Marketing Automation’s Finest Tools
Email marketing is a great first step toward developing solid communications with your customers and prospects. But once you’ve moved past one-off messages and you’ve decided to create prolonged, personalized messages powered by customer data, it’s time to try marketing automation. No tools better exemplify the simplicity, effectiveness, and scalability of marketing automation software than our Editors’ Choice tools HubSpot and Pardot. Both offer a vast array of functionality that should suit your business regardless of how intricate your marketing strategy might be. We found HubSpot to be better equipped for small businesses that are steadily growing their marketing activity, whereas Pardot is ideal for large enterprises with complicated marketing plans already in place. We also tested eight other marketing automation tools, each of which offer some unique features that make them stand out from the field.
What Is Marketing Automation?
Marketing automation software lets you build pre-programmed email marketing sequences that don’t require manual intervention. Unlike standard email campaigns designed to make the most of a one-off message, marketing automation workflows are typically designed by using if/then branching elements that funnel contacts through a sequence based on how they interact with your marketing collateral. By using email opens, link clicks, web form submissions, abandoned e-commerce shopping carts, and a wide assortment of customer data, you can turn a simple user action into a multi-step interaction meant to guide customers from prospect status to purchase and back again.
Similar to standard email marketing software vendors, marketing automation software vendors have created workflow templates that help guide you through the automation process. This way, you don’t have to build new sequences from scratch. These templates usually start with a basic interaction, such as a “Welcome” or a “Thank you for making a purchase” message. Once a contact receives the initial email, he or she is guided through a sequence based on his or her actions. For example, if John receives a welcome message and he clicks a link to an offer, then that action automatically pulls him onto a distinct email marketing journey. Conversely, if Sally deletes her welcome message, then she may automatically be pulled off of the workflow to conserve your email output.
How complicated and how deep your campaigns run is determined by which vendor you choose. For example, Hubspot and Pardot both offer unlimited email and unlimited sequencing options. This means you can create a workflow with multiple branches for each stage of the sequence, and you can create an unlimited number of sequences (not that you would). Conversely, Zoho Campaigns is mostly designed for users who want to follow customary workflows that guide users on basic sequences. As a result, Zoho Campaigns doesn’t offer unlimited sequencing or branching. This tool is perfectly suitable for marketers who just want to make an offer after a welcome email or for marketers who want to wish people a happy birthday once a year.
Pricing and Plans
Marketing automation software is typically priced one of two ways: by the number of contacts in your database or by the number of emails you send each month. For example, the Standard Pardot plan costs $1,000 per month for email marketing, prospect tracking, lead nurturing and scoring, reporting, forms and landing pages, and standard Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM). This plan can be upgraded to two higher tiers, each of which offers additional features, plug-ins, and add-ons. However, all three Pardot plans give you capacity for 10,000 contacts.
Don’t be alarmed by Pardot’s price tag as it’s easily the most expensive tool we reviewed. Hubspot lets you store 10,000 contacts for $1,200 per month for its most Basic plan; $1,250 per month for its second-most feature-rich plan, and $2,400 for the Enterprise plan. If you don’t need that massive amount of contact storage, then you can start with 100 contacts for just $200 month.
On the lower end of the pricing spectrum, you’ll find products such as Infusionsoft, which costs $379 per month for five users; 10,000 contacts, and 50,000 emails per month. The Complete package also includes Infusionsoft’s four core feature sets (CRM, e-commerce, marketing automation, and sales automation) at no extra charge. SendinBlue and Zoho Campaigns both offer free plans for anyone who is unwilling to spend even a dime for marketing workflows. Both tools scale upward for added capacity and complexity, and each offers pay-as-you-go plans for companies just dipping their toes into email marketing and marketing automation.
In addition to an organic integration with Salesforce, Pardot offers one of the cleanest user interfaces (UIs) and one of the largest variety of pre-built templates on the market. But its best features are designed to improve your workflows once they’ve been created. For example, you can pre-test the process of an automated program to see how it reacts. This is essentially a fire drill automation campaign to ensure your complex branching doesn’t lead to a dead end or a duplicate email. Pardot also lets you schedule social media campaigns and post in real time to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter simultaneously. If you really want to manage your marketing program from within one solution, then Pardot also offers a search marketing tool that plugs into Bing, Google, and Yahoo. You can check search engine rankings, monthly volumes, and ranking difficulties as well as run competitor analysis and monitor your paid search campaigns. No other tool we reviewed offers search marketing functionality.
HubSpot heavily relies on list building to help you manage your workflows. The tool lets you shrink (or grow) your lists in the same way you would narrow down products on Amazon or eBay, a feature which is incredibly straightforward and fast. When you add a URL to a contact record, HubSpot will automatically pull in demographic information, such as the contact’s company location and number of employees. You can email a contact directly from the Contact Record, and you can make a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) call if you have turned on this paid feature of HubSpot Sales. This integration lets you log and save call information within each contact record so there is a transparent history of which marketers and sales professionals interacted with contacts. You can also schedule interactions with contacts. You won’t find these features on the other platforms we reviewed.
Infusionsoft is the only drag-and-drop tool we tested, which is a nifty feature for marketers who may wish to work on touchscreens or don’t have time to deal with lengthy drop-down menus. It also provides unique tag removal that automatically pulls contacts from campaigns if they perform a certain action. For example, if contacts don’t open three emails in a row, then you can set the tool to remove all such contacts from the workflow. This way, you’re not sending messages into a vacuum. The tool also gives you the most useful real-time alert dashboard of any that we tested in this class. It lets you see every contact interaction with anyone in your database. So, if you sent an email to someone a week ago but they just opened it this second, then you’ll see their name pop up at the top of your dashboard. From this tab, you can send a follow-up email or adjust the contact’s standing within the specific workflow.
The Bottom Line
These are just some of the amazing features you’ll find when using marketing automation software. As a result, it’s important for you to determine your most needed features before making a purchase decision. None of the tools we tested are bad. In fact, each of them will provide you with more power than your standard email marketing platform will.
However, some are better than others, some are more expensive, and some do a better job letting you customize your workflows to suit your specific needs. In addition to these 10 tools, PCMag will continue to test marketing automation software in order to provide you with a comprehensive list of the best tools available. We’ll update this roundup in the coming months as we add to and refine our rankings.
The Best Marketing Automation Software: