What Is Email Marketing Software?
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Social media has radically expanded the options marketers have when promoting their wares. But at the core of almost every digital marketing campaign, you'll still find email. With a low cost to entry, numerous options to let you tailor a solution for your particular needs, and fantastic engagement numbers when done properly, email remains a marketing favorite.
Each of those tactics requires different tools when it comes to ceation of the source email, dissemination to specific recipients, and integration with other back-end systems, notably the accounting system, the customer relationship management (CRM) system, and possibly even the inventory management system. You can manage your contacts by simply keeping a list of names and email addresses, or you can create a complex database full of subscribers segmented by demographic slices and engagement levels. Which method you choose really just depends on how much of your budget you're willing to allocate towards the email marketing software that can give your company the features it needs.
Artificial Intelligence Has Arrived
If there was one key development for email marketing in 2018, then that was the addition of artificial intelligence (AI). While you might not immediately think of AI when considering an email marketing campaign, the technology has had several positive impacts industry-wide within a very short time.
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On a more basic level, AI improves email marketing mechanics such as A/B testing and smarter audience segmentation. This can have immediate benefits in terms of optimizing your marketing strategies for different customers and sending the right content to the right people. On a more advanced note, AI can actually optimize email content for specific audiences and product campaigns. Additionally, it can help with personalizing email content right down to the individual customer level, depending on how much information you can feed it from your CRM and sales systems. Strong stuff, which means determining exactly how a potential email marketing service has implemented AI should be a key criteria for most marketers before purchasing.
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In our email marketing software review roundup, we test the top email marketing tools available based on how easy it is to create emails, build subscriber lists, set autoresponders, and pull in other communication-based tools, such as social media management and web analytics software. To that end, we selected Campaigner and MailChimp as the best pure-play email marketing services. If you need a more complex tool that can build comprehensive workflows designed to automate the email marketing process, then we recommend HubSpot and Pardot, which are better served as marketing automation tools.
What's the difference between them? One-off communications versus prolonged, email-based interactions. For example, email marketing tools are excellent for one-off communications. You can use these tools for the one time you'd like to send someone an automated email response when they join a subscriber list, on their birthday, or when you promote a new product. But marketing automation tools are better suited for prolonged, email-based interactions. For example, you can use marketing automation tools whenever you want to guide someone from a subscriber list to a product purchase. Or you can send thank you emails or send new product promotions—all without having to lift a finger after the workflow is designed.
Packages, Setup, and Support
And that leads us right into understanding service pricing and packaging. The email marketing services we reviewed range from about $5 per month to as much as $20 per month for a range of features. Many email marketing plans include unlimited email sends each month and bill you based on the number of subscribers. If you have a small list, then look for a company that offers a free plan, a low-cost plan for several hundred subscribers, or even a pay-as-you-go plan. On the flip side, many of these services also offer high-volume plans with up to 100,000 or more contacts. Sometimes this requires a custom plan that has to be arranged directly with a sales rep. If you're willing to commit, then look for the companies that offer discounts if you pay yearly rather than monthly. A few offer also money-back guarantees.
Getting started shouldn't be daunting. Generally, you'll know right away whether you like a user interface (UI) or not, and most of the contenders we reviewed offer free trials so you can poke around before dropping any cash. Luckily, most of these services have modern-looking graphics and uncluttered layouts. These are not the complex business software UIs of yesterday. Be careful, though, as some free trials require a credit card. This means you need to be sure to cancel your trial before you're billed if you're not happy with the service.
Be sure to look at the tech support offered by each of these companies, as we felt many weren't as available as we would have liked. You'll find that some offer 24/7 phone support, live chat, and email help, while others leave you to rely on online documentation and limited live support hours. The best services offer a combination of self-serve help resources—where you can search FAQs and articles to find your own answers—as well as live support via chat or phone when you can't solve an issue yourself. We cover all of these concerns in our reviews, plus you can get an overview in the feature chart above.
Managing Subscribers, Creating Campaigns
Whether you already have a list of subscribers or are starting from scratch, email marketing services can help. All of the services we cover let you add contacts manually using copy and paste or by uploading CSV or Microsoft Excel files. Some integrate with third-party software enabling you to import Gmail and other webmail contacts, Salesforce.com and other CRM data, or other software where you might have contacts stored. Depending on the size and location of your list, third-party integration could be key. Verify whether you can export contacts as well (and how easy it is to do so) should you leave the service. Managing users who unsubscribe should also be easy so you're not accidentally contacting anyone who has opted out of your newsletters.
Next up is building an email newsletter. The best services offer several ways to do this; you can import your own HTML, start from scratch, or use a pre-designed template. Most of these services have drag-and-drop UIs that let you choose exactly the elements you want to include, as well as image libraries in which you can store assets such as your logo or company photos. Tools that let you test your emails for spam are also essential since there are some seemingly innocuous terms that may send up red flags and drop all of your hard work into your subscribers' junk folders or, worse, get your emails banned before they ever reach their recipients.
Email Responders and Campaign Tracking
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Beyond sending basic newsletters, the best email marketing services offer custom autoresponders which help you stay in touch with your contacts with automatically generated emails based on special occasions (such as their birthday or anniversary), welcome emails for new subscribers, or thank you emails for recent purchases.
The most advanced email marketing services offer custom workflows where you can specify triggers based on actions (such as opening an email or making a purchase) or on inaction (such as ignoring emails). With these services, you can also set up a series of emails (such as tutorials) to be sent to segments of users, and you can pause or stop a campaign at any time. You can also move contacts into new segments once they have completed tutorials.
Of course, sending out campaigns is no help to your business unless you can track your successes and failures and make adjustments based on your learnings. All of the services covered here offer some level of tracking, whether it's simple open and click rate data, color-coded charts and statistics, or even integration with Google Analytics.
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As a growing business, you may also be looking for a CRM solution, and you'll find that the more advanced email marketing services have begun to crossover into CRM. It makes sense: Both types of software deal with managing and communicating with customers. A handful of these services are one-stop shops, either offering both email marketing and CRM out of the box or as add-on services.
Editors' note: Campaigner is owned by J2 Global, the parent company of PCMag's publisher, Ziff Davis.
Featured in This Roundup
Pros: Customer support is easy to reach. Its user interface is intuitive and simple to use. Offers many beautiful templates and integrations. Thorough online resource center.
Cons: Free trial requires a credit card.
Bottom Line: Email marketing app Campaigner delivers plenty of advanced features along with a free trial for you to test run its email workflows, auto-responders, and marketing automation functionality.Read Review
Pros: Wealth of workflow features. CRM integration available.
Cons: Expensive. Workflows can feel limited. SEO features could use some work.
Bottom Line: HubSpot is a leader when it comes to marketing automation as well as email marketing. As the company moves further into sales and CRM, it intends to become the destination for all your customer outreach.Read Review
Pros: Tons of third-party integrations. Flexible Pricing. Helpful documentation.
Cons: Pricing can be a unclear. Reporting functionality could be better.
Bottom Line: Mailchimp is a long-time leader in the email marketing space, and should have everything your small business needs to launch and manage effective marketing campaigns.Read Review
Pros: Rich feature set. Unlimited automation branching. Easy to understand graphical branching functionality.
Cons: High price tag might be too much for smaller companies.
Bottom Line: With its wealth of features and user-friendliness, Pardot is one of the best marketing automation platforms on the market today. It's expensive, but it's worth the investment for companies that can afford it.Read Review
Constant Contact Review
Pros: A wealth of different templates. Intuitive and flexible editing module. Selection of commerce and event integrations.
Cons: Can get pricey once you have thousands of contacts.
Bottom Line: Constant Contact offers a generous set of features, including email automation and third-party integrations. Plus, it's easy enough to use for email marketing newbies.Read Review
Pros: Intuitive. Wealth of third-party integrations. Solid email marketing features.
Cons: Templates could be more modern. Free plan is brief.
Bottom Line: GetResponse offers an efficient email marketing platform with a comprehensive feature set, a plethora of integrations, and a free trial. While it lags slightly behind leading competitors, GetResponse is definitely worth a look, especially for smaller businesses.Read Review
Pros: SMS campaign functionality. Free plan available. Wealth of auto-responders and transactional email features.
Cons: Account setup can be a chore. Basic templates could use improvement.
Bottom Line: SendinBlue delivers a nicely featured email marketing solution, though we'd like to see some of its default template designs improved.Read Review
Zoho Campaigns Review
Pros: Free version available. Effective automation features. Solid auto-responder and workflow functionality.
Cons: Pricing information could be more clear.
Bottom Line: Zoho Campaigns benefits from a respectable feature set and the fact that it's part of the larger Zoho ecosystem. While it's not perfect and certainly not the most modern interface we've seen, it remains an effective email marketing solution for the price.Read Review
Campaign Monitor Review
Pros: Powerful email builder. Intuitive user interface. Auto-responders are helpful.
Cons: Contact importing is a pain. Lacks traditional support channels.
Bottom Line: Campaign Monitor comes up a little short when compared to the leaders of the email marketing space. But for those with more basic needs, it's an effective tool that includes robust marketing and analytics functionality.Read Review
Pros: Easy to use and understand. Highly customizable dashboards and auto-responders. Helpful task management features.
Cons: Reporting features could use work. Templates are limited. Expensive.
Bottom Line: Infusionsoft combines good analytics with an intuitive interface that's marked by easily customizable dashboards to help you track your customers and email marketing campaigns your way.Read Review