Lists vs. Data Extensions

There are two different methods to store and segment subscriber data within Marketing Cloud: Lists and Data Extensions. Lists have limited functionality, whereas Data Extensions provide full flexibility to store and relate subscriber information. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

What are Lists?

A List is a compilation of subscribers that receive your communications. You can create as many Lists as you need to segment your subscribers in order to target your email communications. Lists store the email address and subscriber status (Active, Bounced, Held, Unsubscribed) for each subscriber. As an option, a subscriber key can be defined, as well as profile and preference attributes.

Advantages of using a List

  • A List can be configured to send a welcome email when a new subscriber opts in.
  • Lists also give you the option to enable double opt-ins for new subscribers to receive an email containing a link to confirm their email address. When the link is opened, their status changes to active and they receive messages sent to that List. The subscriber remains unsubscribed until the link is open.

Disadvantages to using Lists

  • If a recipient unsubscribes from any one of your Lists, they are unsubscribed from all your Lists.
  • Lists can only store first name, last name, email address, status, and a subscriber key for each of your subscribers.

What are Data Extensions?

Like Lists, Data Extensions are a compilation of subscribers who receive your communications. You can create as many data extensions as you need to segment your subscribers in order to target your communications or to house relational data.

Advantages of using a Data Extension

  • You are able to import and store data from an external system. Imported data can be used to help segment subscribers or to include dynamic email content.
  • Data Extensions can hold any type of information you need to collect, such as:
    • Address
    • Affiliation
    • Purchase history
    • Communication topic preferences
  • Data Extensions can point to other Data Extensions that hold even more information. These are called relational Data Extensions.
  • Data Extensions are typically defined as Sendable and/or Testable. Sendable can be used for sending emails. Testable can be used for testing emails. A Data Extension can be both, either, or neither.
  • Using Data Extensions gives you the ability to use Publication Lists (different from Lists described above) to manage unsubscribes in a granular manner.

Disadvantages to using Data Extensions

  • They’re a little more work to set up—Data Extensions require more configuration and planning.
  • No welcome email or double opt-in options.

Which to choose?

A List is recommended if you want a simple list of names and email addresses or want to use welcome messages or double opt-ins. A Data Extension is recommended if you want to store additional information about your subscribers and is required if you want to use Publication Lists to manage unsubscribes.

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