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Top picks: template-driven HTML email newsletter solutions

July 9, 2009

Continued from Evaluating email newsletter solutions: Get Ruthless.

Before we heap on the accolades: our top picks may not be yours.

When evaluating software solutions, make sure you know your requirements. Only a solution that meets your particular needs, and meets them well, is right for you.

For this particular project, we needed an HTML-based email newsletter program for a local school. The newsletters should share a common look-and-feel, so theme templates were a must. The software should be easy to use, even for non-techies. We should be able to archive old mailings, and access them from our web site. It needed to be inexpensive.
 

MailChimp

MailChimp stood out as the newsletter email solution to meet all our needs.

It's easy to use. It's inexpensive. Free, if your list has under 100 subscribers.

MailChimp only provides four basic starter templates, but these are instantly customizable through the application of some 128 "themes". These themes apply from two-color to six-or-seven-color variations to the basic templates: instantly, a large variety of simple, straight-forward, color-matched designs. It's easy to adapt these, or create new ones from scratch. Save templates for future use, retrieve them easily, adapt, move on.

I found MailChimp very easy to use - but for true neophytes, there are also articles, guides, a useful knowledge base, and even video to help.

It is easy to import mailing lists from Excel. Copying from a database, a tab-delimited list, or some other spreadsheet is also easy, if Excel is used as the intermediary. Arrange your columns in Excel the way you want them, and you copy and paste directly into MailChimp. Done.

MailChimp manages multiple lists for groups and subgroups, easily and well. And you can export lists, unsubscribes, and bounced emails back to Excel as easily as importing data.

Unsubscribe links are added to emails automatically, by default. Want to remove it? Cut. Create a new one elsewhere? Add the *|UNSUB|* tag wherever you like. It's that hard.

Sort your sent newsletters by topic, and archive them on your own site - by area, or all of them together, or however you like. Want to add a Subscribe form on your own web site? Also easy.

Finally, for the technicallly inclined, MailChimp gives you very broad access to the underlying data using the MailChimp API. From your own web site, you can directly manage lists, newsletters, statistics, synchronize databases, integrate with your other web apps, etc. Basically, if you can write the code (XML-RPC, PHP, or JSON), you can do from your own web site what you can do through MailChimp's own interface. And again, this is free.

Do I need this functionality? No. Not yet. MailChimp's base features here exceed those of the other options I've evaluated. But it's nice to know I can customize my web site integration, later, as much as might be required.
 

Runners-Up

Some of the other programs are also very competent performers, and deserve mention. While they did not meet all the requirements for my current project, I would not hesitate to pick one of the following for another situation.

These are not presented in any particular order. Your requirements should determine your choice.

For non-profit organizations, Vertical Response is a very good alternative. It is free for NPOs sending under 10,000 emails/month. It features 150-plus templates, a very large image library, articles and tutorials - basically, most of MailChimp's functionality. I couldn't archive my newsletters on the school site, though.

Benchmark email, and Constant Contact are very easy-to-use, and while not free, still very reasonable. Both offer discounts to non-profits, both allow for archiving of previous newsletters on your site. I found Benchmark better-featured than Constant Contact, with better tutorials and on-line help, as well as significantly less expensive.

iContact also is extremely easy to use - probably my favorite for a combination of ease-of-use and a very comprehensive feature set. On-line help, again, is excellent. Pricing is a little more expensive, but still competitive.

Campaigner is inexpensive, and offers a decent feature set - though no local newsletter archive, a deal-breaker for this project. I didn't find it quite as robust, and also didn't like its editor as much as that of the competitors I've already mentioned. It could still be right for you.

Finally, a limited endorsement: InOut Mailing List Manager, FastSender and PG Email Newsletter could meet your needs. They do not have the ease-of-use of their competitors, and do require some configuration by a programmer - especially if you want to integrate past newsletters into your site. Still, their one-time low cost is appealing. One of them might meet your needs, but be very sure they meet your needs, and that you have the resources to adapt and manage your customized installation.
 

And some to avoid ...

I cannot endorse Bronto or Pinpointe. Their monthly cost is much higher than that of their competitors. Pinpointe's as good as the others, but I actually found Bronto less intuitive than those cheaper alternatives.

The freeware programs were a huge disappointment. Sometimes Open-Source Software shines, sometimes it tanks. Some of these projects look good, on the surface, and then you start playing with it. Features are missing, others broken. No development on the project in four years. Huge amount of customization and coding required.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

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