Marketing Cloud Lists and Data Extensions
Are you looking to learn about lists and data extensions in Salesforce Marketing Cloud? If so, you are in the right place.
This article is a comprehensive guide to how lists and data extensions work and how they differ from each other.
Important terms explained in this article include: Lists, Data Extensions, Groups, Data Filters, Queries, Subscriber Key, Profile and Subscription Center
Table of Contents
- Lists vs Data Extensions - Introduction
- All Subscribers
- Profile Management and Preference Management
- Publication and Suppression Lists
- Data Extensions
- Shared Data Extensions
- Data Filters
Lists vs Data Extensions - Introduction
If you go to Salesforce training center or any other guide to Marketing Cloud, one of the very first terms you’re going to learn there are “lists” and “data extensions”.
And there’s a very good reason for this.
The main tool (or Studio) you are going to use in Marketing Cloud is going to be the Email Studio. No matter which edition of Marketing Cloud your company has decided to acquire, it’s going to be there as a very first option in the navigation menu. In some way, it’s a command center for all the functionality in Marketing Cloud. All initial email setup happens in Email Studio - configuring Sender Authentication Package, Reply Email Management and such. Don’t worry if you don’t know what those phrases mean. We’re going to talk in detail about them later.
Aside from configuring email deliverability, you are going to use Email Studio mainly to send your email messages (let’s forget about automations for now).
And to do that, you need to know who the recipients of your emails are going to be.
That’s what the lists and data extensions are for. In Marketing Cloud, you store all your data about your subscribers (that’s how we call recipients in Email Studio) in either of those two types of containers.
Lists are collections of your subscribers. They have attributes, such as name, address or company name of your recipients. Lists are the simpler way to organize subscriber data in Marketing Cloud and are recommended for testing.
Data extensions are tables that contain your subscribers’ data. They can include more subscribers, they can be used with API and are just more functional. But the biggest difference is that they don’t need to contain only sendable data. You can use them for relational data, which is information related to your subscribers, such as their purchases, rewards program details or application data.
Below are two tables highlighting the most important differences between lists and data extensions. If you are studying for Salesforce Marketing Cloud Email Specialist Certification make sure to learn them by heart.
Use lists when:Your lists contain 500,000 subscribers or fewer—even over the long termYou prefer simplicity over performanceYou do not require fast import speedYou plan to use a limited number of subscriber attributesUse data extensions when:Your lists contain more than 500,000 subscribersYou support multiple subscriber data sets, with separate valuesYou send global messagesYou require fast import speedsYou implement triggered sendsYou use the SOAP or REST APIsYou prefer a flexible subscription modelYou want to leverage relational data, such as purchase history or location references
Email Studio - Lists
Now, let’s take a look at Email Studio to see how to create and manage lists.
To access lists, hover over the Email Studio icon, click on Email and go to Subscribers tab visible in the header. We’ll be focusing on top 5 options there: All Subscribers, Lists, Groups, Profile Management and Preference Management.
All Subscribers list is exactly what the name implies - the storage for ALL of your subscribers. It’s a master list of records for your Marketing Cloud Email Studio. If you add a customer to one of your lists or if you send to someone included in your data extension, they are going to appear here.You can find all the most important information about your subscribers in here:
- Subscriber Key - this is the unique identifier for each subscriber.
- Status - are they active or not.
- Created Date - when they joined your account as a subscriber.
- Add Method - how they become subscribers.
- Bounce Count - how many times did they bounce (more on this later),
- Their profile data and detailed information about unsubscription.
More details about All Subscribers can be found in official Salesforce documentation.
Here you can find all created or imported lists. If your account is brand new you won’t find much here. So let’s change it and try to create a list:
The process is pretty straightforward.
- Click on the Create button in the upper right-hand corner.
You will need to name your list.
- I recommend filling out the description and making it a habit to always include one. It’s going to be a huge help for any of your team members or your future self when they stumble upon a properly documented list.
- You can also assign it to a campaign.
- You don’t need to worry about the external key - this is something used by other processes to locate this list and is generated automatically by the system if you leave it blank.
And that’s it. Your list is ready to be used. Oh, wait. It’s not. We need subscribers!
Although lists offer much less functionality than data extensions, they are simple to use. Adding new subscribers can be done with an import or manually. The second option is especially handy when you need to create a simple list for testing purposes, e.g. when you want to send personalized emails to a couple of team members to see if the personalization strings work correctly. Just one thing to remember is that before you add a custom attribute like Date of Birth or Favorite Genre, you need to go to Profile Management and add them there.
As you grow your list and collect information from your subscribers, you will need to start segmenting your audience. Email marketing (as all marketing) works best when you customize and personalize your messages.
The easiest way to do so is to create groups - subsets of your subscribers taken from a list.
You can use subscribers’ attributes or preferences to filter your audience. That’s how you create filtered groups. The drag-and-drop interface makes it very easy to use.
You can also split your subscribers to generate a random group. It’s useful when you want to test your emails - template, subject line, personalization or some other element, to figure out what works best.
Remember: groups are a segmentation tool that only works with lists.
Profile Management and Preference Management
Profile management tab is the place where you configure your subscribers’ attributes - their demographic data, product preferences and such. By default, every account has three profile attributes: Full Name, Email and UserDefined (a generic attribute that can be used as needed).
Preference management allows you to set up attributes that characterize how your recipients want to receive their emails. They are specified as yes or no choices. HTML Email preference is a default attribute set to Yes.
Here’s a general description of how the attribute creation process looks:
Note: Remember that profile attributes can only be created at Parent Business Unit level.
The first screen is where you decide on the name of your attribute, descriptions and the attributes of the new attribute. You can make an attribute required, hidden or read only.
Here’s where you pick properties such as your attribute’s data type, minimum and maximum length or default value.
This screen allows you to limit attribute values to specific choices.
If you have Salesforce integrated with Marketing Cloud, you can connect Lead and Contact attributes to fields in Salesforce.
Be sure to properly plan the attribute creation before starting.
Observant readers might have noticed the “hidden” and “read only” attributes on the first screen of attribute creation and wondered who these restrictions refer to.
If you go to Profile Management or Preference Management, there is an option to “Preview Profile Center” above the list of attributes. If you click on that, you are going to be directed to a webpage called Profile Center. It’s a place where your subscribers can review their subscriber information, in other words, the attributes set up in the Email Studio account.
Each email you send to your audience includes a link to the profile and subscription center. That’s why you need to be sure that the information in the Profile Center does not include any personal or sensitive information about your recipients in case someone else gets access to that link.
Here are links to official documentation on this topic:
Publication and Suppression Lists
I started this part by saying we’ll be covering the first five options from the Subscribers tab, but there are two more places you need to get familiar with when it comes to managing lists (and not only). You can find them under My Subscribers on the left hand navigation tree in the Subscribers section of the Email Studio.
Publication and suppression lists are especially important because you will use them with tools outside of Email Studio.
So what are publication and suppression lists?
You use them to manage opt-ins for your subscribers.
Publication list helps you manage subscriptions to specific categories of sends or specific campaigns. If your company is planning on a weekly newsletter, use a publication list to include only those clients that opted in to that type of communication.
Publication lists work like a filter you use to honor your subscribers' preferences about the communication they want to receive from you.
Suppressions lists are kind of opposite to publication lists. They contain those subscribers that don’t want to receive your communications. Suppression lists filter out email addresses and prevent those addresses from receiving your messages.
Suppression lists serve as a "do not contact" list for your sends.
The common examples address types you should consider adding to your suppression list are:
- Canceled customers,
- Addresses of your competitors,
- Unsubscribe lists from previous providers or advertisers,
- Addresses with a history of spam complaints,
- Hard bounces.
Aside from the individual suppression lists you can set up in Email Studio, there is an Auto-Suppression List you can configure in Setup. It serves as a Master Suppression List and can be set up at Child or Parent Business Unit level.
When creating Suppression or Publication Lists you have the option to make them public. This allows your subscribers to see them in their subscription center and opt in to them or opt out manually.
Email Studio - Data Extensions
As we have already established data extensions offer much more functionality than lists do. They can hold relational data and they are used for automations in other Marketing Cloud tools, like Journey Builder or MobileConnect. They can even serve as Suppression Lists when the functionality of default Suppression Lists is not enough.You can find data extensions in Email Studio or Contact Builder, another studio that holds consolidated information about all your Contacts (that’s how your Subscribers are called in Contact Builder, we’ll stick to Subscribers in this article) in your Marketing Cloud account. More about Contact Builder in another article.There are 3 types of data extensions:
- Standard data extensions - that’s the kind you’ll be using most of the time. They act as your main directories, storing data about your subscribers.
- Filtered data extensions - these are used to segment your existing data extensions to create subsets of your subscribers.
- Random data extensions - used to randomly select subscribers from another data extension.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how filtered and random data extensions are similar to Groups.
One of the most important characteristics of data extensions is that they can be either sendable or nonsendable.
If you have a sendable data extension, this means that each of the records in that data extension is a person that maps to Subscribers in your account on a Subscriber Key.
Let’s focus now, because this part is extremely important.
Subscriber Key is a unique value that identifies each subscriber in the Marketing Cloud account. We call it a Subscriber Key when we’re talking about Email Studio.
With the Subscriber Key, Email Studio is able to identify your subscribers across different lists or data extensions.
So if you’re pulling your subscribers’ data from another data source such as Salesforce Sales Cloud, you’ll use Lead or Contact ID as Subscriber Key because this is the unique value that represents each of them.
If your data source is just a spreadsheet with a list of your clients, you can use whichever field you want from that spreadsheet to uniquely identify them. Just remember, as tempting as it might be to use Email for that, you should never use just an email address as Subscriber Key. The reason is that there could be cases when two people use the same email (like family members). Using an ID is the best way to go.
It’s important to remember that Subscriber Key shouldn’t change!
And of course, all this about Subscriber Key applies to lists.
Here's an official documentation explaining how Subscriber Key works.
You also have a choice to make your data extension nonsendable. That’s the kind that is used for relational data about your subscribers, e.g. If you have a list of orders that your customers made, you should store them in a nonsendable data extension. This type of data will let you personalize your messages.
So let’s see how to create and properly configure a standard data extension:
The first step is similar to creating lists. We need to specify the name and we can provide a description. We also have to decide if this list is going to be sendable (and testable).
A great way to save time is to use “Create from Existing” or “Create from Template” creation methods. They allow you to use existing data extensions or templates to automatically generate field structure.
The next step is to decide if we want to set up a retention policy, in other words - if the records in that data extension or that data extension itself should be deleted after a specific time.
This setting is useful for companies that need to remove user data after some time for legal reasons or simply if you want to maintain only data from active subscribers.
More on data retention policy here.
After we decide if we want to retain the data or not, it’s time to create fields for subscribers’ data. This step is strictly related to what kind of data we want to store in our data extension.
We can decide which field (or fields) are the primary key - the unique value for each row. We also need to specify if a field is nullable. If yes, it’s recommended to use a default value to make sure our personalization string in an email will always have some kind of placeholder. In the case of “First Name” it could be “Customer”.
If we’re creating a sendable data extension our very last step is going to be configuring the send relationship - we need to decide which field relates to our master list of subscribers.
Shared Data Extensions
Shared data extensions are data extensions shared across different business units. We can decide which exact business unit can access a specific shared data extension.They are essential if you’re working at Child Business Unit level and your Marketing Cloud account is connected to Salesforce. More on this topic in another article.
This segmentation tool allows you to create a group of criteria that segments your data extension (or list, yeah, data filters work with lists as well!).You can create a data filter using a simple drag-and-drop interface. This process works the same as with filtered data extensions.
You can also segment your data extension by running an SQL query in the Automation Studio. This is a more advanced process that requires the knowledge of SQL (Structured Query Language), but it gives you more complex functionality in terms of audience segmentation.This functionality is not a part of Email Studio, but because it’s one of the ways you could segment your audience it’s still very much worth mentioning.