Online businesses - and I would argue many offline businesses - need an email marketing service. One of the most popular and useful email marketing services is what's referred to as an autoresponder. An autoresponder is a software or service that lets you compose and send emails to your subscribers and do it in an automated way. That is, you set most of it up once and define a set of rules that should apply. Then, based on those rules, the email (or emails) are sent out to your subscribers automatically.
As you would expect, there are a number of autoresponsder services available and each has it's own set of features and ways of operating. One of my favorite autoresponders is ActiveCampaign - which often is referred to affectionately as AC. I'm going to use AC to highlight some of the features to look for in an autoresponder.
It's not that AC is the only autoresponder service to have at least some of these features, it's just one of the best. The company's customer sweet spot has been businesses with fewer than 80 employees, selling them various tiers of service ranging from $9 per month to tens of thousands of dollars for larger clients with huge customer databases.
Main features to look for in an autoresponder as experienced in ActiveCampaign.
1. Count a Subscriber's eMail Only Once for the Autoresponder
When I first started using autoresponders I was with a service that counted a contact's email address once for every list that the contact was on. For example, if I had two lists which dealt with different topics (e.g. one dealing with email automation and one dealing with blogging), the service would count the same email address twice. Why is that important? Well, typically email services charge based on the number of subscribers you have. Thus, in this example if you had 1,000 duplicate email addresses on each of the two lists you would be charged for 2,000 subscribers even though you really had 1,000 unique email subscribers. ActiveCampaign counts each unique email address as one contact. It doesn't matter how many lists the contact is on; it only counts the contact once.
2. List Management Including Segmentation, Importing, and Exporting
Your contact list is very important and it is a valuable asset to your business... the list is yours. So make sure that you have adequate options for both importing and exporting your list. AC is pretty good in this regard allowing you to export your entire list and include any fields in the contact's record (including custom fields). Some autoresponder services don't let you export anything other than basic contact name and email, so all the other information you have on your contacts is held hostage. On import, AC allows you to specify if newly imported contacts should require optin confirmation. You can also update any field in a contact's record by doing an import.
Also, make sure that you can manage the list with a lot of versatilty and capability. As your list grows in size you will be surprised at the number of times you need to segment your list (i.e. divide your lists up into smaller lists based on various criteria) or move your contacts between lists. Don't underestimate this or think that you won't need it... you will.
The concept of tagging is relatively new to the email automation services, and ActiveCampaign uses it very effectively and flexibly. Tags are bits of information that you can add to a contact's record that define certain characteristics of the contact. For example, if you run a membership site you can add a tag to the contact defining which membership level they are at. Or if you are putting your contacts through different funnels you can use tags to specify which funnel they are going through - and even which point in a funnel they are at.
Tagging is one of the darling features for autoresponders; it is powerful and flexible. ActiveCampaign utilizes tags extensively. In fact, they are central to many of the operations within AC. You can use tags to trigger events, add / remove people from automations, determine actions to take, etc. I've used tagging extensivly for my email lists and client's lists.
4. Automation Rules
Rules simplify your email. When you are receiving email in your Office 365, Outlook, or gmail account you may have set up rules for inbound messages to put them into specific folders or mark them for followup, saving you a lot of time. Likewise you can have rules for outbound email, and for an autoresponder service the automation rules are absolutly critical.
The automation rules define when a contact should be added to a sequence, what should happen if they click on a link in the email, and what additional steps should be taken should they meet a predefined goal. Those are just a very few of the types of rules that can be defined in AC. Granted, sometimes the setup and logic for those rules can be a bit daunting and complex. And sometimes you might need to bring in some professional help in setting them up (yep, I can do that for you), but the rules available in AC are some of the most powerful in the industry.
5. Brandable and Powerful Sign-Up Form Templates
Honestly, you might or might not use the native forms in AC. That will really depend on the integration you are trying to accomplish and how you like things to work. But if you do need a form it's important to have a form generator that is flexible enough to give you a lot of options in the layout and design of the form, as well as setting the branding for the form such as font and color.
AC is pretty good in this regard, and in addition they allow great control over actions to take once a form is filled out. For example, you can define tags to add to a contact record if they fill out a specific form, or start the contact on a specified automation. In fact, you can have multiple actions defined, you are not limited to just one.
Additionally, AC has multiple ways of integrating the form for your use. You can have it hosted by them, embed it on your own site, or grab the raw html and implement wherever (which also means you can edit the raw html if required.)
6. Pre-designed and Custom Email Templates
Another time-saving feature is the ability to make use of templates. Having access to a wide assortment of pre-designed templates can get you started on a great looking newsletter or email format. You can then customize the template with your branding logo, colors, and fonts and save it in a library for future use. Then, when you need to create a new email you can just grab the appropriate template and you are starting out with a look and feel that is spot-on with your branding.
7. Integration Integration Integration
This is IMHO one of the most important features to assess and make sure it meets your needs. I've run into multiple situations where the client's systems can't integrate with each other and it really makes implementing a full system difficult - if not impossible - to do. Having an industry leading autoresponder system that has a broad range of native integrations can be critical for you when you need to bring in (or change) a service in the future.
Some services tout extensive integration, but when you do a bit of research the majority of their integrations is done via services such as Zapier (a broker type of integration.) Having integration via a broker is fine, but this usually adds an additional cost to the system. I have also found that the integrations via a broker service are generally not as full featured as a native integration, and it is almost always more complex.
8. Extensive and Accessible API
Another way of integrating if you have access to programming skills is via a published API. AC has a really good API which allows you to control almost everything regarding the manangement of your contacts.
“It’s easy to use and it’s well documented. Those are the two high-level things that I love.” – Mike, MemberVault co-founder
In the event that a native integration is not available between two systems, I much prefer the robustness and flexibility of using the API over that of using a broker service. But of course, that does require access to some programming knowledge or service.
9. Marketplace Support
ActiveCampaign enjoys a lot of marketplace support - a lot. That makes things so much easier when you are trying to integrate several systems together as it's very possible there is already a native integration done for the system. As an example, say you are trying to integrate a membership platform in WordPress... or maybe you want to offer courses on your site. Options are pretty good as quite a few of them recognize and integrate directly with AC.
And having this marketplace support has benefits beyond the direct integration; web designers, programmers, and support personnel are available that are familiar with ActiveCampaign - you generally are not left to fend for yourself with AC as there are ample consultants and freelancers to help you out.
10. Good Tracking and Analytics
Make sure the service offers good reporting so you can see your deliveries, bounces, open rates, clicks, and more. Understanding your metrics is obviously very important to succeeding with email marketing. But it's not just the reporting that's important. Sometimes you need to do a deep-dive into a contacts record to resolve an issue or see the history of actions for that one specific contact. Maybe you are resolving a problem for that contact, or maybe you are trying to understand the process path that a contact took through one of your automations. You need not only the ability to drill down into the contact's details, but also the contact's actions and the system actions on behalf of the contact. This ultimately will help improve your customer service and your process flows as it relates to email automation.
While this hasn't been an exhaustive list of capabilities and features, it should give you a decent idea of why I recommend ActiveCampaign for your autoresponder. And regardless of which autoresponder you utilize, the capabilities listed out are important to make sure you have.
I recommend you start by taking a look at ActiveCampaign and review many of the additional features I didn't mention. If you have any questions just drop me a comment or visit the entreTools Facebook group and ask your question.