Epic Roundup: Tags vs Custom Fields in Infusionsoft

By Kenda Macdonald | Automation

Mar 06

I opened the application, and I had to blink several times to make sure I wasn’t losing the plot...

What the hell was going on in here? Over 1000 tags. 1000. I felt a genuine sense of regret at what I had got myself into.

Rewinding a bit: A prospect had approached me, and asked me to do an audit and clean up of their application. It’s something we routinely do before we take on new clients, to see exactly what is going on under the hood to make sure there aren’t any immediate issues we have to deal with before we can start the ninja stuff. So no sweat!

That lead me to this point, mouth agape (and clammy handed - if not sweaty), at the amount of tags! No wonder it had taken me over 4 minutes to log in.

A thought occurred, I wonder what their custom fields look like? I won’t give you nightmares with the details...

I wish the above issue only happened once or twice. This is a common theme - albeit not as extreme in most cases.

Nightmare Infusionsoft® applications. Messy applications. Applications where the owner has to hire an expert to come in and unpick them.

The worst thing about it, is that it’s easy to get to that point.

Which is scary in itself.

You may be at that point already, or well on your way. You may just be starting out. Whatever point you are currently at, the great tags vs custom fields battle is one being waged in nearly every Infusionsoft® application across the planet, and it’s one we routinely encounter.

So let’s settle this for once and for all.

When do you use tags? Or should you be using custom fields?

These issues will no longer be of concern - that confusion is about to be a thing of the past.

Now if you’re a pro already I have added some pro tips in 🙂 Besides, you may not know there is a better way to be doing what you’re doing....

We cover quite a bit in the post, you and I - and it’s definitely one you want to bookmark for later reference.

We’ll be exploring:

  • The pros and cons of tags and custom fields
  • Other ways to store data in Infusionsoft® (as well as some ninja uses of these)
  • A sanity check list for use cases that you can use each time you need to use any of the data storage sections
  • Pro tips on cleaning up some of the mess you have in your application
  • An opportunity to download The Sanity Check List!

But first - let’s start with the Basics:

Infusionsoft® allows you to store a hell of a lot of data for use in your marketing activities. Tags and Custom fields are just two of those.

We can very crudely split the two up by their constraints. You only have 100 custom fields. That’s it. (Full disclosure: There is now an add-on that will let you have more than a hundred. More on that in a minute.)

Whereas you have an unlimited amount of tags.

Then you can merge custom fields into communication, and tags are good for segmentation.

So custom fields are hot commodity. And tags are seen as a general dogs body.

But that’s a dissatisfying exposition and it still doesn’t give you much to go on for the proper strategic use of the two... We must go deeper!

Time to really get into it now. I’m going to break each down into PROs and CONs.

Tags:

Pros:

  1. You can use and create an unlimited amount of tags
    Which is AWESOME! But dangerous too... (check the Con section out for why)
  2. They are particularly useful for list segmentation
    For example, sending a broadcast to only a section of your list with a certain tag on it - super easy to do, and super efficient
  3. Tags are searchable
    You can search on contacts that have x tags, or don’t have y tags. Which makes them hugely versatile for segmentation. This also means you can save searches with particular search criteria. When a tag is applied or removed, the saved search will automatically update to reflect that
  4. Tag application can trigger goals
    The mere act of a certain tag being applied to a contact's record means you can start or stop automation with a goal in the campaign builder (you can’t do this with custom fields)
  5. Apply/ remove tags automatically in the campaign builder
    Which means you can automate segmentation based on behaviour (so awesome - especially when combined with the above saved search feature)
  6. When you have more than one value for a variable, and someone can have more than one of those values applied to them, tags are your best friend
    For example, if we ask people what their favourite food is, custom fields would only allow the person to choose one food (unless you use a listbox, but these are not very user friendly and can be unwieldy). With tags, people can say they like pizza, pasta AND ice-cream. And you can store all of it for later use
  7. Tags are awesome for decision diamonds
    Using decision diamonds can be super complex mostly because they use Boolean logic. But tags make it nice and easy for you to segment people with
  8. You can easily create tags on the go in the campaign builder, in emails etc.
    Tags are super easy to create (This can be a bad thing too...)
  9. Tags are more accessible throughout the application
    From view-ability on the contact record to use in action sets and so on, tags are much easier to find and use
  10. You can organise tags extremely well with the tag categories
    And tag categories are just as easy to create as tags themselves. Which makes for awesome organisation. Provided you have a good tagging strategy of course

Cons:

  1. If a tag is removed - you’ll never know it was there
    Tags don’t leave a breadcrumb trail or anything of the sort. So if a tag gets deleted, you’ll never know that the contact was part of a certain segment. This has its advantage if you like to keep your application clean, but it does mean you lose history
  2. You can’t merge a tag value into an email
    While using tags allows you to segment nicely, you can’t merge the information you segmented by, into any communication. You can however use the tag to segment with a decision diamond and send a unique email. (But that could be an unnecessary complication when you could just use a custom field to merge the information in.)
  3. Tagging strategy is vital and needs careful management
    Tags are easy to create on the go - which means you can easily forget your tagging strategy, or that you had a certain tag already and suddenly you have a mess of tags. And it’s an EASY mess to get into - even for seasoned pros
  4. Myth: There is no such a thing as too many tags
    You may have heard people say “There is no such thing as too many tags”. NOPE NOPE NOPE.
    This is one of the biggest myths I see surrounding tags - and coincidentally what causes so many people to get into such a mess. Too many tags cause system bloat. In other words your app starts to feel like this:

That toad may look super cute, but he’s damn angry. That’s his battle cry. Don’t make your app feel the same.

Too many tags are purported to be the number one reason for application slowness. This is because of the way that Infusionsoft® indexes tags.

For the techies amongst us: Each tag is indexed as a unique appendage to a contact record. So if one contact record has 32 tags, Infusionsoft® indexes the contact record PLUS the additional 32 tags. Add 1000’s of tags, with hundreds on each record and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Here’s a really good pro tip for you:
Only tag information you will USE again. If you’re never going to use the data you are storing, don’t store it. Perform regular clean ups on your data - quarterly.

Custom Fields:

Pros:

  1. Custom Fields are searchable
    Similarly to tags - however they are not as versatile in the their searchability, as you cannot say “this, but not this” as easily as with tagging. You can still save searches with particular search criteria though. And as with tags, when the contact is updated, the saved searches will reflect this
  2. Custom fields are unique to a contact
    There are a LOT of different types of fields that you can use with custom fields, and some of them are free text fields, which means the customer can fill information unique to themselves into it. You can collect personal information on the customer this way that you can’t do with tags
  3. They don’t bloat
    Unlike tags, custom fields don’t bloat the application in the same way. Mostly because there are only 100.
  4. There is a large variety of types of fields
    This means that you have a lot of flexibility in how you store your data (you can see the different types in the Infusionsoft® userguide here)
  5. Custom fields and decision diamonds combined are a dream come true
    This means you can actively route and segment within a campaign based on the unique criteria on the contact record (see point 6 below for a pro organisational tip on this) - it also means that you can apply and remove tags based on custom field criteria (now we’re getting meta!)
  6. Header and Tab make for easy use and identification
    Similar to the organisational capability of tags and tag categories, we can go a level awesomer. You can give your custom fields a Tab and Header on the contact record... this allows you to properly organise the way the information is stored for easy access. Storing your information in Headers and tabs also makes for super easy routing for decision diamonds! The Tab shows up first, then your option gets split into the Headers, and finally you can get to the Field. If you have a large amount of custom fields this is a super efficient way to get to your data in a decision diamond
  7. You can merge custom field data into emails
    This is the pièce de résistance for custom fields. Whatever a contact has stored in their fields, you can merge into an email. This makes for super personalised emails for consumers - as well as a nifty way to save time by merging pertinent customer information into tasks, notes and other bits of internal communication. Super effective too

Cons:

  1. There are only 100 custom fields
    Now this is down as a Con. But I don’t really feel it is one.
    Out of the hundreds of Infusionsoft® applications we have worked on, I have only ever seen one or two who GENUINELY needed more than 100 fields. Usually these are apps that have many external integrations frankensteined together by very clever techies - and the extra fields are being used by these other apps.

    The vast majority of apps just have too much USELESS data. Data that is never going to get used again, custom fields that are long out of use. This is why a quarterly clean up is a must. If you do have frankenstein app, and you genuinely need those fields there are now a couple of add ons you can use - one of which can be found hereThere is a pro tip further on down the page with some ninja tricks you can use to cull your custom fields to a more useable amount
  2. Only segments - no automation
    Custom fields allow you some fantastic segmenting capabilities (especially with decision diamonds) - however you can’t start any automation off of the back of the inputting of information in a custom field. Sure, you can use internal forms and webforms to kickstart automation, but you can’t say when x is put in a custom field - start/stop this campaign. That is reserved for tags. You can however combine the two...
  3. Merging capabilities
    Now this is of course a pro, however it can bite you in the bum too. You need to be careful with the way you merge information in, as if not done carefully you will shoot yourself in the foot. The worst thing to do is to attempt to personalise an email with custom content from a field, and because it’s incorrectly formatted you end up showing your prospect some gobbledy-gook instead. Very unprofessional. The best way to overcome this is to plan for human error, and test test test!
  4. ​Useless fields
    We touched on this in con 1 - essentially one of the biggest cons with custom fields is the fact that the data they store doesn’t get used. At that point it’s just a waste of time, for you and your contacts. You can overcome this by frequently auditing what is being used and how, then getting rid of the superfluous fields. Keep your app clean and your automation becomes easy!
  5. Overwriting 🙁
    Yep - you can lose all your data in a custom field by overwriting it. This can be useful, but it can also be a serious pain. Similar to the way that when a tag is removed you have no record of it ever being there, you can overwrite the information in a custom field and never see what was there before. If you’re trying to track the behaviour and history of a contact this can be a nightmare - and one to keep in mind and plan for. There is a solution for you below (see Notes)

    A Summary For Tags vs Custom Fields:

    To summarise tags vs custom fields, their biggest divider is their use after data storage. Tags are perfect for segmentation and automation, and custom fields are a hot commodity for vital merge-able information.

    Now let’s add some more stuff into the mix to help you get really ninja with your data:

    You don’t just have custom fields and tags at your disposal in your automation activities. Oh no. You have an arsenal of other awesome things:

    1. Notes/ Note Templates
    2. Person Notes
    3. Campaign Merge Fields

    1. Notes:

    This is a very underused feature of Infusionsoft®. But it’s an awesome way to store data that is time and date stamped. It’s a permanent history for your contacts. As I mention in both the con section of tags and custom fields, data can be lost from the record, and you would never know that it was ever there. So if you need a historical overview of what your contacts are up to, I recommend some notes.

    Notes can also be applied automatically inside the sequence of the campaign builder, recording behaviour automatically and permanently, date and time stamped. We use this to give ourselves an audit trail of where contacts go. It’s also a fantastic way to find bugs in complicated campaigns.

    Even better? Note Templates can be used as goals. Yep - when a certain note gets applied to the contact's record, you can kick automation off. It’s an awesome little feature.

    So what are the cons?
    Well notes are not searchable. The data is merely there on the contact record to be viewed. So it’s no good for segmentation. I still love them for their awesome historical tracking capability. If you like to stalk your contacts (and you totally should be stalking them, inside your app that is - don’t be a creeper) then Notes provide the perfect audit trail.

    Pro Tip:
    If you need to know when certain tags have been applied, you can use a tag goal, followed by a note to say that that tag got applied. And presto! Permanent breadcrumb.

    2. Person Notes:

    On the contact record, there is a giant block of text area- this is a general field for recording information that is useful to your use as a user:

    Like notes above, this is not searchable so you can’t use it for segmentation, but it is an awesome field that you can store really specific personal information pertaining to that contact record that doesn’t need to be merged into emails or require a custom field. This is great for sales teams as you can leave a bit of information in there for later use. Further down in the pro pro tips I’ve given you a cool way you can use this field to help you cut down on your superfluous custom fields.

    3. Campaign Merge Fields

    Campaign merge fields are another one of the more esoteric features of Infusionsoft® that tend not to get used enough. While custom fields are unique to the contact, campaign fields are unique to the campaign.So here you’re not personalising on a contact by contact level, rather you're personalising on a campaign level.

    To make this clearer - here’s a use case: If you know you are going to be running an event more than once, and the event name, event date, venue, and the link to book tickets will be changing, rather than having to go into the booking campaign and change the information and value repeatedly for each email, you can use campaign merge fields and campaigns links.

    This allows you to change the information in EVERY email, by only changing the field or link value. Doesn’t get more efficient than that!

    OK we’ve just covered a lot of information you and I.

    So here’s a little sanity check list for use cases for all of the above that we have covered. You can download this sanity check list too at the end of this post 🙂

    Sanity Check - When to use each:

    • Does the value need to be merged into an email/ task/ note etc? Use a Custom Field
    • Does the data need to be unique to the customer? Ie, would it be totally different for another person, in such a way you couldn’t constrain it? Use a Custom Field
    • Does the value have more than one variable (like in our food example)? Use a Tag
    • Do you need to start specific automation when that data is stored/ when something specific happens AND you need to use the data for further segmentation and searching? Use a Tag
    • Do you need to search, segment or perform saved searches on specific bits of data? Use Tags/ Custom Fields and decide which based on the criteria above
    • Do you need to track and store behaviour for segmentation purposes? Use a Tag
    • Do you need to start specific automation only when that data is stored/ when something specific happens? Use a Note Template
    • Do you need the data to be stored permanently, with a date/time stamp? Use a Note
    • Do you need to track behaviour for historical purposes, but you don’t need to search on the information? Use a Note
    • Is the data important, but it doesn’t need to be permanent, and it doesn’t need to be searched on or merged into emails (ie like for sales calls) Use the Person Notes field
    • Do you need to make frequent changes to emails on a campaign wide level? Use Campaign Merge fields and Campaign Links

    So let’s finish off with some pro tips on how to clean up some of the mess you may have lurking around your application, and KEEP IT CLEAN:

    Pro Tip 1:

    Clear yourself out some custom fields:
    Wasteful custom fields consist of the fields you are NOT going to merge into an email ever, and is not going to be used for segmentation.

    If you’ve noticed that your custom fields are storing information that should rather be in person notes - say for instance information that your sales team might use on a call, but doesn’t need to be merged into an email. Or if you have information that will be important further on down the line but is not ever going to be merged or segmented by - you can clean that all up nicely by doing the following:

    1. Export your data (including the custom fields AND very importantly, the PERSON NOTES and the Infusionsoft® ID)
    2. Spend a bit of time in Excel clearing the information from the custom fields, and adding it into the Person Notes column
    3. Re-import the data by going to data clean up and voila! All the information that was clogging up your custom fields is now in the Person Notes field.
    4. Delete the custom fields that were superfluous
    5. Revel in your reclaimed fields and cleanliness

    Pro Tip 2:

    Tidy up your tags!
    Remember this little guy from earlier?

    Don’t leave your app like that! Tidy it up! But I don’t mean spend hours trawling through the tag section in Infusionsoft, oh no - there is a much easier hack to cleaning your tags up:

    1. Export your tags - making sure you export the tag ID
    2. In excel, fiddle about with your tags as required, you can rename them, change the categories, you name it
    3. Mark the tag names/ categories that you want to delete with “DELETE” in front of the tag name
    4. Re-import into Infusionsoft® using the data clean up tool 
    5. Delete all the tags with the preface “DELETE”
    6. Do a little dance because you have lovely clean and shiny tags

    So to finish up, there are a lot of ways to store data in Infusionsoft® - but now you have the know-how on which type of storage you should be using for optimum efficiency.

    I am going to leave you with 2 golden rules:

    1. The way you store that data should be determined by how you intend to use that data (if at all)

    2. You need to proactively cleanse your data regularly

    So repeat after me now “I do solemnly declare to keep my data clean and tidy, because dirty data sucks”.

    That brings us to the end of our little jaunt in data land! But before you go, I did promise you the download of that sanity checklist! You can do so by clicking the button below.

    Happy Ninjaring!
    P.S. if you have any questions - pop them below! I love hearing from you 🙂

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    About the Author

    Kenda Macdonald is an Automation Ninja. With a background in Forensic Psychology and an affinity for statistics and behaviourally intelligent automation – she’s not your average expert. She’s been living and breathing Infusionsoft since 2011 and has spent over 14 500 hours learning new ways to automate what people think is impossible. She’s a true nerd, and spends her waking hours helping businesses understand behaviour for super effective marketing, and relishes in simplifying over complicated processes for truly intelligent automated marketing. She’s the founder of Automation Ninjas - Experts in behavioural automation. Expect enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge – not normalcy.

    Leave a Comment:

    (6) comments

    Lucy Barfoot 6th March 2017

    Really useful to know about the quarterly data clean up rule, and also to have all the Infusionsoft userguide links at hand too. How good are person notes!! Didn’t know that was possible. I think I’ve just saved a load of money on post-it notes!

    Reply
      Kenda Macdonald 6th March 2017

      Thanks Lucy 🙂 Person notes are so underused! But they can really be a lifesaver when you run out of custom fields!

      Reply
    Arfa Saira Iqbal 6th March 2017

    Whoa!!!! So much amazing information here – and what’s really neat about this is that after more than 3 years of using InfusionSoft, I FINALLY know once and for all everything I need to know about tags and custom fields. Great post Kenda – I’m looking forward to reading much more!

    Reply
      Kenda Macdonald 7th March 2017

      Brilliant! I did say it was EPIC for a reason 😉 Glad it’s helped you get clarity!

      Reply
    Tim 18th January 2018

    Rock on. Fantastic article.

    Every Infusionsoft user should live by these rules.

    Reply
      Kenda Macdonald 24th January 2018

      Thank you Tim!

      We think so too 😉

      Reply
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