Comparing Autoresponder Services

This article is Part 3 of a 10-part series on Email Marketing: Self-Hosted vs Traditional Cloud-Hosted Options.

Autoresponders are one of the most useful and effective features of cloud-based email services. Ranging from simple functionality right through to complex masterpieces of programming, autoresponders provide cost savings and time efficiencies, ensuring that all of your customers are welcomed, greeted and responded to at any time of the day or night.

Where would be without them?

There was a time that, whenever a client contacted us to subscribe to a product or service, we’d have to manually craft an email to welcome them on board. We used to spend so much time keeping in touch with our customer base that we’d have nothing left to dedicate to our business development.

I’m a huge advocate of using autoresponders as a means of easily, systematically and automatically turning prospects into customers. They’re also a highly effective way of pulling on the sixth lever of your business, “Transactions per Customer”. As a business owner you’re looking to find simple ways of encouraging your prospects to come back to you and make purchases again and again. Autoresponders allow you to set up a few emails and responses, select a schedule and sit back while your communications are sent out at specified times to encourage your customers to make repeat purchases.

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If you’re not yet familiar with the 7 Levers of Business and how they will transform your marketing and increase profits, you can check it out here:
www.7LeversReport.com
Over the past couple of years we’ve trialled a few different products and, to our minds at least, there are two clear winners in the comparison stakes. We’re firm fans of both AWeber and MailChimp, for several reasons. However it’s important that we share all of our findings with you as you may come to a different conclusion and decide that a different product is the right one to meet your business needs.

In this section we’ll check out the key players in the autoresponder market, compare some of their advantages and disadvantages, and then outline why we chose AWeber and MailChimp over their competitors. At the moment, the main players in the field are Constant Contact, AWeber, MailChimp, OfficeAutoPilot, Infusionsoft and iContact.

One of the main things we look for in an autoresponder package is usability. If an interface is tough to manage you could end up spending as much time navigating your way around to make it work as you would spend replying to your customers directly!

Other factors we considered include the cost of the service and how it weighs up against employing someone to undertake your mail administration, reliability, delivery success rate and service support.

iContact Review

Over a million businesses are currently using iContact as their preferred autoresponder service. The firm offers a free trial to let you find your way around the system, and the team also provides you with support to a level that earned them a “global call centre of the year” accolade.

If you want to take your marketing to the next level with iContact, they provide a Premium service that offers advice and expertise on how to optimise your marketing through email, as well as best practice and enhanced support as you develop your online marketing strategy.

iContact offers hundreds of different templates for your email message presentation which can be picked to closely resemble your brand. They also have a message builder wizard that walks you through the process, and you can always call up to get support if you’re struggling.

So far, so good.

Despite all of these great attributes, it’s the interface of iContact that lets it down. It’s not very intuitive or user-friendly and takes a good while to learn how to use it effectively. So long, in fact, that we’d pretty much moved on to try a different package before our trial period was up, as we’d realised it wasn’t the right one for us.

That said, iContact has some very powerful benefits that mark it out as a key player in the market. You can switch between the template builder and the option to code your own HTML, meaning that, regardless of your skill level, you can find the right balance between customisation and “off the peg” production. iContact also has a good relationship with the key ISPs, meaning that they have a pretty high delivery rate, and they offer tracking metrics, Spamcheck, sign-up forms, RSS feeds, mail merge, split-testing and survey facilities.

MailChimp Review

For many businesses, MailChimp is THE package of choice for autoresponder software for one simple reason:

It’s free for up to 2,000 subscribers.

If you’re operating in a small, niche market and cost is a key consideration, this is definitely the right choice for you. However, if your business is going to grow beyond 2,000 customers and you’re planning on migrating to a new vendor at that point, it’s well worth considering the impact that could have on your existing customer base. Moving vendors is tricky and you run the risk of alienating some customers when, or if, you make the jump to a new package.

One of the main things MailChimp has going in its favour is… it’s cute. It has a friendly, engaging interface that somewhat makes up for the fact that the MailChimp team doesn’t offer any support for free customers. The service includes a range of templates, simple integration with Facebook, Twitter, PayPal and Zendesk, and offers a non-technical “wizard” to guide you through the entire process from start to finish. You can time-delay messages to a schedule, upload images and get up and running with the whole system pretty quickly.

On the downside, the interface can take a while to load (payback for the “cute” factor). Also, once you’ve found your way around the system and you’re looking at navigating speedily from one area to the next, MailChimp’s friendly approach can sometimes get in the way of you developing your mailings independently.

Another small downside is that all of your messages will feature the MailChimp logo, which could detract from your own brand.

And speaking of branding, you’ll never have the option to import your own template to the system, so you have to rely on trying to get the pre-existing templates to match your own colour scheme.

None of these negatives should be enough to deter you though. MailChimp is easy to use, fun, intuitive and a true powerhouse in the autoresponder market, which explains why it is consistently one of the most popular options, particularly for businesses just starting out in the email marketing arena.

OfficeAutoPilot Review

The story goes that OfficeAutoPilot was developed in 2009 because its creator, Landon Ray, wanted to design an email marketing tool for information marketers that took the very best attributes of all other available systems, and then added in even more functionality to make it the best of the bunch.

In truth, there are lots of things to recommend OfficeAutoPilot but, before you even get to checking them all out, you have to come to terms with the cost.

It’s expensive (at least on the surface).

Fair enough. If you’re going to be using the cream of platforms for your online marketing, you kind of expect to have to pay more for it. The problem is there is not really much in the OfficeAutoPilot package that you can’t get from competitors like Infusionsoft. And these competitors have been around for longer, so the chances are that they’ve had more opportunity to iron out bugs, sort fixes, and work through any issues.

One of the best things about OfficeAutoPilot is the ability to configure your outbound email responses based on customer actions. Known as the “if/then” statement, this really does bring a new level of functionality to your autoresponder system. For example, you can specify that if a customer has clicked Link A and subscribed to Offer B, then ping them Email C. This is certainly a handy facility but let’s not forget that competitors such as Infusionsoft have been doing this for a while.

Other positives about OfficeAutoPilot include a great set of support material, including video tutorials, and a responsive, friendly, live customer chat when you need it.

On the downside, for a facility that’s touting itself as a complete solution for your entire online business needs, you’re still going to need a whole load of extra bits of software before you can confidently sit back and know that your online business is complete. Given that you can be paying upwards of $600 a month for the privilege of swelling your subscriber list above 25,000 records, this can be bitter pill to swallow.

Infusionsoft Review

Infusionsoft, like OfficeAutoPilot, is generally used more by businesses with at least 1500 subscribers on their books. It’s geared towards higher customer numbers with more of a focus on selling products and services. If you’re a firm that tends to send out newsletters now and then, or simply wants to acknowledge your subscriber list periodically, MailChimp or AWeber are definitely more sensible options.

Infusionsoft has loads of different functions rolled into one package. It enables ecommerce, CRM, email marketing and automation of messages so you can set things rolling without checking in too often, and it has a strong interface that makes it easy to set up webforms, apply tags and edit your emails.

There has been a lot of feedback online suggesting that the interface was actually better before the Infusionsoft team redesigned it! It may look prettier these days than the design of old but it hasn’t made it easier to navigate.

The guys at Infusionsoft have got a strong reputation for customer service, which makes a huge difference when you’re finding your way around the platform for the first time. You can obtain support through online chat or over the phone, and the team members do sound like they know what they’re doing.

On the downside, Infusionsoft doesn’t come cheap. If you’re just starting out online and setting up your autoresponders, the outlay needed to get up and running with Infusionsoft could be enough in itself to send you scampering across to the free trial at MailChimp.

AWeber Review

For a number of valid reasons, AWeber is recognised as the undisputed leader in cloud-hosted email marketing, especially in the online marketing space. We’ve used it for a while and found it to be far and away the best software for building our customer database and cutting down on unnecessary email admin.

Understanding how AWeber charges…
There are two types of subscribers: Active Subscribers, who receive messages without difficulty, and Inactive Subscribers who are either unsubscribed or undeliverable. You are still charged for the latter is because the system is still storing that information. However you can delete them at any time. The people that don’t count towards your pricing are unconfirmed subscribers, people that were sent the confirmation message but never clicked the confirmation link.
The main thing to know about AWeber is that it’s pretty pared down compared to MailChimp. The interface is simple and clear, only giving you what you need to create your campaigns, schedule them, and set them going. It features simple integration with all the primary social networking platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, Google Checkout, E-junkie and 1ShoppingCart.

AWeber’s main strength is its capacity for scheduling follow-up mails for customers. You can set up a series of messages that will be sent out to new subscribers at specific periods of time, and the delay between each email is scheduled according to when the last one was sent. This means that thousands of customers can join at any point, and still be given the right delay between updates.

AWeber may not have the friendliness of MailChimp when you first start using it but it makes up for that by being simple, clear and unfussy. Every function is easy to use. For us though, the main differentiator that makes AWeber the best in the business is the great delivery rate. They guarantee that 99% of emails will land in the target’s inbox, giving you peace of mind that your messages will reach their destination.

The AWeber team offers fantastic customer support for any queries. Like MailChimp and iContact the system has templates you can use to design your messages, or get custom ones created. It’s quick to load, integrates well with plugins, and is a very reliable platform in terms of delivery and reputation.

The only downside is that you don’t have the ability to upload files to your mails so, if you want images in your messages, they need to be hosted on your own website or through a platform such as Flickr.

Overall, AWeber is an excellent option for people familiar with the email marketing basics, and is a firm favourite among our team.

Constant Contact Review

Constant Contact has got a pretty strong following, and it’s understandable when you think of it as a kind of fusion between AWeber and MailChimp. It has a flashy interface that makes it appealing to use, and it’s obviously been developed with a strong business focus that marks it out as a tool designed for online entrepreneurs.

You can either use email templates provided by Constant Contact, or create your own if you want a bit more control over the look and feel of what you’re sending out to your subscribers.

Constant Contact also lets you set up autoresponder sequences relative to your sign-up date meaning that, once a customer subscribes, you can set up a series of communications based on where they are on the customer journey. The downside is that it’s a real pain to try and re-order the sequence if you want to make changes, or pop a new action into the sequence based on adjustments to your flow of communications.

With a similar price to AWeber, Constant Contact is a decent choice for people looking to have a sound platform for basic autoresponder functions but it’s not really a clear winner for a couple of reasons. The interface is quite cumbersome to use, and nowhere near as user-friendly as MailChimp, or as intuitive as AWeber. There is also absolutely no integration function for the service so, once you’ve set up everything, you’re pretty much stuck with the basic package without any option to add more functionality to enhance the overall service you’re providing for your customers or to tailor the system to suit your specific business needs.

GetResponse Review

GetResponse is a funky email marketing platform that has a lot of great features and is priced pretty much in the middle of the market. It provides strong analytics, creating visual representations of your reporting metrics, and allowing you to make changes to your approach. It’s also pretty simple to use – all you need to do is download it, set up your contacts in the subscriber list, and it will help you to add custom fields to contacts, copy them and search your list.

You can also blacklist people who have opted out, to make sure you don’t bombard unwilling customers with mails. Even better, GetResponse lets you set up a “suppression” list, allowing you to choose which emails certain people get from you. You then get on with creating your campaign, using over 350 templates or making your own with the HTML source editor capability or WORD-style design tool.

You can spell check, customise and format easily, input images from iStock or your own graphics files, and embed links, video and audio. You can also attach documents, and link in fully to key social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace and Digg.

Setting up the autoresponder functions is simple to perform, as is sending, tracking and monitoring your email marketing campaign. The downside? GetResponse won’t let you send out automatic mails based on the links people click, so your functionality is reduced and you can’t choose to segregate subscribers according to their preferences when they join your lists.

It can also be tricky to add files to your mails and, while survey functionality is great, it won’t show you which person responded specifically to set questions. However, customer support is pretty good, so if you have any issues it’s easy to get in touch with the team to iron them out.

Here’s a comparison of all the autoresponders we’ve looked at so you can see, at a glance, what each system has to offer:

aweberAWeber
constant-contactConstantContact
get-responseGetResponse
icontactiContact
infusionsoftInfusionsoft
mailchimpMailChimp
autopilotOfficeAutoPilot
Monthly Pricing Options
Monthly Fee checkmark checkmark checkmark checkmark checkmark checkmark checkmark
Trial Period $1 for 30 days 60 days 30 days 30 days None Unlimited Cancel within 90 days for full refund
Pricing $19 per month to 500 subs. $149 for 10,000 to 25,000. $15 per month to 500 subs, then $75 for 5001 to 10,000 – after that you
need to contact them.
$15 per month to 1,000 subs. $145 for 10,001 to 25,000. $10 per month for up to 250 subscribers. $109 for10,001 to 15,000. Above
this call them.
$1,999 one off fee plus $219 per month for up to $2,500 subscribers to
a max of 12,500 mails per month. A total of $369 for up to 30,000 users
sending 137,500 email per month.
Free up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails/month for life (no autoresponder
option and other features).
For unlimited emails it starts at $10 per month for 500 subscribers,
$150 per month for 10,001 to 25,000 subscribers.
$297 per month fir 25,000 subscribers and 100,000 emails.
Features:
Mail Templates More than 600 checkmark More than 500 checkmark checkmark checkmark checkmark
Schedule Email checkmark checkmark Yes (smart scheduling adapts to different time zones) checkmark checkmark Yes (smart scheduling adapts to different time zones) checkmark
Split Testing checkmark checkmark Premier accounts only* No (it’s been on the radar for at least 3 years, but not a priority!!!) Yes (limited) checkmark
List Segmentation Yes (broadcast emails only) checkmark checkmark checkmark Yes (unclear about how comprehensive) checkmark checkmark
Blog Broadcasts (RSS to Email) checkmark Can be done through API, not straightforward checkmark checkmark checkmark
iPhone/iPad App checkmark checkmark checkmark Yes (free and paid) checkmark checkmark
Import Mailing List Yes (requires opt-in from imported subscribers) Yes (no opt-in required if permission already obtained) Yes (no opt-in required if permission already obtained) checkmark Yes (no opt-in required if permission already obtained) Yes (provided they opted in) checkmark
Require Opt-in Single/Double Single/Double Single/Double Single/Double Double Single/Double Single/Double
Supports Unicode (required to support some character sets e.g. Chinese) Can add emoticons in title checkmark Unknown checkmark checkmark
Image Hosting 100MB 50MB for $5/month 1GB 5MB checkmark
Create Surveys Yes (from $15/month) checkmark Limited Integrates with a number of third party surveys
Integrate with Google Analytics (for conversion tracking) checkmark checkmark checkmark Premier accounts only* checkmark checkmark Unknown
Customer Support Phone, email and live chat support Phone, email and live chat support Phone, email and community support Phone, email and live chat support Phone, interactive support community and your “Success Coach”. Customer support is through live online support. Live online support/Zendesk/Community
Other Notable Features Email to speech, Video email.
Includes 1,000 iStockPhoto images
* Can’t find any info on Premier Accounts on the website
Android application also available.
Some product options include CRM and/or ecommerce. Can send out postcards for additonal credits

In summary…

If you’re looking for a great autoresponder there are two clear choices. If you’re pretty new to the whole concept of automated email, we recommend MailChimp for its friendly interface, ease of use and great service and support.

If you’re more confident with your email marketing, AWeber has proven itself time and again as a user-friendly, comprehensive platform for all your requirements, with more options for customisation than MailChimp provides.

There is, however, another option if you’re looking to gain complete control over your email marketing strategy and develop a bespoke solution that enables you to truly define, own and manage all aspects of your strategy

Read on for an introduction to self-hosted email marketing.

about-pete
Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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