Email is THE TOOL to set you up for a laptop lifestyle, work-from-anywhere, business. And yes, your business, no matter how small or large, physical retail or online only, needs its own email list. But getting started with email marketing can seem daunting for a lot of small businesses, especially solopreneurs doing everything themselves. There are many options in email marketing software. So let’s sort through 20 things you should know about email marketing: facts on email, how to go about choosing software for your business, and what some top software options are.
Yes your business needs email, yes it's still effective, yes all businesses can benefit.
By any set of numbers, email marketing is FAR from dead and should be cornerstone of the marketing plans of any business.
Yeah, email is all that and more!
But what if you're in the smaller percent of businesses that haven't dove into email marketing – yet?
List building activities and email marketing are some of the most valuable and most profitable strategies for any business with an online presence – that’s all businesses! But it's hard to focus on strategies and tactics to build our email lists if we don't HAVE an email list. Just because email has been around for many years doesn’t mean it no longer works or that newer marketing tactics automatically work better.
But we don't want just any list! We know it's a no-no to ever buy a list or buy leads (that violates all kinds of rules plus it's bad business). We don't want to ‘churn-n-burn' through a list either. It's not just about building a list to get to a certain number (though, yeah numbers kinda matter!), it's about building an engaged list that wants our emails, opens them, and takes action on them. We want a high-quality, targeted list. And to make the most of a targeted list + email marketing (personalization, segmentation, timing, automation), we need email marketing software.
To properly, legally, send marketing emails out to a list who has chosen (opted in) to receiving your emails, you must use email marketing software/service (EMS).
Just a reminder, you can’t send marketing emails through your domain email, Outlook or Gmail (sending one-to-one to a contact, friend, or prospect is ok – not mass emails). You’ve heard of email regulations such as the CAN SPAM Act in the US, CASL in Canada or the GDPR rules in Europe. As a business owner (or ANY organization – this applies to nonprofits and educational orgs too), you need an email marketing service to stay safe, legal, and to make your marketing more efficient.
While this sounds intimidating, if you're a legit business using a known, reputable email marketing service, you should have few problems. Choosing and using a reputable EMS should be one of the first steps, and maybe first purchase, when creating your independent, online, laptop lifestyle business. Ok, it should be one of the first decisions for ANY type of business! Email is for every business.
Next to choosing a reputable software option, the best way to ensure you stay safe, legal, and ethical with your email marketing is to get clear, explicit permission to email people.
Give folks a way to choose to receive your emails – and in some locations, this means even asking your paying customers if they want to receive marketing emails. People choosing to join your list can be current or new customers, prospective customers who signed up via a blog post, a webinar, a social media post, or who heard you speak at an event. No, merely exchanging business cards doesn't count – send them a personal follow-up email and ask them to join your list.
Before you jump in to looking at trials or signing up for one of the email marketing services I will go over below – you should think about what you and your business need. These steps apply not just to choosing email software, but any software, purchases, or investments for your business. Your business is going to be slightly different than mine, your audience different, your comfort with software and tech will be different. Go through my recommended questions to sort the software options into what fits you right now.
There are differences between what you might choose if you have a hobby or a side gig and this is not a full-time business. Consider whether you mostly sell crafts on Etsy, or journals through Kindle Direct Publishing, or you are a consultant to nonprofits, or you are creating online courses for other business owners, or you sell classes to busy moms of toddlers. It can make a difference if you have prior business experience, or this is your first exciting adventure.
Also consider how tech savvy do you feel – or how well do you handle pressure or learning new software? Or do you only want to learn the basics and then hand things over to a VA (virtual assistant) or OBM (Online Business Manager) to run daily operations?
Does the tool have the features you need right now and features you think your business will grow into in the next 12-18 months?
If the software is missing a key feature (like email automation/autoresponders), it doesn't matter how cheap it might be. Likewise, if the features are too hard to learn, will the tool hold you back when you are just starting out?
I've seen both sides to this with solopreneurs I've worked with – they paid big bucks they didn't have for tools like InfusionSoft or LeadPages before they had products or services to sell, before they had a list. The tools confused them and were holding them back, not helping. On the flip side is a coach who went with the free MailChimp account because they didn't have much of a budget, but back then the free plan didn't have the tools (autoresponders) they needed to sell their services and new courses. They limped along for too long.
How much do the next tiers of subscriber numbers cost and when do you likely think you will reach those levels? Are you able to budget for the next levels of service/number of subscribers that your business will need?
You don’t want a tool that is too limiting and you will outgrow quickly, nor a tool that has so many advanced bells + whistles that you don’t have time to learn or will not use for years to come (if ever). You are not marrying your tools or software for life, you will change! It’s ok. (Psst – I'm on my 3rd email marketing software in just less than 10 years of business – it happens!)
If you work steadily on list-building or participate in events, will the tool accommodate you? Will you outgrow the basic plan too quickly? Can you afford the next tier of pricing? What kind of business goals and growth will you need to set in order to comfortably afford the next tier?
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Is it a brand new startup with little track record yet? Is the tool still in beta or testing phases of any kind? Is it a more mature tool?
There are marketplaces that specialize in showcasing newer software and getting apps/software to their first big audiences and sets of users (especially AppSumo + ProductHunt, also StackSocial). There can be some great deals there! BUT … beware that many of those deals are on new, unproven software, or software that may still be in a limited form. Do your homework, read the reviews, know exactly what features you are getting (or not) if you see deals from these types of third-party marketplaces. Friends and I have been burned with deals on software that had too many bugs or the version on deal at AppSumo didn't include all the features.
Does it have lots of testimonials, reviews, a substantial knowledge base with support and feedback from its users?
Has the tool aged well and kept up with changes in marketing technology? Alternately, has the tool been around a while but is no longer a leader nor has the most current features?
What do reviews say?
What do your colleagues or friends with a business similar to yours use and what do they like about it? It's very helpful to know other friends who have a business model similar to yours and what tools they use and why (it's why you're reading my blog post and my emails, right?!). Ask around in groups or among your business friends and get honest assessments. And take their recommendations with a grain of salt. 😉
How responsive do they seem to be?
What methods do they offer for contacting them? Do their business hours match yours
For example, a key piece of business software I use is from a European-based company, they only reply via email or chat, and it's necessary to take time differences into account when seeking support. It's not great when a problem pops up on a Friday afternoon!
Do they offer timely training? Does the training look easy to understand and not time-consuming?
For example, in addition to all their videos, tutorials, customer forum, and blog post – my email service Active Campaign runs a live, in-person training program that travels the country. I attended their Study Hall in Philadelphia not long after I made the switch. They're doing virtual Study Halls now too.
How easy is it for you to navigate through the tool and its user interfaces?
How easy is it to get started and take your first actions in the app? For example, how quickly and easily can you create your first form, create your first email, create a segment for a list, or create an automation?
Your EMS should make it easy to manage your contacts, send automated emails, have a way to tag or segment subscribers, easily create campaigns, and track performance.
The tool that lets you easily, consistently send engaging emails, that reach your audience, and lets you work smarter not harder is the system that’s right for you.
Is it clear how to set up an automated email vs. a one-time or broadcast email?
What do the emails look like?
Are the included templates modern and follow current best practices? Or do they look stale and years old? [hint: overly styled, graphics heavy, multi-column ‘newsletters’ are a thing of the past]
It's often true what they say, “you get what you pay for” – so free is not always better. And I stand by the assertion that email is so vital to growing your online business that you just can NOT skip out here.
If it’s a ‘free’ email software – what’s NOT included?
What are the limitations – and not just in numbers of contacts or emails sent per month?
Do you have access to automation/autoresponders?
Can you segment your list?
Will it integrate with 3rd party tools?
What level of support or service is offered to customers of the email marketing software?
Often customer service is severely limited for those on free plans -e.g. you may only be able to send them emails and wait for a reply.
Compared to so many other tools and tactics out there, email marketing is still very inexpensive, especially given the high return on your investment. It’s much better to invest and spend for a solid email marketing service that serves you well and has the features you need instead of cheapening out and needing to move services in a few months or a year as your business grows.
I’ve tested and used multiple services over the years, researched to move to a new system, and am delighted that I’m now with ActiveCampaign. AC has made my marketing better, my email more efficient and effective. This is the tool I demonstrate in additional courses on email, tech, and marketing. I love how easy it is to tag, segment, and run multiple automated series, all with people on just one list. Lite plan for up to 500 subscribers is $15/mo and goes to $29/mo for 1,000 subscribers. [Note: I pay one-time, annually, which makes my per month cost just $17/mo, less than some other companies]
AWeber is a favorite among many online business owners I know because they offer a free/low-cost trial, have relatively low monthly rates, ($19/mo) and offer very good customer service (one of the few that has phone-support). Their tool is pretty easy to learn and use.
They were also one of those tools that qualifies as proven, but also dated technology. They just didn't seem to be keeping up with changes in design, interfaces or features. I’m glad to see they’ve finally added features and improved things (e.g. added built-in landing pages), I'm still also glad I left. NEWS: As of spring/summer 2020 AWeber has launched a totally free tier for up to 500 list contacts and they have added features like a landing page builder. This makes them competitive and worth checking out.[NOTE: Warning … many of my solopreneur pals and client who participate in list-building events such as bundles or giveaways have run into major problems with AWeber in 2020 for disallowing or unsubscribing the new opt-ins who joined during these events. The company’s responses have been unsatisfactory and turned a lot of business owners off. If you are planning to build your list through strategies like giveaways or bundles, at this time I recommend you stay away from AWeber until they stop this behavior toward legitimate opt-ins.]
CK has gained a lot of fans among online solopreneurs, especially pro bloggers, authors and marketing geeks for its strong tagging and automation features, as well as built-in landing pages. When I was doing my research to move in 2019 it was a serious contender – and I followed my own tech advice and asked other business others for their thoughts, plus poked around inside. For me, it had too many quirks, odd naming of structures/systems, was not intuitive for me to setup or use, had poor designs, and cost more than ActiveCampaign. But it has many fans in my circle of business pals! Free 14-day trial, rates start at $29/mo
Known for its totally free plan for up to 2,000 subscribers. But it has limitations, quirks, not always intuitive or user-friendly. While they’ve added ‘advanced ‘features and say they’re built-in, they aren’t truly advanced and some require paid plans. MailChimp has significant restrictions on affiliate marketing that can scare off certain business owners (do read all the fine print). Support is very limited for free plans. Paid plans start at $10/mo for up to 500 subscribers.
Small business friendly with automation tools built-in and easy drag-n-drop email builder. Their built-in forms and landing pages are attractive and easy. But some clients I’ve worked with complain about GR not being so easy, not connecting well to other tools, or being hard to learn. Those are possible pitfalls with most of the email systems. GR has a 30-day free trial; Basic plan $15/mo up to 1,000 subscribers.
A frequent TV advertiser, this tool is popular among many offline, retail, or e-commerce businesses and claims to be very user-friendly. $20/mo up to 500 subscribers, $90/mo for 5,000. 60 day free trial.
A newer player in email marketing, like its name suggests, it’s a bit stripped down. It’s missing many of the advanced features of other EMS, including some key automation features. But it’s simple and affordable, with a free plan , a $10/mo unlimited emails to 1,000 subscribers, and a $15/mo plan for up to 2,500 subscribers. Note: a few biz owners I’ve worked with have had problems setting up automations or scheduled emails – a toss-up as to system issues or user error.
There are many others, but these are most common among online, solopreneur businesses- ones that my colleagues, friends, and clients are using or have used. Some of the newer, start-up options could be a good fit for you, IF you can go through the questions I gave you earlier for evaluating software AND that new tool meets those requirements.
It’s so much better to just get started then to worry about finding the perfect tool. Done is better than perfect!
And while changing systems can be a pain, it’s often necessary as our businesses change, our needs change, and the tools change. Don’t be afraid to switch if a tool doesn’t match you, your needs, your business, or if the tool is holding you back instead of helping you move forward with ease.
It helps to choose an email marketing service this is known among your peers and other online business owners, that VAs know, so you can get community support.
If you are still struggling with the pains of setting up your email marketing software or getting started so that you CAN go build a list and write awesome emails, check out the course I created just for business owners like you – Hell Yeah You CAN Start Your List – Even If You Aren’t Techie.
I want all of my solopreneur pals to feel confident and mighty in their marketing - sharing what makes their work special and so vital to their clients. No B.S. or fluff here. I do the digging and research for you, translate "marketing-ese" into simpler terms, and help you avoid marketing headaches.