Email Marketing, Group Email, and Newsletter Tools - How do I choose?

In this modern world there are hundreds of options for email marketing. Its a highly confusing arena, because everyone tries to copy everyone else and include all the best features, but typically offer little of the "magic" that makes it a good choice to use. Magic to me is defined as: easy to use interface for end-users (GUI) and programmers (API), data portability, open-source, emails not being marked as spam, good pricing plans or just plain free, and customer-service or customer support forums that are actively used.

The choice you make is important, because it will save you money and hours of tragedy, as well as help you achieve your goals. Most email vendors try to get you to "lock in" with them, so this guide is an approach to keep you on top of all the offers, deals, bla-bla's out there and making the smart choice that those marketing people hate you making. Most social networks and Web 2.0 services appear friendly, but in fact are just like everything else in this 2010-world; a two-faced offer, give up your privacy, knowledge, know-how, intuition and pay-us now, and we'll make it easy on you, but own your data, use your data, be unclear, limit your possibility, and make change hard on you. All of this is exemplified in established networks, but their up and coming challengers, such as Mailchimp, have to be goody-goody right now, because they want to gain market share. So be smart, aware, and able to change!

To find our what is the best choice, identify if you are planning on sending any of the following:

  • Newsletter on a Time Schedule
  • Email Blasts to Prospect Lists
  • Auto-generated Summary of your CMS's Content (Digest)
  • Emails to inform users of Social Networking Updates on your Site
  • Daily or Frequent Emails to Volunteers, Employees, or Constituents



Now, it would be great if one tool covered all of these needs easily. That would certainly be the holy grail of email. Yet, each type of email is tailored towards a different result or goal, so the tool would then offer different features/implementations, to help you achieve that goal.

So lets now describe what each of these email campaign types might do for you, and what tool to use:

Newsletter on a Time Schedule

A newsletter is a way of summarizing the past, present, and future activities of your organization. It is typically a unique compilation of products, services, articles, or blogs that is created for each campaign. It has a custom email template that is modified from your websites' header/footer, or perhaps entirely different, and has more limited coding so it will look decent in all kinds of email clients. It can be used for informational or promotional purposes. There are links back to content on your Website that are tracked by an Analytics system. You want people to become involved with your organization, or buy your products. The main thing offered is valuable content that is useful to someone.

Best tools used to date: MailChimp, CiviCRM. Both of these tools integrate with a Drupal website, allow for subscribe/unsubscribe widgets, have a rich set of contact management features, let you have multiple groups, and much more. The main differences are philosophical and money - Mailchimp is a paid service and you do not own the software and are giving your list to a 3rd party with a privacy policy (easier to use), CiviCRM/Drupal you own the entire stack and its entirely Free, Open-Source Software (more difficult to set up, but offers more freedom). Both have a developers API, but CiviCRM really shines in its suite of features for a non-profit. Really, like everything else, you just have to decide how "deep into the rabbit hole" you want to go. Perhaps you do not want to wake up one day being a CiviCRM server administrator. If this scares you, definitely go with MailChimp. Of course, there are other options - Drupal's SimpleNews Module, MailMan, Google Contacts/Gmail, but they are a pain, don't really meet the use-case easily, and are dead-end roads, in my opinion, and through my experience.

Email Blasts to Prospect Lists

Now, this could otherwise be called "mass spamming". Technically, a prospect list is something you have gleaned, purchased, or acquired and they have not double-opted-in, or in human being speak, "they dont wanna hear from ya quite yet (technically speaking)." So, if we're going to send something to them, we need to make sure they convert to "opt-in" very quickly, so we don't get marked as spam by an email provider such as Gmail, Live Mail(hotmail), Yahoo, etc. What tool to use for this? I would say any mass-emailing tool which offers a unsubscribe feature.

What I have used with success: Info@Hand CRM and SugarCRM. They both let you maintain a prospect list as "targets", and then convert them to leads, then to accounts, and then to projects and billable time. The purpose of email marketing to a prospect list is to generate sales and revenue. So, you really need an emphasis on CRM, but with a tool that does good email marketing. Traditional CRM tools do not offer subscribe/unsubscribe features that work or are cost effective (from my experience), so a web-based CRM is going to be your best bet. Salesforce.com might do this well, but it is costly and proprietary, even anti-open source in some ways. Highrise CRM might be a good choice, as its low cost and I believe integrates with Mailchimp (mentioned above). Generally, its just good to be clear about your goals and not worry about the tool or the feature set. We're doing email blasts to prospect lists to create customers and make money - period. Lets use a real CRM tool that has sales features, but also gives us email tools. Info@Hand and SugarCRM have worked well for non-profits and SMB's in this light.

Auto-generated Summary of your CMS's Content (Digest)

I would use either Simplenews for Drupal with SimpleNews Digest or Mailchimp for its ability to send out an email campaign based on an RSS Feed. The choice is yours, and dependent on if you want to manage your own email server and write a bit of code. Mailchimp is usually the winner here. Also, it begs the question: why send out a Digest of your sites content? I would not typically do this except for printing. Some people don't use computers to this day. If they have a computer, just direct them to your website, or ask them to subscribe to your RSS feed. A Digest is also a kind of email that has many emails inside of it. This is another messy idea that does not really solve a lot of needs. I prefer to get people to go to my website or my RSS feed. For a non-profit, this is about getting people to volunteer and work together. For a business, this is about offering conversion tools (shopping cart buttons, auto-responders) on your website.

Emails to inform users of Social Networking Updates on your Site

For this I would just use out of the box Drupal with Notifications and Organic Groups. This way, you can set up different groups and their communication on your website as a mini social network, and then they receive emails when people respond or post new things. This is a good way to create a community online, or an eco-system around your product, service, or brand.

If you don't like Drupal or don't use it, you might use Buddypress for Wordpress or a Joomla Social network component. Or, if you really dislike the idea of owning any of your software and just want something free or easy to use - check out Facebook Groups/Fan Pages or Ning. Right now, I don't understand these choices because they are walled gardens outside of your website. If you want an eco-system, these are bad choices. We just throw them up because people ask about them, but generally speaking, your website should be better or at least on-par with them. Also, Drupal has modules for OpenID and Facebook, so you can "convert" people off of those sites back into your system.

Daily or Frequent Emails to Volunteers, Employees, or Constituents

Gmailseems to be the winner. Just set up contact groups in Gmail and then send away. However, there's a 500/email a day limit here. If you need to send more, you're probably doing email marketing or sending a newsletter type dealy. So, I would use this in tandem with Mailchimp or Info@Hand CRM for larger mailings, which by the way also synchronize your contacts with Gmail!

We're doing this to get people involved and to get work done. These are usually txt only emails that are spontaneously created. No need for email-marketing tools or templates usually. Some of this can be put onto your Drupal social network with notifications - you post there, people get updates. People collaborate there. Also, if you use Gmail you get Google Docs, which lets you create a Document, invite people to edit it, and then lets you send an email out to all editors. Good way to collaborate on projects, and free.

Conclusion

So now, you should be aware of some of the methods for sending email on the internet. This list is compiled based on my personal experience, which is not complete and enlightened. Feel free to comment and add more suggestions.