Data Extensions or Lists: Which is best to store data in Salesforce Marketing Cloud?

Data Extensions or Lists: Which is best to store data in Salesforce Marketing Cloud?

Storing subscriber data in Salesforce Marketing Cloud might not be what you expect, as there are certain technicalities connected to this process that we often fail to consider. For instance, what’s the best way to store subscriber lists or data within data extensions? Yes, you guessed it, there’s more than one way to do it, and so the purpose of this article is to help you choose the best option possible for storing your data in the Marketing Cloud.

What data are we talking about?

We’re talking about how your contact and subscriber information can be stored in different ways in Email Studio. Besides personal data, you can also keep information about their purchases, accounts, orders, types of products, etc. You can use this data to create audience segments to send tailored messages. While SFMC shouldn’t be considered a data warehouse, it is a place where you keep relevant information for your future marketing campaigns.

Before listing all the possibilities about storing your data, ask yourself the following question: What type of data model do you use,1-to-1 or 1-to-many? For instance, if you have one email address and one Subscriber ID that relates to this email, it’s 1-to-1. But if you want to relate this Subscriber ID to the purchase information (because 1 Subscriber can make several purchases), it’s 1-to-many.

Salesforce Email Studio Data

If you’re a user of a more complicated data model, where your subscriber information can relate to their other activities, you need to leverage a more flexible way to store that data so you can manipulate it later.

What are Salesforce lists?

Let’s start with the basics, and these are lists. They are a default method to store your Subscribers’ data in SFMC. Lists are a compilation of subscribers who receive certain communications.  They work well when you have a simple data model (1-1), have basic customer segmentation needs, and a subscriber list below 500,000. If you have more subscribers, or your company is actively growing and thus creating a more complicated data model, data extensions (DEs) are preferred to give you better, closer control over your marketing practices.

Salesforce Lists Email Studio

What are Salesforce data extensions?

Data extensions on the other hand offer a more flexible approach to data management. and are preferred if you have a 1-to-many data model. Data extensions are essentially tables that can contain a variety of data.

They’re normally used to store data above 500,000 rows. Data extensions are more often used to import and store data from other systems using tools like Marketing Cloud Connect (to send data from Salesforce Core to Salesforce Marketing Cloud), or using third-party connectors like DESelect Connect

Data extensions can hold any type of information, such as addresses or purchase histories. It’s for this reason that data extensions can also be used for transactional and commercial communication.

Using data extensions, you have more control over segmentation, although they require a bit more time to set up compared to lists. You can segment your data in Marketing Cloud using filters, for simple requests or write SQL queries for advanced segmentation requirements. An alternative to that will be using tools like DESelect Segment, which makes light work of data extensions and segmentation. Leveraging extended functionality of SQL queries, you will have no need to write a single line of code, and can immediately build advanced data extensions using drag-and-drop in the app.

There are different types of data extensions that you need to keep in mind. 

What is the difference between lists and data extensions?

Lists allow you to store subscriber data only, like email address, first name, last name, etc. They use the standard profile and subscription center. However, DEs have minimal rules when it comes to storing data. You can set them up in whichever way makes the most sense for your company. Mind that it takes time to set up data extensions correctly; you need to know what type of data is added to which field and follow the naming pattern you define. Otherwise, it will be hard to make use of the data when it comes to segmentation, for example. Unlike lists, they do not require an email address. DEs can also store product catalogs, abandoned carts, or sales representative information, and more. 

For segmentation purposes, if you have a 1-to-many data model, then using data extensions will be optimal. You can query data using SQL with data extensions, to create segments of the audience, which is not possible with lists.

Lists are used only for email sends and emails with no transactional data, whereas data extensions can be used for different types of communication.

For a detailed overview of when to use lists vs. data extensions, you can refer to this Salesforce guide on the subject.


Companies that store large quantities of data will greatly benefit by adapting to data extensions to store data.

It’s important to define how your data model will look and work in advance and realize how you want to store it in SFMC. Remember that Marketing Cloud is not a data warehouse and so you don’t need to add all your data there just because you can. When it comes to data extension creation, the best practice for your data management will be to develop and follow the data naming conventions. 

Using data extensions in Salesforce Marketing Cloud has many benefits, one of which is that you can segment data. You can use SQL if you know how to code, use filters for simple segmentation requests, or you can leverage a drag-and-drop alternative like DESelect Segment, to save time on data management. Our consultants can explain how our tool will help you work with data in detail, without learning a single line of code.

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