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Benchmark and iContact Reviews: Best Email Marketing Software for Small Businesses

After conducting extensive research and analysis, we recommend Benchmark and iContact as our 2017 picks for the best email marketing services for small businesses. To understand how we selected our best picks, you can find our methodology and a comprehensive list of email marketing services on our best picks page.

Benchmark combines ease of use with a wide variety of design options to deliver the best value for the price. The company also provides excellent customer service. Benchmark has a free plan, as well as paid plans that start at $12 per month.

Out of all the services we tested, Benchmark had the best combination of producing professional-looking emails and being easy to use, even if you have no prior experience with email marketing.

To create emails, Benchmark offers a drag-and-drop editor for those with no design experience, a code editor for advanced users who have expertise in writing HTML code, and a plain text editor for creating text-only emails.

The drag-and-drop editor is simple to use. It lays out all the steps in a very natural way that makes it simple to understand. You start by picking a layout. You can create your own layout from scratch or choose one of the nearly 200 predesigned templates. The templates are categorized by industry and theme. 

Benchmark's drag and drop editor allows you to add in or delete as many content blocks as you like.

    

Whether you choose your own layout or use a predesigned template, the emails are broken up into various content blocks, such as image, text, boxed text, buttons, social shares and navigation bars, which you can tailor in any way you like. You can adjust their size, add in text, and change text size, alignment and color. You can also choose background colors for not only each box, but the entire message, and you can add or delete content blocks. In addition, there is a robust photo editing tool that allows you to alter photos by size, brightness and contrast and to add effects and frames to them.

Editor's note: Looking for information about email marketing software? Use the questionnaire below and our vendor partner will contact you to provide you with the information you need: 

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When you're finished creating an email, you can run several tests to ensure it looks as you intended on mobile devices, doesn't include anything that can be flagged as spam and doesn't have any spelling errors. For advanced users writing their own HTML, the software offers a dual-view option that lets them see the design of the email as they're inputting the code.

The last step is to schedule when the email should be sent out. You have the choice of sending it immediately or picking a specific date and time.

Building contact lists is also simple. You can add addresses individually; import them from an XLS, CSV or TXT file; or upload them from a wide variety of popular applications, including Shopify, Gmail, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce and WordPress.

Once you add an address, you can create a complete profile for that subscriber that includes name, address, phone number, job title and any other notes.

Benchmark offers nearly all the features you need to create and manage email marketing campaigns. These are some of the tools it includes:

  • Analytics: You can access reports that provide statistics on how many emails were opened, bounced, unopened and clicked through, as well as how many unsubscribes there were and how many emails were forwarded. Details on how well campaigns performed on social media are also available.
  • Responsive design: All of the templates and layouts have a responsive design that automatically optimizes them for each device they are opened on.
  • Color scheme palette: You can choose colors individually or pick from nearly 30 preset color combinations that work well together.
  • A/B testing: You can test out different aspects of a campaign, such as subject line, design or delivery time, to see which resonates more with readers.
  • Autoresponders: You can create messages that are automatically sent to contacts based on certain actions. For example, you can create welcome messages that are sent to contacts when they register their email address or a birthday message that goes out on each contact's birthday.
  • Segmentation: You can segment each list to send targeted emails to certain demographics among your customers. Segments can be broken down by sign-up date, ZIP code, interests, purchase history or any other field, or a combination of fields.
  • Mobile app: The Benchmark mobile app, available on iPhone and Android devices, lets you view previous campaigns, add in contacts and see statistics on how campaigns are faring.
Benchmark provides statistics on how many of emails were opened and how many were bounced, as well as details on how many were opened, forwarded and had web links that were clicked.

Other features Benchmark includes are tools to create polls and surveys, the ability to add videos into email campaigns, and a web form creator that allows you to design an email address collection form for your website.

Benchmark offers both free and paid plans.

  • Free plan: With the free account, you can send up to 14,000 emails a month to as many as 2,000 subscribers. The differences between the free and paid accounts is that, with the free plan, the Benchmark logo is included on each email, there are no subaccounts, and there isn't the option of sending targeted emails.
  • Paid plans: If you have a contact list of 50,000 subscribers or fewer, Benchmark allows you to send an unlimited number of messages each month. There is a cap on messages per month for businesses with lists of more than 50,000.

Prices for the unlimited-sending plans are as low as $11.95 for 600 contacts and $18.95 for 1,000 contacts to as much as $217.95 for 45,000 contacts and $230.95 for 50,000 contacts. You can view the complete pricing list on the Benchmark website. Larger plans, with caps on the number of emails you can send, range from $260 per month for 55,000 contacts and 770,000 sends to $5,000 per month for 1,215,000 contacts and 17,000,000 sends.

The only potential add-on cost is for a dedicated IP. Dedicated IPs, special internet addresses that only your business uses to send out emails, cost $28.95 per month.

We were pleased with the customer service we received from Benchmark. To test what customers can expect from the support team, we called the company multiple times posing as a new business owner interested in the service.

Each of our calls were answered by helpful representatives who spent as much time as we needed answering our questions. Unlike some of the other providers that didn't seem interested in taking the time to speak with us, the Benchmark representatives were friendly and willing to make sure we fully understood the service.

Where Benchmark really shines is its live chat tool. We tested this out on several occasions and were thrilled with the response we got each time. Every time we had a question, day or night, a Benchmark representative was available to answer our question within seconds, which wasn't the case with many of the other providers we considered.

Benchmark representatives are available by phone between 9:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday (EST). The live chat support is accessible 24/7.

Benchmark also has an impressive help section on its website that features a learning center, FAQs, video tutorials, webinars and an API toolkit.

One drawback is the lack of landing page tools. Most of the other services we evaluated offered the ability to create landing pages. With Benchmark, you don't have this option.

Another potential negative is that you can only receive technical support with Benchmark. If you need design or strategy guidance, you're out of luck. If you think you'll need these services, we would encourage you to consider iContact, our other pick as the best email marketing service for small businesses. You can read more about iContact below.

While Benchmark is an excellent do-it-yourself option, we found the expert guidance iContact offers appealing. In addition to its DIY services, we liked iContact for its solid industry reputation and strategy and design consulting services for small businesses. iContact prices start at $14 per month.

iContact offers two main service plans, Email Marketing and Pro Automation, that differ in price and number of features. Pricing for both plans is based strictly on list sizes.

Email Marketing

  • Cost: Ranges from $14 per month for 500 subscribers to $117 for 15,000 subscribers
  • Features: Drag-and-drop editing, A/B testing, list management, autoresponders, responsive design, campaign tracking, social media sharing and positing, PDF links, and API support
  • Optional features: Custom design work, Google Analytics, multiple users and multiple folders

Pro Automation

  • Cost: Ranges from $99 per month for 500 subscribers to $249 per month for 15,000 subscribers
  • Features: Everything in the Email Marketing plan plus workflows, triggered messages, landing pages, engagement tracking, behavior targeting, social monitoring, funnel reports, onboarding advice and Google Analytics
  • Optional features: Custom objects, Zapier integration and multiple profiles

iContact offers a 15 percent discount on both plans if you prepay for a year. There is also a 30-day free trial for either plan.

What really attracted us to iContact were the expert services it can provide small businesses. In addition to its regular plans, iContact offers a Premier plan, which combines the DIY platform with expert guidance from an email marketing expert. While it is significantly more expensive than a regular DIY service, it can bring a lot of value to a small business that doesn't have much marketing experience.

iContact's Premier plan, which starts at $250 per month, gives businesses the ability to work with a dedicated strategic advisor. The advisor helps you develop a 90-day action plan for getting your email marketing efforts started off on the right foot. In addition, Premier plan users can work with iContact's design team to develop customized templates. These templates are saved into your account for you to use as often as you like.

What's nice about the Premier plan is that you aren't locked into a lengthy contract. While iContact does ask for a 90-day commitment, there is no obligation to continue with the services after that. If you feel like you learned enough about the process and feel comfortable doing it all on your own, you are free to switch back to one of iContact's regular plans.

iContact uses two separate platforms for its plans. We tested out the Email Marketing platform and found it very simple to use. The platform's dashboard is simple to navigate. It has links that allow you to quickly create messages, add and review contacts, see the images you have saved, and create social postings.

The dashboard also highlights your most recent email marketing campaigns and some quick stats on each, such as how many people opened your email, how many clicked through to your website and the devices they opened your email on.

When creating a message, you can use the system's drag-and-drop editor or HTML coder. You can also create plain text messages. When using the drag-and-drop editor, you start by choosing from one of iContact's 12 layout designs.

You can create messages with a drag and drop editor or HTML coding

The layouts are filled with different content blocks, such as text, images, headers and logos. You can remove and add any content block, as well as edit the text and colors of each block any way you like. When choosing a color scheme, you can pick from an extensive palette or select one of 15 preset themes.

After you create the message, you can preview how it looks on computers and mobile devices, and run it through a series of tests to ensure there aren't any spelling errors or content that will get it flagged as spam.

You can add contacts into the system one at a time or upload them using CSV, VCARD, XLS or XLSX files. Once you add a contact, you can build a complete profile that includes the contact's name, physical address and phone number. You can create custom fields for any other information you deem important.

iContact allows you to add in subscriber email addresses one at a time or all at once via a CSV, VCARD, XLS or XLSX file.

We were extremely impressed with the customer service iContact provided. To test what you can expect from the support team, we called the company multiple times posing as a new business owner interested in the service.

Each of our calls were answered by friendly and helpful representatives who gave us detailed and thorough explanations of both main plans and how they differed from each other. They also explained to us what the Premier plan included and how it can help businesses. We liked that they didn't try to rush us off the phone and took as much time as needed to answer all of our questions.

We were just as happy with the live chat support. Each time we asked a question, it was answered in just a few seconds and in just as much detail as we received over the phone. Overall, between the phone and live chat tool, iContact provided some of the best customer service we received during our research of email marketing services.

iContact offers phone and live chat support between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. In addition, you can access more than 40 video tutorials when logged in to the system that teach you everything from creating and sending messages to adding and editing contacts.

The biggest drawback to iContact is the price. It's one of the more expensive services we considered, especially if you are looking to take advantage of the expert advice. However, getting to work one-on-one with an email marketing expert who understands your goals and objectives can provide a lot of value to your business. If iContact isn't in your price range, we would encourage you to consider Benchmark, our other pick as one of the best email marketing services for small businesses, or GetResponse, our pick as the best low-cost email marketing service.

Another potential negative with iContact is that it doesn't provide the wide selection of predesigned templates that many other services do. It does offer preset layout designs, but if you are looking for a service that includes templates for various themes and events, like newsletters or holidays, you should consider a different service.

Additionally, iContact uses two different platforms for its Email Marketing and Pro Automation plans. That means if you switch from one plan to the other, you have to readjust to how the platform works.

Small Business
Benchmark
Read Review
  • Design Editor
    Drag and Drop/HTML Code
  • Starting Monthly Cost
    $11.95 for 600 contacts
  • Free Trial
    Forever free for 2,000 contacts
  • Transactional Emails
    No
  • Mobile App
    iOS and Android
Small Business
iContact
Read Review
  • Design Editor
    Drag and Drop
  • Starting Monthly Cost
    $14 for 500 Contacts
  • Free Trial
    30 Days
  • Transactional Emails
    No
  • Mobile App
    No
Free Service
MailChimp
Read Review
  • Design Editor
    Drag and Drop/HTML Code
  • Starting Monthly Cost
    $10 for 500 Contacts
  • Free Trial
    Forever Free for 2,000 Contacts
  • Transaction Emails
    Yes Via Mandrill Add-On
  • Mobile App
    iOS and Android
Low Cost Service
GetResponse
Read Review
  • Design Editor
    Drag and Drop/HTML Code
  • Starting Monthly Cost
    $15 for 1,000 contacts
  • Free Trial
    30 Days
  • Transactional Emails
    No
  • Mobile App
    iOS and Android
E-Commerce
SendinBlue
Read Review
  • Design Editor
    Drag and Drop/HTML Code
  • Starting Monthly Cost
    $7.37 for 40,000 emails
  • Free Trial
    Free for 9,000 email per month
  • Transactional Emails
    Yes
  • Mobile App
    iOS and Android

Want to learn more about email marketing software? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

Editor's note: Looking for information about email marketing software? Use the questionnaire below and our vendor partner will contact you to provide you with the information you need:

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.