Organize Your Data

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Describe the difference between a list and a data extension.
  • Describe the use cases for lists and data extensions.
  • Explain how Marketing Cloud manages external data and data relationships.

Let’s Get Organized

Organizing and managing your data is key to segmenting effectively. Marketing Cloud organizes data in two ways: lists and data extensions.

  • A list is a collection of subscribers who receive your communications. Lists have attributes, such as name, address, interest and birthday, that contain information about subscribers. One thing to note about lists is that attribute-related information cannot exist alone without a subscriber. You can create as many lists as you need to segment your subscribers and target your email communications.
  • A data extension is a table within the application database that contains your data. You can use a data extension to store not only sendable subscriber data—just like with a list—but also relational data, such as purchases, inventory, and rewards program data.

How you organize your data influences the tools you use to segment it. When it comes to choosing a data model, in general, we recommend the following.

Use lists when:

  • Your lists contain 500,000 subscribers or fewer—even over the long term
  • You prefer simplicity over performance
  • You do not require fast import speed
  • You plan to use a limited number of subscriber attributes

Use data extensions when:

  • Your lists contain more than 500,000 subscribers
  • You support multiple subscriber data sets, with separate values
  • You send global messages
  • You require fast import speeds
  • You implement triggered sends
  • You use the SOAP or REST APIs
  • You prefer a flexible subscription model
  • You want to leverage relational data, such as purchase history or location references

Creating an Import Activity

What if you have data flowing in from elsewhere? No problem! You can set up a simple import activity in Automation Studio to bring data from outside of Marketing Cloud—for example, CRM or point-of-sale data—into your lists or data extensions.

Paulo is the marketing specialist at Northern Trail Outfitters. He’s been sending his weekly promotional email for several weeks, and he’s seen great success—a lot of opens, a lot of clicks, and a lot of purchases. The only problem is that he has to manually update his MasterSubscriber data extension with data from other systems.

Paulo is the marketing specialist for Northern Trail Outfitters

Manual work for something that can easily be automated is a bad use of his limited time, he decides. He plans to set up an import activity and automation to update his MasterSubscriber data extension daily. Let’s first take a look at how to set up an import activity.


If you're following along in your own instance of Marketing Cloud, you see your assets and data. In this module, we're illustrating what you can do with Marketing Cloud by showing you the steps that Paulo takes and the data he sees. The data in your own org is different, of course.

  1. Hover over the Salesforce blue cloud to display the main Marketing Cloud navigation bar.
  2. Hover over Journey Builder.
  3. Select Automation Studio.
  4. Click Activities.
  5. Click Create Activity.
  6. Select Import File.
  7. Click NextThe import file activity type selected in Automation Studio activities.
  8. Configure the import activity properties.
    • Name: Enter a name.
    • Description: Enter a description.
    • External Key: Enter a key or leave this blank.
    • Check Send notification email to checkbox.
    • Email: Enter the email address where you would like the notification to be sent.
    • Click NextThe
  9. Configure the file import.
    • Select the file location.
      • Set up FTPs in Admin under Data Management.
    • Enter the file naming pattern.
      • This allows any associated automation to run when a file whose name matches the pattern is dropped into an Enhanced FTP folder.
    • Click NextThe file naming pattern added to the import file activity in Automation Studio Activities.
  10. Configure the destination.
    • Select MasterSubscriber.
    • Click NextThe selected file destination for the import activity in Automation Studio Activities.
  11. Configure the mapping.
    • Select the appropriate data action: Add Only, Update Only, Add and Update, or Overwrite.
    • Select how you want to map columns between the source and the destination: Header, Ordinally, or Manually.
    • Click NextMapping of the imported file to a specific destination in Automation Studio Activities.
  12. Review the import activity details.
  13. Click Finish.

Now that Paulo has his import activity, he can automate it to run daily. He decides to hold off on this for now, since he can actually include the import activity in with the automation that segments his subscribers.

Scrub Your Data

A final note on organization. Make sure your data is clean, clear, and easy to find. To do this, frequently remove data that is incorrect, incomplete, improperly formatted, or duplicated. Implement naming conventions for lists, data extensions, folders, and content to provide structure and consistency across your account or business unit. For example, your naming conventions can reflect how you organize your data—either by campaign, publication type, frequency, or some combination thereof.

Now you know what segmentation is, why it’s important to your business, how to get your data organized, and how to set up a data import activity. Let’s move on to segmentation tools.


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