Finding the right email marketing solution is more challenging than ever. Especially for small to midsize businesses (SMBs) who don’t only need to suss out their present marketing needs, but also consider how those efforts will play into future sales, customer relationship management (CRM), and analytical needs. iContact, which starts at $15 per month for 500 email contacts or opt-in subscribers, differentiates itself by offering such a broad set of features and manages to couple that with a pricing structure deliberately attractive to those just starting out in digital marketing. To this end, it provides a rich selection of marketing templates, an intuitive interface, and even automation tools all aimed at the beginner market.
In testing we’ve found iContact to be excellent for creating and tracking email campaigns but in this latest go-around with the product we find it now has a wider selection of tools, artwork, and integrations. Email creation remains good with a dynamic creation engine designed to be effective for both desktop and mobile viewing. iContact’s uncluttered and task-focused layout is easy to learn since it provides step-by-step instruction for building and sending various types of marketing campaign materials. It adheres to anti-spam and opt-in requirements which saves novice businesses and marketers from making costly mistakes. One final advantage is that iContact customers can send unlimited emails, something that will resonate with smaller businesses. A couple of limitations still exist, however, which include limited contact imports and metrics. Those issues place it a few slots behind PCMag’s dual Editors’ Choice winners, Campaigner and Mailchimp.
Editors’ Note: J2 Global, the company that owns iContact, also owns Ziff Davis and PCMag.com.
Pricing and Features
Similar to various email marketing tools, iContact’s subscription fee is based on the number of contacts in a businesses’ marketing database. As of December 2019, iContact pricing begins at $15 per month for 500 subscribers or email contacts; signing up for an annual plan brings the price down to $12.75 per month in the Base plan. This includes a drag-and-drop editor, Welcome series automation, and a stock image library. The Pro plan starts at $28 per month (or $23.80 on a yearly commitment) and adds Birthday/Anniversary series automation, Event promotion series automation, re-engagement/winback series automation, landing page creation and hosting, and non-opener segmentation.
Pricing is one way that iContact positions itself as an attractive solution for startups and newcomers to email marketing. First, there are 30-day free trials available for both its pricing tiers, and iContact also offers a 15-percent discount if you sign up for an annual contract. More importantly, where many email marketing tools place caps on the number of messages you can send in a month, there is no such limit with iContact. You can send as many messages as you wish. Plans are available month-to-month and you can cancel at any time, but there is no money-back guarantee. You must call to cancel; there is no way to do it through its website, which can be time consuming.
In terms of layout and user interface, iContact looks and feels like a serious business solution and may lack some of the playful elements we’ve seen in competing SMB-focused products. It does a great job of presenting options and dividing its features based on tasks, including Dashboard, Landing Pages (for Pro subscribers), Automation, Contacts, and File Library. Even the trial version is sufficiently full-featured for email marketing needs and also reveals a powerful array of automation options that businesses can build on.
Integrations are solid, including Google Analytics (GA) available but upon request. For those who want to grow their marketing efforts over time, iContact also offers CRM-like features with which you can use email marketing to draw in potential customers, and set up workflows based on their actions. For example, if a contact opened or ignored a previous email, this would be recorded in the database and routed for appropriate response. Funneling all these responses into actionable analytics can only help email marketers adjust their strategy towards more effective campaigns.
Setup and Registration
Registration is straightforward as all you need is your name, email address, password, and size of your contact list. The trial doesn’t require a credit card, which is nice since many managers who wish to test software and services are put off by having to add credit card information before they have made a buying decision.
iContact’s design and user interface will seem familiar to anyone who has used similar web-based tools. The left-hand navigation pane offers access to the main functions leaving the dynamic center screen for more detailed menus. The initial dashboard is well-laid-out, with call-to-action (CTA) buttons that make it easy to get started. Logging in reveals the impact your ongoing campaigns are making. This includes the last 10 emails sent, which are revealed on a chart by way of statistics. It’s convenient to be able to see the impact of campaigns. For managers, the standout statistics will be the unique Open Clicks and the Click-to-Open rate.
The dashboard also has links that let you integrate iContact with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and you can schedule posts and track analytics on those social media services. Given Instagram’s rising popularity this past few years, it would have been a definite plus to have integrations to that channel. You can extend iContact’s functionality by integrating with third-party services, including 123ContactForm, Salesforce, UltraCart, and Viewbix. You can even build your own third-party service with the iContact application programming interface (API).
First, we used copy and paste to add about a dozen contacts. If we would have checked the Require Confirmation checkbox, then each of these contacts would have received a confirmation email to verify that they wanted to receive emails. We then used the manual method, typing in contact information one record at a time. It is easy to upload files: iContact displays the files’ contents and asks you to label each column of data. The dashboard has options to create a sign-up form that can be added to Facebook pages, as well as forms for HTML pages. It’s a good way to attract more subscribers. Uploading a spreadsheet of contacts might seem like the most convenient way but any small variance in fields or lack of sections can lead to issues. The best practice seems to be manually adding in contacts once and making sure the contact information and all the details are still relevant.
After we uploaded the contents to our account, we selected a subset and copied them to new lists/segments. It was easy to delete the contacts, unsubscribe them, or add them to a Do Not Contact list. This level of user management is unusual, and I was really pleased to see that iContact offers such flexibility. We also liked the fact that you can use the iContact file-upload tool to handle mass unsubscribes and Do Not Contact lists. This is much easier than doing it all manually, record by record. We wish more services offered this functionality. You can also view the entire history for the contact by clicking “Browse Contact History.” This way, you can tell when the user was added, what email campaigns he or she has received, and his or her response rates.
iContact allowed all of our disposable Mailinator addresses with no comment. While it’s great for testing, we wish more services follow the GetResponse example and offer to block disposable addresses wherever possible. Considering that businesses are capped on the number of contacts, a filter like this would be quite helpful.
Many email marketing tools, such as AWeber, treat lists and segments as synonyms. While you can use each list as a way to segment users, iContact also lets you create user segments based on when the user was added to the database or by filtering for selected user data, such as the zip code, email domain, and so on.
It is possible to send auto-responders or event-based email messages, in iContact, but only when a new user is added to the list. There is no way to send emails based on other events, such as when a user clicks on a link or updates his or her profile, the way you can in Campaigner.
Anti-Spam Safeguards can Save SMBs
iContact is a stickler for anti-spamming and privacy regulations and as such has spelled out very clear anti-spam policy. More importantly, iContact strictly enforces its own terms and conditions as well as industry standards. This means that emails and newsletters sent through iContact need to adhere closely to the rules including anti-spam, opt-in email authorization, the use of bought e-mail lists, and other insidious email spamming practices. Send an email that potentially breaks any of its rules and iContact will catch it in its safety net, send you an email stating why your send was rejected, and guide your to their Deliverability Team to sort out the issues.
I see iContact’s adherence to privacy regulations and the resulting controls as a useful stopgap for novice marketers or newbies that may forget basic anti-spam rules in their eagerness to blast off an email campaign. For SMBs that may not have an informed marketing expert on staff, iContact’s proactive safeguards can save fledgling businesses from ruining their reputation just by making an email rookie mistake or by not following anti-spam protocols.
iContact makes it easy to create an email campaign thanks to its drag-and-drop editor as well as hundreds of design templates offered with MessageBuilder. Each one has tips and instructions for customizing your message with colors, links, photos, and other visual elements. You can create your own plain-text version of the message by setting the Plain-Text Version option to Manual, or by letting iContact automatically build one by leaving the setting at Automatic. iContact now has approximately 1,000 licensed images, which are quality photos and graphics that work great for email newsletters.
Working with images and overlaying text as well as resizing and basic editing is straightforward; the controls are similar to desktop or mobile image editors. Do note that, since this is a web-based tool, some web browsers may not be optimized to work well with the tool. During our testing, Apple’s Safari browser on MacOS was a bit janky. Using the tool on a Google Chrome-based browser or on Firefox, however, was quick and easy.
There is an image library that stores images and files used for the email campaign, but it’s really limited—just 5 MB of space. Use it wisely or just pay 10 percent of your monthly fee to get 10 megabytes (MB) of space, or 20 percent to get 25 MB space. This may have been acceptable a few years ago, but with today’s technology capable of handling higher-resolution images and video, it’s hardly enough asset storage for a service that offers unlimited emails.
Once you’re satisfied with your newsletter, you can send it right away, save it as draft, or schedule it for sending later. iContact’s editor makes it possible to preview emails as desktop or mobile files. This is helpful in ensuring that the message and design of the email comes across equally well on smaller, vertically-inclined smartphone screens as well as on larger and horizontally oriented laptop and desktop screens. Using iContact’s tools for a number of email-marketing sends will quickly train users on how to best design their templates for effective and responsive emails or newsletters.
Insightful Campaign Analytics
Sending your messages is only the start of your campaign. It’s critically important to be able to know whether your customers are actually looking at your messages and responding to them. You can track each campaign’s performance through the Compare Your Sent Messages graph, which clearly illustrates Unique Opens, Unique Clicks, and the click-to-open rate.
You can find results for all surveys, information about how many auto-responders have been sent, and open/click rates for email campaigns. You can see the numbers for opened, bounced, no-response, and clicked. The report also tracks social media reach on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. A pie chart shows the ratio between emails that were opened to emails that resulted in a click. There is no refresh button, so you’ll need to reload the page to see new data. Google Analytics integration is available upon request. The “Latest Opens by Platform” graph breaks down interactions coming from smartphones, tablets, or computers.
Since marketing trends can change quickly and it’s generally harder for smaller businesses to get an accurate read on how successful their marketing projects have been, quality analytics features in a program like iContact can be extremely helpful. iContact scores here because it does a better job than most at presenting analytical data clearly and in a way that can quickly help determine trends and deliver forecasts without the steep learning curve most similar tools require.
Impressive Knowledge Base and Support
No matter how intuitive and well-designed a dashboard is, there will be instances where users new to the solution might run into issues they can’t solve. Various SMB-focused solutions lack the white glove service expected from more costly enterprise-focused solutions and also have more limited options for free support or require a premium for access to an actual help desk. The trend is that many of the smaller players rely on users invoking a knowledge base of articles or engaging with user communities that share their issues and solutions. iContact’s knowledge base is informative and pushes the most common questions and potential issues forward.
For other support options, a handy drop-down Help button will reveal a link to Live Chat, Support phone, and email addresses, links to common functions (i.e., “Create a Message,” or “Upload Contacts from a File”). There are also links to video tutorials and the Help portal.
If you still need help, then you can search the built-in Help system for a knowledge base article, view video tutorials, and replay recorded webinars. There is phone support, but it is limited to Monday through Friday, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. That is a nice long stretch, but the lack of weekend support is a little disappointing. Online chat is also limited to the same timeframe. On weekends, your only hope is to send an email and hope someone gets back to you before Monday.
iContact provides a straightforward email marketing and automation solution that should suit the needs of most SMBs, though parts of it are especially focused on beginners. Creating well-designed and effective emails is something most users will be able to do thanks to step-by-step instructions and adherence to anti-spam regulations. Support isn’t as abundant as other solutions, but a broad knowledge base and ample contact help desk options help smooth things over. Users will miss the ability to import from Gmail, however. A range of automation options and considerate pricing structure make iContact a worthy contender in the email marketing space.
|Limited Free Trial||Yes|
|Social Media Integration||No|
|24/7 Phone Support||No|