Email marketing services are crucial for today’s small businesses. A technology research firm, the Radicati Group, projects that there will be nearly 5 billion email accounts worldwide by 2017. As if that’s not enough, businesses see an average return of more than $44 for every $1 spent on email marketing. These services are vital for managing and interacting with your customers.
This article is part of a series in which The Simple Dollar is doing some deep dive research into money saving tools that will help your business save money, grow and run more smoothly.
As your business is finding its footing, it’s important to make sure your overhead costs fall well below your revenue stream. Many of the best bulk mailing services offer limited, free email campaigns or trial periods in order to help you accomplish this. As your business grows (likely from these marketing campaigns), you can opt in to a paid service with more functionality and larger subscriber pushes.
The Simple Dollar’s Best Email Marketing Services
In this article, we’ll do a deep dive into each of the top email marketing picks followed by an explanation of important features you want to explore before choosing a provider. I’ve broken down the top picks into those with only paid services, and therefore more features, and those that offer continuous, but limited, free services.
Here are the five best paid email-marketing services:
Here are the two best free email-marketing services:
Make sure you’re thinking long-term when deciding on your provider. While some services provide tools to transfer you seamlessly from a free subscription to one with more functionality, each service is unique and you can expect to spend a bit of time getting used to nuances of each platform.
The Best Paid Email Marketing Services
All of the providers in this section require a paid subscription for their services. They often come with the ability to send more specific, targeted, potentially frequent emails to more customers at one time. This in turn sets you up to bring in more revenue more quickly.
AWeber has been in existence since 1998, the same year that “spam” was added to the Oxford dictionary. In the following years, the government cracked down on spam to help filter out these useless emails that would otherwise fill up end-users’ inboxes and detract them from reading legitimate messages.
Currently, AWeber has over 700 email templates, offers 6,000+ stock photos, and it costs nothing to get started with a 30-day free trial. There are no contracts; rather, you choose whether you want to pay month to month (starting at $19 a month for up to 500 subscribers), quarterly (starting at $49 a quarter), or annually (starting at $194 a year) for the biggest discount. Your subscription price will continue to increase depending on the number of subscribers you have. For example, you’ll pay $10 more than the prices above for up to 2,500 subscribers, or $30 more for up to 5,000. You only pay more as your business continues to grow.
They also make signing up for a subscription and collecting data a breeze. You can animate your sign-up form and customize its placement and the timing of when it shows up on your website. Within the form, you’ll collect names and email addresses and then will have the option of adding up to 25 custom fields, like location and birthday, that you can simply add using the drag-and-drop tool. Carefully think about what information will be the most impactful to have on hand as you build your campaigns.
AWeber also lets you send automated campaigns in specific pre-determined intervals to help build trust, drive sales, and maintain engagement. For example, you can deploy a program that sends an initial welcome email upon signing up, a special discount code a week later, and follows up two weeks after with the newest product line, blog post, or additional services. You can even automatically send a greeting on someone’s birthday.
AWeber boasts a 98% deliverability rate. Customer support staff is on hand seven days a week to take your calls and is also available for chatting and email inquiries.
Though there are a couple of small cons (AWeber is a bit pricier than a few of its competitors, and doesn’t allow videos to be embedded in your emails) this is a solid pick for any budding email marketer.
Like AWeber, iContact has a basic, free-trial plan that lasts for 30 days. From there, you can upgrade to monthly billing depending on the number of subscribers (up to 250 for $10 a month, 500 for $14.99 a month, etc.) or annual billing for 15% off the monthly rate. They also offer generous free services for North Carolina nonprofit organizations and 20% off for any nonprofits out of the state.
IContact also offers dedicated strategic advisers who work with you to develop your marketing goals. They’ll perform some pre-emptive research to determine what your competitors are up to and how effective your marketing is thus far, then they’ll test drive your current setup. After your first campaign, you’ll collaborate on the reporting results and pivot your strategy so it’s more effective.
iContact is one of the most invested and engaged email marketing providers that is still affordable. They’ll assist you with designing a custom template, creating the best sign-up forms, and even sending your messages for you if you’re in a time crunch. If you prefer to go it alone, the drag-and-drop Message Builder tool will let you create messages even if you have zero knowledge of HTML.
On the downside, iContact’s social media marketing tools are limited to Facebook and Twitter, so keep that in mind if your business uses other services such as Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Google+.
PinPointe is located in Silicon Valley, works with over 6,000 organizations from startups to Fortune 1000s, and continues to make a name for themselves in the email marketing world. They have an over 97% retention rate, which speaks volumes in a saturated industry with so many free competitors.
They have extremely flexible pricing models: pay-as-you-go per email (starting at $245 for 25,000 emails), a monthly number of emails, and a number of subscribers (starting at $49 a month for up to 40,000 emails to up to 5,000 contacts). Your purchased credits can be rolled over for up to 12 months, so the risk of overpaying is mitigated. If you go with the monthly rate and pay six months in advance, you get a 10% discount. PinPointe does offer a 15-day free trial, but it’s limited to 500 free email send credits. Otherwise, you’ll have access to all features.
PinPointe specializes in behavioral targeting based on a subscriber’s historical activity. A “digital footprint” is built for each and every subscriber, including which emails they opened, which links were clicked on, and when. After collecting that data and noticing trends, you can set up automatic campaign responses that are triggered based on the specific actions.
PinPointe syncs with Salesforce.com, is integrated with Google Analytics, and has an enterprise edition available for up to 200 users. PinPointe should be your go-to if you’re a B2B company. However, since its smallest plan has you pay for up to 5,000 contacts, it’s not the best pick for businesses with smaller subscriber lists.
Visiting Emma’s site alone is a breath of fresh air. You instantly recognize a sense of innovation, modern design, and functionality as you navigate through. It all started in 2003 with the idea to stop “blasting” and start connecting with subscribers and their clients.
Emma has six different editions to fit your needs:
- Professional Edition: Their flagship product, packed with everything you need for smart email marketing.
- Agency Edition: Perfect for creative firms and resellers.
- Franchise Edition: Designed for businesses with multiple locations.
- Nonprofit Edition: Fundraise, build relationships with volunteers, and launch events (with 20% off the bill).
- University Edition: To simplify your school’s communication strategy.
- Customized Edition: A solution built specifically for your business.
Emma starts by providing a personalized onboarding experience. This comes free with your monthly subscription fee. The fee is based on the number of subscribers (starting at $45 a month for 2,500 contacts), but has no limits on the number of emails you can send. There is a 20% discount if you prepay annually.
Emma has a free iPhone app that allows you to access your campaign results and share your successes with your team. They boast a Net Promoter Score (NPS) score of 70 (almost unheard of). If you’re not familiar with NPS yet, it’s a great way to gauge your customer relationships. Basically, you send out a survey to your customers and, based on the results, compute how likely your company is to be successfully referred to others outside of your customer base.
On a scale of 1-10, those that rate you between 0-6 are considered Detractors (i.e., not satisfied with your business and may speak negatively about it), 7-8 are satisfied but not ecstatic, and 9-10 are excited Promoters who are likely already out there promoting your business for you. The overall score (NPS) is the percentage of Promoters minus the percentage of Detractors.
If you’re looking for engaged customer service, proven satisfaction with their services, and stylish designs, Emma could be your girl. Note that its among the pricier options here, however.
Beyond MailUp’s free-trial period, they have a unique pricing system that depends not just on your number of recipients but also the speed with which your message is sent — quicker delivery is more expensive. For instance, emails to 5,000 recipients with a three-hour delivery time start at $49; a one-hour delivery time bumps that to $76.
Unless you have mass amounts of emails going out, they fall at the top of the price point as soon as the free subscription expires. Is it worth it? If you’re a huge, international company with a need for multi-channel marketing, I would argue yes. You can participate in email, social media, and SMS marketing all in one place with the ability to send messages to recipients in over 200 countries.
MailUp has been around for 10 years and counting. That’s a long time in terms of email marketing services. They began overseas and, after dominating the market in Italy, they expanded to San Francisco.
If your subscriber list is large enough to make it count, there are some valuable features. For instance, they have advanced filters that allow you to send targeted emails based on personal information (e.g., males between the ages of 21 and 35), historical location (e.g., spends every third month in Atlanta), and a granular level of previous activity (e.g., has opened the last four emails sent between January and March, and clicked on any link containing the word “bird”).
With seasonality being a huge factor in consumer goods, and the travel industry picking up again in recent years, having the ability to identify a customer’s location by IP address during both sign-up and over time is pivotal in making sure you’re marketing the right products to the right people.
MailUp also has a comprehensive application programming interface (API) that allows you to integrate your CRM, CMS, ERP, or e-commerce system with their platform free of charge.
In addition to email marketing services, they also offer social media and SMS campaigns. With their SMS campaigns, they can reach over 200 countries. If you’re already there, or are planning to expand beyond the borders of the U.S., consider MailUp for the endless potential they offer your business. But keep in mind that MailUp is a pricey pick for smaller operations.
The Best Free Email Marketing Services
MailChimp is an email marketing powerhouse, sending billions of emails each month. They also offer a Forever Free Plan for up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month.
The free service lacks some functionality like auto-responding, tools to get your emails through spam filters, and unlimited emails; however, you simply can’t beat the price. With 7 million users, their website and services are extremely user-friendly.
They have a mobile application that’s accessible on both iPhones and Androids. It gives you direct access to your campaign reports and, once a campaign has been set up on your computer, you can actually send it directly from the application. Meet someone who’s interested in your services on the plane? Add them to the subscriber list right then and there on your app.
MailChimp also integrates with Google Analytics, giving you a direct line of sight to the success of your campaigns in terms of revenue. If revenue without overhead is where your business is at right now, then MailChimp is a solid choice. As your company continues to expand, don’t be afraid to upgrade to the paid service for those invaluable additional functions.
On the downside, note that MailChimp has some pretty hefty acceptable-use restrictions, so make sure your business doesn’t run afoul of them (they bar businesses including pharmaceutical products, mortgages and loans, and work-from-home opportunities). Affiliate marketing is also on this list. Experts say analytics aren’t as robust as those offered by competitors, too.
INinbox is an affordable email marketing service. They have a Forever Free plan where you can send up to 20,000 emails to up to 2,000 contacts — with no credit card required. From there, you graduate to a $20 monthly plan for up to 5,000 contacts and unlimited emails.
They also offer automated welcome emails, unlimited custom fields, leads and sales conversion tracking, message personalization, free email templates, and Gravatar integration.
Globally Recognized Avatar, or Gravatar, is a small picture unique to an email address. It gives you an even more comprehensive look at your customer base, literally. You can click on any of your subscribers’ individual profiles that have a picture linked and actually see your customer. It’s a real benefit for you, removing the anonymity of your (potentially) thousands of subscribers that can, after a while, unfortunately become just another email address with linked data tags.
INinbox has also created INconversions, which tracks a recipient’s behavior in order to help determine the effectiveness of your campaigns. It works both in the inbox as well as the website. Great, they opened your email and clicked a link — but where are they going from there?
With INconversions, you can get an idea of how well you’re doing at directing your customers to the wanted action or location. If it’s not going the way you want it to, you now have the information to make some educated and impactful changes.
On the downside, INinbox used to charge only $3.95 for its paid service for up to 5,000 contacts; now, at $20, the price is more in line with some of the more feature-rich paid services profiled above. You’ll want to be sure you’re getting all the features you need with INinbox before upgrading to a paid service — otherwise, be sure to check out the competition.
Email Marketing for Business
If you’re not utilizing an email marketing campaign to grow your business, you’re missing out on a lot of potential revenue.
According to the iConsumer Global Research Initiative, email accounted for 40 times more customer acquisitions than Facebook and Twitter combined.
I’ve broken down the major components of email marketing services below. While mobile compatibility didn’t make its own section, don’t ignore the importance of that feature when it comes to the emails you send. There will be an estimated 1.93 billion mobile email users by the end of the year. As of late 2014, over 40% of emails are checked on a mobile phone.
First things first: Do you have anyone to send these emails to? You’ve got to build your contacts list. Depending on your provider’s capabilities, this can be done through multiple channels: uploading a spreadsheet, importing from an existing contact list, having a sign-up sheet at your physical store and manually entering them, or creating a subscriber link on your website.
Once you’ve got your list, you need to effectively manage it to make sure your information is current and appropriately grouped. Below, you will find a list of contact management features that you should take into consideration when selecting your provider:
- Create List: Start from scratch by either uploading, importing, or manually entering recipients’ information.
- Data Import Contact Lists: Import an Excel, CSV, or text file of existing contacts or upload new data over existing information.
- Integrated Interface Contact Import: Many databases like Salesforce, LinkedIn, and Gmail allow you to import all contacts into your list.
- Customized Data Fields: Customize the data fields in your contact records such as location, age, sex, birthday, favorite color, etc.
- Grouping Capabilities: Organize or segment contacts according to your custom data fields.
- Export Contact Lists: Export your contact lists to Excel or CSV in order to share or integrate elsewhere.
- Opt-Out Removal: Remove contacts from your list that have opted out of the subscription.
Second, what will these emails contain? Nothing will get your recipients to unsubscribe faster than filling up their inboxes with vanilla, cookie-cutter, irrelevant emails.
You want to find a balance between the amount of time you’re spending crafting the emails, analyzing the data, and doing the other million things that need to be completed.
Luckily, many providers have easy-to-use tools to help you create engaging emails:
- Customizable Templates: Select from a variety of templates already developed by the provider.
- Drag-and-Drop: Easily design emails using a drag-and-drop interface.
- Branding: Alter generic templates with the images, logos, colors, and fonts used by your company.
- Formatting: Modify text style, size, and color as well as background colors.
- Images and Videos: Add visually enticing images and video content to your emails.
- Message Personalization: Create emails that include the contact’s name or other personal information.
- Spell Checker: Check for typos within your email content.
- Mobile Compatibility: Code email to be easily readable when checked from a mobile phone.
- Sharing: Add share buttons so recipients can easily send to others or social-media buttons that allow your emails to be shared on social-media platforms.
Third, how will you manage who receives what and when? It’s important to have flexibility with your email campaigns and make sure the timing, content, and delivery are impactful.
There are quite a few campaign management features that will give you the flexibility you need, such as:
- Scheduling: Schedule the specific times and dates for delivery.
- Triggered Campaigns: Create auto-responding campaigns that are triggered by customer behaviors.
- List Filtering: Filter your contacts in multiple directions (i.e. location, age, historical activity, interests, etc.) to target specific interests.
- Alias Email: Create an alias email address to send email campaigns from one consistent place.
- Integration: Integrate the product with other software applications or websites.
- Website Update Campaigns: Automatically send emails when an RSS feed on a website or a blog is updated.
Analytics and Reporting
Now that the emails have been sent, what the heck are you going to do about it? Robust reporting is necessary for your success. You can continue to send email after email, but how are you going to make them count? The best bulk mailing services will provide plenty of insight.
Analyzing your CTOR (Click to Open Rate) is one of the first indicators of the quality and engagement of your email. A/B split testing, which is essentially sending multiple versions of the same campaign, determines which is more effective. This should be done with a smaller population before sending out any large campaigns in order to improve your odds of success.
Aggregate reporting is also an awesome feature. It may look great that you’ve had 100,000 emails opened in the past year, but how many of those have been in the past quarter and which campaigns were the most successful? You want to be able to show constant improvement and be able to address any negative results before they become an issue.
Many email marketing providers have put a lot of focus on creating customizable and impactful reporting and analytical tools to be used with your service. Below you will find a list of the most common:
- Campaign Results Notification: Receive a summary of the results of your campaign(s) including CTOR, click-through tracking, and bounced emails.
- A/B Split Testing: Create multiple versions of an email campaign and test to see which is more successful.
- Aggregate Reporting: Pull in multiple campaigns in specific timelines to get a better understanding of the health of your overall business.
- Bounced Emails: View how many emails did not arrive at the destination address, either from incorrect email addresses, full mailboxes, or spam filters.
- Dashboard: View your tracking and reporting data on an easy-to-read dashboard.
- Data Export: Export campaign reports and/or data to Excel, CSV, or PDF in order to share your results.
- Google Analytics: Add Google Analytics tracking to your email links.
- Industry Comparison: Compare your campaign results against your competitors.
- Geolocation Tracking: View the approximate location of your contacts.
- Sales Tracking: Track the number of sales generated by each campaign.
- Share Tracking: Track how many times your campaigns were liked or shared on social media sites or forwarded to additional recipients.
- Surveys: Tools are available to help you discover what your subscribers think you could be doing better.
Support and Learning Materials
Support and learning materials are important. At a minimum, you need a basic understanding of the functionality of the service. However, they are the least critical of this list.
Depending on your experience with email marketing, you may not need all of the items on the list below. Research outside of the host website as well by participating in forums or watching YouTube videos. There are a lot of people who’ve been right where you are who can give you invaluable firsthand advice. Below is a list of common support and educational tools:
- Email Support
- Phone Support
- Live Chat
- Live Webinars
- Video Tutorials
- Interactive Forums
- Knowledge Center
At a bare minimum, you should make sure you’re able to get a response from the provider within 24 hours. Whether that’s by phone or email, you need to be able to reach someone in a reasonable amount of time if there’s an issue with a time-sensitive campaign.
A great resource that should be used by all email marketers is the CAN-SPAM Act Compliance Guide for Business. You’ll find specifics on the established requirements of commercial messaging along with the consequences of failing to follow them. For instance, you can be penalized for using misleading headers or subject lines, or for failing to provide a clear option on how recipients can opt out of receiving your messages. Each and every email that runs afoul of this law can result in penalties up to $16,000 — ouch.
How I Chose the Best Email Marketing Services
After researching what solutions businesses were looking for in the best bulk mailing services, I created a list of these critical areas to make sure my research was on point. I then set out on a quest to find the best providers in those areas, which are described in the section above.
While some providers have additional bells and whistles, I wanted to be sure our top picks were meeting needs first and wants later. My first stop was consumer reviews. I read through dozens of detailed reviews and hundreds of suggestions from firsthand users.
Next, I visited other product comparison sites, then the actual websites themselves, to find both the most well-known and suggested companies based on reviews. I compiled a comprehensive list of the providers and separated my findings into paid and free services to take into account the initial budget of your business and differentiate the various features based on paid and unpaid services.
Similar to the Best Cloud Storage Providers post, I created a chart ranking the bullet points within each of the categories listed above (i.e. contact management, content management, campaign management, etc.). I gave specific components a heavier weight based on greater need within the market, which led me to the top picks you find here today.
The Best Email Marketing Services Deliver Results
Billboards and social media can do an excellent job creating exposure for your business. However, it’s virtually impossible to determine how effective advertising in the sky is, and social media has consistently proven to be less effective in creating sales than email marketing.
Email marketing is based on subscriptions. That means recipients have chosen to receive your email.
While you may be sending thousands or millions of emails each month to your customer base, don’t forget that they are an exclusive group who have opted to listen to what you have to say. Give them something of value and watch your revenue grow. For some step-by-step instructions, visit Saving Money in Your Startup – Part 4, where Joe discusses the four basic steps to setting up your business’s email marketing.
If you need help selecting other tools to help your business grow and thrive, don’t miss these other small business guides: