The Best Email Marketing Services
- February 16, 2018 - We’ve re-tested the 10 most popular email marketing services to see if anything has changed since we published this review in 2016. Even after two years, we’re confident that MailChimp and GetResponse are the best email marketing services out there.
The Best Email Marketing Services
It’s easy to think of email as little more than a means of communication, but for businesses, email marketing is one of the most effective ways to grow an audience: According to a report by consulting firm McKinsey, email is 40 times better at acquiring new customers than Facebook and Twitter combined. And marketing research group eMarketer finds that email campaigns have a return on investment that’s more than four times the ROI of search, display, or social media. With more and more business moving online, the most effective marketers are paying increased attention to the ways in which email can be used to expand their reach, and to the email marketing services that will help them along the way.
Our favorite service for beginners is MailChimp’s Forever Free plan, a platform with intuitive tools and a slew of resources that are as comprehensive as those offered by some of the best paid services. Customizable email templates produce elegant designs while a simplified reporting dashboard makes it easy to analyze the performance of your campaigns. It’s missing the hands-on support of paid plans, but MailChimp’s extensive collection of learning materials provides more than enough information to get your marketing operations up and running.
If your email marketing needs require larger list sizes (think 2,000+ subscribers), we recommend GetResponse, a service equipped with features that will help you maximize the efficiency of your campaigns: A/B testing on emails and landing pages, tools to evaluate the likelihood that your emails will end up in spam folders, and customer support that won’t leave you hanging. The platform itself isn’t as intuitive as MailChimp’s, but once you get a hang of the system’s intricacies, you’ll be well-equipped to take on marketing challenges of any size.
How We Found the Best Email Marketing Service
There are hundreds of email marketing services to help you and your business engage with your audience, but far fewer have proven track records. And when you’re communicating with customers (or potential ones), you want to be sure your email marketing service won’t let you down. We set out to find the platforms that combine advanced tools for every stage of a campaign — from execution to analysis — with simple interfaces and resources to help you get the most from your email marketing efforts.
We looked at the top 10 services based on market share and general popularity, collected after scouring through reviews in publications like PC Magazine, Business.com, and Business News Daily, and consulting with nine digital marketing strategists. We focused our search on services that were geared toward small businesses and beginners — that means free plans and lower-tier paid options. If you need an enterprise-level service, chances are you already know what features you’re looking for.
The 10 email marketing services we tested:
- Campaign Monitor
- Constant Contact
After building lists, designing emails, managing campaigns, and poring over results for nearly 40 hours, we found that nearly all email marketing services offer the same capabilities: tools to help you grow your contact list, execute marketing campaigns, and analyze the results of your efforts.
The differences are in the details.
- Contact growth: We added individual contacts, copy and pasted groups, and imported files to find out how simple it is to build your email lists. If you’re just getting started with email marketing, this may not seem important, but if you’re migrating large numbers of subscribers from one email service to another, the ease with which you can import contacts will save you significant amounts of time and energy.
- List management: We created custom sign-up forms and segmented contacts into groups to evaluate each service’s ability to collect and manage subscribers. Unlike adding contacts yourself, list management capabilities allow the email marketing service to do this for you based on subscribers who opt into your mailing lists from your website.
- Email design: We tweaked templates and built emails from scratch, edited photos with in-service editors, and tested preview capabilities for both desktop and mobile platforms to ensure your emails are able to grab your subscribers’ attention at first glance. While most services offer simple drag-and-drop editors for designing emails and sign-up forms, capabilities vary: Campaign Monitor, for example, provides a variety of templates for sign-up forms but restricts the amount that they can be personalized.
- Campaign management: After compiling our subscriber lists and designing our email, we executed a test campaign using A/B tests and automation workflows. These tools allow you to find the messaging that resonates best with your subscribers and enables the service to follow-up with customized emails that keep customer engagement going.
- Reporting: In the era of big data, KPIs are a major component in optimizing ongoing business strategies. We looked at each service’s ability to analyze our email campaign’s performance using metrics like open rates, click through rates, and unsubscribes.
- Customer support: Some of the services we tested were extremely intuitive; others were far from it. If you’re new to email marketing, you’ll probably need assistance at some point along the way. We evaluated each service’s customer support tools, including live chats, FAQs, and resource databases that will help you manage campaigns both simple and complex.
“80% of features in all email marketing platforms are similar, but it’s that 20% that makes a world of difference.”
Where companies distinguish themselves is the features underlying these common capabilities: their ease of use, the resources they offer customers, and the level of complexity for each function.
Experiential qualities like clean interfaces, intuitive workflows, and advanced automation separated our two top picks from the pack.
Our Top Picks for the Best Email Marketing Services
We love MailChimp’s simple and intuitive user experience, error-proof campaign management, and analytics that together rival the capabilities of other companies’ paid plans. And if the past is any indication of its future, MailChimp’s services will only continue to improve: The last time we reviewed email marketing companies, MailChimp took the top spot despite missing some key features, like automation, in its free plan. Since then, the company that makes up just under 50% of the market has added all the capabilities it once lacked and more, re-establishing the simian service’s spot on top.
MailChimp wants customers to take full advantage of the robust service offerings that come with its free plan. This much is evident as soon as you log in, with links to helpful articles at the top of the page. The dashboard favors minimalism — a welcome sight after testing services like AWeber, which clutters the screen with tabs and buttons — and includes an overview of your contact growth, campaign engagement, and even more tips for expanding your lists.
We were pleased to find that all of MailChimp’s pages maintained this delicate balance between comprehensive detail and simplicity, with quirky messaging that made reading through each page engaging instead of taxing.
“Emails need to have an interesting subject line to grab readers attention, and once opened, should be visually appealing to entice engagement.”
Designing emails with MailChimp is easy at every level. For beginners with little-to-no design experience, MailChimp offers elegant and versatile templates that can be customized with a drag-and-drop editor, guaranteeing that you’ll find a preset layout or theme to fit your vision. If you’ve already designed the email you want to send or have an in-house developer, MailChimp also allows you to paste in custom code or import HTML and zip files. And for those users who are somewhere in between, all of MailChimp’s templates can be personalized by adding bits of custom HTML into the existing themes — it even includes links to an article on HTML email basics with best practices for design and development.
Sending emails with MailChimp is similarly simple. Upon creating a new campaign, users are given the option to create emails, ads (using Facebook and Google integrations), or landing pages to host sign-up forms or product pages; the latter was one of the key features missing last time we looked at MailChimp. When sending your campaign, MailChimp offers several useful functions to ensure your message goes out as you want it to, including a research tool that evaluates the strength of your subject line based on other customers’ emails (i.e. how likely subscribers will be to open it).
The system will also flag any incomplete areas of your campaign before it allows you to send it — for example, if you forgot to delete a generic text box left over from the pre-made template you used. This was one of our favorite features of MailChimp: measures to prevent you from experiencing the stomach-dropping sensation of sending an email that shouldn’t have gone out to your subscribers.
MailChimp’s free service now offers automation for email campaigns, a feature previously restricted to paid plans. This enables you to send emails for a variety of actions (like welcoming new subscribers or wishing old ones a happy birthday) without doing a thing yourself. More than half of the email marketing experts we interviewed said that automation was one of the key features to look for in an email marketing service, and its absence was one of our biggest knocks against MailChimp before.
With the addition of both automation and landing pages, MailChimp’s free capabilities now surpass the service offerings from some of the industry’s top paid contenders.
Given the robust features at the planning and execution phases of email campaigns, we had high hopes for MailChimp’s analysis and reporting — and we weren’t disappointed. Reports include all the standard performance indicators, but it also includes analysis pulled from the millions of emails sent through MailChimp. This enables you to see how your campaign stacks up against the industry average, a level of detail that’s rare among free services (other platforms like Elastic Email limit their reporting to just the basic KPIs, like open rate, click-through rate, and bounces). Add to that an integration with Google Analytics and an interactive map that shows where in the world your emails are being opened, and you’ve got a service that seems impossibly comprehensive for a free plan.
If it sounds like we’re going on and on with praise for MailChimp, it’s because it really is the best email marketing service available for free. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. As with any free plan, there are limits to the size of your audience. MailChimp’s Forever Free plan allows up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month, which will likely be enough if you’re a small business owner or running your own website. But if you know your business will be expanding soon (or if you already have more than 2,000 subscribers), this may not be enough to serve your needs.
Forever Free is also lacking when it comes to customer service. MailChimp provides all of its customers with extremely comprehensive articles, videos, and other resources to make all the details of your email marketing easy. But for customers on the Forever Free plan, that’s where the buck stops. There’s no phone number to call if you’re experiencing difficulties with your service, and email support is only available for the first 30 days of your subscription. After that, you’re on your own.
Both of our main gripes with MailChimp’s free service — list restrictions and a lack of support options — are resolved on its higher-tier plans. Paid customers gain unlimited emails sends and higher subscriber limits, as well as 24/7 email support and live chat during business days. Plus, these subscriptions add several useful features that will benefit anyone running an email campaign, not just advanced marketers. This includes previews of over 40 email clients so you can see how your campaign will appear in recipients’ inboxes, and comparative reports so you can evaluate the success of your campaigns side-by-side.
Even without these features, MailChimp’s free service is far and away the best email marketing service for the least, and has the capabilities to compete with some of the best paid services as well.
If your business needs exceed the limits offered by MailChimp Forever Free, you have a couple of choices: You can upgrade to a paid plan by MailChimp, which will work well for existing users accustomed to the platform, or you can opt for a paid email service made to accommodate more advanced marketing needs. Quite frankly, you’ll probably be happy with MailChimp either way, but if you fall in the second camp, we also recommend GetResponse, an email marketing service that boasts advanced yet intuitive automation workflows, exemplary customer support, and tools to help keep emails out of your subscribers’ spam folder.
GetResponse isn’t nearly as easy to use out of the gate as MailChimp, but the challenge of mastering its platform is made easier with extensive resources to help you learn, including a comprehensive article database, FAQs, research white papers, and courses on optimizing your GetResponse experience. These can be helpful for even the most advanced of email marketers, since best practices and updates on the latest trends will always be relevant in an industry that changes as rapidly as digital marketing. And if you do get stuck, GetResponse offers both email support and live chat options to keep you out of the marketing weeds — for all of its customers.
Once you do have a handle on the GetResponse platform, you’ll be equipped with all the tools you need to execute advanced marketing campaigns. Beyond list size — GetResponse’s basic plan allows you to send unlimited emails to 1000 subscribers, with the option to scale up according to your needs — many of the features that make GetResponse a veritable marketing assistant are similar to MailChimp’s: Both offer simple contact importing, drag-and-drop design tools, a wide range of templates, detailed analysis of your campaigns. But it’s the qualities of these features that make GetResponse stand out.
Automation workflows, which send pre-designed emails to subscribers after completing certain actions (like clicking a link or purchasing something from your website), aren’t exactly difficult with MailChimp, but after using GetResponse’s workflow tool it’s clear that the latter has found the superior way to automate.
Rather than relying on a series of commands listed one after another, GetResponse utilizes a more engaged and visual approach: Users drag and drop actions into the workflow, directly linking triggers and commands in a way that feels more like completing a connect-the-dots than setting up automated emails. This simplifies what can be an otherwise complex process and makes for one element of the GetResponse user experience that beats out MailChimp in terms of convenience.
Similarly, GetResponse adds another layer to the functionality of landing pages with A/B testing that can further increase the efficiency of your campaigns. According to McKinsey, “Customized landing pages — which send the user directly to the item or offer featured in the email — can increase conversion rates by more than 25 percent.” While minor, this feature demonstrates just another way that GetResponse has taken standard email marketing features a step further.
We were also impressed by GetResponse’s customer service. After finding an error in our account registration, we called the support line and were helped immediately by a representative who was extremely polite, understanding, and who never tried to upsell us. Maybe it was just compared to MailChimp’s lack of service options (email support is only available for the first 30 days of the Forever Free plan), but we found ourselves particularly grateful to have our concerns addressed promptly and personally.
It’s true, many of the distinctions between these services are slight, but GetResponse does include a few assets that you won’t find from MailChimp. These include a list hygiene tool that scans through your contact lists to delete duplicates or inactive subscribers, and spam scoring, a feature that assesses the information in your email campaigns to evaluate the chances that your message will end up in subscribers’ spam folders.
Both of these additions will help ensure you’re using your email marketing service to its fullest extent, with a focus on increasing engagement among your subscribers. Ultimately, it’s this attention to precision that separates our two top picks: While MailChimp is a great all-around workhorse, GetResponse’s tools are specifically designed to help maximize the efficiency of your campaigns.
Our Top Picks at a Glance
Email Marketing 101
The future of email marketing is mobile.
According to a 2017 study, 55% of emails are now opened on mobile devices, which means providing a marketing experience that works on both desktop and mobile platforms is more essential than ever. Both of our top picks include the ability to automatically convert your desktop designs into mobile-friendly formats, and most other major companies do as well — Whichever service you choose, make sure it provides this function so that your emails will read the way you want them to, no matter what platform they’re being read from.
Look for quality contacts over quantity.
It’s easy to assume that marketing success depends on the number of people you’re reaching, but an effective email marketing campaign also depends on the recipients themselves. That means you should regularly evaluate the quality of the subscribers on your lists to make sure they’re still worth engaging. After all, sending repeated messages to someone who isn’t opening your emails will quickly turn you into more of a nuisance than an asset.
Both MailChimp and GetResponse offer scoring tools to gauge the quality of your contacts, which makes it simple to determine who you should be contacting; used in tandem with automated workflows, you can easily set up segmented campaigns based on the quality of your subscribers, sending targeted messages to different recipients in order to increase engagement.
Focus on clicks, not opens.
While open rates are an important metric to monitor (how else will subscribers read the message you’ve so painstakingly composed?), click-through rates provide a much better reference point for email success. This data allows you to see the extent of your subscribers’ engagement beyond whether or not they opened your email, since we’re all familiar with opening emails just for the sake of marking them as ‘read.’
Different industries have different standards for email success, but CRM giant Salesforce says that a click-through rate over two percent can be considered good; under one percent and you’ve got a problem with quality — either your content or your contacts.