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Marketing Cloud: Lists versus Data Extensions

So, you’re new to Marketing Cloud, and you’ve started hearing about sending emails to your audience. Your colleagues are talking about lists and data extensions, but you’re a bit lost. What are they, and when do you use one over another?

In this blog we’ll start at the beginning so you understand the purpose of a list and data extension and what the benefits are.

Firstly, the people you will be sending your email to are your Subscribers. They have subscribed to receive Messages from your company. We want to be able to have different subscribers for different communications e.g. those people who are interested in ski holidays in one group; those people interested in hiking in another group. Effectively, we are filtering or segmenting our subscribers.

So, you can use either lists or data extensions to store your subscriber data, but let’s look at why one may be better than the other:

Salesforce Lists

Lists store your subscriber data in attributes. Your list will likely have attributes to store the Email Address, First Name, Last Name etc. for a subscriber. These attributes are the same for every list. For example, you can’t have one list that contains Email Address, First Name and Interest and another list that contains Email Address, First Name and Physical Address.

They are really simple to set up. You don’t have to be particularly technical, and it doesn’t take much to set them up. However, you can only use them for fewer than 500,000 subscribers. And if you also wanted to add your other marketable data , like purchase data and abandon cart, you can’t with Lists as they only store subscriber data.

Also, if you would like the subscribers in your list to feed into a journey, sorry, but you can’t. They can be used for simple automated sending with Automation Studio. However, not for Journey Builder.

Salesforce Data Extensions

Data extensions are a little bit more complex, but give you more flexibility. Your company will have lots of information that you may wish to use in emails e.g. the Product the subscriber recently bought, their local store etc. Data extensions are essentially data tables – you can import your data into Marketing Cloud from other systems either manually or automatically. They can store any data you like, not just subscriber data.

If you are importing data into Marketing Cloud, the import speed is much quicker to import into a data extension, so with large volumes of data, this is certainly a consideration.

You can also create relationships between data extensions, which helps you to personalise your communications even more.

In conclusion, data extensions give you much closer control over your data. Unless you have a very simple data model, we certainly think that data extensions are the way to go.

For more guidance, tips and information, take a look at our Salesforce tutorial videos. 


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