Email marketing is a core component of any digital marketing campaign and one of the least expensive, most effective ways to get your message out there. Building a mailing list is just one aspect of the process. These tools offer you a wide variety of additional ways to engage with your customers and subscribers at different points in the campaign.
A smart combination of email marketing, informative newsletters, and actionable landing pages, can give marketers a big arsenal of engagement tools all without breaking the bank. Modern marketers love the omnichannel approach and email marketing tools remain a key part of that. Multiple channels mean you’ll be able to launch your campaign not only over email but also using social media, direct mail, chat, and even SMS marketing on smartphones.
All these activities, however, are anchored on a consistent and thoughtful email marketing strategy. Having the tools and capabilities that match what your business needs is important. This roundup takes a close look at 11 of the best, but first some important considerations before you buy.
What Is Email Marketing Software?
Email marketing software can manage your contact lists, help you design and send compelling emails, and track whether these were opened and read. The good news is that it doesn’t cost much to get started, nor is it a very difficult undertaking. Many of the solutions in this roundup have affordable initial plans and some even offer onboarding services for new customers. The 10 products we’ve chosen also tend to have a gamut of self-serve support and knowledgebase articles for common issues.
Each approach requires different tools when it comes to creating the source email, dissemination to specific recipients, and integration with other back-end systems, notably the accounting system, certainly your customer relationship management (CRM) system, and possibly even the inventory management system.
If you’re a very small business, you can manage contacts simply by keeping a spreadsheet list of names and email addresses. But as your company grows, that method gets cumbersome fast. Using these email marketing tools you can easily create a sophisticated database full of subscribers that are segmented by demographic slices and engagement levels. That’s a key reason email marketing platforms are still so popular. Understanding exactly how you need to segment your audiences is the trick.
Important Trends to Consider in 2021
(Image credit: Statista)
Older email marketing solutions were designed to suit desktop and PC-based email clients. That means tools like templates and usually, the entire design process was meant to engage people looking at it on a fairly large screen. That’s changed now that many marketing tool vendors are touting a mobile-first campaign approach. That’s borne out by the numbers, too. According to market research firm Statista, US mobile internet traffic in 2020 made up a total of 50.51% of all internet traffic (see the chart above).
If users are interacting with email on their mobile devices that means they’ll be accessing emails throughout the day and wherever they are. Consider that smartphones have also evolved as mobile payment solutions thanks to services like Apple Pay and Google Pay This can make your phone a one-stop shop allowing that lets customers to go from marketing to purchase in a single session. This is a fantastic scenario for almost any business engaged in online sales.
The key features you need to be looking for here will show up in your email designer and in the analytics section of your email marketing service. The designer should provide at least a preview of how your email will look on a typical mobile device. A better option is to see how it will look on several screens of varying sizes, and even better will be a preview of the two main mobile operating systems, Apple iOS, and Google Android. The designer should also automatically render your email in a responsive format, meaning the HTML will correctly size images and other elements depending on the device that’s being used to view them. If it doesn’t do that, you’ll be forced to do it yourself, which means putting an HTML coder on staff.
On the analytics side, you should be able to segment your audience based on mobile device data, and this should be part of your default reports, meaning the ones that come included as part of the service. If you need to create custom reports to see this data, that’s acceptable but it’ll be a tedious process especially if you need to export the data to a third-party business intelligence (BI) tool to build the report.
Helping with that one-stop experience is CRM integration. You’ll find that the more advanced email marketing services have begun to crossover into CRM for exactly that reason. It makes sense: Both types of software deal with managing and communicating with customers. Some offer this functionality through integration while others actually have a suite of CRM features built right in. You just need to be sure those features will satisfy what you need from a CRM in addition to what they’ll do for you on the email marketing front.
And don’t forget your customers. Several years ago, email marketers began deploying user-generated content (USG) as part of their email marketing campaigns. The prime example of UGC is a user review of a product they just purchased, like those you’ll find under most product listings on Amazon. However, UGC can also take the form of social media posts or comments as well as comments in online forums, including your own support forums. It’s a deep well of potential marketing content according to market data from research aggregator, Statista, which says that more than 67% of online shoppers are factoring user reviews in their purchasing decisions.
Initially, UGC was viewed as a niche tool for digital marketing. But a recent study by Tint, a digital marketing publication, shows that as of 2020, more than 50% of email marketers rated UGC as one of their top user engagement strategies.
There are three main benefits to benefits to using UGC in your email campaigns:
Recipients are more inclined to trust it.
You have free access to it if your selling platforms allow it.
It’s a fast turnaround since you don’t need to create it from scratch.
The Rise of Text Marketing
Yet another trend that’s rising quickly is SMS marketing because it exploits an even more personal line of contact with customers and is obviously mobile-friendly. Consider that according to recent research SMS has a 90% open rate compared to straight email marketing, which tends to hover between 20-25%. That’s a compelling difference and it’s one that’s making marketers flock to platforms that support it. Email marketing vendors that have it right now include the likes of GetResponse and Mailchimp among others.
But hitting customers up through a channel they trust and one that’s usually used mainly by friends and family is risky. Some might react badly no matter what, but all of them will want to hit the dreaded unsubscribe request if they suddenly start getting incessant SMS messages from people or organizations they don’t even know. Sure, chat and SMS are exciting new channels, but they’re also something you should use wisely. However, that goes for regular email outreach, too.
“It’s important to vary the content that you use in your email marketing programs. It’s easy to get into the habit of constant emails about sales or special offers,” said David Tiberia, VP Analytics of Bluewater, a leading digital marketing agency. “Unfortunately, too frequent emailing or too many sales offers can lead to customers ignoring your emails or unsubscribing altogether.”
Savvy marketers don’t simply jump on new channels like mobile or SMS. They carefully consider the form those portions of their campaigns should take and what the rules are around creating effective content, especially if it’s headed for smaller screens.
And before you dismiss standard emails as boring, know that there’s still innovation happening in this medium. Take GetResponse as an example. It’s actually built a one-button live chat feature you can incorporate directly into your emails. So a customer can go from reading an email to having direct interaction with sales or support people in a single experience.
Another area for email innovation is the steadily rising trend towards third-party e-commerce integration. You’ll find this in several of our contenders, including Editors’ Choice winner, Mailchimp. These email marketing services generally offer several separate but compatible services such that when you combine them allow you to create a store, process payments, and move it all along with dedicated marketing and sales tools.
The Rise of AI Marketing
Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a big part of many digital marketing efforts, especially email. AI improves email marketing mechanics such as A/B testing and smarter audience segmentation. This can help you almost immediately since it quickly improves efficiency and lets you make better strategic decisions around building the right kind of campaign for different kinds of customers.
AI can also help personalize email content right down to the individual customer level, depending on how much information you can feed it from your CRM and sales systems. With the right data, AI can choose different kinds of content, modify customer experiences on the fly, and even interact directly with customers via an AI-enabled natural-language chatbot. If any of that sounds attractive, you need to look very closely at how a prospective email marketing service has implemented AI and what kinds of features it offers.
Recommended by Our Editors
Another area where AI can help is with the marketing automation capabilities that most of these email suites offer to some degree. Automation technology is best suited for prolonged, email-based interactions or drip campaigns. But an important aspect here is tracking the customer journey and the various touchpoints customers face from initial contact to closing the sale. AI excels in these scenarios since it can not only drill down to an individual customer, it can also process the same data for the huge customer volumes that top global retailers might get.
Pricing and Support
If you’re worried about your budget, you can relax. The email marketing contenders we review here have a very wide price range starting at about $3 per month to send out 500 emails per month in Zoho Campaigns to as much as $1,250 per month for up to 10,000 contacts in Salesforce Pardot.
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 also offer 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 details, too, since several 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.
Email Responders and Campaign Tracking
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’ve completed their tutorials.
Of course, sending out campaigns isn’t much help unless you can track your successes and failures so you can make adjustments quickly. 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. Once you’ve got some data on your campaign, you can tweak your content to see what works using features like A/B testing where one part of your audience gets an email built one way and another set of people get the same email built in a different way.
In addition to A/B testing, many services now offer multivariate testing, which involves using multiple variations of an entire campaign to test which one performed best. Services that offer this feature include Campaigner and Mailchimp. Search engine optimization (SEO) is another important factor for content and landing pages. The right keywords can lead your subscribers from their email platform directly onto your website.
Whether you’re looking for a simple email marketing solution or one with full automation and advanced capabilities, there’s a wide range of solutions out there and one of the contenders we’ve reviewed here should be a solid fit. You’ll see vendors that are focused on expanding their internal features while others are working to develop large partner and integration ecosystems. What’s the constant? Email marketing is the foundation and the starting point, which makes it a great place to start your digital marketing journey.
Editors’ note: Campaigner is owned by J2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.