Email marketing is all about trying to stay relevant: sending the right message at the right time, and read by the right recipient. If you can’t hit that trifecta, your campaign will head to the trash without the slightest chance of being read.
Email marketing automation is hailed as the ultimate solution to staying relevant. And it seems to work, with businesses using marketing automation generating twice as many leads as those that don’t.
For a long time, though, only large corporations were able to benefit from automation. Automation software solutions were obscenely expensive, and smaller and medium-sized businesses didn’t get to play in that particular sandbox.
Now, however, things look a bit different.
More recently, a few affordable, cloud-based providers have entered the market, with cleverly-engineered feature sets that go well beyond a classic autoresponder.
In this article, we discuss just how powerful marketing automation can be for a business. We also look at seven different email automation software providers that are really making waves in the small-to-medium business market. So if you’re looking to transform your email marketing forever, read on.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Automated email marketing campaigns can range from really simple, to really complex. But don’t panic – this quick, 3-minute video will show you some real-life examples, to help you get a sense of what you might need for your business.
As you can see from the video, automation at its most basic level is really just sending an email (or series of emails) based on a simple action, like a visitor signing up to your mailing list. Most newsletter tools will be able to do this through their autoresponder feature.
What’s the benefit of doing this? Well, the theory is that, by signing up to your mailing list, the visitor has indicated some interest in your business. At this stage, it’s still too early to tell what exactly they’re interested in. An autoresponder campaign can help to nurture that interest further, and increase your chances of converting them into a customer down the line (see some examples here).
Slightly more sophisticated automated campaigns use the same principle of sending emails based on an action, however, the actions (or triggers) are a bit more complex. For example, it could be a contact who’s opened an email, or clicked on a specific email link (which might indicate their interest in that particular topic). These kinds of triggers allow you to send more targeted and tailored content.
This is when you start moving into real automation territory, and you’ll need marketing automation software to run these kinds of campaigns. However, if you don’t plan to set up anything more complex than this, you’ll find that the tools at the lower end of the price/feature scale will usually serve your needs. We outline some of these tools down below.
Professional automation is the really heavyweight stuff. It includes things like linking anonymous website data to a known contact, abandoned cart campaigns, contact tagging, lead scoring, dynamic content – pretty much any kind of automation you can think of, really! The sky’s the limit here, but of course, you’ll need a marketing automation platform that’s powerful enough to do this. We’ve also included a few options in the section below.
Still need a more detailed explanation on marketing automation? No worries – just jump ahead to the bottom of this page to our Automation examples section.
When assessing different software solutions for your business, you’ll need to what level of automation you’ll be needing, and, of course, your budget.
Here's our list of the top seven cloud-based email automation tools for small-to-medium business:
The following table summarizes the automations they offer, and pricing:
|Active Campaign||Get Response||Send In Blue||Bench mark||Omni Send||Mailer Lite||Mail Chimp|
|Website tracking||(very limited)|
|Prices (Cost calculator)||From $15/mo. for up to 500 recipients||From $15/mo. for up to 1,000 recipients||From $0 for unlimited emails. (up to 300/day)||From $13.99/mo. for up to 600 subscribers||From $10/mo. for up to 15,000 emails||From $10/mo. for up to 2,500 recipients||From $10/mo. for up to 500 emails|
|Trial version||14-day free trial||30-day free trial||Free plan||Free plan||Free plan||Free plan||Free plan|
If you’re ready to dive straight into the deep end of marketing automation, ActiveCampaign provides plenty to get your feet (and more!) wet. It offers enterprise-grade automations, at a SME-level price.
We’re talking about segmentation, dynamic content, site tracking, lead scoring – the full gamut of marketing automation. It even has an inbuilt CRM, allowing you to link up your sales and marketing data, and set up automations for sales follow-ups.
As you’d expect with such advanced features, ActiveCampaign’s pricing is at the higher end of the small-to-medium business budget range (5000 contacts are $89/month, for example). And it does come with a steeper learning curve than other software solutions, too. But is it worth it? We absolutely think so.
What we like: How powerful it is. If you’re really serious about running targeted, one-to-one campaigns to your contacts, it’s hard to go past ActiveCampaign.
Where they should improve: The tool itself can be daunting and takes a bit of time to get used to. It would be great if they could make it more beginner-friendly.
Recommended for: Larger businesses who need to streamline their sales and marketing processes, and have the time and resources to dedicate to running advanced marketing automations.
GetResponse is another fully-featured marketing automation tool, that’s perhaps most notable for its powerful automations in list management.
Like ActiveCampaign, GetResponse offers advanced automations such as triggered campaigns, segmentation, tagging and data updates. On its Pro plan, you also get access to a CRM.
There’s the added bonus of being able to create landing pages, and even run webinars, too. It’s a versatile tool, and highly recommended if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution. 5000 contacts will set you back $45/month with GetResponse.
What we like: The completeness of it – with its long list of features and integrations, it’s really possible to perform most, if not all, of your lead generation campaigns through this tool.
Where they should improve: Not a big deal, but the templates included definitely could do with a redesign. What is a big deal, however, are GetResponse’s less-than-stellar rates of deliverability. We hope to see an uplift in our next round of tests.
Recommended for: Businesses who want a solid tool that does automation well, and comes with plenty of extras too.
Originally a transactional email service, SendInBlue has evolved into a complete newsletter tool offering advanced marketing automation, at a surprisingly affordable price. There’s even a free plan that gives you access to its automations, allowing you to send up to 300 emails a day.
Automations include website goal-based campaigns, sales reminders based on custom triggers, lead scoring, and even SMS-based campaigns (for the US). You can also use its transactional email function to send emails such as purchase confirmations and invoices.
What we like: Its price point. You get a surprisingly decent amount of automations for the price you’re paying. To give you an idea – their paid plans start at $25/month for 40,000 subscribers.
Where they should improve: There are a few key features missing, such as A/B testing, and the ability to set up multiple users/logins. SendInBlue’s deliverability rates could also be improved.
Recommended for: Budget-conscious businesses who want to run sophisticated automated campaigns. It’s also ideal for online store owners, with integrations and automations specific to ecommerce. Plus, its transactional email capabilities also make it a good option for those looking to keep all their email marketing within the one tool.
If you’re only interested in running basic automations, Benchmark is a nice and easy option. With a very simple interface, it’s definitely one of the more user-friendly tools we’ve tested. Automations are also easy to set up, with a logical workflow editor and handy templates to get you started.
On its free plan, automations include autoresponders for contacts that have been added to a list (e.g. new signups), and date-based triggers (birthdays, anniversaries etc).
Benchmark’s paid plan gives you access to a little more, including triggers like email opens, clicks and webpage views. These let you run some pretty targeted campaigns, such as abandoned cart campaigns (which are also included in the automation workflow templates). 5000 subscribers cost you $51.99/month with Benchmark.
What we like: Its simplicity. By cutting out all the complexity, Benchmark makes an easy task of marketing automation, which is something a lot of other software providers struggle to do.
Where they should improve: Benchmark never do very well in our deliverability tests, which could have a big impact on the success of automated campaigns. We recommend doing your own tests to make sure this isn’t a problem for you.
Recommended for: Businesses looking for a simple way to set up some clever trigger-based campaigns.
Omnisend is an email marketing tool that caters to ecommerce, offering unique features such as email gift boxes, scratch cards, and integration with Google and Facebook ads.
Part of their offering also includes a range of ecommerce-specific automations. These include standard automations (cart recovery, order confirmations etc), but also more advanced campaigns (e.g. cross-sell, customer reactivation, browse abandonment).
Omnisend have a free plan for up to 15,000 emails a month (with a daily cap of 2,000 emails), with web tracking and signup forms included. Automations are available on paid plans only.
What we like: The automations editor is quite easy to use, with a simple workflow editor and some nice ready-to-go templates.
Where they should improve: While setting up ecommerce automations and simple autoresponders is pretty straightforward, creating advanced non-ecommerce automations (e.g. based on email opens and clicks) requires segments to be set up separately. It would be nice if these workflows were available as templates, too.
Recommended for: Omnisend includes an impressive amount of features designed to help maximize conversions and purchases, so it’s a top choice for those who run an online store.
Admittedly, MailerLite’s automation options won’t exactly knock your socks off. But there are two main reasons why we highly recommend it: 1) it offers a super-generous free plan for up to 1,000 subscribers (which gives you access to all its automations), and 2) it’s one of the easiest tools we’ve ever used.
Setting up automations is fairly straightforward, with a simple workflow editor that lets you set up multi-step campaigns. Automation triggers include email clicks, specific dates or anniversaries, contacts being added to a new group (e.g. new sign-ups), or when a contact field is updated. Actions that can be triggered include email sends, and moving contacts from one group/segment to another.
It also comes with a landing page editor and easy-to-edit forms, so it’s a solid choice for those looking to power-up their content marketing efforts on a low budget (5000 subscribers are only $30/month).
What we like: MailerLite is an email marketing provider that offers real value for money. Its low pricing, combined with its wide feature set and ease of use, is truly hard to beat.
Where they should improve: It’s actually pretty hard to fault MailerLite, if you consider how much they offer for the price you’re paying. It would be nice to have more templates to choose from, though.
Recommended for: Email automation beginners, or users who don’t want to spend a lot (or anything at all!).
Surprise, surprise – everyone’s favorite newsletter service also offers automations. It’s just another reason to love this charming and quirky email marketing provider.
MailChimp’s range of automations aren’t half-bad, either. You can send standard autoresponders, as well as more advanced campaigns with triggers such as blog updates, updated contact data, opens and clicks, etc. But they also allow for ecommerce integrations, meaning you can send abandoned cart campaigns, order confirmations and related product suggestions.
A couple of added bonuses – you can also build landing pages within MailChimp, and access some detailed reports, making it a versatile tool for running your automations. To give you an idea of their pricing: 5000 contacts are $50/month.
What we like: MailChimp integrates with hundreds of apps, including ecommerce, CRM, social and blogging platforms. It’s without a doubt one of the best tools for streamlining your email marketing processes.
Where they should improve: Unfortunately, MailChimp’s automation editor isn’t as easy to use or flexible as the workflow editors you’ll find in other email automation software. And unlike Benchmark or MailerLite, none of the automations are available on MailChimp’s free plan, meaning you will need to fork over a bit of cash to be able to try them out.
Recommended for: As we said, MailChimp offers a lot of integrations, but we think its MailChimp’s ecommerce integrations and purpose-built templates would especially benefit online store owners.
There’s definitely a clear winner among these email automation software providers: ActiveCampaign wipes the floor with all the others. Almost anything is possible with them.
GetResponse offers an exciting range of features, especially thanks to tagging and lead scoring being available right from the start. Site tracking is also available, which means that you can use certain website activities (e.g. a visit to a specific page) in your workflows.
And newcomer SendInblue also offers solid website integration, which will allow you to use website visitor data to automate your email marketing. Their prices are also enjoyably low.
MailChimp, on the other hand, does a few things right, but feels unnecessarily complicated due to the missing workflow view. Their system is also very inflexible when it comes to changing existing workflows.
Still not sure how automation could work for you? In order to make the topic a bit easier to digest, let’s divide it into three categories:
These are basically automation solutions for beginners – almost any newsletter tool should be able to handle this, no questions asked. So, nothing new to report here.
This refers to an automated series of emails which are sent according to a predetermined schedule. For instance, take a potential customer who downloads a fitness app and fills out a registration form in order to use it. A day later, he will receive an email with information on how to use the app. On day two, you send him workout plans. And on day three, you follow up with diet plans, and so on. All you have to do is get the sequence started, that’s it.
Fig. 1: A traditional auto-responder feature in MailChimp
These are emails that are sent on a specific date. However, don’t be fooled by the name – the feature is not restricted to birthdays, of course – for example, an auto repair shop can also use it to remind its customers of their yearly inspection date.
As mentioned above – nothing too exciting here. So let’s move on.
These following scenarios are a bit more complex, but still manageable with some of the better-known newsletter tools.
Trigger Campaigns Based On Email Behavior
Let’s assume that our fitness app user (we’ll call him Jim) opens a link in your newsletter – the link is about losing weight. As a result of the click, Jim will receive another email two days later – an email specific to weight loss. Normally, this should be of increased interest to Jim. But we can even go one step further.
If we really want to make sure whether Jim is interested in losing weight, we can also use tags. This refers to a kind of attribute in a database.
For example, the tag “weight loss”. Jim’s interest in this topic is noted (“tagged”) when clicking on at least two articles on the subject in your newsletter. Another tag could be “weight loss – strong interest” – this time for readers who have clicked on such a link at least five times.
By using tags, you can send emails to exactly the right contacts instead of bothering others with topics that they aren’t interested in.
Here’s an example:
Fig. 2: Tagging feature in ActiveCampaign
If that doesn’t impress you, then listen up. By using the right tools, you can take data collection to the next level on your website – before the potential customer even signs up for your newsletter! How does that work? I’m glad you asked.
Now let’s assume that our fitness fan Jim is taking a look at the fitness app website for the first time. As our newsletter software tracking code is implemented on the website, we can tell that it’s Jim, even if we don’t know his name or his email address. Once he registers for the app or the newsletter, we can connect his visitation data with his contact information. There is no loss of data because a tracking cookie is active from the very beginning.
Fig. 3: Website tracking in ActiveCampaign
Based on website visitor data, we can send out more intelligent emails. If Jim has visited the pricing page 15 times, but still hasn’t decided to purchase a paid plan, he might think that the app is too expensive. In that case, you can respond by offering a coupon and asking whether there’s any particular reason why he’s hesitating.
Workflows (If-Then-Else Conditions)
But wait – there’s more! Take automatic shopping cart abandonment emails, for instance:
Fig. 4: Shopping cancellation workflow in ActiveCampaign
The sky's the limit: Some newsletter tools will even let you adjust your newsletter content to match certain tags or actions – it’s all about dynamic content.
You can link up that workflow with your ecommerce store and create dependencies between your newsletters and actual purchases (or even sales figures). While website tracking is easy to implement (just copy a bit of code to your page), ecommerce tracking is a bit more complicated to manage. You’ll need some deeper technical insight to move forward.
Fig. 5: Follow-up email for buyers in GetResponse
Every salesperson’s dream is closing a deal with every call. If you use lead scoring correctly, that dream is closer to becoming reality than ever before. You can assign points for each action (visiting the website, making a purchase, etc.). As soon as a contact has hit a certain number of points (without knowing about it, of course), the salesperson can be notified.
And while this is almost moving into CRM territory, you can do this with professional newsletter tools such as ActiveCampaign, too.
It’s fascinating to see what you can do with modern email marketing software. The amount of data you can collect and use for marketing purposes is astounding. However, it’s important to use the data wisely. When you compare the possibilities of automation with the status quo, here’s our conclusion:
Send fewer messages! But make these messages better, more relevant, and more accurate for each specific customer. The results will speak for themselves.
We’re happy to report that more and more DIY tools are moving into automation territory. Among the tools we tested, however, only ActiveCampaign is really ready for prime-time.
We’re excited to see how MailChimp, the biggest among the newsletter service providers, will try to hold its ground in the future. Because when it comes to automation, they aren’t doing too well at the moment.
What’s clear, though, is that more and more providers are adding marketing automation to their feature set – a sign of how indisposable it’s becoming to small and large businesses alike. And for businesses who weren’t able to benefit from marketing automation before, that can only mean good things.
26 Apr 2019 – Additional pricing information added
22 Mar 2018 – Benchmark added to the table
30 Jul 2018 – General updates, email automation software profiles added
I hope you liked this article! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment.