoning out already with all this talk about Mailchimp’s database and how to manage and structure data, but I assure you, it’s something you need to understand.

Especially if you’re going to get Mailchimp work really effectively for you.

So, please take the time to finish this article and check out some of my other “Mailchimp fundamentals” so you are in the best position to make the most of our beloved ‘chimp.

So what do you need to know to make the most of Mailchimp?

The Fundamental Building Blocks of your email marketing

When it comes down to it, there are just 6 terms you need to really understand when it comes to the Mailchimp database:

  • Audiences (or lists as we all used to know them by)
  • Records
  • Fields
  • Segments
  • Groups
  • Tags

If you can get your head around these 6 terms it will help you understand how to store the data that you have collected and where to put it to use it effectively, and you’ll be well on your way to success with Mailchimp.

So let’s dig into each to give you the low down…

Audiences – Your List

Up until 2018, Audiences were called lists (just in case you were a bit confused) and they are pretty much the fundamental building block of Mailchimp.

This is your list, your database, the place where all your data is stored.

People ‘subscribe’ and ‘unsubscribe’ from your audience and you get charged (if you pay for Mailchimp) based on the total number of contacts you have in your combined Mailchimp audiences.

You can’t have an email in an audience more than once (but you can have the same email in more than one audience).

When you sign up for Mailchimp, it’ll create your first audience (and if you’re on a free account, you only get one!).

Think of your audience as your spreadsheet, where all the data is stored.

…and please, please, please, try and avoid having more than one audience in your Mailchimp account… You’ll potentially face lots of issues if you try and have more than one (as covered in this article).

Records – The people in your audience

A record is a collection of information about an individual in your audience.  This information could be stored as fields, tags or groups, (more on those later), but it’s all about one single email address.

If you visualise a spreadsheet, each record is a horizontal row and then each vertical column has information about that records.

Essentially, a record is a ‘contact’ in your database, in other words, it’s all related to the email address.

Mailchimp charges on the number of ‘records’ you have…

Fields – the pots of information you store about a person

Fields are pots that you store specific information directly related to an individual record – the vertical columns in your typical spreadsheet.

Fields are where you store the key information an individual, such as their email address (which is known as the ‘key’ field), their name, company or any other specific information about them.

Fields can be alphanumeric, just numeric (e.g. if you have a unique reference number your business uses to identify people), a date, or even could a specific type in a list.

I usually try and think of fields as specific & unique about an individual – such as their name, date of birth, company, address, phone, etc.

Mailchimp gives you the chance to create up to 60 fields so you’ve got lots of options, but my recommendation is only create fields that you actually need.

I’ve seen many databases which have had loads of irrelevant and useless information inputted, and never actually used!

Fields can be used in Mailchimp as ‘merge tags’ which means that within an email you can substitute that field in for each person who gets that email, so you can make each email individual and personal.

…and changes in fields can also be used to trigger automated emails, but be careful as just because you can do this, doesn’t mean you should!  Getting it wrong can cause issues and there are better ways to trigger automations in my view (bar date based automations).

Segments – Diving deep into your data

Chances are you’re probably not going to get lost in Segments, but they are something worth knowing about.

In Mailchimp segments are ‘snapshots’ of records in the database that have something in common – and you decide what that is.

When you’re looking at your Mailchimp audience, you can create a segment of records, which gives you the ability to both get to know how your database is built up, but also target specific segments with campaigns.

Unlike tags and groups (which I’m going to come to next), Segments are a bit more ‘temporary’ and something you create ‘on demand’… for example, you can create a segment of “who opened my last email?”, or “who joined my audience in the last 30 days?”, or even “who’s got a gmail address?”

You can even use segments to identify people who have\haven’t taken action in your emails… i.e. “who opened this specific email?”… or even “who clicked in this email?”.

On the face of it, segments sound really useful… and they are quite powerful in reality, it’s just that most of the time you’re likely to be ‘segmenting’ your audience based on groups or tags – which are a bit like ‘more permanent’ segments.

I find I use segments most of the time for researching my database, and finding certain collections of records with something in common… but because of their temporary nature, find I don’t really end up using them much at all… preferring to use Tags and Groups as a way of segmenting the audience and targeting groups of people.

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Groups – a way to segment your database…

Although I cover groups (and tags) a bit more extensively hereas they are pretty fundamental in taking Mailchimp to the next level, you need to have some initial understanding of where they fit in to Mailchimp’s database hierarchy.

Groups were developed a long time ago as a way of “classifying” records with common interests… and form the foundation of many Mailchimp audiences out there – allowing businesses to target different records based on the ‘group’ that they are in.

Groups are created in an audience, and you have a main group category title and then individual groups within that group category.

So you could have a group category of “interests” and a list of individual groups within that category like “golf”, “tennis”, “football”.

Most people us groups as a way of segmenting their audience from a marketing point of view (if you know someone likes tennis, why would you send them emails about golf or football?)… and harnessing this in tandem with automations makes groups very powerful.

For many advanced Mailchimp users, many of their automations are set up to be triggered/fired when someone joins a group.

…and so they make sure that any entry points into their Mailchimp system capture the entry point and assign a group at the same time.

So, if you fill in a form on my home page which talks about Tennis, I’ll usually (within the form) assign a group of “Home Page” as the entry point, and “Tennis” as the interest.

…and I can then trigger an automation based on this!

Knowing how someone got into your audience and responding appropriately (with a triggered email) is one of the key ways to make Mailchimp sing!

Tags –  a Group by any other name…

Again, tags are covered in this separate article in more depth because they are very important in making Mailchimp work smoothly, but I’ll cover them here as well.

Tags were launched in late 2018 and the reason for their existence (if you really want to know) is that Groups have some “technical” limitations which make them a bit clunky and inflexible… not from the user point of view, but rather from Mailchimp’s admin point of view.  As such, tags were developed as “the new groups.” (Don’t worry if you use groups, Mailchimp aren’t going to throw them away)

Tags pretty much do the same thing as Groups, in that they allow you to assign a ‘tag’ to a record/group of records in your Audience.

You can assign this manually, or at their point of signup, and you can trigger automations based on people being tagged.

The only tangible difference between tags and groups is that tags don’t have a ‘tag category’ like groups.

…but rest assured, using either Tags or Groups to segment your database is where you start making Mailchimp work for you!

Wrapping Up

If you’ve got to this point, well done!

Understanding the database structure in Mailchimp is not the most ‘riveting’ of reads, but if you’re struggling with the various terms, or how you should ‘classify’ your data in Mailchimp, then hopefully this has given you some structure.

Knowing the difference between a record, a field, a tag, etc. will ensure you build your database effectively and future proof it as you look to capture more information on your audience.

…and ensure you don’t end up putting the wrong fuel in your Mailchimp database! 


To get to grips with your database and Mailchimp there are a couple of other articles you really need to read if you haven’t already:

Hopefully, along with this article, you’ll get a solid foundation when it comes to Mailchimp’s way of managing data.

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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.

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