Back in 1999, email was fun. You sent dancing Irish leprechauns to your niece on Saint Patrick’s Day and forwarded Y2K emails to the other members of your grunge band. But since I became a professional millennial marketer—Mom, it’s a real job—I’m finding that there’s more to email than chain letters and e-vites.
Now, email is an amazing—if time-consuming—tool for anyone looking to build (and hold) an audience. According to a 2012 McKinsey study, the American workforce spends 28 percent of work hours on email. Last summer, late New York Times writer David Carr even declared an email renaissance: “Email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march.”
Luckily, there are tools for almost every type of email marketer. Mostly called email service providers (ESPs), many marketing automation tools double as email software that allows senders to build, test, optimize, send, and track newsletters.
There are hundreds of ESPs out there and not all are created equal; in addition, costs varies dramatically based on what you’ll need an ESP for. You’ll want to do a ton of research and demo a product before making a decision. But to get you started, here’s our breakdown of the top five tools on the market:
Price: Free to $2,650.00 per month, depending on the size of your database.
Pros: What MailChimp lacks in reporting, it makes up for in usability and cute monkey icons. The site is clean and full of user-friendly templates. It’s able to integrate with over 100 applications including Salesforce and Google Analytics, and has become even more of a serious player after releasing a full suite of automation tools.
Cons: Can be a little elementary; reporting tools could be more advanced. Unlike with other tools, it’s not possible to track a user journey in MailChimp (i.e., see which campaigns specific users are engaging with), which would be extremely valuable information.
Price: We-don’t-list-our-prices expensive.
Pros: Sailthru’s specialty is personalization. Whenever a user engages with your content, that person is cookie’d, which lets Sailthru create a personal email for each individual reader. Let’s say I only read narwhal-related content. Sailthru will learn that behavior and populate an email with content related to my narwhal interest. It’s made huge strides since joining the ESP scene in 2008, especially in the publisher space, gaining clients like Adweek, Refinery29, and Business Insider. The software is also great for programmatic email sending.
Cons: It’s pricey and was built as an engagement tool, not an acquisition tool. In other words, Sailthru is good for keeping friends but wasn’t made for making new ones. If lead gen is your game, you may want to look elsewhere.
Price: Starting at $895 per month.
Pros: It’s an extremely powerful tool, one of the first to truly help marketers crack the code on lead-source attribution. The email deliverability rate is solid and the drip campaign tool is set up for bursts of programmatic email targeting—useful for B2B marketers.
Cons: Thousands of companies use Marketo for marketing automation, but email marketing seems built into the platform as a second thought. Even though a newsletter is one of the best ways to grow a valuable audience, Marketo is not optimized for daily newsletters. And its template builder can be clunky, so you’ll need a team of stellar designers to code emails and deal with the interface.
Price: Starting at $199 per month.
Pros: This new-ish kid on the block focuses on automation as well as optimizing sales and marketing teams, and with enough investment, it can cover all of your needs as a full stack e-commerce tool. The tiered approach also allows users to take the menu approach to individual software tools (users can upgrade for sales automation and e-commerce tools).
Cons: Some users have complained about a weak email template builder and reporting system. And customers selecting a lower tier of service will not have access to email automation or e-commerce tools.
Price: Starting at $400 per month.
Pros: ExactTarget is a Salesforce stepchild—so by design, it’s well-integrated with SF—which is a huge plus if you’re trying to drive leads with your emails. It boasts impressive deliverability, programmatic features, social integration, and more. Although the company doesn’t publish frequently, its blog is full of helpful, relevant content (check out “The Rise of Subject Line Designers” or “In the Third Age of Email Deliverability, Engagement Matters“).
Cons: A lot of orange, and it offers more bells and whistles than you need if you’re just starting out.
Selecting an email service provider is like waiting in line for a cronut—you don’t know what flavor you’re going to get unless you do your research. With social networks siphoning off home page traffic, email newsletters have never been more important. We’ve come a long way from chain letters and e-vites, and considering most of us spend more time checking our email than we do with our families, you might as well make sure you’re getting the right ESP for all of your email needs.
But once you do, it’s time to party like it’s 1999.