Almost every marketer uses email to keep in touch with prospects and customers. To do that they use a bulk email system so they can send the same message to many subscribers, track who gets what message, who opens the emails and who clicks on the enclosed links.
There are many bulk email applications. They can all send high volumes of personalized email, track open rates, track clicks as well as manage bounces and opt-out requests. So which one is best?
We looked at ten options. Nine were software-as-a-service (SaaS) and one was a software application you install on your own server. We included the ARP Reach software application because we were familiar with it. We used it for years. It’s a great package. However we found it challenging to maintain the server and frustrating to depend on an IT person’s availability. Therefore we wanted to see if a SaaS package could meet our criteria so we looked at Campaign Monitor, ConstantContact, ExactTarget, HubSpot, iContact, MailChimp, MailJet, Salesforce.com, and VerticalResponse.
By a process of elimination we ended up recommending iContact. Here’s our review.
Our methodology was straightforward. We believe it was consistent with that of a marketer looking for a bulk email application.
We started with a list of email services that included the well known brands. We then added to the list by searching for lesser known providers. We reviewed each provider’s package as described on their website and, where possible, we telephoned the provider to get answers to specific questions. We eliminated many providers based on the answers to those questions. We tested those that were not immediately eliminated. Out tests primarily looked at email format, personalization of message, and ease of use. We did not test integration with a CRM application or 3rd party applications that may be required to make that possible.
Our review criteria included 5 assumptions and 5 comparison elements. We are experienced email marketers. Therefore some comparison elements were so critical to us we eliminated packages based on poor performance in those areas.
Email Volume: Our sales prospects are organizations, not consumers. We would only email people who opted in online (subscribed) or requested information by telephone or at a trade show. Therefore we would be sending emails to a “House List” that may reach tens-of-thousands, but not hundreds-of-thousands or millions. We’d likely send an email every 4 to 6 weeks to people who had not opted-out (unsubscribed.) We assumed we would have approximately 5,000 subscribers within the first year.
Disqualification: Salesforce.com’s Professional edition includes email campaigns but we disqualified it because it is restricted to 500 emails per day and because opt-outs had to be manually processed.
Email Type: We favor personalized sales letters, not generic newsletters. Therefore the arrays of fancy newsletter templates were not important to us. We wanted our emails to look just like an ordinary email one might get from Microsoft Outlook. Accordingly, the emails must appear to come from our web domain and replies must go directly to the sender. Additionally, the emails must not include the SaaS firms’ branding.
Email Sender: The list manager and the instigator of email campaigns would be a marketer, not a salesperson or IT person. Therefore, that person could learn how to use the email application, they could format a letter in HTML, but they were not expected to maintain a server.
Technical Support: We know that problems arise at the most inconvenient times. Therefore, we expect prompt telephone support.
Standard Features: We expect to monitor bounces, opens and clicks. We also expect the software to provide opt-in forms and to automatically manage opt-out requests. Almost all email applications offer these standard features. Some offer email forward tracking but this feature depends on the reader using a special button/link so we considered this nice to have, but not essential.
Ability to Contact: We assumed that a SaaS provider that could not be contacted by a prospective customer could not be reliably contacted by a customer with a problem. Therefore we disqualified SaaS providers if we could not find a phone number for them, if they failed to respond to our email/form inquiry, or if technical support was limited to forms and/or email.
Disqualifications: MailChimp, MailJet and ARP Reach were disqualified because we could not find a phone number and/or because support is by email only. We’d like to say they were immediately disqualified, but we did invest more time than we should have trying to get in touch. Campaign Monitor did call us, but their service was disqualified because technical support is by email only.
Salesforce.com Integration: We believe that every firm needs one definitive source of information about its prospects and customers. One well mainlined CRM system is critical to accurate reporting and therefore it’s critical to decision making. Reconciling multiple data sources is difficult, slow, and prone to errors. We chose the popular Salesforce.com as the reference CRM application, not because we expect salespeople to manage email campaigns, but because we wanted campaigns and responses to be visible to the team.
Integration with Salesforce.com was critical to our review. It did not matter which Salesforce.com package was required so long as a mail list could be pulled from Salesforce.com and bounces and unsubscribe information could be synchronized. In general, SaaS email packages that work with Salesforce.com require the Salesforce.com Campaign features so we used the Salesforce Professional edition as our benchmark. We did not consider Salesforce.com’s Pardot application because it’s in a different league to most bulk email applications and we thought it was prohibitively expensive in the context of this review.
In some cases additional software is required to integrate a SaaS email system with Salesforce.com. We were OK with that so long as integration between the three applications appeared to be reliable and the total cost was not completely out of line with other options.
Disqualifications: MailChimp reportedly integrates with Salesforce.com using Cazoomi. However, online reviews indicated that it did not work to the satisfaction of many users. MailJet reportedly integrates with PodBox, but the combined cost appeared uncompetitive.
ConstantContact was a finalist contender but online reviews indicated that integration with Salesforce.com did not work to the satisfaction of many users. iContact did much better in the integration reviews.
Price: There were differences in subscription rates and how SaaS providers calculated their fees. We were not particularly price sensitive because it was more important to have the features we wanted and because in the overall perspective of a marketing budget, email is not a big item. We anticipated a budget of $1000 to $1500 for the first year.
Disqualifications: MailJet, ExactTarget and HubSpot were disqualified because the pricing appeared uncompetitive with other options. These applications have valuable features, but we did not need all of them.
Piggyback Branding: Most SaaS email packages automatically include their own branding at the end of their customer’s emails. That piggybacking should be unacceptable to a professional marketer that’s paying to use their service. However, upon request most SaaS providers can change the settings to eliminate this piggybacking.
Disqualification: VerticalResponse said they could not exclude their branding from their customers’ email campaigns.
Deliverability: Almost all the SaaS providers promise a deliverability rate around 98%. That’s a great number because 100% is not realistic. Every campaign can expect some undeliverable bounces because subscribers leave, email addresses change. However, the SaaS marketers don’t commit to 98% deliverability to recipient inboxes. Our tests showed that until the sender was white-listed, emails were flagged as SPAM and were delivered to the junk mail folder.
One SaaS salesperson acknowledged our complaint but promised that inbox deliverability would be considerably higher for paying customers because their emails are sent from different servers. Apparently, the free trial customers are assigned to servers that have already been flagged by SPAM mitigation applications. And to be fair, many free trial users may send email that looks like SPAM.
Disqualifications: We could have disqualified all the SaaS applications that we tested. We didn’t disqualify any service because our test was limited to free trial accounts and we emailed our own addresses. It was not possible to conduct a more comprehensive test.
After weeks of reviewing the many bulk email options we ended up with three finalists: iContact, ConstantContact and ARP Reach. We decided to recommend iContact because ConstantContact and ARP Reach had some undesirable traits.
ConstantContact customers did not rate Salesforce.com integration very highly. At the time ConstantContact had an average 2 star rating from 17 reviews. Additionally, ConstantContact did not accommodate personalized subject lines. iContact had an average 4.5 star rating from 160 reviews.
ARP Reach is a great application and because it’s software, you buy it once and email as many subscribers as you like. However, we passed on it this time around because of the difficulties associated with server maintenance. Additionally, they did not respond to an emailed question about Salesforce.com integration.
About the Author
David X. Lamont is an accomplished marketer of IT products and a partner at Marketingsage, a PR and lead generation firm that specializes in marketing data storage, data management, and enterprise software products. He can be reached by email at blog [at] marketingsage.net. Fellow marketers and IT professionals are invited to join his network on LinkedIn and to subscribe to this blog (see sidebar).