ESP. It’s a term you might see thrown around Facebook groups or on your favorite blogs, but what IS and ESP? And do you need one? Let’s start at the very beginning…
ESP stands for Email Service Provider. You might be thinking “oh yeah, I have one of those! Gmail, Yahoo, MSN…” No, no, no…not that. An ESP is not the program that brings your email to your inbox. It is a program that is used to SEND email to subscribers. You might have one of those too and just didn’t know what it was called. Or you may have heard it called an Email Marketing Program. ESPs are useful because they allow you to do more than just send an email. You can gather and collate subscriber emails, pre-write and send emails automatically, and sort your subscribers into different lists to name a few things.
When you are first starting out you are going to be bombarded with SO MANY CHOICES! Some people will tell you that you should spend the money and get a “good” program from the start. Other people will tell you to start with a free program and upgrade as your list (and income) grows. The benefit of starting with a paid program is that you won’t have to migrate over when your list grows. Take it from someone who gets paid to do that, it’s not something most people enjoy doing. If they did, I wouldn’t be able to offer it as a service. The benefit of starting with a free program is, of course, its free. Yes, it may not do EVERYTHING you want it to do, but you also aren’t paying for functions you don’t need. So how do you choose? Well, first let me give you a quick overview of what I have affectionately dubbed the Three Tiers of ESPs. Then I am going to share with you one of my new favorite online tools!
The benefit of starting with a free program is, of course, its free. Yes, it may not do EVERYTHING you want it to do, but you also aren’t paying for functions you don’t need. So how do you choose? Well, first let me give you a quick overview of what I have affectionately dubbed the Three Tiers of ESPs. Then I am going to share with you one of my new favorite online tools!
Tier 1 (The Basics)
The ESPs that I have placed in Tier 1 are the ones that you will see people recommending when you are starting out. They generally have free options, not as much functionality, and are easy to set up. There are two main ESPs that fall in this category: MailChimp and MailerLite. Let’s take a look!
MailChimp has been around for a long time and has been the go-to ESP for beginners. However, most people quickly moved due to the lack of functionality. Recently MailChimp has updated its functionality to be more competitive and it has become a pretty popular option. It’s free program allows you Up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. It also has automation, opt-in boxes, reports, and templates. There are two big complaints I hear about MailChimp.
1) If the same subscriber is on two lists, it counts it as two subscribers which means that you can reach 12,000 pretty quickly if you are creating a new list for every opt-in. This is where groups come in. You can use the group function to tag a subscriber. You have one list but several different groups and one email address can also be in several groups. This way your subscribers don’t get double counted.
2) You are not allowed to include affiliate links in your emails. Okay, this one isn’t exactly true but I still hear it all the time. MailChimp does not allow Affiliate Marketing, but it does allow Affiliate Links. So what is the difference? In general, if you are only sending out emails to try to get someone to sign up for a program or buy a product that you are being paid to promote then MailChimp considers that affiliate marketing. If you are writing emails out to your subscribers, building relationships with them, and occasionally including an affiliate link to a product or service you are good to go. MailChimp considers that affiliate links.
MailerLite is kind of the new kid on the block when it comes to ESPs but it is definitely making a splash. Its free program allows you to send an unlimited number of emails to up to 1000 subscribers. It also includes a ridiculous number of features including HTML editors, photo editing within emails, templates, a file manager, detailed reports, and delivery based on Time Zone. While I haven’t personally used MailerLite I have heard many people singing its praises in various Facebook groups.
Tier 2 (The Main Players)
These are the ones you will see most often. While some have free trials they don’t offer free plans. The trade-off being they usually have better support and more functionality that you will need as you grow your email marketing. Let’s look at the two biggest players, shall we?
ConvertKit’s plans start at $29 per month for up to 1000 subscribers. It includes unlimited forms, landing pages, automation rules, and emails. ConvertKit’s biggest claim to fame is that they are “designed by bloggers for bloggers” and this shows in their functionality. It is fairly easy to segment lists and to send out list wide emails. ConvertKit has templates to make it easy to design pretty emails. It also integrates well with several other programs including WordPress, Teachable, ClickFunnels, Shopify and more. ConvertKit also recently added a visual building system to automations allowing you to visually see the sequence your subscriber will go through which can be very handy if you are a visual person. You can usually find a 14 day trial of ConvertKit floating around somewhere and there are some great tutorials out there are well to help you get the most out of it.
ActiveCampaign gets the gold for being the cheaper of the two listed here. It starts at $9 for up to 500 subscribers or $17 per month for 1000 subscribers. It includes unlimited emails, automation, email templates, a client management system built in, and detailed reports. For a long time, Active Campaign was known for their visual builder for automation. It is still the more comprehensive of the two since ConvertKit’s is still in beta. One of my personal favorite features is the ability to attach an automation to a link. For example, if someone clicks a link in your email you can tag them and put them into a special sequence to follow up automatically. ActiveCampaign also integrates with several other programs including Teachable, ClickFunnels, WordPress, WooCommerce and more. ActiveCampaign offers a 14-day free trial that does not require a credit card. They also have a large support resource that you gain access to upon subscribing.
Tier 3 (The Big Dogs)
These are the cream of the crop. They are the most expensive and have the most functionality. They go beyond simple email marketing and encompass many other types of programs as well. There are two big names in this tier and each of them has avid followers.
Ontraport starts out at $79 per month for 1000 subscribers. It includes all the functionality of the previous ESPs we have discussed. It also includes SMS automation, custom domains for tracking links, file hosting, and Facebook lead capture. Those are just the email marketing functions. Ontraport also allows you to set up affiliate programs for your products and services. It has a fully functional client management system and also a full e-commerce system as well as the ability to set up membership sites. One of the biggest complaints I hear about Ontraport is that its dashboard it a bit daunting and it can be. Ontraport has a pretty steep learning curve given its functionality. It also doesn’t integrate with that many programs (although it does hit the big ones like Quickbooks, WordPress, PayPal, 1ShoppingCart, and LeadPages) and its integration is done with API which can be a bit confusing. However, if you are looking for a lot of functionality Ontraport is worth looking into.
Infusionsoft starts at $99 per month for up to 500 subscribers and 2500 emails per month. Its starter program doesn’t include e-commerce or sales automation. For that, you will need its $299 per month plan. Infusionsoft has a sort of cult following in the same way that a movie might have a small avid following that no one else quite understands. Because of this, you will often find people who swear by Infusionsoft and sing its praises or people who will say it is the worst program ever. In fact, you will often see it referred to as “confusionsoft” though that nickname started before Infusionsoft’s most recent update which made its dashboard a little less confusing. Although you will find it mentioned in lists of ESPs (including this one) it is actually designed to be a business management system for small businesses. In fact, their website itself calls it a “sales and marketing software’.
Okay, now that we have had a look at all the different ESPs I can FINALLY share with you one of my favorite new tools with you. I came across this tool through a link at the bottom of an email that seemed unrelated to email marketing and I am SO glad I clicked it. Okay, are you ready? It is the Email Service Provider Picker! How it works is you answer a few questions about your list size and what you want to get out of your ESP and it will tell you what it thinks is the best choice for you. How cool!! I’m not sure what all the options are that it chooses from but it is still a useful tool for helping you get a rough idea of what ESP might be best for you. You can check it out by clicking the link below. Enjoy! If you do try this tool please come back and leave a comment letting me know what it picked for you and what you ended up choosing (or what you use now). Thanks!