There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about email marketing. We’ve lost count of how many business owners, whose bottom lines could benefit hugely from an email marketing plan, we’ve heard write it off as either spam or something only major enterprises ever do.
Equating all email marketing with spam is like equating all food with airline food: there’s a wrong way to do it, yes, but there are also many ways to do it right. And if you think email marketing is only a tool for big corporations, you’re basically leaving money in their pockets.
We’d like to help you leverage the insanely powerful customer relationship tool that is email. To do that, we’re going to run down some of the best subscription software for email marketing, and help you decide which is the best for your business.
Why Email Marketing?
The goal of all marketing is to build fruitful relationships with customers. From solutions as low-tech as hanging a sign outside your business to platforms as high-tech as social media, the best thing a marketing campaign can do is win you a customer’s loyalty.
Like all relationships, your connection with your customers has to be constantly worked on and strengthened. Email is one of the best tools out there to reach your customers no matter where they are, personalize your appeals to different sorts of customers, and keep them thinking about your business — so that they keep coming back.
The evidence backs that up: studies show that email marketing offers a better ROI than social media or paid search boosting, with some researchers claiming a return of up to $38 for every dollar spent.
Better yet, email marketing is cheap and easy. Why spend money putting up a billboard, or break your back and dry your mouth sending out snail mailers, when you could spend much less effort and money on a campaign that’s way more likely to catch eyes?
The only expense of email marketing is in licensing software to help manage it, but it’s an investment that’ll easily pay for itself. With email marketing software, you get a wealth of features that go far beyond what you’d be able to do if you wrote and broadcast all your customer outreach emails yourself:
- Autoresponders to automate email sends when customers take certain actions or meet certain conditions — cutting down on your workload.
- A/B testing to help you decide what sort of email campaign is most effective.
- Drip campaigns to guide customers steadily toward new levels of your sales funnel.
- List managers to organize your lead information and easily classify potential customers — who you can then target with personalized campaigns.
And so on. We’ll go more in-depth in just a moment, but hopefully, this convinces you of the benefits of email marketing and how it can add value to your business.
How To Choose An Email Marketing Tool
Before you read our list, take a moment to think about what your business goals are. Do you want to build a bigger contact list? To drum up excitement about a new product? To build buzz about a sale or event? Or just to move more units?
Once you’ve picked a goal, the next thing to decide is how much work you’re willing to put in. What’s your comfort level with visual design? How good are you at writing? Do you like to spend a lot of time curating a mailing list and a set of personalized messages, or do you want your email campaigns to mostly run themselves so you can get back to work?
Ease of use was a primary consideration for us in building our list, and it should be for you, too. Never forget that you’re seeking a tool to make your life easier, and be careful with anything that might require you to know how to code. A wide variety of premade templates can bump an editor’s usability way up — but make sure they’re mobile-responsive and won’t be too big to read on a phone, where over 70% of your customers will first see it.
Another critical point is deliverability. This is a measure of how many of your marketing emails will actually arrive where they’re intended to go. No matter how well-crafted your campaign, if you send it out as a mass broadcast (and you will) it runs the risk of being flagged as spam. Make sure to choose a tool that will get you past the most overactive spam filters.
Finally, yes, price should absolutely factor in. The most important thing here is not necessarily to always choose the cheapest subscription: you might miss the perfect tool for you that way. Rather, you should choose one that your business budget can handle. Use the size of your business — both right now, and the size you’re hoping to grow to — as a benchmark for how much to pay.
If you want to know even more about the most powerful things you can do with email marketing in 2020, check out this helpful 10-minute video that’ll give you an idea of the best features to look for.
What Makes These Products Different From Each Other?
Lots of the email marketing platforms currently available have suites of features that look similar at first glance, making the choice more difficult. However, with a little examination, major distinctions begin to appear, with reverberating effects on who they’ll be the best choice for.
One significant difference between email marketing tools is how the price scales based on the number of subscribers. Some tools, such as Constant Contact and MailerLite, specify how large your mailing list can be in their subscription tiers.
Others, like MailChimp, divide subscriptions by other features and change the prices of individual tiers based on your number of subscribers. Still others, like SendInBlue, offer unlimited contacts from the very beginning, but vary prices based on the number of emails you send.
Another important difference is that many of these tools are designed with specific target markets in mind. For example, Drip is aimed toward e-commerce, while ConvertKit is built for content creators, and Constant Contact works best for new business owners as they work to grow their lists.
As we mentioned above, not all email marketing managers boast equal deliverability levels. The good folks at Email Tool Tester ran tests over three years to determine which newsletter tools could claim not just high but consistently high deliverability.
In July 2019, MailerLite scored the highest with 94.8% of emails reaching their intended destination, while Benchmark scored lowest with a dismal 41.8% (though this was an outlier — the next lowest was CleverReach at 79.6%).
Finally, there’s the size of the product to think about. Email marketing ranges from tightly streamlined services like MailerLite, to enormous package suites like Keap, which bundles email marketing with a complete customer relationship manager. Make sure that you don’t end up paying for something that offers way more than you need.
What else do you need before you get started with email marketing?
Choosing a service is just the beginning. Once you’ve settled on your platform, you’ll need a strong marketing plan to make use of it.
With those contacts on your list, you’ll need to write the content for those emails: welcome emails, thank-you emails, come-back emails, and eye-catching content related to your specific offers. Don’t forget the subject line is the most important part of the email — it’s all most people will see!
It all sounds a bit daunting, but don’t fear: a great marketing tool is the very first step. Without further ado, let’s look more closely at some of the best.
Our 6 Favorite Email Marketing Tools of 2020
Constant Contact’s website claims that everything about their marketing platform derives directly from their core mission: “to empower small businesses and nonprofits to grow customer relationships and succeed.”
Having been around since the early days of internet commerce in 1995, they’ve grown into a whole suite of products and played a major role in pioneering email marketing to become what it is today.
Constant Contact’s expansive marketing platform goes beyond simple mailing list management and email design. They boast a website builder that can create professional landing pages where your emails can send potential customers, along with a suite of features to enhance e-commerce.
Constant Contact aims to position themselves as the email marketer that makes sure your emails are branded — a goal that encompasses design, content, style, and product. Branding is the best way to stand out in a crowed e-commerce field, and Constant Contact aims to help your emails leverage that power.
Unlimited emails on all plans: This is straight-up great. The freedom and luxury of being able to send any number of emails can’t be overstated, and the fact that it starts at the lowest-tier plan makes perfect sense for a tool trying to be friendly to small businesses. In addition to money, it saves a lot of anxiety — no need to worry that you wasted some of your precious monthly messages on a newsletter that fizzled.
Library of design options: Much like the emails, this is a feature that all price ranges offer full access to. The huge variety of templates all look good, and it’s great that they’re mobile-responsive — even better that you don’t have to pay extra to use any template you want. On top of that, they still look good when filled up with your branded content. The library of stock photos is just as extensive.
Wide range of features: Constant Contact has done a lot of work to make their service into a one-stop-shop. With the addition of the page builder, the ease of getting native ads onto Facebook and Instagram, and the smart decision to partner with Eventbrite, a single subscription can create a heady buzz around your small business or nonprofit.
Anything you can’t do within the app can be accomplished with one of nearly 500 integrations, though it’s great that options like surveys and coupons are included in the editor so you don’t need to go third-party.
No free membership: You can put Constant Contact through its paces for a 60-day free trial, but once that’s over, you have to cough up. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that the price point compares poorly to alternative email marketing tools. These other tools’ price tiers rise much less steeply than Constant Contact’s at higher subscriber numbers.
Automation doesn’t stack up: Compared to the dynamic automation workflows that come standard with MailerLite, Drip, and others, Constant Contact’s autoresponders feel static, and aren’t very adaptable to a diverse customer base.
You can automate responses and schedule emails to be sent at certain times without your input, but the interface is cumbersome, especially if you plan a series of multiple follow-up emails.
Limited control options: You can’t create your own email designs, and in order to keep the templates from breaking down, you aren’t allowed to change them very much.
The rigid templates too often subvert that user-friendliness, leading to Microsoft Word-style frustration when design elements refuse to go where they’re supposed to. Advanced options like rule-based subscriber segmentation and A/B testing are similarly nowhere to be found.
Constant Contact offers two plans: Email and Email Plus. The price of each scales based on the number of contacts in your manager.
Both plans offer unlimited emails, access to full tech support, the entire library of templates and stock photos, all integrations except Eventbrite, all analytics, and the mobile app.
The basic Email plan starts at $20 a month and allows one user and 1GB of file storage. The price scales to $45/month at 500 subscribers, $65/month at 2,500 subscribers, and $95/month at 5,000 subscribers.
The Email plus plan starts at $45 a month, and allows ten users and 2GB of storage, making it the better choice for larger marketing teams. It also adds email automation, event management, and the ability to include coupons and surveys in emails. Price scales to $65/month at 500 subscribers, $95/month at 2,500 subscribers, and $125/month at 5,000 subscribers.
Starting at 10,000 subscribers, both plans cost the same: $195/month up to 15,000, $225/month up to 25,000, and $335/month up to 50,000. On either plan, you can save 10% with a 6-month deal, and 15% with a 12-month deal.
MailerLite is a newcomer to the world of email marketing, founded in 2010 in Lithuania, but they’ve already burst onto the scene with a major splash. This July, they beat longer-established competitors in a deliverability test, with 94.8% of their emails reaching their intended destination.
MailerLite’s focus is on being affordable and easy to use without sacrificing power, and they manage that balance well. Their main draw, other than the clean, enticing UI in their editors and list manager, is their “Forever Free” plan — a godsend for smaller senders, who can access a flexible suite of features without paying a cent if their subscriber list stays under 1,000.
Forever Free plan: This is the kind of plan that looks so good you’ll swear it must be full of hidden catches. But it’s not too good to be true — what catches there are stand right out in the open, and they’re not bad.
Most small senders will be happy to overlook unobtrusive MailerLite branding on their emails in exchange for free use of excellent page and photo editors, landing page builders, and, of course, unlimited email sends. Even if you scale above 1,000, $10 a month is not that bad, and it gets you all the premium features.
Wide variety of basic features: Your marketing plan is in good hands with MailerLite. In addition to tools for designing eye-catching emails and editing templates, you can use another user-friendly editor to build landing pages that keep people’s attention after they click.
Whether you want to capture their information in forms, take them through to your e-commerce store, or find out where they clicked or why they aren’t clicking, MailerLite has you covered.
Advanced features fall short: MailerLite is currently light on high-level features for in-depth marketers. Using a click heatmap as a premium subscription is a sign that they’re not building the service for users looking to implement a more complex marketing plan.
For example, one that includes a social media strategy, an area MailerLite doesn’t report on at all right now. Automation options also feel limited, with only very simple email triggers available.
Confusing segmentation terminology: While they mostly succeed at achieving user-friendliness, MailerLite’s use of “segments” and “groups” as terms with very specific, distinct meanings is a black mark. Segments are automatic and based on rules, while groups are manually tagged.
It’s not a huge problem but makes the subscription manager feel just a tad more hostile for newcomers.
MailerLite offers both Free and Paid plans at the 1-1,000 subscriber level. Above 1,000 subscribers, the free plan doesn’t apply — you’ll have to pay.
If you have less than 1,000 subscribers, the Free plan grants you unlimited emails per month, access to email tech support, use of the drag-and-drop, rich text, and photo editors, mobile-responsive email design, landing pages with unlimited traffic, forms, and subscriber management and segmentation. You’ll also have access to automated responses, A/B testing, analytics, and domain registration (though not unlimited domains). Your emails will have the MailerLite logo on them.
The Paid plan costs $10/month below 1,000 subscribers. If you go for it, you’ll remove the logo, and gain access to unlimited domains, live chat support, pro newsletter templates, and heatmaps to see where your emails got clicked.
Above 1,000, you’ll get all these features, and the price will scale as your list does. Up to 2,500 subscribers costs $15/month, up to 5,000 costs $30/month, up to 10,000 costs $50/month, up to 15,000 costs $75/month, up to 50,000 costs $210/month, and up to 100,000 costs $360/month.
You can get a 30% discount on any plan by paying annually. MailerLite does not have a free trial period because of their free plan, although signing up for the free plan includes 14 days of access to premium features.
Drip has a specific niche to fill in the email marketing world: they want to help you nurture leads into loyal returning customers by giving you complete information on every single action those potential customers take while in your sales funnel.
Want to know what landing pages your leads visit? What emails you sent that made them unsubscribe? Where they hang around in your e-commerce store before buying anything? What links did they scroll past? Drip knows it all.
The other half of Drip’s functionality is all about helping you act on these reports, using an extremely robust email automation system. For example, you could have different emails sent at particular trigger times to business owners who clicked through your landing page, individuals who opted into mailings on the first click leads who visit often but don’t buy anything, and so on. This is all organized by means of an intuitive visual interface.
A complete CRM in addition to an email marketer: No stripped-down mailer-only service, Drip offers a wide selection of options for nurturing customer relationships.
You’ll be able to tag leads and track interactions across your whole online business, from emails to landing pages to e-commerce, and keep track of it all without trouble thanks to Drip’s user-friendly tag system.
Unparalleled analytics: Once you’ve tagged your customers to create a picture of them and their behaviors, you can see every single choice they make on your site, from purchases to address updates. The key to making this useful is Drip’s wide range of e-commerce integrations that allow you to leverage the data across multiple platforms.
Automated workflows: Drip’s automation form makes autoresponders a part of each customer’s personal journey. If a customer is showing loyalty to one of your product lines, you can send him emails that heavily feature it. It’s an idea with a huge power to take your marketing to the next level.
Limited content design options: If you send your emails through Drip, you sacrifice a lot of design freedom in exchange for their analytical power. They aren’t nearly as interested in newsletter branding, and so you’re restricted to their approved templates — custom designs aren’t supported. The form builder has the same problem.
Steep learning curve: The analytics/automation connection, and how to build personal customer journeys with it, isn’t the most intuitive method of marketing. You’ll have to really know your way around tabs and autoresponders to get the most out of Drip — it won’t do the work for you, which can take time away from the rest of your business.
Forever free plan only works for 100 subscribers: This is a baffling decision since Drip is clearly geared toward businesses that already have a marketing engine going.
Nobody with only 100 subscribers needs the kind of functionality they offer, which makes this plan a bit of a bust, especially with competitors who offer richer free plans for more subscribers. Add that to Drip’s generally high price point and this is a drag on their whole platform.
Drip’s pricing scales based on the number of subscribers to your email list. They offer a Forever Free plan for the first 100 subscribers. Up to 2,500 subscribers costs $49/month, up to 5,000 costs $122/month, up to 10,000 costs $184/month, up to 15,000 costs $246/month, up to 20,000 costs $308/month, up to 25,000 costs $370/month.
If you plan to have more than 25,000 people on your list, check out the sliding scale on Drip’s own website here. Above 150,000 subscribers, you’ll move into an enterprise pricing range, where you’ll negotiate an account with Drip directly. You can also try Drip for free, at any subscriber level, for 14 days.
SendInBlue is a lesser-known, but no less worthy of consideration, email marketer that distinguishes itself in a few different ways. Their niche is efficient scaling, which they manage in a refreshing way: instead of charging by subscriber growth, they charge based on how many total emails you send per month, and increase the price reasonably at each tier. They’re also the service that’s put the most work into SMS marketing, a sector with a lot of potential.
SMS features: There are email marketing tools and SMS marketing tools, but combining them is becoming increasingly trendy. SendInBlue has made it a key feature, which definitely pays off for your business: hitting users on their smartphones is a demonstrated way to catch their attention.
It can also get responses more quickly than emails — people are generally more willing to reply to a text than to sit down and fill out a form.
Easily affordable: SendInBlue scores high marks on progress toward their goal of being the best companion for a scaling business. While this approach leads them to sacrifice some features that an enterprise-level marketing campaigner might miss, it does leave them exceedingly friendly to lower-budget customers who want to grow and would prefer not to repeatedly find themselves in new tiers they can’t afford.
Customer support: Usually not something to write home about, but SendInBlue gets consistent praise for having a great support team. Customer service happens through a knowledge center, a ticketing system, and through a weekly blog dealing with common customer issues.
They’ve got the best response times in the industry, and strive to be as helpful as possible (and usually succeed).
Occasional lack of information: A lot of SendInBlue’s functionality is purposely kept streamlined, but it doesn’t always sting, except when it comes to documentation issues.
Tutorials can be insubstantial, and it’s not always clear when important things — like customers interacting with your campaigns — are happening. Because of this, getting your first campaign started presents the biggest hurdle. Once you’ve done that, it’s smoother sailing.
Other missing features: What SendInBlue has works extremely well. Like above, most of our issues with it stem from things that aren’t there. There isn’t an easy-to-use workflow creator for automation, and A/B testing is likewise absent.
However, SendInBlue has shown a great willingness to respond to complaints like these. When customers complained about the limited number of API integrations on the platform, they responded by introducing several more, so it’s not impossible we’ll see the other things we want in the future.
SendInBlue’s pricing scales based on the number of emails sent per month, with the exception of their free plan, which imposes a daily spending limit. All their plans allow an unlimited number of subscribers.
As long as you send fewer than 300 total emails per day, SendInBlue remains free. After that, new tiers add both features and higher monthly send totals.
The Lite plan allows 40,000 emails per month, and removes the daily sending limit, for $25/month.
The Essential plan allows 60,000 emails per month, removes SendInBlue branding from emails, and features advanced analytics, for $39/month.
The Premium plan allows 120,000 emails per month and includes Facebook ads, landing pages, automation, and multi-user access, for $66/month.
Finally, the Enterprise plan remains unpriced but includes a dedicated account manager and infrastructure customized to suit your needs.
Paying annually grants a 10% discount on any of these plans. As a “free trial,” SendInBlue offers a 1-month 99% discount on any premium plan.
Whether it’s thanks to seniority, market saturation, or its own campaigns (such as its famous advertising blitz on Serial), MailChimp is the rockstar of email marketing. This makes it doubly important to closely evaluate their service on its own merits since popularity has a way of screening both good and bad points.
MailChimp is currently embarking on a wide-ranging campaign to build more functions on top of its flagship email marketing service. They’ve recently added a CRM module and a website builder, both of which are competitive with longer-standing services like Drip.
The size of their community is their other main distinction, with 6 million users including highly recognizable names like TED.
Recent feature expansion: More than just an indication that MailChimp is committed to continually improving, the new CRM and website builder are great features in their own right. Other benefits of MailChimp’s continuous iteration: contact imports are much sleeker now, and customer support has also improved (though you still can’t reach them by phone).
Improved automation: This deserves its own bullet point, especially as it’s MailChimp’s primary method of competing with Salesforce.
They’ve managed to make list segmentation both extensively functional and easy to use (without a single tree diagram in sight, even!), and the new automation feels like a natural extension of that.
Robust free service: MailChimp was an early leader in the Forever Free subscription movement, and their plan with 2,000 contacts and 10,000 sends was only recently undercut by MailerLite offering unlimited sends at every level. Their free plan also offers A/B testing and automation, which are almost always premium features of other tools.
Convoluted pricing: For most users, MailChimp’s prices won’t end up being that bad; unfortunately, it’s hard to tell if you fall into that group.
Scaling up prices based on both contacts (including unsubscribed contacts, a very recent change) and monthly sends gets complicated quickly, and almost seems designed so that you trip hidden fees. MailChimp is not for you if you aren’t prepared to pay very close attention to your numbers.
MailChimp limits both subscribers and send totals in each of its subscription tiers. The platform is free up to 2,000 contacts and 10,000 sends per month (note that this is all contacts, not just contacts who are subscribed to your lists).
Beyond that, the Essentials plan starts at 500 contacts and 500,000 emails for $10/month, increasing that price starting at 2,500 contacts.
The Standard plan scales to 1,200,000 emails, and adds social media targeting and additional users, starting at $15/month and scaling up beginning at 2,500 contacts.
Finally, the Premium plan grants 3,000,000 monthly emails and access to all features, starting at $299/month and beginning to scale at 15,000 contacts.
Another option is a Pay As You Go plan, where you purchase a certain number of sends in advance. Beware that you might incur charges if you go over this accidentally. MailChimp does not offer a free trial due to its free plan.
ConvertKit is the mailing list manager for bloggers and content creators. As a newcomer, they’ve worked to stand out in two ways: orienting themselves specifically toward the blogging market, and making the bold claim that they’re easier to use than MailChimp.
Is that true? ConvertKit definitely leans hard toward simplicity, at the expense of certain features. Let’s dive into what they do offer.
Easily understandable tagging: The tag-based list organization system functions very intuitively. Tag a subscriber when you see that they’ve taken an action, and you’ll be able to identify them later and easily set email triggers for them.
This makes for extremely simple segmentation and more effective targeted campaigns. For bloggers, a new WordPress integration makes this especially enticing, since you can tag users based on actions taken on your blog.
Excellent visual design: The automation sequence builder and landing page editor both offer highly appealing UIs. Automation, in particular, is handled by a graphical editor that’s leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Combined with the small number of templates, which some might consider a feature rather than a bug, this is the main evidence for ConvertKit’s claim that they’re easier to use than MailChimp.
Lags behind on customization: ConvertKit offers an unfortunately low number of templates, all of which are text-based. As a mainly blog-focused service, we understand why they didn’t feel the need to tilt heavily toward graphic design, but it still would have been great to have a few more templates and be able to do more with them. Forms are similarly limited.
Almost no A/B testing: Essentially the only thing you’re able to parallel-test is the subject lines of your emails, which significantly reduces how much intel you’re able to gather.
High price: It’s one of the priciest services out there at the low level, and while it’s got plenty of great features, they won’t justify the cost for every user — especially in their target audience of content creators, who usually don’t have as much money to throw around.
ConvertKit’s prices scale based solely on your number of subscribers — nearly all their plans have exactly the same features outside of the subscriber limit. The only other change between the tiers comes when you hit 5K subscribers, whereupon you earn the use of their migration concierge to get help importing your large list into their manager.
ConvertKit costs $29/month for your first 1,000 subscribers, $49/month up to 3,000 subscribers, and $79/month up to 5,000 subscribers. Anything above that requires a private quote.
If you purchase an annual plan for any level, you’ll save the cost of two months. ConvertKit also offers a free trial for any tier.
Now that you’ve seen some of the best-known tools on the market, how should you decide which one is right for you? You’ve got a good grasp now of what population segments each one is targeting, but we’ll run through it one more time in an easy-to-reference list.
If you want an email marketer that ties in other customer relationship management features, go with Constant Contact or MailChimp. Constant Contact is the best choice if you want to control the details of your branding, whereas MailChimp wins out when it comes to user-friendliness.
If you’re the data-geek sort of marketer, go with Drip. Their detailed reports will tell you everything you need to know to carefully calibrate your marketing plan to the individual customer.
If you don’t have much money in your budget for email marketing, pick MailerLite. Their free plan beats out MailChimp’s in almost every area, and their feature selection is as strong as many other tools’ premium plans.
If you’re a small business trying to scale, SendInBlue is the best option. As your business grows and you no longer qualify for free plans, their pricing scheme is by far the friendliest.
If you’re a content creator who already has a following, ConvertKit is the way to go. You’ll be able to stay engaged with the people who love your work, and the price will be a much more justifiable expense.
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