Email Marketing Automation: The Best Tools Compared

Email is a powerful marketing tool and a mailing list is easily an online business' most valuable asset.

It makes sense, then, to ask yourself which one of the many email marketing tools available is "the best". Unfortunately, this question is difficult to answer. Email marketing tools tend to be highly complex and packed with features. Testing even one of them is time consuming and it's impossible to cover all possible business cases.

In this post, we'll ​use an 80/20 approach to compare some of the most popular email marketing tools out there. We will look at Active Campaign, Autopilot, ConvertKit and Drip and we'll be evaluating them by asking the toughest questions...​

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The "Toughest Questions" Approach

Email marketing tools are ubiquitous and there are more things they have in common with each other, than things that set them apart.

In this review, I'm ignoring all of the basic features that you get with almost any tool. ​I'm not asking questions like:

​Softball Questions We ​Won't ​Be Asking:​​​

  • ​Can you send broadcast emails?
  • Can you send automated sequences of follow-up emails?
  • ​Are the emails you send mobile responsive, so they look good on large and small screens alike?
  • Can you categorize your subscribers into different lists?
  • Can you apply tags to your subscribers, for detailed list segmentation?
Can you send email broadcasts?
Can you send automated follow-up email sequences?
Can you segment your subscribers into different lists?
Can you apply tags to subscribers, for more detailed segmentation?
Can you compose emails that will look good on mobile devices as well as large screens?

Any email marketing tool where the answer to all of the above isn't "yes" doesn't even deserve your attention.

Instead, I'm going to ask the toughest questions. The questions about features and scenarios that challenge or break even some of the most sophisticated email marketing systems.

Note: that means things are about to get pretty heavy in this review. After this next section, we're diving deep into marketing automation geekery. I know that's not for everyone, so feel free to skip to the conclusion, where I tie all of this up as neatly as I can.

Autoresponder or Email Marketing Automation?

Speaking of tough questions vs. basic features, let's briefly talk about marketing automation.

Email marketing tools have been around for a long time. Originally, they were known as "autoresponders" and they were simple. You could add subscribers to one or several lists and you could send a sequence of timed messages to subscribers, after they signed up.

These were blunt force marketing tools. For the most part, all your subscribers got the same sequence of messages, no matter who they were or what they did.

As inboxes became more and more crammed with unwanted email and engagement rates went down, the marketing tools had to evolve.

What's happened in the last ​couple of years in the email marketing space can be summed up in one image:

This example is taken from Drip, but it's characteristic. Every serious email marketing service has added a form of this, recently. What we're looking at is called a "campaign", an "automation" or a "workflow".

In this review, I'll use the term "automation". What matters is this concept: instead of sending people through a linear follow-up sequence, you create campaigns with conditional flows. If the subscriber does this, then that happens. If the subscriber does something else, something else happens.

It's no wonder that all the tools have jumped on the bandwagon of conditional automations. Making sure you segment your list and send the right messages to the right people, at the right time, is crucial to getting good results with email marketing.

​Many email marketing services advertise such automation features as if they're a brand new and revolutionary invention. However, at this point, I consider automations a standard feature. Unless an email marketing tool has this, it's not worth your time at all.

​For this review, here are some points regarding automations:

  1. I refer to the tools that do this as "email marketing automation" tools. There are still many email marketing tools that don't have conditional automation features. My recommendation is that you don't even consider using these.
  2. Because this is the most important feature in an email marketing automation tool, this is where our testing is focused. You can compose a nice looking email and send newsletters to your list, no matter which tool you use, so we're not going to waste time on those basic features.
  3. We're only even looking at tools that use conditional automation as a core feature. There are some services that have tacked on some semblance of this feature, but they're clearly not taking it very seriously. I'm not wasting time on those, either.

The Contenders

The tools we are examining in this review are:

​These are, from my experience with many email marketing tools so far, the strongest contenders currently in the field. I chose these 4 contenders because they are among the very few that don't fail immediately when we start asking tough questions.

And with that, let's get into our comparison and start asking some tough questions.

How to Interpret the Comparison Tables

Throughout the review, you'll find comparison tables listing features in a specific category and ratings for each of the services. Here's what the symbols in the tables mean:

Symbol

Meaning

Feature not available or very poorly implemented.

Feature is available.

Feature is available and particularly well implemented.

​Product Purchases ​& Revenue Tracking

​Segmenting your audience into different groups and sub-groups is vital to good marketing. And what's especially important is to know who purchased which products. Let's look at what features we have for tracking product purchases and segmenting contacts based on different actions.

Product Purchase & Revenue Tracking, Question 1:

Can I track product purchases/transactions?

This is the first question I'm asking because A) it's tricky to get this right and B) if you don't get it right, you can forget about setting up really useful automations.

ActiveCampaign

​Autopilot

❌

​ConvertKit

​Drip

Sales conversion tracking:

Direct integration:

Shopify, BigCommerce, WooCommerce

Recurly

Shopify, WooCommerce, Gumroad, MemberMouse + 26 more

​Stripe, PayPal, ClickBank, WooCommerce, MemberMouse + 24 more

Zapier integration:

​Revenue tracking:

ActiveCampaign

With ActiveCampaign, you can track sales conversions in one of 2 ways:

  1. Assign a "purchased product X" tag when someone makes a purchase.
  2. Use their "Deep Data" integration (limited to Shopify, WooCommerce and BigCommerce) to track purchases and revenue.

The second option is limited and the first option requires that you either set up a Zapier connection or do some custom coding to integrate your payment processor or shopping cart with ActiveCampaign.

Overall, ActiveCampaign checkes all the boxes here, but it's a pretty weak showing.

Autopilot

Autopilot is "the same but worse" as what I just said about ActiveCampaign, above. Direct integration is limited to Recurly, everything else requires either a Zapier integration or custom coding. Even if you use Recurly, you can't create campaigns that optimize for revenue.

ConvertKit

ConvertKit provides direct, codeless integrations with many membership plugins, payment providers and shopping carts. You can then tag your ConvertKit contacts with "purchased product X" type tags to run automations and send follow up emails.

Unfortunately, there's no revenue tracking and thus also no optimizing for revenue, using ConvertKit.

Drip

Out of this comparison, Drip emerges as the strongest candidate. It is the only tool that can track product purchases as well as revenue generated, by default. The only downside is that it only tracks revenue within a series of emails, not throughout an entire automation flow. Drip also has many direct integrations with payment processors, ecommerce and membership tools, so you can tag your contacts and trigger campaigns and automations based on product purchases, without having to write any code.

Product Purchase & Revenue Tracking, Question 2:

Can I send product promotions until someone buys?

Here's a practical use of being able to track purchase activity in your email marketing tool:​ someone signs up as a new subscriber. ​You want to send them a series of emails that provide content and promote one of ​your products. BUT: ​as soon as the subscriber makes a purchase, you want to make sure they no longer receive promotional emails for that product.

In short: we want a way to avoid sending people promotions for products they've already purchased.

ActiveCampaign

​Here's what it looks like in ActiveCampaign:

​We have a series of emails that are sent with delays in between. ​The yellow thing is a "Goal" trigger you can place in your automation. As soon as the goal defined in this trigger is met, the subscriber going through this automation will jump to the position of the goal trigger and ignore any steps in between.

Autopilot

Autopilot has a slightly different approach:

Here, a follow-up sequence of emails is laid out and a new trigger is placed outside of that sequence (the black "API Trigger" element). Once this trigger fires, we update a custom field for the subscriber (equivalent to adding a tag in the other systems) and then eject the contact from this sequence. We can start a new automation based on the updated field, but we can't skip to a different point in the same automation.

ConvertKit & Drip

In ConvertKit and Drip, the solutions are identical:

ConvertKit:

​Drip:

​In both cases, we have a trigger that sets off the automation, then a series of promotional emails, all represented as a single step in the automation. Then, there's a second trigger for the purchase event. As soon as this trigger is fired it "pulls" subscribers from wherever they were in the sequence to the position of the trigger, thus skipping further promotional emails.

This is basically the same way the goal trigger in ActiveCampaign works, just the visual representation in the workflow is different.

Winner of Product Purchase & Revenue Tracking

Quite frankly, none of the tools impressed me much, in this comparison. Given how crucial email marketing can be to generating revenue for a business, I'm surprised that proper integrations with payment processing services and revenue tracking for emails and campaigns aren't more common. However, I have to hand it to Drip: they come closest to what I'd consider an ideal solution.

​Behavior Based Segmentation

The power of marketing automation lies in behavior based segmentation. Your subscribers reveal what they want and need from you in part through actions they take: emails they open or ignore, links they click, pages on your website they visit and so on.

​Let's examine how well you can track and respond to such interest signals in the different tools:

ActiveCampaign

​Autopilot

❌

​ConvertKit

​Drip

​Track email link clicks:

​Track page views:

Track website link clicks:

​WP plugin for tracking:

Behavior Based Segmentation, Question 1:

Can I track email link clicks and use them as conditions in an automation?

​In all of the automation tools, you can track clicks on email links and respond to it in your automation.

ActiveCampaign

Here's what it looks like in ActiveCampaign:

​The solution is very convenient. Without needing to do anything manually, any link click within any email you create in ActiveCampaign is trackable by default and you can easily insert a "has clicked link" condition in your automations.

​I'd call the implementation in ActiveCampaign "perfect", if it weren't for the Autopilot feature which is even better...

Autopilot

Here's "even better" summed up in a single gif:

​By default, you can trigger different actions from any sent email, based on opens, clicks, unsubsribes and more. You can also use an "email condition" block which has the same options and further ones and can be added after a delay. Here's what our example sequence could look like in Autopilot:

​This follows the same logic as the ActiveCampaign example above, but it was quicker to set up in Autopilot.

ConvertKit

​In ConvertKit, we can accomplish the same thing, but it's a bit more complicated:

​The way it works here is that when we add a link to an email, we can choose to tag subscribers once they click this link. In the automation, we can then check if the tag exists and base a branching path on that.

The downside of this is that A) you have to create tags manually and B) if you do this a lot in your automations, it leads to tag bloat. It means that for every link you want to be able to track, you'll have one more tag on record and your subscribers will potentially have dozens or hundreds of tags applied based on links they have or haven't clicked.

Drip

Finally, we can also accomplish this same result in Drip, but this tool really puts you through an obstacle course to get there...

​This may look simple in the automation, but it takes many steps to arrive at this. In order to make this condition possible, you have to add a "trigger link" to an email. But in order to do that, you must first create a "rule" for such a trigger link. And in order to do that, you must first go to your subscribers dashboard and create a new tag. So, to set it up:

  1. Create a new "clicked link X" tag. Let's call it "tag 1".
  2. Create a rule which states "if subscriber clicks this link, apply ​tag 1". Let's call this "rule 1".
  3. Create an email and add a link which will fire rule 1 when it's clicked.
  4. Create a condition in the automation that checks for tag 1.

There are two problems with this implementation. The first is tag bloat, the same as with ConvertKit. The second is that it's so inconvenient to set this up that you probably won't do it often. In other words, you use the feature to its full potential, because it's too much bother.

​What really frustrated me about this is that Drip actually has a way to record custom events (see further below), which would be ideal for something like tracking a link click. However, the feature can't be used to accomplish what we're trying to do with this automation. At least, I couldn't find any way to do so. It seems to be a case of "so close and yet so far..." with the custom events feature.

Behavior Based Segmentation, Question 2:

​Can I use pageviews on my website to trigger or change automations?

One level beyond the interaction with emails you send out is the interaction that happens on your website. Let's illustrate and test this based on a practical and valuable scenario: we want to send a specific series of messages to visitors who seem to spend a lot of time looking at our pricing page, but haven't made a purchase yet.

ActiveCampaign

In ActiveCampaign, we have two readily available options for doing this. One is to create an automation that updates a specific lead score every time someone visits the pricing page:

​We're giving a visitor 1 point to their "pricing" lead score every time they hit the pricing page. We can also make these points expire after, say, 1 week. Then, we can create an automation that starts when this score reaches 3 points. Meaning: the contact has viewed the pricing page 3 times in the last 7 days.

​We're also segmenting this automation so that it only applies to subscribers who aren't already customers. We can then send one or several messages and use the "goal" feature to make sure the promotional messages stop as soon as a purchase is made.

Autopilot

Autopilot offers similar functionality, although here, we can keep everything neatly organized in a single automation:

​We have a trigger that increases a lead score by 1 point every time the pricing page is viewed. The second trigger runs for non-customers who have a score of 3 or more and sends a series of messages. The final trigger fires as soon as someone becomes a customer and ejects them from the journey, thus preventing promotional email for a product that was already purchased.

ConvertKit

With ConvertKit, we can trigger an automation based on a pageview on the pricing page BUT, we can only do this via their WordPress plugin and we can only do it by tagging visitors to the pricing page immediately. In other words, we can't have a condition that waits for someone to visit the pricing page more than once. The solution ends up looking like this:

We can more or less get the desired result, but ConvertKit is showing some weakness here, compared to other solutions. Note that it is possible to work around the limitatons, but not without significant tag bloat (and inconvenience in setting everything up).

Drip

​Drip puts us in an awkward position, regarding this scenario. Drip has lead scoring, but you can only have a single lead score. That means you can't use the feature to track someone's interest in specific areas such as interest based on viewing a pricing page or interest based on viewing products of a specific category.

​That means we can "gut" the lead scoring system to use it for only this one indication of interest (pricing page) or we can try to create a more generic interest follow-up based on the lead scoring system. Personally, I think this isn't very useful because if we track a score based on various page visits, email opens, link clicks and so on, we know that a subscriber is highly interested if they have a high score, but we don't know ​what they are interested in​.

Alternatively, we can trigger a follow-up as soon as someone visits our pricing page, as we did with ConvertKit.​​​

Behavior Based Segmentation, Question 3:

Can I track link clicks on my website and landing pages?

This question is about taking click interactions beyond the emails you send. The scenario is this: can we send subscribers to a landing page where they click one of several links and we tag them based on what link they clicked?

ActiveCampaign

ActiveCampaign does have a feature for "event tracking", but it's a feature that's made for developers. Without custom coding, you won't be able to track site clicks. For this review, I'm only interested in features that are available to non-developers.

Autopilot

Here, we have the same situation: a developer can hook into the Autopilot API and send a website link click as a custom event. You can then apply tags or start automations based on that. But without some custom coding, this feature isn't available to you.

The exception would be if you use Heap Analytics on your site: there's a codeless integration between events tracked in Heap and Autopilot.

ConvertKit

ConvertKit has no feature for tracking site link clicks at all.

Drip

Drip is the only solution tested here that has a built-in, no-coding-required feature for tracking website link clicks. You can set up a "trigger link" very easily, which can be used in your emails or on your website or landing pages:

It's a clever and simple implementation and considering how Drip codelessly integrates with a wide range of tools, it's a very powerful feature.

Behavior Based Segmentation, Question 4:

​Can I create re-engagement loops?

When you're sending a series of follow-up emails, one of the most important signals is: are people reading your emails or not?

For important messages, it's good to send out reminders, but of course we don't want to be sending reminders to people who already read the original email.

Here are the options for creating automatic re-engagement loops for subscribers who don't open an important message in a sequence.

ActiveCampaign

In ActiveCampaign, we have many ways to create re-engagement loops. The most interesting solution to me is one using a "go to" action:

We could send an email and then set an email open or email link click as a goal. We could, in other words, pause the automation until the subscriber takes the desired action (or keep sending reminders until they do). But the solution I prefer is to send a reminder to contacts who have not opened the email, but then use the "go to" action to send them back into the normal flow of the campaign, regardless of whether they opened the reminder email or not.

The reason I prefer this is because if someone doesn't open the main email or reminder email, that doesn't mean we've totally lost them. They may be seeing the emails and choosing not to open them because they're waiting for something. In a product launch sequence, they may be waiting for that "cart is now open" email and choosing to ignore everything else. In this case, it would be a mistake to stop sending them emails altogether, just because they aren't interacting with some of them.

Autopilot

The Autopilot solution is great. We can use the same logic as in the ActiveCampaign solution: add a re-engagement loop but return to the normal flow of the automation afterwards. With Autopilot, it feels even easier and more intuitive to build than in ActiveCampaign:

ConvertKit

With ConvertKit, our options are limited. We can't track email opens and we can't directly respond to email clicks, either. That leaves us with basically the same solution as in the scenarios above: we can add a rule that tags subscribers who click on an email link. We can then have subscribers jump past our reminder emails once this tag is applied.

The solution is far from ideal and I personally wouldn't use this for re-engagement.

Drip

With Drip, we have basically the same problem as with ConvertKit. We can't use email opens to create a re-engagement loop and we have to use a rule that applies a tag on link click instead and then use goals to skip past reminder emails.

Winner of Behavior Based Segmentation

This one was a pretty close race between ActiveCampaign and Autopilot. Not only do they both have the same kinds of strengths in this area, they also share the same weaknesses. Ultimately, I give the advantage here to Autopilot because it's just a tad easier to use. Their automation builder makes behavior based automations nice and easy to set up.

Advanced ​Optimization Features

​Next, let's look at some further advanced features in these tools and ask some tough questions about how we can optimize our marketing efforts.

Advanced Optimization, Question 1:

How good are the A/B testing features, really?

Every one of the test candidates advertises A/B testing as a feature. But upon closer inspection, I found that the depth and utility of A/B testing in the different products are worlds apart.

Because split testing is a critically important feature and because there's much to be said and examined about it, I created an entire separate post about it, which you can read here.

Below is just a brief summary of the findings that are layed out in that post, in great detail.

ActiveCampaign

​Autopilot

❌

​ConvertKit

​Drip

A/B test broadcast:

Automatic winner:

A/B test emails within automation:

A/B test automation flows:

Optimize for conversion count:

Optimize for revenue:

​In summary, I found that:

  • ActiveCampaign has by far the most powerful and most flexible A/B testing feature set. What's especially good is that you can test and automatically optimize entire automation flows using ActiveCampaign.
  • Autopilot has what could be a great A/B testing feature, but in practice it's cumbersome to use and you can't automatically optimize towards a chosen conversion goal.
  • Convertkit has a very simple, minimal A/B testing feature: you can only test 2 different subject lines and only on broadcast emails. The feature is decent, but it's a shame that there isn't more you can do with this tool.
  • Drip has a limited and quite difficult to use A/B testing feature which only applies to emails within follow-up sequences. It's disappointing, considering that Drip is otherwise such a power-user focused tool.
  • None of the tools have a directly accessible way to automatically optimize for increased revenue. Drip can track revenue, but not optimize for it. ActiveCampaign has "Deep Integrations" with only 3 shopping cart solutions and revenue can only be tracked if you use one of those.

Overall, ActiveCampaign wins this comparison, hands down.

Advanced Optimization, Question 2:

​Can I add advanced personalization to email messages?

Every email marketing tool lets you add some form of personalization to email messages. A typical example of this would be to insert the subscriber's name in the message, with a merge field such as "Hello, {{FIRSTNAME}}!"

But can we take this further? Can we customize some details in our messages, based on the tags and interests a subscriber has indicated?

There are 3 features I look for, here:

  1. If I'm inserting a personalization tag, can I define a default alternative that will be shown if a subscriber doesn't have any data for the tag? For example, if I display a first name, but I haven't collected the names for all my contacts, can I avoid an awkward blank space from showing in the email?
  2. Can I insert dynamic strings of text in line. For example, displaying the exact name of a product someone purchased, within the text of my email?
  3. Can I add dynamic blocks of content? For example, showing or hiding an entire paragraph in an email, based on whether a subscriber has purchased a product or not.

ActiveCampaign

​Autopilot

❌

​ConvertKit

​Drip

​Insert "blank" alternative:

​Insert custom string inline:

​Dynamic content blocks:

​ActiveCampaign

In ActiveCampaign, we can set a default value for some of the merge fields, such as first and last name. I think this implementation isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing.

​It's also possible to pass information as custom fields and display those inline. This could look something like this:

​Adding custom fields and associated strings isn't a very accessible feature, though. You'll have to do some custom coding for this.

Where ActiveCampaign really shines is in conditional or dynamic content blocks. For any block of text (or other content) in an email, you can set conditions that determine whether that block will be shown or hidden for any given subscriber. Here's an example:

​As you can see, you can bring the full power of ActiveCampaign's filtering system to bear on your email messages. You can show specific messages based on tags, geography, interactions and anything else you keep a record of, about your contacts.

​Autopilot

Autopilot has a simple way of inserting dynamic content strings as well as alternatives for when the string is empty:

​I prefer this implementation to the one in ActiveCampaign, because you can decide where alternatives are needed and what alternatives to use, as you're composing an email message.

You can also fairly easily insert strings based on custom fields. Autopilot can capture information submitted through any form on your website, as long as you have their tracking script installed. You can easily map the data submitted through forms to custom fields and then use that information in emails. No coding skills required in this case.

Unfortunately, there's no way to add more complex dynamic content to email messages. If you want to have dynamic content blocks, you have to insert a condition in your automation, which checks for a custom field or tag and then sends different variations on an email based on that:

​This is a decent solution if you're sending only 2 or 3 message variations or if you want to send totally different emails to different segments. However, ​if you want to send mostly the same email content to all of the subscribers, but just add some details based on their interests, using this method isn't very practical. Also, this approach can be used in all of the tools tested here, so it's nothing special.

Drip

I'm making an exception to my alphabetical order here and presenting Drip before Convertkit. You'll see why, in a moment.

Drip has a very powerful, but not very accessible personalization system called Liquid Templating. This is an open source templating language (you can think of it as a simple programming language) developed by Shopify.

Here's an example of what it looks like in an email in Drip:

​Here we have two liquid tags that will insert data related to the subscriber - the first name and the company name respectively. We can also define a default for each case, which will be inserted in case the data field we're referring to is empty, for a given subscriber.

​So far, that's almost identical to what we saw in Autopilot.

This is only scratching the surface of what Liquid Templating can do, though. Here's a more advanced example:

​In this example, we're tweaking the text content of the email, based on whether or not a specific tag exists. In addition, we're inserting a dynamically calculated end-date for a special offer.

There's practically no limit to what you can do with filters and conditions, to create exactly customized and personalized messages, using Liquid Templating.

The downside, as I'm sure you can tell from the examples above, is that it's not exactly intuitive. If you're a programmer, you'll love this. If you aren't it will take you a long time and a lot of trial and error before you can do any kind of advanced personalization.

Convert​Kit

Convert​Kit also uses Liquid Templating for email personalization. Here's an example:

​This is how to add the subscriber's name and include a fallback, based on the help article in the Conver​tKit knowledge base.

The reason I introduced Drip first is because Drip uses Liquid Templating and is very clear about it. They basically say: anything Liquid Templating works in Drip, plus there are some Drip specific functions you can use.

In ConvertKit, things aren't that clear. You can use conditions based on tags and custom fields but beyond that, it seems to not support other Liquid Templating functionality. It's also much more difficult to test whether something is working or not, using ConvertKit. Drip does code validation directly in the email composer and you can easily preview what the email content will look like for different subscribers (so you can test through your different conditions easily). With ConvertKit, there's no such luxury.

My conclusion is that with ConvertKit, you kind of get the worst of both worlds: basic personalization can be a bit complicated due to the programmy nature of Liquid Templating, but you don't have access to the full power of the Liquid Templating language, either.

Advanced Optimization, Question 3:

Can I easily determine the engagement level of a subscriber? Can I catch subscribers who are slipping?

One thing is for sure, no matter what your business is and how you do your email marketing: over time, you will lose subscribers.

Inevitably, people's interest will wane, they'll get distracted or they'll just forget about why they signed up for your newsletter in the first place.

While this can't be prevented entirely, it's important that you can somehow track the engagement level of your subscribers, so you can do 2 things:

  1. Notice when a subscriber is "slipping" i.e. starting to lose interest and try to re-engage them.
  2. ​Keep your list lean and clean by removing ​disengaged subscribers.

This is an interesting feature set to look at, because there's a conflict of interest on the service provider's part. On the one hand, it's good for them if you keep your lists clean and your open rates high, on the other hand, they get more money from you the more subscribers you have in the system...

ActiveCampaign

​Autopilot

❌

​ConvertKit

​Drip

​Manually clean list:

​Lead scoring:

​Recent email interaction:

Automatic list cleanup:

​Built in engagement feature:

​Here are the factors I'm looking for, explained in a bit more detail than fits in the table above:

  • ​Manually clean list: ​if we can't automatically clean the list, is there at least an easy way to manually clean the list?​​​
  • Built-in engagement feature: ​does the tool come with a feature that is made for tracking engagement without the user having to manually set up a system to do so?​​​​​​​​​
  • Lead scoring: a lead scoring feature can be used to track engagement, but it's not ideal.
  • ​Recent email interaction: ​​can we filter subscribers by their interaction of any kind, with any email, within a certain time period? For example: show all subscribers who have opened at least one email in the last 30 days.​​​​​​
  • ​Automatically clean list: ​can we set up an automation by which we attempt to re-engage slipping subscribers and automatically removed them from the list if the re-engagement fails?​​​

ActiveCampaign

ActiveCampaign has a handy list cleanup tool. It's well hidden in the user interface, but once you know where to look, this is a very useful and straight forward way to clean your lists from disengaged contacts:

​ActiveCampaign also has a lead scoring system and it includes applying points that expire over time. However, the way the scoring system is built, it's not ideal for tracking overall engagement and catching slipping subscribers. It could be done, but it would be really damn complicated.

Unfortunately, you can't filter your lists manually by a "last engaged in X days" factor and you can't combine a filter like this with other filters like tags etc.

​There are pre-built automation templates for engagement tracking and list cleanup available in ActiveCampaign. The solution is functional and easy enough to implement, but it's not exactly elegant. The main engagement tagging happens through 2 automations:

The way it works is that any email interaction will kick a subscriber out of the main engagement loop and then add them back in at the top of the same loop. If a subscriber doesn't interact for a given period of time (30 days, in this example) they reach the bottom of the loop where a "disengaged" tag is added.

​You can then trigger a re-engagement automation whenever the "disengaged" tag is added and automatically remove a subscriber if they still don't engage.

So far, so good. What I don't like about this solution is that it leads to "action bloat". The activity feed of any engaged subscriber will just look like an endless list of actions that exit and re-enter the engagement automation:

​This activity list ​can​ be filtered, but even so: adding the engagement automation makes the activity feed less useful.​​​

​In conclusion, ActiveCampaign offers ​engagement and list cleanup features that lack polish but are still very useful.

Autopilot

One of the really powerful features in Autopilot is that instead of having tags, it has custom fields that you can define in many ways. For engagement tracking, you can create "engaged" and "disengaged" tags, but you can also create date fields that contain "last opened" and "last clicked".

Here's what a basic engagement automation could look like:

​On the left, we have two triggers that tally up "total clicks" and "total opens" scores and update the "last clicked" and "last opened" date fields every time someone interacts with any email we send out.

On the right, we have a re-engagement automation that triggers whenever someone hasn't interacted with any of our emails for a certain period of time. In this sequence, we can send one or multiple messages and unsubscribe the contact from the list if they don't engage.

You can create your own lead scoring system in Autopilot as well, but since engagement tracking is so easy to do already, it's not necessary for this purpose. This is a good thing. It means you can use lead scoring for what it's really good for: tracking hot leads and following up with them.

​The automation shown above is easy to create, but you can also choose to manually filter your contacts by their level of engagement and manually clean up your list, anytime you wish. You have to create the "last opened" and "last clicked" date fields to be able to do this, though.

​Overall, Autopilot once again impressed me with how quickly and easily almost any automation can be created, using their "journey" builder. For engagement tracking and re-engagement campaigns, Autopilot is the best of the bunch.

Convert​Kit

Convert​Kit has a built-in feature for engagement and list cleanup. In the subscribers list, you can select to show all "cold subscribers":

​A "cold subscriber" is defined as someone who hasn't opened or clicked any of your emails in the last 90 days.

​In this help article, Convert​Kit recommend that you manually assign a tag to all your cold subscribers and then create an automation that sends a re-engagement message and removes the tag if they engage with the message. After a waiting period, you can then delete everyone who still has the "cold" tag.

This is a functional, but pretty inconvenient process.

There's no way to change the criteria for what constitutes a "cold" subscriber and there's no way to automate the process of re-engagement and list cleanup. Neither is there a lead scoring system. I couldn't find any way to use the existing automation and tagging rules in ConvertKit to create such a system, either. If anyone knows a workaround I haven't thought of, I'd love to hear about it (leave a comment on this post).

Drip

Drip offers a great manual list cleaning feature that they call "pruning operations":

​You can search your contacts for inactivity based on either a certain time period (e.g. no opens or clicks in the last 30 days) or based on a number of emails (e.g. didn't open or click the last 10 emails sent). You can then apply all the usual filters to further narrow down the list of subscribers to either delete or manually add to a re-engagement campaign.

Using Drip, we can also create the same kind of automatic flow we saw in ActiveCampaign:

​It has the same downsides as the ActiveCampaign one. In addition, we can only use email opens as a universal engagement signal. We can't track an undefined "clicked any email link" as an engagement signal in Drip.

In conclusion, the pros and cons of engagement and cleanup features are different only in very subtle ways between ActiveCampaign and Drip. I would rate both of them as "almost perfect".

If Drip made its list pruning feature available as an ongoing automation, it would be the clear winner.

Winner of Advanced Optimization Features

In this, arguably the toughest of our categories, ActiveCampaign just dominates. Particularly in A/B testing features and in advanced email personalization, ActiveCampaign makes all the other solutions look weak and complicated in comparison.

​Noteworthy Features

​So far, we've compared various features between the different email marketing tools. Next, I want to present my thoughts on some of the other noteworthy features and differences between the tools, before we get to my final recommendation.

Email Sequences vs. Individual Emails

ActiveCampaign and Autopilot represent each email in an automation individually. An automation containing 3 emails sent 1 day apart looks like this in ActiveCampaign:

​And in Autopilot:

​ConvertKit and Drip use a different approach. In these systems, you insert series of emails in the automations and those series are represented as a single element. The same flow of 3 emails sent one day apart looks like this in ConvertKit (left) and Drip (right):

​There's one advantage to this: your automations are less cluttered if they involve a lot of email sending. However, I prefer the ActiveCampaign/Autopilot approach for several reasons:

  • Seeing each individual email in the flow makes more intuitive sense. Having entire sequences represented as one step in the automation adds a layer of abstraction.
  • This abstraction becomes especially obvious when you have sequences of emails that you want to skip past if a certain goal is met. Seeing each step on the canvas makes it easier to understand the whole flow, without having to double-check your email sequences separately.
  • Having each individual email visible encourages the use of behavior based steps after each email. Email marketing is generally more effective the more behavior based it is and less effective if we just send linear sequences of messages, no matter what.

In short, showing each individual email makes more sense to me and is more in line with the kind of automation flows I want to build anyway.

Custom Facebook Audiences

Drip and Autopilot have recently introduced features by which you can update Facebook custom audiences directly in the automation flows you build. Here are examples for Autopilot (​left) and Drip (​right):

​In both cases, you can add steps to your automation that either add people to specific Facebook audiences or remove people from Facebook audiences. For anyone doing Facebook advertising, this is a great feature. Having up-to-date Facebook audiences that are formed based on interactions with your email messages can be very valuable.

​ConvertKit's WordPress Shortcodes

ConvertKit has a very interesting feature that works with their WordPress plugin: you can insert shortcodes on your site that will show or hide content based on the tags a visitor has in ConvertKit. Here's an example taken from this Medium post:

​Content wrapped in such a shortcode will only show if the visitor coming to your site is recognized as a subscriber by the ConvertKit tracking code and this subscriber has the specified tag.

As you can see, the implementation is pretty basic, but it can be done with a simple WordPress plugin and no further coding needed.

Autopilot's "Any Form" Integration

Autopilot has an impressive feature for integrating with lead generation forms, which is that it integrates with ​any ​form on your website, no matter what platform your website is on or what tool you use to create the form.

If Autopilot's tracking code is present, it will automatically recognize forms on your site, automatically parse all the form fields and provide you with a simple setup where you can assign the form fields to your data fields in Autopilot and use the form to pass leads into Autopilot. No coding, no custom integrations, no API keys. It just works.​​​

ActiveCampaign's Deep Data Integrations

​ActiveCampaign have recently introduced what they call "Deep Data" integrations. At the time of this writing, this integration is for BigCommerce, Shopify and WooCommerce only. Also, it's only available on their higher tier plans, which are very expensive.

The advantage of these Deep Data integrations is that they recognize product purchases as such, including data like number of items purchased and revenue generated. This is a big step up from just applying a "Customer: XYZ" tag when someone makes a purchase.

I have mixed feelings about the current state of Deep Data integrations. No doubt this is extremely useful, but I disagree with their exclusive approach. This level of integration should be available widely and the pricing doesn't make sense to me. You can be paying ActiveCampaign $1,000/month and still be barred from this feature, which I think is unreasonable.

Drip's Custom Events​

​Drip makes a distinction between tags​ and ​events, as described in this article. Being able to apply tags to contacts is extremely important, but if tags are all you have, it can lead to tag bloat. There are too many things you want to track and you end up applying a tag for all of them. Any given contact will then have dozens or even hundreds of tags like "​clicked ​link XYZ" or "visited page XYZ".

​Drip offers a better approach here by allowing you to record events. These are things that occur and can occur multiple times, such as clicking a link, visiting a page or making a purchase. Events are tracked along with timestamps of when they happened. Events can even have data arrays applied to them. For example, you can have a "downloaded free report" event and record a name or ID of ​which​ free report was downloaded, if you have several.

This can be a bit complicated to set up, but I'd rather have a complex system that leads to clean results than a simple system that leads to tag bloat.​​​ Custom events are a Drip feature that I wish was available in all of the tools.

There is a downside, though: as mentioned further above, when I tried to use the custom events feature to track link clicks for an automation, I couldn't accomplish what I wanted. There seems to be no way to use a specific link click event as a condition in an automation.

Drip's Codeless Integrations

​Probably Drip's greatest strength is the codeless integration with countless tools from payment processors to CRM tools to membership platforms. You can include actions performed on all these integrated platforms directly in your email marketing and automation workflows in Drip. That means you can update contact tags, send follow-up emails, update custom fields and more, without ever touching a line of code.

What's more, you can even use Drip as a "bridge" to automate actions between other tools you're using. For example:

​Here, we're recording a purchase event in Stripe and updating a custom audience in Facebook as a result.

This, above all else, is what I really like Drip for. In terms of integrations, they are miles ahead of the competition. Plus, this is included in the base price. No extra premium shenanigans like ActiveCampaign are doing with their Deep Data integrations.

​Conclusion & Recommendations

As you can see, all four contenders in the review gave a strong showing. And none of them came away entirely unscathed, either.

But what are we to make of all this, now that each tool's strengths and weaknesses have been laid bare? That's our final question - and perhaps the toughest question of all.​​​​

Let me start with solutions I ​don't​ recommend:

Autopilot

I don't recommend Autopilot. Although it has the best, most flexible automation builder in the comparison, Autopilot only becomes really useful if you get some custom integrations done. Otherwise, it only integrates with Recurly as a payment processor and it's limited in terms of available triggers that aren't directly related to emails you send. Also, the A/B testing in Autopilot is disappointingly lacking.

ConvertKit

I also don't recommend ConvertKit. It's like the baby brother of the other solutions in the roundup. In most comparisons, it can just about compete, but it's always outclassed in some way or another. There's nothing terribly wrong with ConvertKit, it's just not as powerful as the other tools.​​​

Drip

What about Drip, then? About halfway through my testing process, I was convinced that Drip would come out on top. I love the direct, codeless integrations it provides with so many tools. I love the custom events and the Liquid Templating. Drip is complicated, but once you understand how it works, it can be very powerful. And yet... it just can't keep up with ActiveCampaign in some areas that matter a lot.

ActiveCampaign

​There's a reason I created a whole separate post about the A/B testing features. As I was doing the work for this review, I realized that A/B testing was one of the greatest differentiating factors between ActiveCampaign, Autopilot, ConvertKit and Drip. And it's also a feature that can make the biggest difference to your bottom line and the success of your business.

​ActiveCampaign and Drip are on par with each other in almost every factor. Drip wins out on integrations, but ActiveCampaign wins out - by a huge margin - on A/B testing. And as much as I want to love the geekier Drip, I know that I'll be growing my business faster with ActiveCampaign because their testing and optimization features are just that powerful.

If Drip had the A/B testing features that ActiveCampaign has, I would switch to it. If ActiveCampaign had the codeless integrations Drip has, it would be forever dominant. As it is, the testing is the more powerful features than are the integrations.

This is why my final recommendation is this: use ActiveCampaign and use the A/B testing features it offers. This is the best and shortest advice I can give you, regarding email marketing.

I hope you found this useful. If you have any thoughts to share, questions about any of these tools or ideas for other tough questions to ask, please let me know by leaving a comment!

https://activegrowth.com/go/drip
Shane's Signature

About the Author Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better marketer and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Tony B says:

    Absolutely stonking review Shane!

    And it’s so true, the way email marketing has evolved in the past few year is really phenomenal. Makes me wonder what the next 24mths will bring.
    Kinda feel a lil gutted for Aweber too, so good in their day, but not making the grade now.

    Keep going Shane you’re inspiring.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tony!

      I have to say, I don’t feel bad for Aweber. I remember contacting them years ago and asking if they planned to implement tagging. They told me at the time that they’d never do this, even though it was a clearly emerging trend. So, if they lost business, they really only have themselves to blame.

      • Chris says:

        Aweber is the Nokia of the email marketing/automation world. ‍♂️

      • Aweber has tagging now actually, their API is also pretty decent, but can’t be compared with the API’s of the solutions reviewed in this article

      • I know they have it now, yes. They decided to get on board when the market as a whole had moved about 3 steps beyond just tagging. :D

  • Jakob says:

    The problem (for some) with ActiveCampaign is that they have some very strict rules when it comes to affiliate marketing. So if you plan on, or want to be able to promote affiliate marketing via your emails, I don’t recommend ActiveCampaign.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hi Jakob,

      I will be publishing a blog post that clarifies the affiliate policies of several email marketing tools, including ActiveCampaign, soon. :)

      Affiliate marketing is allowed with ActiveCampaign, if you do it right.

  • Tip Kilby says:

    Amazing evaluation and review, Shane. Unfortunately, unless they have changed, ActiveCampaign does not allow affiliate marketing campaigns. Although I am not currently doing any affiliate marketing, I hate to commit to a product that precludes my ever going down that path.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hi Tip,

      I will be publishing a post that clarifies the affiliate policies of various email marketing providers, soon. You can definitely do affiliate marketing with ActiveCampaign, you just have to do it the right way. :)

  • C says:

    Which plan should we go for?

    Lite

    Plus

    Professional

    Enterprise

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Start on the Lite plan. It does all the important stuff. :)

  • Kevin Barham says:

    Thanks for your AWESOME comparison Shane. I was all set to switch to ActiveCampaign but very concerned by other comments regarding their strict rules concerning Affiliate Marketing. I have GR and Aweber and may have to stick with these for the AM side of things.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hello Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I will be publishing a post that clarifies the affiliate policies of email marketing tools, soon. ActiveCampaign doesn’t forbid affiliate marketing, it just forbids “spammy” affiliate marketing.

      • Kevin Barham says:

        That’s great news – I’ll look forward to that. I hate spam so it shouldn’t be an issue to comply :)

  • Stacy says:

    What are your thoughts on MailChimp?

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      It has a generous free plan, but not much else going for it.

      To be fair, it actually does have some good integrations and a surprisingly strong A/B testing feature for broadcast emails. However, it doesn’t have a good automation builder, so it can’t even begin to compete with the tools shown here, for about three quarters of the tough questions asked.

  • Juergen B. says:

    Thanks for tackling such a difficult topic – in such great detail – quite a lot of work and very helpful for anyone having to make a selection!

    Compliments on making a clear cut recommendation at all, I appreciate this considering the many available product features and priorities different marketers bring to the table. Most other reviews never offer a clear cut winner.

    At our small agency we use SharpSpring, which might have compared favorably but unfortunately does not have much popularity or visibility – and thus lacks native integrations with other critical platforms (Such as Thrive :)

    However, my question is if there are some additional platforms you would consider adding to this super useful comparison in the future, such as Infusionsoft or Clickfunnels or Act-On? In your view, which criteria determine inclusion for this?

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for your reply, Juergen.

      There are two main critera for including other tools in the future:

      1) I have to be able to get access to them at a reasonable price. With Infusionsoft, it used to be that you had to pay something like $3,000 as a startup fee. I don’t know if they still do that, but I’m definitely not going to pay that much just to review something.

      2) The tool has to have a reasonable chance of winning the comparison. For example, I won’t include a tool that doesn’t have A/B testing features or a strong automation builder, since it will just get crushed anyway, before even taking a closer look at all the features.

  • Seán says:

    A lot of work done and a great comparison, Shane! The A/B testing with AC is something I love more and more …

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Seán! This is indeed the most powerful feature in ActiveCampaign and I love it as well. :)

  • Bo says:

    Sorry to be off topic but your site is not rendering in cellphone horizontal mode. It stays in cellphone vertical. I’m having same issues.

    There’s just so many decisions that need to be made in business and getting a quality review that helps us pick resources is very helpful. I’ll be going with active campaign without hesitation!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thanks for the info about responsiveness. That will be fixed when I switch themes. :)

  • Lorenzo D says:

    Thanks for a super useful review. I was already leaning towards AC, but I feel safer now.

    As I noted on the other article about A/B testing, my only regret is that you don’t make any recommendation about a low budget solution. Among the ones reviewed in the A/B article, I think Mailer Lite makes the strongest showing, (they even have automation, which is surprising considering how their prices compare to the tools reviewed here). Alas, they prohibit affiliate marketing. Completely, going by their FAQ.

    I look forward to the post about affiliate marketing in AC (and even more to your course on this tool – just do it!).

    And, need I state the obvious?
    After you’re done with Thrive Member, so hopefully next year, the next project should be Thrive Automator. Combining a marketing automation tool with your WP plugins would make even the best competitors damn near obsolete. You’ll be the Sauron of internet marketing software, and Thrive Automator will be the One Ring.

    I realize such a tool is a much more daunting project than a WP plugin, but you seem to be on a roll with Thrive, so. One can dream.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Lorenzo.

      ActiveCampaign starts at $15/month for up to 500 contacts. With a list of 500 and your own product, you’ll be able to make MUCH more than $15/month, so using it shouldn’t be a problem. And if $15 is a budget problem, then I would recommend using MailChimp, simply because it’s free. I don’t recommend MailChimp for any other reason, by the way. I would use it until I made a few dollars and then move my list over to ActiveCampaign.

      • Lorenzo D says:

        If I were just starting out, yes, that would be the obvious choice.

        I think my view is skewed on prices because I currently have 3500 contacts on GR that I still want to be able to contact regularly, but are kind of burned out and on a project I’m moving away from. They’re not really worth the 69 bucks per month that AC asks even on the Lite version. And if I revive the project somewhat, as I plan to do, I won’t be needing the fancy AC stuff, but I WOULD potentially need affiliate links.

        So I’m on the fence with this, but I get that my case is not the most common.

      • In that case, I would highly recommend that you clean the list. If you have contacts that never open or click, then they’re just dead weight that is hurting your deliverability.

      • Lorenzo D says:

        Indeed. That list used to be 5000 + contacts before I cleansed the unbelievers a few months ago. But I suppose I could ditch a few more, and more regularly.

  • Barney Davey says:

    Great stuff! I learned a lot of super useful information. Would love to have seen Infusionsoft added to the list.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for the suggestion, Barney!

  • Chris says:

    Wow! Shane you’ve done it again!

    I’ve been searching for a comprehensive mother of all reviews review on Activecampaign vs Drip and jusy for good measure you threw in Autopilot and ConvertKit.

    I will be linking to this post for a very long time!

    Hopefully you emailed a few people at Activecampaign and they take your suggestions seriously!

    Man – I can’t get enough of this post! Will have to read it a few more times!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you very much, Chris! Glad to know that you like what I’ve put together here. :)

  • Nick Walsh says:

    Outstanding analysis, Shane! Thanks for this. You confirm my choices.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for your comment, Nick!

  • Eric says:

    Amazing Review Shane! Very Thorough. Thank you for sharing it. :)

    PS: What program did you use to create the flowcharts? They look amazing!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for your comment, Eric!

      I’m not sure what you mean by “flowcharts”. If you mean the automations, they were built in the respective tools. If you mean the comparison tables, they were made with Thrive Architect. If you mean something else, you’ll have to give me another hint. :)

  • John says:

    Thanks for this shane. Can’t wait for your next podcast release on sound cloud

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, John! New podcast episodes are coming. We’ve been slow to release them, I realize. We’re working on improving that as well. :)

  • Mo says:

    Hi Shane, thanks for the great review!
    Do you have any experience with the German program Klick-Tipp? And if yes, would you recommend it?

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hello Mo,

      My experience with Klick-Tipp is very limited. As far as I know, it is only available in German which means that it’s not a viable choice for most people reading this post.

  • Markus says:

    Hi. Great review! What about Klick-Tipp? I am using it right now – just started – and thinking of change to active campaign. Would you recommend that? Btw, I am trying to sell a software product online.
    Thanks, Markus

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      My experience with it is very limited. As far as I know, it is only available in German and so it’s not a relevant choice to most people reading this post.

  • Kim says:

    Wow, Shane! Mindblow. This was exactly what I was looking for in a review comparison of the 4 tools that have my attention at the moment. Even though what I’m looking for in a tool is slightly different than most marketers, the review was massively helpful. Thanks again!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Kim! If you don’t mind sharing: what are the requirements that you have for an email marketing tool?

  • Erik Heyl says:

    You can use ActiveCampaign for affiliate marketing you just need to use bridge pages. That is, send people to a page “you own” with solid info or a review and there have your link.

  • Tom says:

    Shane, any chance of your reviewing Klaviyo for those of us who do e-commerce?

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for these posts! This one, along with the A/B testing comparison, helped me settle on ActiveCampaign.

    I almost went with ConvertKit but I was won over by AC’s split-testing capabilities. AC’s Automations are also way easier to use than I expected – light years ahead of InfusionSoft.

  • Barbara says:

    Shane,

    I enjoyed your comprehensive review. I was just made aware of a system called Market Hero. Do you have any info about them?

    Thanks

    • I’ve heard about it, but haven’t tested it myself. I’ll see if I can spend some time with it, if it covers the basic requirements.

  • Kevin says:

    Just curious why get response was not in this pannel as it seems to fit the criteria.. I’d love to hear your feedback on that.. Thanks for the great content.

  • Alauddin says:

    Hello Shane,

    Amazing review!!!

    More importantly, a great tutorial on things we can and should be doing in our automation.

    I am surprised to you did not include Ontraport though – their latest version 5 which was released mid-2016 seems really amazing and I would have thought it met all the criteria you mentioned above.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I might add Ontraport in a future update. I used Ontraport years ago and had some bad experiences with them, so I guess I’m still biased against them.

  • Raúl Bustamante says:

    When you say a/b testing within an automation is possible. Do you mean using the conditional split or am I missing something?

    Thanks

    Raúl Bustamante

  • Tim Sayes says:

    Couple things I think needs mentioning with regard to Active Campaign…

    Firstly, there’s the lack of speed. Adding a single tag to 30,000 contacts typically takes about 6-8 hours in my experience. Also, automations fall apart as soon as you put even 10k contacts into any single wait function. They know it’s an issue but don’t seem to be very forthcoming on if/when that’s going to be fixed.

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