How to choose a small business email marketing system

I've heard, and tried to answer the same question more times than I've had haircuts:

“What's the best email marketing system for my business?”

and in typical consultant's fashion I answer:

“It depends”

Before I get the chance to explain what it depends on I get drowned out by a thousand helpful souls giving the names of their own choice of tool…

with zero context.

There is no “best tool” there's only the best for your situation, so I'm going to go through the more common candidates, all of which I've used in different scenarios.

The list is…

  1. Mailchimp
  2. Aweber
  3. ActiveCampaign
  4. Infusionsoft

To my mind the big criteria for choosing an email system are, in no particular order:

  • Budget available right now
  • How stable is your product offering (hi-tech businesses change products all the time, service businesses not so much)
  • How do you close a sale? Online checkout or over the phone / face to face.
  • How big is your list likely to grow in the next 2 years?

So, with those in mind, lets get going.

Mailchimp

Mailchimp is the gateway drug for email marketing. Lured in by the free price tag it is incredibly popular as a starting point, and so it should be.

It's designed for the DIY beginner to be up and running in minutes, and its popularity means it integrates with everything except the International Space Station (it may integrate with that, but it's not on ITTT or Zapier yet so I haven't tried it).

Mailchimp is great for sending out batch and blast newsletters to large groups of people at once, so if your business is run around events, or you have frequent new product launches, like a school teaching software tools for example, it's a good first step.

All those free tools and the free price tag mean that if you have a website, or even a domain name that you've not built a site on yet, you can start collecting email addresses NOW. Otherwise when the time comes you'll have nobody to talk to.

A hose or a drip?

The alternative to email broadcasts are the “drip” emails that get sent when someone signs up to your list, sent over a few days.

Mailchimp can do these, but on it's paid plan only, which gets quite expensive compared to some other solutions I'll get to in a moment. They call them “automations” but they fall way short of two other contenders in the list.

If this is the sort of marketing you want, read on…

Aweber

Aweber is a grandaddy of email marketing. A firm favourite of affiliate marketers because of it's own generous referral program, it's one of the oldest players in the “autoresponder” market. – email tools that can drip sequences rather than batched broadcasts.

With all the spammers about in the affiliate marketing world, you might think that Aweber would suffer problems with deliverability – your emails getting dropped into spam folders. Quite the opposite is true as they are very tough on allowing data to be brought in from other systems. As such it's hard to migrate to Aweber from other systems very easily.

Aweber has in to the first tier of what I'd call “automation”.

This is not just the ability to send a series of emails, but crucially to stop a series and start a new one when, for example, a prospect becomes a buyer.

This is done by moving contact records in and out of ‘lists', which can become quite messy, but lots of old school marketers made it work so maybe you can.

Overall, Aweber looks a bit dated and has fallen behind a lot of new players, but they are a solid business, not going anywhere soon, so they're not a bad first step, particularly if you are promoting affiliate deals rather than your own products or services.

ActiveCampaign

I'm a fan and I make no excuses. This is what I use in my own day-to-day business and a lot of clients businesses ranging from 1-man-band consultants to small businesses with a sales team of half a dozen people.

ActiveCampaign tackles automated emails really well. It has one of the best integrations I've seen, to tie it into tools like landing page designers, shopping carts and all sorts of other tools. The interface for creating campaign processes is also excellent and if you can draw your campaign on a whiteboard, you can probably build it in ActiveCampaign.

I have campaigns triggered by anything from signing up on a landing page, to watching part-way through a video. I even have a business card scanner hooked into it to send immediate follow-up to people at networking meetings.

Try it. It freaks the suits out 🙂

The starting price of $9 a month is simply ridiculous for a product of this level of capability.

Support has been really good at all stages, even during free trials, so if it looks a bit intimidating, just shout.

Ok fanboy rave over. Here are the downsides.

The design capabilities are nowhere near as slick as Mailchimp, but as most of my clients send emails based on great copy rather than good looks, that's not such an issue for me.

The forms designer is downright ugly, but I use tools like Thrive Leads and OptinMonster to pretty them up and do cool pop-ups and the like.

There is a basic CRM tool on the $49/month option which is good for 1:1 sales but doesn't really handle B2B sales with multiple stakeholders. If you are selling by phone to consumers, or small businesses with a single decision maker it's at least as good as something like Highrise and you know all your data is in one place.

They even have a neat Gmail plugin so you can look up and add contacts right from inside your day-to-day email activity.

The big hole in this tool is the absence of any sort of transaction data if you are selling online.

This means that working out the ROI on a given paid advertising campaign is challenging to say the least.

ActiveCampaign know this and conversations I've had with their CEO indicate this is in the pipeline, but it's a big project and will take a while to arrive.

Which leads us to…

Infusionsoft

Infusionsoft is the Marmite of email tools. You either love it or hate it.

Those who hate it call it “Confusionsoft” for its complexity, those who love it love the fact it has so much under one roof.

Essentially, take what I said about ActiveCampaign and add a checkout so you now have transaction data. This gives you far better visibility on where your sales are coming from and where your money is going.

If you are spending a significant advertising budget then this data is a must so you can optimise your campaigns.

But

With great power comes with great responsibility.

Think of a glider. Not much in the way of controls but a joystick and rudder pedals, and the panel is just speed and altitude.

Then think of a jet fighter. Buttons and switches everywhere and dozens of dials and readouts to monitor all the crazy crap it can do.

With the flexibility to do so much, comes the complexity of making all those decisions.

That's just a fact of life and comes with any flexible, powerful tool.

As a result, this isn't for the hobbyist and you need to be in a position where contracting with, maybe even employing, someone to run your system is a possibility.

The checkout can run a reasonable sized product line of at least a few dozen products, but it's not a pure ecommerce retail system in the way that Shopify or Magento are.

For a business selling a handful of information products, and spending a big chunk of change on advertising to do so, it's a solid choice.

There are also upfront costs.

Infusionsoft know they have a complex system and insist on you taking some initial consultancy to get you going. Somewhere around the $1500 mark seems about normal.

(The cynic in me whispers “sunk cost mentality”, but I won't be bitchy, if it keeps people focussed on achieving results rather than tinkering with new tools, than that's ok with me.)

It has good support in the sense that there are plenty of certified consultants who will help you out. I can't give any experience of support direct form Infusionsoft as I've always worked behind my client in this respect.

If you want to try something similar but without the upfront costs then you may want to look at Ontraport, which takes an honourable mention, but has had some turbulence with a major upgrade form their old brand – OfficeAutoPilot. If you are looking at it, make sure any reviews you read aren't before 2015.

Summary

So, the best email system?

There isn't one.

They all have good things going for them, and they all have drawbacks, but I hope this article leads you to the best tool, for your business, or at least helps you understand some of the questions to ask to get you there.