“The money is in the list.”
Those were the words drilled into my head when I first started figuring out this whole “online marketing” thing back in 2012.
And you know what? Not much has changed since then.
Email is still one of the best, if not the best way to reach your audience on a level that no website or social network can offer.
Your list is immune to BS policy changes…
It’s immune to reach-slashing algorithm updates…
And it’s even immune to animal-loving Google penalties.
The key difference is that you actually own your list, and, more importantly, you own the relationship you have with that list -- which is what makes it so friggin’ valuable.
And once that oh-so important realization sinks in, another one slowly creeps up on you. The facilitation of that list.
Despite how much emphasis I put on the ownership aspect of an email list, there’s one gatekeeper that should always be part of the equation.
I know you know the answer.
That’s right, your email marketing tool.
What Exactly Is An Email Marketing Software?
An email marketing tool is the engine that powers your list.
It’s responsible for everything from storing emails, sending emails, tracking emails, and in some cases, a whole lot more. (We’ll dive into the specifics of these shortly.)
Ultimately, it’s an end-to-end solution for email marketing, and it’s one of the few tools that are an essential component of any online business.
Before we get into the meaty stuff, let’s talk about some typical use-cases for email marketing and why any of this even matters.
Types Of Email Marketing Campaigns
There are a few types of campaigns that a reliable email service will allow you to send out to your list as a small business.
Let’s do a quick breakdown of what they are:
Often in the form of a welcome email or sequence that you send to new customers in order to familiarize them with whatever it is they have purchased or enrolled in.
Could be a new product announcement, a new blog post, an upcoming event, a webinar reminder, or maybe even changes within the company.
Almost always an email, or sequence of emails sent to new leads in order to prime them for upcoming promotion material. This could be a barrage of tips, a freebie, or even relevant storytelling.
Anything that encourages an action, or more commonly, a form of payment from the reader. A common example of this is a sales sequence, promoting the launch of a product.
Usually a very simple, one-off email such as a thank you email, payment confirmation, webinar registration confirmation, etc.
This isn’t a complete list by any means, but it does cover 99% of use-cases and will provide the basis of our comparisons throughout this post.
And that brings us to the actual tools...
7 Popular Email Marketing Softwares
Frankly, I could have added dozens of software to this list, but we’re all about deep analysis and I wanted to make sure we release this post before the next millennium.
So, I took what I believe to be the 7 most common, most popular email marketing software companies and proceeded to tear them apart.
The good news is most of them offer free trials so feel free to sign up for several of them of pick the one that matches you the best.
Here are the brave candidates:
Email Marketing Software “Must-Haves”
At this stage, you understand the different tools available and what they have to offer, as well as specific ways you might use these in your business.
Before we get into the comparisons, let’s kick it up a notch and talk about what you should actually be looking for in an email marketing software.
Unfortunately, as with most tools nowadays, there’s a ton of hype around flashy-featured solutions, and it’s so easy to get sucked in by gimmicks.
When it comes to email marketing software, there are really only a few key factors that’ll move the needle for you, and once you know what they are, you’ll be in a much better position to pick out the right tool for your business.
So let’s break each of them down, one-by-one.
System & Segmentation
The “system” refers to how the tool handles, and more importantly, segments contacts on a fundamental level.
Not all that long ago, this wouldn’t have even been a comparison factor because almost all email marketing softwares were list-based, meaning that each of your subscribers would be assigned to a single list.
The problem with list-based email systems is that it puts all your contacts under one umbrella, which limits the relevance and effectiveness of your communication to anyone on that list.
With newer tools implementing a tag-based system, it became infinitely easier to segment and target subscribers in various ways, by manually or automatically assigning tags based on contact behaviour.
Here’s a quick overview on the key differences:
List-based email system:
- Difficult to segment prospects effectively
- You’re forced to take a blanket approach with your emails
- List crossover leads to duplicate sending for some contacts
- Same subscriber on multiple lists are counted individually
Tag-based email system:
- Easily segment prospects based on contact behaviour
- Allows you to get super targeted with your emails
- Prevents sending the same email to multiple subscribers
- Subscribers are only counted once regardless of how many tags are applied
So, to compare systems, I’ll be looking at the ability to:
- List: segment subscribers effectively across different lists, for list-based providers
- Tag: segment subscribers effectively using tags, for tag-based providers
- Automation: use tags to trigger automations and set conditions (I’ll dive a lot more into automations specifically in the next section)
Granularity: get really specific with targeting options (bonus points)
ActiveCampaign utilises tags for everything from organization, automation triggers, and even conditional segmentation.
AWeber has now implemented a tagging system, though it’s still quite rudimentary in comparison to it’s competitors.
Constant Contact does allow tagging, but it doesn’t venture far from the basic functionality. It’s also not the most intuitive.
ConvertKit has built itself around the idea of being a tag-based system and, as a result, it works well for both segmentation and automation.
Drip is also very tag-focused with a strong emphasis on automated segmentation. Really impressed with it here, actually.
GetResponse offers a robust tagging system, especially in the way of tag-based automation. No manual tagging, though.
MailChimp uses ‘groups’ and ‘hidden fields’ for segmentation, but these are still not quite as efficient as tags. Overall very list-centric.
Easily one the most important factors in this entire comparison is “email marketing automation”.
This incorporates everything from drip campaigns (also known as autoresponders) to advanced automation triggers and conditions that take your email marketing to a whole new level.
Combined with a tag-based system, this kind of automation allows you to not only categorize subscribers based on behaviour, but also create intelligent campaigns that, when used properly, will literally skyrocket your conversion-rate.
Examples of email marketing automation in action:
- A contact visits your sales page but doesn’t buy, so you send out a follow-up email to bring them back to the page (and perhaps a mini Q&A to answer common concerns).
- A visitor subscribes to your email list but doesn’t open the lead magnet they signed up for, so you send them a reminder to download the freebie.
- A subscriber has been on your “list” for exactly 1 year to the day, and you have an automation set up to send out a thank you email (telling them how awesome they are).
- A subscriber reads a blog posts that ties in nicely with one of your products, but hasn’t yet bought the product -- so you a trigger an email sequence with the goal of pitching your product.
And those examples only skim the surface of what’s possible. Believe me, you can get SUPER creative with this in ways that’ll make your subscribers think you’ve been watching them. #creepy
So, in this case, you should be able to:
- Build: build your own automations quickly and easily
- Template: choose from templated automation based on common scenarios (i.e. send cart abandonment reminder)
- Triggers: offer various different trigger types to start any given automation
- Conditions: set conditions that allow you to split your automations and segment subscribers on the fly
ActiveCampaign is excellent for building complex automations, though I almost want to deduct a point for the sluggishness of the workflow builder.
AWeber offers very basic sequence automation, and while the builder is both fast and intuitive, it doesn’t allow for any form of conditional segmentation (only runs linearly).
Constant Contact is seriously lacking in the automation department. The best you’ll find here is the ability to set up a basic autoresponder.
ConvertKit offers the most user-friendly automation builder I’ve seen without sacrificing (too much) on functionality, though it’s not quite as flexible as ActiveCampaign or Drip.
Drip’s automation builder is both powerful and easy to use, and while it’s not quite as feature-rich as ActiveCampaign, it is a lot faster.
GetResponse goes a step beyond some of the other alternatives here, but the automation builder did feel a bit clunky at times.
MailChimp’s automation, like AWeber, only works linearly, which makes it very difficult (if not impossible) to create advanced automations.
Split-testing allows you to test close variants of different emails against each other, and this concept is utilized in virtually every form of marketing. (For good reason, it works.)
And while not every campaign should be subject to rigorous testing, there are scenarios, like during product launch sequences, where split-tests can lead to significantly more revenue for your business.
There are a few moving parts when it comes to running these kinds of tests, and it’s important your email marketing software is able to facilitate those things in order to really maximize the power of A/B testing.
In this case, you’ll want to be able to:
- Versatility: test everything from the subject line, the call-to-action and even a different design of the same email.
- Segmentation: run tests to specific subscribers based on prior segmentation. (Also helpful if you have a large list and you pay by the email.)
- Types: run tests for different campaign types, whether that’s a standard campaign or a drip campaign.
- Data: access to the right data in order to correctly assess a winning variant from each test (open rate, click-through rate, conversion rate, etc.)
ActiveCampaign allows you to split-test everything from campaign emails, autoresponders, and even automation workflows.
I was unable to find any way to run a split-test test within AWeber, even on a basic level. If it’s there, they clearly don’t want you to know about it.
Despite multiple requests from users dating back several years, there’s still no A/B testing functionality within Constant Contact.
ConvertKit lacks some functionality in this department. Currently — and only as of recently — it allows you to A/B test your email subject lines.
Drip does have some basic split-testing functionality built-in, but testing actual email content requires a complicated workaround.
GetResponse allows you to A/B test subject lines, the sender identification, delivery time and, most importantly, specific email content.
MailChimp supports A/B testing for subject lines, from field, delivery time, and content. I really liked it, but no support for split-testing automations.
You can’t generate leads without a form, right?
And while not everyone will rely on their email service provider to build capture forms, for now, we’ll be moving forward on the assumption you don’t have access to tools like Thrive Leads or Lead Pages.
Now, I won’t blabber on with this one since form building isn’t exactly rocket science, but I will clarify the core elements we’re looking for here.
- Simplicity: It shouldn’t require a degree to understand how to build the actual form (and visual form builders tend to work a lot better in that respect).
- Design: With third-party builders especially, it’s important to have control over the look and feel of your form so that it fits in seamlessly with your sites design.
- Functionality: Being able to create and test different form types - like slide-ins, overlays and popups - will help to increase conversions.
- Implementation: Building the form is one thing, but embedding that form into your page should be equally as smooth. Nobody likes a broken form.
- Pages: Allow you to build entire landing pages to capture emails (for bonus points).
Unless you’re willing to shell out for higher tier plans to get access to more form types and remove branding, ActiveCampaign is pretty weak here.
Just good enough to get by with, but given the quality of the templates and the lack of form functionality, I really wasn’t impressed.
ConstantContact not only lacks form types, but it gives you almost zero control over the look and feel of your form.
ConvertKit allows you to build different form types (inline, modal, etc), as well as entire landing pages. The design options are a bit weak, however.
Drip’s form builder allows for plenty of form types, as well as control over form behaviour and visibility. The design aspect could be better.
GetResponse had a surprisingly solid form builder and you can also build out full landing pages with it. No options for form behaviour, though.
MailChimp offers the ability to create general inline forms, embeddable forms and also pop-ups. The form builder was very “average”, however.
Email templates are not only HUGE time-savers, but they allow you to maintain brand consistency for every email you send out.
Again, I won’t go on about it because you already know why templates are valuable, so let me just give you a breakdown of what we’re looking for in this particular comparison.
To score maximum points, it should...
- Selection: Have a strong selection of email templates suitable for various different industries
- Design: Offer well-designed and professional looking email templates
- Customizability: Allow for moderate customization of any template to tailor it to your own sites branding
- Responsiveness: Offer email templates that look great on any device and any screen size
If you’re like me and you prefer the “raw email” approach that doesn’t require a template, you can, of course, put less weight on this factor as part of your decision process.
ActiveCampaign provides a reasonable selection of email templates, and the drag & drop email builder isn’t too bad either. Some hiccups here and there.
AWeber gets point for the sheer number of templates it offers, but I found most of them pretty ugly and the editor difficult to use.
ConstantContact delivers in terms of template selection, though I felt most of the design were dated. The editor was also surprisingly good though.
Very limited templates and customization options. You can hard-code your own HTML templates with variables, however.
Drip doesn’t even bother to offer a template library. Instead, you’ll need to code your own templates from scratch if you want anything fancy.
GetResponse comes loaded with a huge library of (actually half-decent) templates across various industries, though I found the editor a little hard to work with.
MailChimp allows you to choose between layouts and themed templates — which were all well designed. The editor didn’t let me down, either.
Most online businesses these days are built on a number of different tools and services, and it’s more important than ever that those components can communicate effectively with one another.
As it happens, email marketing is possibly the best example of why this is so crucial, and there are literally dozens of possible ways to integrate an email marketing software with different tools and services.
For example, let’s say you wanted to...
- Run a drip campaign to certain prospects within a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, like SalesForce.
- Add a relevant tag to target subscribers who purchased a product through a third-party shopping cart platform, like ThriveCart.
- Design a landing page with a third-party page builder, like Thrive Content Builder, and have your email marketing tool capture those emails.
- Run a competition using something like Gleam.io, and have your email marketing software capture those emails
In order to make any of that work, you’ll need an email marketing software that integrates well with popular third-party applications.
In terms of what we’re looking for, it should...
- Compatibility: be compatible with a healthy number of popular third-party tools and services
- Functionality: provide adequate functionality to make full use of each integration
- Extendability: ideally integrate with Zapier, which opens up integration with hundreds of other apps
Tracking & Reporting
This is something I tend to include with every tool-type comparison, and let’s be honest, no email marketing tool would be complete without reliable tracking and reporting built-in.
And I’m not just talking about checking your open-rates to make sure they’re up to scratch. While that is a good starting point, there’s potentially a lot more analytical data you can use to improve your email marketing effectiveness.
Some of these include:
- Opens by day/hour
- Subscriber growth over set period
- Email client report
- Automation reports
- Drip-campaign statistics
- And tons more...
These types of reports offer insights that allow you to make better email marketing decisions, like sending emails at peaks hours, and choosing the right A/B test variation.
So with all that in mind, the tool should...
- Tracking: allow you to enable and configure tracking across all campaigns
- Reporting: provide reports based on the tracking criteria set for any given campaign
- Filtering: allow you to filter reports to zoom in on specific areas and drill down on the data
- Granularity: offer advanced insights and more granular reporting (for bonus points)
ActiveCampaign let’s you really drill down into the numbers and offers plenty of visuals to go along with it. Again, it could be faster.
AWeber’s tracking and reporting offering was actually pretty decent on the whole. Very little on the automations side, however.
It’s not terrible if you’re just looking for standard reporting features, but if you like to geek out on campaign data, you’ll be a little disappointed.
While ConvertKit may not have the most advanced reporting of the bunch, it manages to stay true to its simplistic nature and I really couldn’t help but like it anyway.
Drip goes above and beyond with not only the amount of data you can pull in, but just how well presented and consumable it is as a whole.
A little basic, but GetResponse does have some interesting functionality here, including real-time tracking, smart reporting, and even ROI tracking.
MailChimp absolutely nails the visual aspect of their reporting environment, and it certainly doesn’t fall short on comprehensive data and interactivity, either. Some plan limitations.
Support & Documentation
The quality of support and customer service has long been a deal-breaker (or deal-maker) when it comes to choosing between competitors, and you guessed it, the same applies here.
Email marketing can be especially complicated when you start factoring in advanced automations, and for most people, reliable support is one of the biggest selling points.
My criteria for this one, is that each tool should...
- Options: have various support channels (i.e. phone, live chat, ticket system)
- Speed: have reasonably fast response times across all support channels
- Quality: be able to communicate well and solve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible
- Docs: offer detailed documentation that covers the most common issues users face
ConvertKit places a lot of emphasis on the quality of their support, even claiming to have a 1 hour, 14 min average response time. Live chat has also recently been rolled out.
Several support channels available including live chat during hours. No phone support and free plans do get limited support, however.
MailChimp provides some very thorough documentation within their knowledge base, as well a ticket-based support system and live-chat.
So now we’ve covered the crucial aspects of an email marketing tool, we can start to paint a broader picture of how these popular tools stack up.
The summary table below aggregates all the scores I’ve given throughout this article:
|Tools||System||Automation||A/B Testing||Form Building||Email Templates||Integrations||Reporting||Support|
One thing we really wanted to test with all the email marketing tools in this series was deliverability.
As you can imagine, this is quite a difficult thing to test and we spent a lot of time coming on with various ways to do it, but we eventually settled on two separate methods.
Here’s how it went down:
Method #1: Run Our Own Test
The most obvious approach was a run test with the same conditions across each email marketing software.
That means sending:
- The same email
- With the same template
- From the same sender
- A the same time
So, we took 7,000 of the most active subscribers on the Health Ambition email list, randomized the order, and divided them into smaller lists of 1,000 each.
We imported those lists of 1,000 subscribers into their respective tools and sent an email to all based on the exact same conditions (or as close as I could possibly get).
We allowed 5 days before checking the results, on which we used open rate as the determining factor.
Believe me when I say this was WAY more complicated and time consuming than it looks on paper, but we got there, and I believe the results were worth the trouble.
Method #2: Use An External Testing Tool
As we like to do here at Authority Hacker, we wanted to include another source of data to as part of our results — just to make sure we were being thorough.
That’s when we stumbled across GlockApps.
I don’t want to turn this into a GlockApps review, but the tool basically tracks your emails across various inboxes and reports back with a dizzying amount of data.
All we had to do was send the same email from method #2 to GlockApps provided emails, and it would track the deliverability.
As it turns out, it gave us a lot more data than we could have possibility retrieved from our own test, so we’re happy to have found it in all honesty. :)
While I could have overloaded you with data from the GlockApps test, I decided to pull out the core data points instead.
Here’s the comparison table:
Still Not Sure?
You can interpret both the comparison table and deliverability results however you like, but there’s still one thing we haven’t covered yet.
For some, keeping costs down is a priority, and choosing a tool that ticks the right boxes without being super-pricey is a better option. For others, having access to the best possible tools for getting the job done is the only thing that matters, regardless of price.
I’ll give you my personal recommendation in either case, but first, let’s kick this off with a price comparison:
|Tools||Free Plan||1,000 subs||10,000 subs||25,000 subs||50,000 subs||100,000 subs|
|No||$29 p/m||$139 p/m||$225 p/m||$299 p/m||$459 p/m|
|No||$29 p/m||$69 p/m||$149 p/m||$392 p/m||$792 p/m|
|No||$45 p/m||$95 p/m||$295 p/m||$335 p/m||$595 p/m|
|No||$29 p/m||$119 p/m||$199 p/m||$379 p/m||$679 p/m|
|Yes||$49 p/m||$149 p/m||$254 p/m||$429 p/m||$779 p/m|
|No||$15 p/m||$65 p/m||$145 p/m||$250 p/m||$450 p/m|
|Yes||$15 p/m||$75 p/m||$150 p/m||$240 p/m||$475 p/m|
Note: The table above represents the number of subscribers on the lowest tiered plan for each email marketing service, without any annual discounts taken into account.
Best ‘Value Email’ Marketing Software
Whether you’re a penny-pincher, or you’re simply on a tight budget, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a clear winner when it comes to email marketing tool
Despite the fact that MailChimp is one of the cheapest email marketing tools, that’s not actually why I’m naming it as the ‘best value’.
If there’s one thing the pricing comparison table doesn’t show you, it’s that MailChimp offers the most generous free plan.
Not only does MailChimp now include automations in this plan, but you can also send out regular campaigns to a list of up to 2,000 subscribers at no charge.
(Yes, Drip does have an attractive free plan, but it’s capped at 100 subscribers which you’ll have to pay $49 to maintain once you exceed that amount -- which won’t take long.)
Best ‘Premium’ Email Marketing Software
If cost isn’t a factor and you’re willing to pay a premium for the absolute best email marketing tool available, you probably know which tool I’m about to recommend.
Not only was this the most consistent email marketing tool across the board, but it’s also extremely powerful in the areas that matter most.
What I’m mainly referring to is the automations functionality, which gives you virtually unlimited control over how subscribers move through different automated workflows. This gives small businesses the power to email marketing that's as potent as Amazon's
As it happens, it’s also very reasonably priced, which makes it an absolute no-brainer if you’re looking to go hard with your email marketing.
Email Marketing Softwares (Reviews)
Now that I’ve compared the email marketing tools based on a number of different key factors, I’d like to finish up with a summary of each one.
Keep in mind, many of these tools have dedicated reviews, and these are more like “mini-reviews” that reflect my findings in this roundup post, as well as my own, individual analysis.
Note: we will continue to update this page as we publish more email marketing tool reviews.
From it’s humble beginnings as a Chicago startup back in 2003, ActiveCampaign offers an affordable way for business owners to stay in touch with their contacts.
Today, it’s a full-blown, intelligence-driven email marketing platform and sales CRM platform that revolves heavily around automation — ultimately giving users more power over their email marketing, with less work.
The company has become one of the biggest email marketing platforms on the market, and it’s also one that we — the Authority Hacker team — use on a daily basis.
Founded in 1998, AWeber has managed to hold a strong position in the market and currently benefits from a user-base of over 120,000.
Anyone who’s been in the IM game for a while will probably be familiar with AWeber, mostly because it was the the go-to email marketing for such a long time.
Constant Contact is the oldest email marketing tools in our email marketing series, with the first iteration of its software available in 1995, eventually taking its current name in 2004.
The tool is also owned by Endurance International, the same company behind large web hosting services such as Bluehost, Hostgator and JustHost.
ConvertKit is a blogger and creator-focused email marketing tool built by Nathan Barry, and it’s also one of the newer tools in an already crowded email marketing space.
The platform quickly gained popularity after getting the backing of influential marketers like Pat Flynn and Joanna Wiebe, as well as having possibly the boldest tagline in email marketing history...“The power of Infusionsoft, but easier to use than MailChimp.”
Drip is an automation-focused email marketing software, acquired by the guys behind LeadPages. It also one of the newer tools in this review series (entering the market in 2013).
Despite going up against very established and well-funded competitors, Drip has grown into what many would consider the leading email marketing platform around today.
GetResponse is another mature email marketing service and all-in-one marketing platform, with the first iteration of the software making an appearance in 1997.
Fast forward today, GetResponse is a fully fledged email marketing platform with over 350,000 customers, serving both small and large businesses alike.
MailChimp started it’s life back in 2001, and has since grown to a ridiculous 15 million customers -- making it currently the world’s most popular email marketing service.
The tool offers everything from sending emails, setting up automations and running targeted campaigns to your email subscribers, seemingly everything you need to grow your business with email.