Does it make a difference if your contact records are structured by lists or as a database? Yes, it does!

If you are just starting with email marketing, chances are you are using (or heard of) MailChimp. It is seen as the industry standard and the most versatile tool of them all. It has all the main features you will need plus some new automation tasks that you might find useful. I decided to use MailChimp as an example but almost any basic email marketing tool manages your contacts in the same way.

Main difference between a list and a contact database?

Email marketing services use lists – when a contact fills up a form on your website, he is assigned to a specific list. If you want to add him to another, more segmented one, you need to manually export and import the record. This means that any segmentation and filtering takes a lot more time and becomes more complex. Yes, MailChimp lists allows you to create segments and send them broadcast, but the limitations are there.

A marketing automation tool, like ONTRAPORT, collects all your contact records on a single list, a database. If you need to mark where contacts came from and where are they headed, you can add them to tags and assign to sequences (a series of actions and interactions). Then you can filter the whole database based on given criteria. This is when magic happens – all your contact records are filtered based on their information, interactions with your content and your personal segmentation tags.

What makes a contact database better than a list?

Put simply – it is much more powerful than a list. For starter, it contains a lot more data that you can filter based on. Purchased products, referrers, memberships, total value spent on your products – the list is too long for a blog post. The number of possible filtering combinations gives you the opportunity to analyze and understand data directly from the program. MailChimp has some of those options indeed, but they are more limited and far too complex to execute.

The main difference is that MailChimp (and similar providers) are focused on email creation and delivery, while the business and marketing automation solutions on the market are focused on the contact data.

Why a contact database is easier to work with?

I would always choose a database over lists. The main reason is that it gives you the possibility to filter people based on a big number of conditions and you can update groups of contacts in real time. There is no need to constantly import and export files and records in order to keep your list segmented the right way. A contact can be in multiple segmented lists – not limited to one list only. This means that you only need the contact added once in the database and you will be able to follow his interactions on a single page – much easier than cross-checking the data in several MailChimp lists.


Lists and databases are two similar, and yet so different ways to manage your contact record. The answer to the question which one is better is purely a matter of your business needs. If you are just starting with collecting customer and lead data, MailChimp and similar tools might be the best solution for you. In case you need a more optimized solution for managing sales, affiliates, promotional and email campaign, a business marketing automation is what you should go for. Either way, make sure you have evaluated your business needs before buying a solution and implementing it – it might turn out to be the wrong one and cost too much money.