Marketers / Marketing Cloud

Marketing Cloud Segmentation Cheat Sheet

By Alina Makarova

Marketing Cloud segmentation techniques will enable you to get granular with your data. You can get closer to your audience by using personalization, therefore, appealing to their needs and desires. If you have built up rich profiles of each subscriber, you’ll be well on your way to effective marketing segmentation.

Having said that, capturing quality data, applying a set of filter criteria, and validating the results is a drain on your time – you may currently be losing valuable hours every day doing segmentation in Marketing Cloud.

This is completely understandable as Salesforce Marketing Cloud can be confusing. Treat this as your cheat sheet to speed up your segmentation.

What is Segmentation in Marketing Cloud?

You can create a segment in Marketing Cloud using one, or a combination, of techniques, including these ways in Marketing Cloud to segment data:

  1. SQL Queries
  2. Data Filters
  3. Contact Builder
  4. Third-party Applications

In this guide, we’ll be sharing what each of these segmentation options are, and the pros and cons of each.

But first – where are you at with segmentation? Answering these statements will give you a feel:

  • I know which customers to target next.
  • I know who to include in my nurture campaign. And who’s the best fit for my remarketing campaign.
  • I know how to apply a set of filter criteria to exclude customers who just bought something.

1. SQL Queries

The primary way to segment your customers is to write custom SQL queries. This is a challenging way to segment your customer base (see the example below), however, it does provide you with the most flexibility.

SQL queries allow you to write queries that will return a very specific segment. When you execute your SQL query, the resulting list of customers is stored in a specific data extension.

You may be familiar with SQL language, such as the clauses ‘as’, ‘where’, and ‘join’, which will help you get started faster.

To create an SQL query, go to: Journey Builder → Automation Studio → Create Activity, and select SQL query.


  • Completely adaptable to your needs.
  • Search through multiple data extensions using the ‘join’ clause (not available in other segmentation methods, i.e. data filters).
  • Automate SQL query execution using Automation Studio. For example, retrieve a daily list of everybody who made a purchase in the past 24 hours.


  • Requires a high level of technical knowledge to write SQL queries fast and efficiently. You may need to collaborate with your IT or BI team to fetch your target list.
  • SQL query execution will timeout after 30 mins.

2. Data Filters

A data filter is a less technical way to segment your customer base. You create data filters using a visual interface – drag and drop the fields you want to include in your filter, and apply basic logic with ‘AND’ and ‘OR’ operators.

You’re basically creating a subset of the data extension – which means that you’re limited to the information stored in that particular data extension. You can only filter on the columns in that data extension, so you cannot include any other information that is related to those customers.

Let’s make this clearer with an example:

You want to target people between the ages of 18-25 that have purchased something yesterday. If you have an ‘AGE’ column in your ‘Sales data extension’, you can create this segment with a data filter. However, it’s unlikely that the AGE information will be present in the ‘Sales data extension’ (you’re not really asking for a customer’s age when they buy something, right?). AGE is more likely to be stored in your ‘Client data extension’.

In this case, it’s impossible to create that segment with a data filter, because you cannot look up the AGE variable in the ‘Client data extension’. To create this segment, you’ll need to use SQL queries.

To create a data filter, go to: Email Studio → from the Subscribers drop-down menu, select Data Filters.


  • Visual interface that requires less technical knowledge.


  • Filter criteria are limited to the columns in the data extension. When you need to create complex filters, i.e. joining more than one data extension, you will need to use SQL queries.

3. Contact Builder

Contact Builder is the most elaborate and out-of-the-box segmentation tool that comes with Marketing Cloud. It enables you to manage data about contacts with a drag and drop interface, (just like data filters). But what makes Contact Builder different is that you can filter across data extensions and append data to audiences.

You can get access to demographic and behavioral information, organized into ‘attribute groups’ (eg. abandoned carts), ‘events’, and ‘populations’ that can then be segmented.

These Audiences are static which means that you need to refresh them daily to keep them up to date.

The best advice is to get an expert on board who can get you up and running quickly. You will then need training on Contact Builder to learn the ropes and reap the full benefits of the tool.


  • Visual interface that requires less technical knowledge.
  • Vast number of options to filter customers.


  • The vast number of options can also cause confusion.
  • Audiences are static which means that you need to refresh them daily to keep them up to date.
  • You need an expert to set it up properly and it requires training.

4. Third-party Applications

A major benefit of using a Salesforce product is the number of ready-to-install third-party apps.

An example, which can help you here, is DESelect Segment. DESelect Segment comes with a drag-and-drop interface that allows you to combine data extensions, define filter criteria, and create calculations without using SQL. This is true drag and drop segmentation in Marketing Cloud.

While this comes at an additional cost, you’ll gain the flexibility of SQL queries, and with the simplicity of data filters – the best of both worlds!


  • Completely adaptable to your needs.
  • Include data from multiple data extensions or data views (not available in other segmentation methods, i.e. data filters).
  • Visual interface that requires less technical knowledge.
  • Fully integrated, so don’t have to worry about any connectors.


  • Comes at an additional cost. Although proving ROI won’t be hard when you’re able to significantly cut down time spent doing Marketing Cloud segmentation.

Final Thoughts

Now you finally know why you were losing so much time finding the right target customers in Marketing Cloud, you can make an informed decision on how to segment your customers going forward with the four options available!

The Author

Alina Makarova

Alina is a Digital Marketing Consultant at Capgemini.


    sowbhagyalakshmi k s
    February 07, 2020 8:11 am
    hi what is the difference between contact and audience builder?
    Lucy Mazalon
    February 23, 2020 2:47 am
    Very good question! We will ask one of our expert writers to answer this in the form of a blog post.
    December 09, 2020 11:55 am
    Is there a blog post about the question ?? can I get the link? thank you.

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