I recently completed an online course called Chimp Essentials, by well-known writer and freelancer Paul Jarvis. The course teaches everything you need to know to be able to effectively use the email service provider Mailchimp for your online communication and marketing.

I took Chimp Essentials to finally get serious about email marketing after years of running a (mostly) online business. I had opened a free account years ago and used its basic features to start sending emails to a couple hundred people. But it had grown steadily over the years into a tangled mess.

I had numerous vaguely defined lists, with overlapping subscribers I was paying for two or three times over, and no ability to target specific groups or track their interests. I knew that email could be my most powerful communication and sales tool, and that getting a handle on it was going to be essential for future growth.

The course contains 49 short videos with basic to intermediate lessons on how to use Mailchimp to:

  • Manage an email list
  • Send out regular emails for newsletters, sales pitches, or other purposes
  • Customize an email template and signup form
  • Create automated email series that are triggered by certain events
  • Integrate Mailchimp with popular web platforms
  • Keep your subscriber list healthy and engaged

Below are the top 10 most useful things I learned from the course, and how I’ve put them to use in my business.

My productivity and knowledge management methods are a great complement to email marketing, helping you consistently produce and publish quality work to send to your subscribers. I’ll answer any questions you have, show you my best tips and tricks, and share a few templates and tools I use to make email marketing as easy and effective as possible.


#1 – Authenticate (not just validate) your sending domain

I knew that I needed to “validate” any domain I wanted to be able to “send from.” In other words, if I wanted my mass emails to appear to come from [email protected], then I needed to validate the fortelabs.co domain.

Here’s what it looks like once that’s done (in Account > Settings > Domains):

But I didn’t know that, if I wanted the maximum number of my emails to reach subscribers and not be classified as spam, I needed to also “authenticate” the domain. This takes a few extra steps, but will improve my deliverability.

It’s really hard to be successful at email marketing if your emails aren’t even being delivered!

#2 – Redesigning the default email signup form

For years I had used the default email signup form provided by Mailchimp. I thought, “If Mailchimp recommends it, it can’t be that bad right?” Boy was I wrong. The thing is ugly as hell:

Jarvis led us through the process of making a few simple design tweaks, resulting in an equally simple, yet far more attractive signup page:

This is now a page that I’m proud to put in my social media profiles and send to anyone who might want to follow me.

#3 – The difference between groups, merge tags, and segments

This terminology had long bedeviled me. No matter how many explanations I read or examples I saw, I could never quite wrap my head around how I should use these features.

But after this course I got it:

  • Merge tags are specific labels or attributes that are “applied” to a subscriber to save details about them (such as where they signed up or which product they purchased)
  • Groups can be based on merge tags, and put people who share certain tags into a group that you can send an email to (such as people who purchased a particular product)
  • Segments are groupings of subscribers based on conditions that you set (for example, people who signed up on a certain page AND haven’t purchased a certain product)

You can think of these three features as “layers” of groups, each one drawing on the one below. So groups can be made up of combinations of merge tags, and segments can be made up of combinations of groups. This allows you to set finely tuned criteria for who receives a given email.

Merge tags

Think of merge tags as changing a single field in a subscriber profile. For the page on my website collecting email addresses for people interested in my coaching program, I set Squarespace to change the “Coaching” field to “Yes.” Here’s what it looks like for one subscriber:

Now I can add everyone who shares that tag to a group or segment, and send them a targeted email without bothering everyone else.


Groups are like multiple-answer questions, where every subscriber can choose as many as they want. For example, I set up an integration between Teachable (my online course platform) and Mailchimp to automatically add anyone who purchased a course to a master list called “Teachable students,” and also assign them to a group according to which course or courses they have purchased.

Here are all the groups, with abbreviations for each course name. I haven’t set up the integrations for a couple courses because I haven’t needed to send them an email yet:

Now I can send specific emails to each of these groups, or see which courses a specific subscriber has purchased:


Unlike groups, segments can only be created within Mailchimp. So I was able to “import” people to groups using an external integration with Teachable, but the more sophisticated capabilities of segments are exclusive to Mailchimp.

What are these capabilities? Basically, I can create “conditional statements” to automatically place people into segments based on specific criteria. For example, I created a new segment called “Coaching Upsell,” with the following conditions:

  • Subscriber HAS expressed interest in coaching (i.e. they have submitted their email address on my coaching page)
  • Subscriber IS in BASB group (indicating they have purchased the course)

If I save this segment, it will be automatically populated with any subscriber who meets those two conditions in the future. Why would I want to do this? For example, to periodically send an email to graduates of the course asking if they’d be interested in coaching.

#4 – The best strategy for managing email lists: One List

I’ve known for some time that the best strategy for managing Mailchimp is to have a single, all-encompassing list of ALL subscribers, and then to break them into groups and segments based on different criteria.

This is the best strategy because groups and segments can only be created within a single list. So the more you break up your following into separate lists, the more you limit your ability to create broad-based groups and segments that apply equally to everyone.

With separate lists, you might end up sending the same email to the same people multiple times if they have subscribed to more than one list. I found that every time I launched a new product or service and sent it to all my lists, I was “punishing” my best customers by sending them multiple identical emails, since they tended to be subscribed to multiple lists.

Mailchimp’s pricing also penalizes the multiple list approach. Monthly pricing is calculated based on “subscriber per list,” meaning that you will pay for each list the same person is subscribed to. Ugh.

Although I’m not yet able to completely move to One List, due to various restrictions with external integrations, I’ve made considerable progress since taking this course. I merged about 5 lists into other lists, differentiating subscribers by groups instead.

I’m now down to only 5 lists, instead of 10:

#5 – The 3 ways to add people to groups

One of the biggest challenges I had previously was how to track the various interests and opt-ins of my subscribers. For example, if someone signed up to be a beta tester for a new product, how could I keep track of them until the next time I had something to get feedback on?

The only way that I knew of was to create a completely new email list, send them the signup form to subscribe, and then just pay for that list over months and months until the next time I needed to email them. With all the interests and special projects I am managing at any given time, this was quickly becoming untenable.

The solution was groups. Instead of giving each interest its own list, I could add everyone to my master newsletter list and then assign them to an “Interest group.” This has the added benefit of sending them my occasional newsletters, keeping in touch between long periods of inactivity.

I only have two interests so far, but will add more over time:

What I learned that made this possible is the three ways to add someone to a group:

  1. Add them in a behind-the-scenes way using WordPress or Zapier (in case you don’t want them to see which group they’re being added to)
  2. Manually add them to a group (if it’s a one-time thing that doesn’t need to be automated)
  3. Let them pick groups for themselves on a signup form (if you’re okay with groups being public)

I’m currently only using “behind-the-scenes” methods of adding people to groups, but eventually I want to allow subscribers to select from a menu of interests, and then only receive emails related to those interests.

Here’s an example of what those checkboxes will look like when someone is subscribing to my list:

#6 – Landing pages for specific interests

Related to the problem above, I’ve needed a way to allow people to follow certain interests, without me having to pay for numerous lists. I had previously created a new list each and every time, which was breaking the bank.

When I transitioned these interests into groups, suddenly I had a new problem: how could existing subscribers add themselves to these groups? If I sent them the standard signup form for my newsletter list, it would give them a “You’re already on this list” error. This was a big problem, since I tend to have a core group of followers who are involved in many different things I’m doing.

Enter landing pages.

This is a relatively new feature from Mailchimp, which allows me to create dedicated web pages for specific interests. It also allows me to customize the page and make it visually attractive. Here’s the one I created for people interested in the Mesa Method, which I linked to from my blog and from my ebook of the same name:

On this signup page, even my existing (and most loyal) followers can choose to follow this interest. All I have to do is create a new segment based on this “signup source,” and it will include everyone who signed up on this particular landing page.

#7 – Welcome email

I had heard many times that sending new subscribers a “welcome email” was a crucial practice for keeping them engaged. But in Chimp Essentials I learned just how critical it is. Welcome emails typically have higher engagement rates than any other kind of email, and help new subscribers remember what they signed up for and why.

Instead of the standard, quite ugly “Subscribe confirmation” email, I designed a new welcome email to automatically be sent to every person who subscribes here:

Besides welcoming them to my newsletter, telling them what they will and won’t be receiving from me, and the purpose of my work, I included links and short descriptions for my top 10 all-time most popular articles. The goal is to show them what to expect, and to get them “hooked” with some of my very best free content.

In the last two weeks this email has been sent out to 158 people, with a 67% open rate and 30% click rate, which is absolutely phenomenal as email campaigns go:

#8 – Email newsletter template

One of the key principles in effective email marketing seems to be consistency: using the same kinds of words, the same style and tone, sticking to the topic they signed up to hear about, etc.

While I refuse to stick to a publishing schedule, I learned that I could improve consistency another way: through the look and feel of my email design. I followed Jarvis’ instructions and created a very simple, standardized template for all future Forte Labs newsletters. You can see an example here:

I learned that the best email designs are very simple, without a lot of graphics and ornamentation. I also changed the font and colors to match my website as closely as possible, so it looks like something that came from me.

#9 – Subscriber onboarding

Although most of Chimp Essentials focuses on practical, how-to steps, toward the end Jarvis discusses the psychology of good email marketing. He teaches that when onboarding new subscribers, there are three things you need to accomplish:

  • Accommodation: Introduce yourself and tell them what to expect from your list
  • Assimilation: Make them feel like they belong and connect with them
  • Acceleration: Get them involved by consuming your most popular content or responding to a question

For me this involved making just a few small adjustments in my welcome email:

  • Accommodation: Promising them my “Top 10 All-Time Most Popular Articles” if they sign up for my newsletter (instead of just “news and updates”), and then delivering on that promise in the welcome email
  • Assimilation: Including a link to my Manifesto in the welcome email, in case they want to know what I stand for
  • Acceleration: Encouraging them to read one of my most popular articles with short summaries (and the main topic bolded)

#10 – How to avoid list decay

I learned that typically about 25% of an email list “decays” (or stops reading) each year. This made me feel a lot better about the unsubscribes I regularly receive!

Jarvis explains some of the best ways to minimize list decay:

  • Determine signup sources that give you the most inactive subscribers (pop-ups often generate signups who are more likely to become inactive)
  • Check your opt-ins (free bonuses offered in exchange for an email address) to make sure they’re still relevant
  • Have a more specific or actionable welcome email
  • Always consider why someone would open your emails
  • Email them regularly, and not just with pitches

Although I tend to follow these guidelines already, they were a great reminder that someone signing up to my list is a big deal. They are giving me explicit permission to contact them – about the topic of productivity, of course, but also with pitches and launches.

The miracle of email is direct, unfettered, (nearly) free access to people’s inboxes. That is a great privilege in a world of constant noise and competition. The work I did in this course was my effort to honor that permission as best I could, by consistently delivering the value I’ve promised, in the most accessible and consumable way possible.

Looking back on the course, I think the greatest value was simply having a forcing function to sit down and dedicate a solid block of time to reforming my email practices. I already “knew” much of this information and could probably have Googled the rest, but that is not the same as having it all in one place, at one time, in a consistent format. Having a complete curriculum of step-by-step video walkthroughs, along with an extremely active and helpful Slack community channel, made this one of the best investments in online education I’ve ever made.

If you’re interested in taking Chimp Essentials, just join the waitlist here.

Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you're ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.