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If you’re like me you’ve looked around a bit to find a good email service provider since list building is an essential part of being online. I’m certainly no expert but I do have a bit of experience with a few email hosting companies, and I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of good and bad when it comes to working with email marketing automation. Here is my experience with what I’ve found, what I like and what I think could be better. In fact, after “kicking the tires” on email marketing providers these 5 email hosting providers offer advantages that small biz owners should consider.
Balancing Email Features & Cost Vs Small Biz Needs
Email hosting is very competitive. That’s not surprising, but picking the best small business email service provider comes down to your needs for your business or blog. So I’m going to approach this from a different perspective than most email hosting reviews. Most reviews on email service providers will spew facts about pricing per list size or the best features of each email hosting provider based on pricing. Yes, price is important, especially when you have a limited budget. Price is still important as your list grows because the price goes up. However, features like integration with your website or e-commerce store play a factor.
6 Critical Email Marketing Criteria Small Businesses Need
There are other reasons for choosing an email service provider, even after the dust settles on the costs of email marketing. So, I’d like to address the obvious like price and features plus important criteria that as a small business owner you should consider.
These 6 criteria I think most small business owners juggle when choosing an email service provider for their situation. I certainly used these criteria when I was looking for the right email hosting for my business and websites. Criteria include price, integration, automation, support, intuitiveness, and delivery. There may be others but I think these cover most needs of small business.
Applying the 6 criteria to 5 email providers (Mailchimp, Active Campaign, Convertkit, Mailerlite and SendInBlue) is useful for choosing the best email provider or hosting company for your business.
Email Marketing Cost – The price of online business
First, price is the item everyone thinks about when looking for a good email provider. How much is email hosting gonna cost me? That is the immediate question. The 5 email providers in this article range from free to expensive. If I were to rank them in order of least expensive to most I’d rank like this: 1) SendInBlue, 2) Mailerlite, 3) ConvertKit, 4) Mailchimp and 5) Active Campaign. Ok, don’t be surprised. On the one end of the price range, SendInBlue advertises free email with FULL features and charges by the number of emails rather than the size of the list. On the other end is ActiveCampaign which is based on list size and features selected. I go into why they are ranked as I review each one.
Drive more traffic to your online store using performance based marketing.
The point is this. I don’t suggest basing your choice of email provider solely on price or you could end up in a situation where you can’t manage your email marketing automation the way you need to.
Let me cover the rest of the criteria before going into the pros and cons of each email provider.
Email Integration – Indirect costs that could add up
Selling online means email integration with an e-commerce shopping cart in WordPress OR with a platform like Shopify, Teachable or Thinkific. (There’s a lot of selling platforms I haven’t mentioned but you get the point). The fact is that not email providers integrate directly with all online platforms. While many can be integrated through 3rd party applications like Zapier or Automate there is a minimum cost roughly starting at $20/month. Integration costs increase as your list grows. If you’re on a fixed budget looking at the long term, finding an email provider from the start that directly integrates with your website and selling platform without 3rd party apps reduces management and overall costs.
Email Automation – Features you need to grow
I could write a separate article on useful email automation features. Instead, I focus on how features, in general, impact you. Audience engagement means delivering what they are looking for either through your store or website. Knowing what your audience wants allows you to focus on what to offer.
Email automation that tracks audience engagement, interest and purchases should be part of your growth strategy. Automation that filters based on open rates, link tracking, if/then-else conditions, goals, purchases, or even feedback surveys are good features to have. It is much easier managing and segmenting an audience based on flexible automation features within an email provider. While there are many useful integration apps for email, ie I do use some, robust automation features that are simple to implement will always be my first choice because they are easiest to manage.
Email Support – Good support saves time and headaches
Free is good; we all love free until there’s a problem. Personally, good email support saves costly mistakes and a ton of headaches. Email list building is just one aspect of business growth. The sooner you move from free email hosting to supported hosting, the better you will be. Why? Free email hosting doesn’t mean responsive or even good email support. You can get decent email support using free email plans but it’s not a guarantee; most likely you won’t have support through online chat but will require creating support tickets with a minimum response of 24 hours or more. That’s a long time for email issues when your business depends on email.
I’m like you. I’ve used free so I get it. Once you can budget for email buy support through a paid plan. Good support can eliminate costly mistakes and keep email flowing.
Email Intuitiveness – Understanding how to maximize your list building
This is a bit of a pet peeve for me. Few email service providers dwell on this. However from a small biz perspective if the email administrative interface that you use to create email marketing automation and campaigns doesn’t make sense, run as fast as you can from that system. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you its the best email service provider ever created. The system has to be intuitive for you not anybody else. If you spend hours trying to figure it out or waiting for help on how to do something that’s a bad sign. You maximize your list by your content, not by trying to become an email guru.
Email Delivery Rates – You can’t grow if email doesn’t get to the inbox.
I learned this hard lesson a couple of times. My first experience occurred way back when I built my first website. I had online email support back then and through no fault of my email provider or myself, my email from my site was not getting to my test account. It went into directly into my spam folder because back then with shared hosting providers the email from spammy websites on shared hosting affected good websites since email was seen coming from a common IP address. Hard to believe but that was the explanation given to me.
A second scenario hit me about a year and a half ago. This is a common one that small businesses and bloggers still face. The email provider I used didn’t clearly explain how to configure the “double opt-in” feature. I incorrectly thought I had configured but had 80 spammed emails in 3 days subscribed to my list. Subsequently, my domain was blacklisted as spam by both search engines and other email providers. It took almost 3 weeks to clear up and 6 months to recover from. Needless to say, the support for this problem at that time was non-existent. I soon moved to a new provider where the admin interface made sense.
The point? Email providers that help keep delivery rates up are critical to your business. Good technical support that helps you avoid mistakes and keeps email delivery flowing into the inbox is essential.
Now let’s review 5 email service providers with regards to the criteria I’ve discussed.
Review of 5 Popular Email Service Providers
SendInBlue Pros & Cons
Price: A+, Integration: C Intuitiveness: B Support: C
PROS: Excellent low-cost pricing. Full feature set. Good automation workflow option. Automations for purchases. Could become a big player with time.
CONS: New, doesn’t directly integrate with much except WordPress. Slow support. Initial verification process is challenging too complete.
SendInBlue is a new player in email hosting. I was curious and signed up to “kick the tires”. I liked that they provided email automation features similar to Active Campaign automations at a surprisingly low cost.
Creating email forms and automations was straightforward. SendInBlue has features for email scheduling, purchases, and segmentation. However, their how-to guides aren’t very good and I didn’t find any videos.
I also didn’t like the tracking feature offered for WordPress; I tested it and noticed an immediate slowdown on my site. The overall interface looks like it was created and made for developers. That might turn away non-techies needing the features of SendInBlue.
I found their initial “validation” process completely non-intuitive. Since online support isn’t available for the “free” version I tried emailing several times. Email support never solved my issue. In their defensive, lack of response may have been due to testing during a holiday week. Plus, SendInBlue requires a 3rd party app like Zapier to integrate with sites like Teachable or Thinkific which might not be an option for some.
SendInBlue is a rapidly growing email provider. I will likely revisit their product because the features and costs are very good. While I think the product has strong features to offer I don’t think this email provider is built for the non-techie in mind and they need to integrate directly with e-com platforms to make it easier for non-tech folks to use their product. Still, if you need a low-cost email service provider alternative with a lot of features, SendInBlue could a choice.
Mailerlite Pros & Cons
Price: A+, Integration: C Intuitiveness: A Support: B
PROS: Pricing, Intuitive and easy form builder, Automation workflows
CONS: Sluggish admin dashboard, 2-day support response, Automation on purchases for Shopify or Woocommerce
I love and dislike Mailerlite‘s dashboard at the same time. The editor is effortlessly easy to use even for a non-technical person. However, the admin dashboard response is sluggish. In fact, due to the dashboard timing out a couple of times on me, it appeared like they were using Cloudflare as their CDN delivery for access to the administrative interface. I’d love to see them improve their CDN connectivity because Mailerlite is a nice low-cost intuitive choice as an email service provider for small biz startups or bloggers.
Setting up automations with groups and lists is straightforward. This email provider’s admin dashboard is a no brainer for the non-technical. However, I’m using the free version to learn the system, so I’d recommend getting the basic service to be able to use online chat and priority support. My reservation about Mailerlite is they are focused on Woo-commerce or Shopify stores. That forces the use of Zapier to connect to other large selling platforms like Teachable or Thinkific. I’d like to see Mailerlite improve segmentation features in the automations for handling online digital purchases.
Mailerlite‘s video documentation is quite useful and their email delivery is good based on my experience. This is a solid platform for the non-techie using Shopify, Woo-commerce or affiliate marketing as their business.
Convertkit Pros & Cons
Price: B, Integration: A Intuitiveness: B Support: A
PROS: Middle of the road pricing, Good integration for online courses and digital products, Improved Support
CONS: Semi-intuitive automation. Limited reporting functions.
Convertkit is another of those email providers where they have some amazing features while also having a few gaps for improvement. I like the Convertkit Admin dashboard interface. It’s easy to use and creating automation, tags, groups and email sequences is effortless. Their form builder is a bit limited. I can do more in the other drag-n-drop email provider form builders than with Convertkit.
On the plus side, their online support has improved tremendously. The initial configuration of Convertkit automations appears easy but in my opinion, that is somewhat deceiving. I’ve found on occasions where I thought the automation looked straight forward that it didn’t do what I planned it on doing. So I’d say the automation is semi-intuitive and online support is essential to address questions.
My other issue is with reporting and occasional delivery delays; I’d love to see better reporting of individual user responses like I do with ActiveCampaign. Still for the overall price Convertkit is by far the best option for course creators as it effortlessly integrates most online course creation platforms like Teachable, Thinkific, and Podia to name a few.
Mailchimp Pros & Cons
Price: C (PaidPlans), Integration: A+ Intuitiveness: B+ Support: A
PROS: Integrates with EVERYTHING, Full feature set. Good support for the non-free version.
CONS: The free version is VERY limited, the Admin dashboard needs to be updated. Needs improved reporting capability.
You might also be surprised at finding Mailchimp on the upper end of my “price” list of email service providers. My pricing is based on being able to automate emails and Mailchimp’s free plan doesn’t allow for that. As a result, their paid plans based on list size tend to be more expensive than the previous email providers listed.
Mailchimp was the very first email provider I ever used. I find it amusing that Mailchimp is the most well know “free” email provider out there. While I do like Mailchimp and am not inclined to bash them, the “free” version doesn’t provide much of anything other than connectivity and a list, and single email campaigns. The point of having an email provider is to remove manual management by using email automation. With the basic plan, you can get most of what you need.
Mailchimp hasn’t changed too much since those early days when I first started online. They are the defacto standard to which other email providers are compared. Plus, they integrate with EVERYTHING. You name it and they integrate with it. That and good support means that Mailchimp will always be a contender.
Their administrative interface is a bit outdated but it does get the job done. I’d love to see them update their admin interface and add more ability to track and segment based on purchases.
However, once your list begins to grow Mailchimp costs will rise quickly. Mailchimp will always be a contender because they easily integrate with so many platforms, their support is good and their drag-n-drop interface is easy for beginners. Plus, if you only send a few emails to your entire list the free version of Mailchimp is a good choice.
ActiveCampaign Pros & Cons
Price: D (most expensive), Integration: A+ Intuitiveness: A+ Support: A
PROS: Best support, Versatile workflows, Easy to understand, Strong integration and email marketing features. Leader in deliverability.
CONS: Pricy. The cost escalates rapidly with list size.
I love ActiveCampaign! The features, the support, and the deliverability are awesome. I dis-like the price; it by far is the most expensive of the 5 email providers but I understand why they are the most expensive. This is the Ferrari of email providers. It’s fast, has lots of cool features and the support is excellent. However, it might not fit into some small business budgets. There is a starting $9/mo plan that quickly increases in price as the list grows.
The admin dashboard is responsive and ActiveCampaign is the only email service provider I’ve worked with that provides a feature called a”goal”. This allows a subscriber to immediately drop out of a workflow once a defined “goal” (think purchase, link clicked, email opened, etc) occurs. That means subscribers don’t get stuck in automation and continue to receive emails on purchasing after they’ve met the goal. Their automation features of tagging, if/then logic, goals and “go-to” conditions make ActiveCampaign email automation the most versatile and powerful I’ve currently tested. Their support is the best I’ve used.
On the con side, their form builder isn’t quite as easy to use as say Convertkit or Mailerlite. To really create nice forms, I’ve had to add CSS which really isn’t an issue for me but might be for others. ActiveCampaign tracking of user’s email actions and user “flow” through email automations is also the best I’ve worked with. It’s clear and easy to understand where a user is in an automation and easy to move them manually or add them to a new automation if necessary.
With all the powerful automation features it is easy to get a little lost in the workflow but ActiveCampaign support is there to help. ActiveCampaign deliverability rates are also the best I’ve seen; they monitor email deliverability and are fairly strict about emails pushing affiliate links without providing valuable content. That keeps their deliverability rates high while lowering the probability of spammy emails coming from their systems.
For high volume or high priced online selling ActiveCampaign is a powerful choice.
I’ve discussed offer a wide range of capabilities for the small biz owner. I’m pretty sure one of them is perfect for you. It all depends on your budget, your website or store platform, the automation features and support you need. So I’d suggest you take a closer look at these 5 best email hosting providers and pick the one that fits your needs.
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