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Email Marketing: iContact vs. MailChimp - First Look

Update! MailChimp updated its interface, and you can find our overview here.

For small businesses and non-profit organizations, one of the easiest ways to stay in touch with customers and supporters is to send them a weekly, monthly, or quarterly electronic newsletter.

Sending newsletters via email instead of snail mail can be a very cost-effective strategy, eliminating the need to print the newsletter, stuff them in envelopes, and pay for postage.

Electronic newsletters also offer both you and your subscribers many benefits, some of which were covered in a previous blog post, Is it Time to Use an Email Marketing Service?

In this post, I'd like to dig into the basics of the two email marketing services mentioned in our previous post, iContact and MailChimp. The purpose is to highlight strengths and weaknesses of each based on our first impression of both.

How much will it cost?

MailChimp LogoEmail marketing is a competitive industry and things change often as the services constantly try to one-up each other. As of this writing, pricing for iContact and MailChimp is not identical, but it's close enough that it probably won't play a factor in your decision in most cases.

However, if you have less than 2,000 subscribers and send less than 12,000 messages per month, MailChimp is free. You'll pay $29/month ($24.95/month with an annual discount) for an equivalent plan from iContact. This might make the choice clear enough that you stop reading now and click right over to MailChimp, but there are other things you may want to consider.

Is it easy to use?

iContact LogoThe two services have very different looks. Whereas MailChimp's is a very minimalistic look and feel, iContact takes a more direct approach, displaying more information and options, but in an organized way.

MailChimp's "less is more" approach results in a less intuitive user interface. In many cases, you are shown only what MailChimp thinks you need to see to complete the current action (e.g., creating a campaign). As a result, I often find myself having to backtrack to get to functionality I should be able to click right into. The lack of cancel buttons where I expected them also added some frustration, especially as I was learning to use the tool.

By displaying more on the screen, iContact allows you to get to pretty much whatever you need whenever you want to. Though the navigation is more complex than MailChimp's, it's also significantly more intuitive. Both services offer hundreds of templates with which you can start, or you can copy and paste HTML to generate your message.

iContact's MessageBuilder provides a "what you see is what you get" (wysiwyg) tool you can use to modify a template, allowing you to upload and insert your logo and other images and add and format the text in your message. MailChimp has a similar tool. While editing text and adding images is easy enough in both applications, I like the way iContact lets you edit inline, right in the message, so you can see what it looks like as you do it.

With MailChimp, editing opens just that section in a new window so you lose the context of the whole message. MailChimp offers spam checking for paid accounts as well as an Inbox Inspector, allowing you to see your campaign in 30+ email clients as well as check for spammy content before you send, on a pay-as-you-go basis.

In iContact, spam and spell checking are built-in options in MessageBuilder's editor. In both applications, messages can be sent immediately or you can schedule them to be sent later and both offer the ability to post to Facebook and Twitter automatically.

So, which one is better?

Based on this high-level review, if you're a low-volume sender and cost is your primary concern, MailChimp is the way to go. You'll get used to the interface after sending a few campaigns.

If you have lots and lots of contacts and send them lots and lots of messages or if you want to jump right in and start using the tool right now with the least amount of frustration, iContact might be a better fit for you.

Both MailChimp and iContact have loads of other features that might make one or the other a better option for you. If you're interested, there are a lot of side-by-side reviews of these and other email marketing services on the Internet as well. Be warned, though, the results vary a lot between reviews.

Since MailChimp has a free plan and iContact offers a 30-day free trial, why not try them both and decide for yourself? If you've tried either one of these tools and have thoughts about them, chime in with your comments.