Email Marketing on Desktop and on Mobile (Image by Getty)

Email marketing is a fundamental tool in any digital marketing tool box. Working off existing contact lists to nurture and engage potential customers, email marketing combined with email automation can help keep customers engaged, track their customer journey, and boost sales. The popularity of email newsletters, which help companies and brands reach subscribers directly in their inboxes, helps ensure high visibility and engagement that few websites or social media properties can. Having a tool that can address email marketing needs is critical for any size of business.

What is Email Marketing Software?

Email marketing software can manage your contact lists, help you design and send compelling emails, and track whether these were opened and read. The good news is that it does not cost much to get started with email marketing, nor is it a very difficult undertaking. Many of the solutions in this roundup have affordable initial plans and some even offer onboarding services for new customers. The 10 products we’ve chosen also have a gamut of self-serve support and knowledge-base articles to help overcome common issues. 

As email marketing solutions go, we see a range of options from text-based template solutions that marketers can quickly make their own to more complex HTML or JavaScript templates. Leveraging email for marketing can take several forms, for example, some businesses might decide their most effective marketing tactic is a value-add newsletter delivered to a gated community of subscribers. Others might want to tie their emails directly to their product and sales engines, providing special offers and deals to recipients.

Each approach requires different tools when it comes to creation of the source email, dissemination to specific recipients, and integration with other back-end systems, notably the accounting system, the customer relationship management (CRM) system, and possibly even the inventory management system. 

Businesses can manage contacts by keeping a list of names and email addresses, or they can create a complex database full of subscribers segmented by demographic slices and engagement levels. Which method they choose really just depends on how much  budget is allocated towards the email marketing software solution.

Important Trends to Consider in 2020

Statista chart showing the growth of mobile internet access in the US for 2020 at 50.51 per cent (Image credit: Statista)

Various older email marketing solutions were designed to suit desktop and PC-based email clients, and as such the templates, as well as the entire design to click-through experience, has been refined for larger screens. While various email marketing vendors have also enabled viewing emails and newsletters on mobile devices, the shift to a mobile-first strategy has been slow considering smaller screens should not be an afterthought. According to market research firm Statista, for the US in 2020, mobile internet traffic made up a total of 50.51 per cent of all internet traffic (see above graphic).

More users are interacting with email on mobile devices, which means they can access emails throughout the day and wherever they are. Consider that smartphones have also evolved as mobile payment solutions and enable mobile purchases thanks to solutions like Apple Pay and Google Pay integration. This makes it even more vital to market on mobile by offering direct links to sales.

Squeezing desktop emails to fit on smaller screens is a sure way to get a dreaded unsubscribe request. Savvy marketers don’t only embrace myriad opportunities to launch their campaigns, they should also learn the rules of creating effective emails for smaller screens. Creating effective templates aimed at mobile users shouldn’t be that hard since websites and blogs have had to make the jump towards ‘responsive’ mobile designs, which look equally good on desktops or smartphones, or face the wrath of critical Google algorithms ignoring their sites completely.

Understanding how consumers use their mobile devices and the popularity of infinite-scroll experiences like photo and video sharing services Instagram or TikTok proves that consumers value images with impact and engaging animations over long streams of text. While text is still necessary, it is best to keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Email marketers now have the opportunity to create new sales opportunities as well as to tell cohesive brand stories across multiple platforms and they can kick these off with a well-timed email marketing salvo.

Marketers should also consider designing for Dark Mode, which has become a popular user interface (UI) convention adopted by desktop and mobile operating systems. Dark Mode mutes bright colors and makes text and images easier to read thanks to dark backgrounds, there is also a battery saving component to Dark Mode which makes mobile devices last longer by lighting up fewer pixels.

Finally, integrating social media links, elements, and hashtags in emails and newsletters can build a more cohesive marketing campaign that make email marketing the perfect launchpad for sales and customer relationship management activities.

The Role of AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) continues to be a major feature at the disposal of many email marketing solutions. AI improves email marketing mechanics such as A/B testing and smarter audience segmentation. This can have immediate benefits in terms of using machine learning (ML) to improve the efficiency of your marketing strategies for different customers and sending the right content to the right people.

Deployed properly, AI helps personalize email content right down to the individual customer level, depending on how much information you can feed it from your CRM and sales systems. AI delivers strong capabilities, which means determining exactly how a potential email marketing service has implemented AI should be key criteria for most marketers before purchasing.

In our email marketing software review roundup, we test the top email marketing tools available based on how easy it is to create emails, build subscriber lists, set autoresponders, and pull in other communication-based tools, such as social media management, and web analytics software. To that end, we selected Campaigner and Mailchimp as the best pure-play email marketing services for their focus and feature sets. If you need a more complex tool that can build comprehensive workflows designed to automate the email marketing process, then we recommend HubSpot and Salesforce Pardot, which are better served as complex marketing automation solutions.

The difference between them is quite profound. One-off communications versus prolonged, email-based interactions. For example, email marketing tools are excellent for one-off communications. You can use these tools for the one time you’d like to send someone an automated email response when they join a subscriber list, on their birthday, or when you promote a new product or service. But marketing automation tools are better suited for prolonged, email-based interactions or drip campaigns. This can include tracking the customer journey and tracking the various touch-points from contact to closing sale. Marketing automation tools offer tremendous capabilities whenever you want to guide someone from a subscriber list to a product purchase.

Email marketing solutions themselves are evolving and expanding into wider ecosystems. Products like Zoho Campaigns already feed into a larger range of services that include CRM, automation, and even social media integration. Editors’ Choice selection Mailchimp has built on its success as an email marketing juggernaut to expand into domain and website hosting to offer a complete marketing solution infrastructure to subscribers. Salesforce Pardot similarly enjoys the advantage of funneling into the larger Salesforce ecosystem. Consolidation within a larger landscape of marketing solutions is a definite trend we’ve seen for a number of years. This means selecting a solution shouldn’t be based purely on its capabilities as a suitable email marketing tool, but also how it can extend to cover a businesses’ overall marketing needs.

Surveying the Range of Solutions

The email marketing services we reviewed range from about $3 per month to send out 500 emails per month in Zoho Campaigns to as much as $1,250 per month for up to 10,000 contacts in Pardot. Many email marketing plans include unlimited email sends each month and bill you based on the number of subscribers. If you have a small list, then look for a company that offers a free plan, a low-cost plan for several hundred subscribers, or even a pay-as-you-go plan. On the flip side, many of these services also offer high-volume plans with up to 100,000 or more contacts. Sometimes this requires a custom plan that has to be arranged directly with a sales rep. If you’re willing to commit, then look for the companies that offer discounts if you pay yearly rather than monthly. A few also offer money-back guarantees.

Getting started shouldn’t be daunting. Generally, you’ll know right away whether you like a user interface (UI) or not, and most of the contenders we reviewed offer free trials so you can poke around before dropping any cash. Luckily, most of these services have modern-looking graphics and uncluttered layouts. These are not the complex business software UIs of yesterday. Be careful, though, as some free trials require a credit card. This means you need to be sure to cancel your trial before you’re billed if you’re not happy with the service.

Be sure to look at the tech support offered by each of these companies, as many weren’t as available as we would have liked. You’ll find that some offer 24/7 phone support, live chat, and email help, while others leave you to rely on online documentation and limited live support hours. The best services offer a combination of self-serve help resources—where you can search FAQs and articles to find your own answers—as well as live support via chat or phone when you can’t solve an issue yourself. We cover all of these concerns in our reviews, plus you can get an overview in the feature chart above.

SMBs just getting started with their email marketing might pony up the extra bucks for a white glove onboarding process which might be well worth the price for getting things set up quickly and properly the first time around.

Campaigner audience dashboard

Campaign Creation and Subscriber Management

Whether you already have an existing list of subscribers or are starting from scratch, email marketing services can help organize these contacts. All of the services we cover let you add contacts manually using copy and paste or by uploading CSV or Microsoft Excel files. Some integrate with third-party software enabling you to import Gmail and other webmail contacts, Salesforce and other CRM data, or other software where you might have contacts stored. Depending on the size and location of your list, third-party integration could be key. Verify whether you can export contacts as well (and how easy it is to do so) should you leave the service. Managing users who unsubscribe should also be easy so you’re not accidentally contacting anyone who has opted out of your newsletters.

Next up is building an email newsletter. The best services offer several ways to do this; you can import your own HTML, start from scratch, or use a predesigned template. Most of these services have drag-and-drop UIs that let you choose exactly the elements you want to include, as well as image libraries in which you can store assets such as your logo or company photos. Tools that let you test your emails for spam are also essential since there are some seemingly innocuous terms that may send up red flags and drop all of your hard work into your subscribers’ junk folders or, worse, get your emails banned before they ever reach their recipients.

Campaigns automation dashboard Graphic

Email Responders and Campaign Tracking

Beyond sending basic newsletters, the best email marketing services offer custom autoresponders, which help you stay in touch with your contacts with automatically generated emails based on special occasions (such as their birthday or anniversary), welcome emails for new subscribers, or thank-you emails for recent purchases.

The most advanced email marketing services offer custom workflows where you can specify triggers based on actions (such as opening an email or making a purchase) or on inaction (such as ignoring emails). With these services, you can also set up a series of emails (such as tutorials) to be sent to segments of users, and you can pause or stop a campaign at any time. You can also move contacts into new segments once they have completed tutorials.

Of course, sending out campaigns is no help to your business unless you can track your successes and failures and make adjustments based on your learnings. All of the services covered here offer some level of tracking, whether it’s simple open and click rate data, color-coded charts and statistics, or even integration with Google Analytics.

As a growing business, you may also be looking for a CRM solution, and you’ll find that the more advanced email marketing services have begun to crossover into CRM. It makes sense: Both types of software deal with managing and communicating with customers. A handful of these services are one-stop shops, either offering both email marketing and CRM out of the box or as add-on services.

In addition to A/B testing, many email marketing packages now offer multivariate testing, which involves using multiple variations of a campaign to test which one performed best. These features help marketers better shape future campaigns for success. Services that offer this feature include Campaigner and Mailchimp. Search engine optimization (SEO) is another factor to consider when implementing marketing campaigns for your organization. The right keywords can lead your subscribers from their email platform onto your website.

Whether you’re looking or a simple email marketing solution or one with full automation and advanced marketing capabilities, there’s never been more in terms of range and selection not just in terms of pricing but also for value added features and wider ecosystem integration. This makes email marketing one of the more exciting and dynamic segments of business solutions software and marketing tech today.

Editors’ note: Campaigner and iContact are owned by J2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.

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