I got started with online business more than 6 years ago.

I got it drilled into my head back then that “the money is in the list”. And in order to build this mythical list, you’ve got to have an email autoresponder account.

So, like thousands of other people chasing the 4-Hour Workweek, I signed up for an Aweber account and jumped right in!

tim aweber - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Back then everyone was using Aweber because it was the most sophisticated email tool around that didn’t cost insane amounts of money.

Even though that was only 6 years ago, it’s a veritable century in “tech time”. Indeed, since then, email marketing & automation apps have become unbelievably sophisticated. Aweber is now almost obsolete next to a smorgasbord of more powerful, user friendly and affordable (even free) tools.

Thanks to my line of work, I’ve had the unique privilege to play around with many of these different email marketing platforms, including:

…and many more.

The two email marketing platforms that I finally decided to use in my own businesses are Drip and ActiveCampaign. I use Drip for my front-end lead generation and email marketing, and I use ActiveCampaign for my online training portal, Dorfman.Training (coming soon).

Both apps have their pros and cons. And because there’s no “one size fits all” email marketing platform, my hope in writing this article is that you’ll have as much impartial information as possible to help you make the best decision for you and your unique business.

Before we take a look at either Drip or ActiveCampaign, let me address why I’m not even taking any of the dozens of other tools out there under serious consideration.

Why Not MailChimp, or InfusionSoft, or Another App…?

Most of the email marketing tools on the market suffer from one of these three shortcomings:

  1. It does far too little (e.g. Aweber)
  2. It tries to do too much (e.g. ClickFunnels, InfusionSoft)
  3. The pricing doesn’t make sense (e.g. MailChimp, InfusionSoft, ClickFunnels).

MailChimp illustrates some of these issues well.

Is it a highly popular email marketing app? Undoubtedly. Would I recommend it? Certainly not.

Whilst good at what it does (efficiency), MailChimp doesn’t do enough of the right things (effectiveness) to be terribly useful for any serious online business endeavor past a certain, basic point. It lacks the true marketing automation that you get with Drip or ActiveCampaign.

It has some basic automation capabilities but it’s not sophisticated enough to actually make a difference in your business. Even something that should be simple (like delivering a content upgrade) is unnecessarily challenging in MailChimp. Part of the reason for that is because it’s still stuck in the “email marketing 1.0” paradigm, which is based on lists.

Lists still have a place in email marketing but the trend now is towards greater segmentation and personalization. And for good reason; it works like gangbusters. In order to deliver your segmented, personalized message, that sounds like it was written individually for each subscriber, you need tools like:

  • Tags
  • Custom Fields
  • Advanced automations (aka workflows)

Furthermore, once you approach 3000 contacts with MailChimp you’re already paying $50(!) At that price point you could be using a much more powerful email marketing tool like ActiveCampaign. You’d be able to do everything that MailChimp does, plus much, much more.

ac pricing - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

ActiveCampaign pricing for 5000 contacts on the “Lite” plan is very reasonable

Even if your email marketing is intentionally barebones, you’re still better off with a provider like Drip or ActiveCampaign. You may not anticipate it now, but when your business starts to grow you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not hamstrung by an email marketing app that isn’t able to support that growth.

On the opposite side of the spectrum you have a tool like InfusionSoft.

InfusionSoft is more of an “all-in-one” solution that covers your needs for email marketing, a shopping cart, a CRM, reporting, and your affiliate program.

I quite like InfusionSoft because it makes a lot of sense for certain business models (for instance, a digital agency who does a lot of outbound sales). But is it “best in class” in solving any one, specific problem (besides providing an integrated solution)?

I’d argue that it isn’t:

  • The shopping cart is cumbersome and often requires paid 3rd party additions (like Spiffy checkout) to look and feel halfway professional.
  • The CRM is solid but there are more intuitive solutions whose sole focus is the CRM game (e.g. PipeDrive).
  • The affiliate module has great tracking (I’ve heard that many “super affiliates” insist on using InfusionSoft in order to promote an offer because of the highly accurate tracking), but is rather basic. In contrast, an excellent self-hosted solution like iDevAffiliate provides waaay more flexibility for running a proper affiliate program. This is unsurprising because that’s their sole focus!
  • The reporting is great but needs a lot of configuration. Again, a dedicated tool like KlipFolio solves this problem better.
  • The email marketing is quite good. It helps if you’ve done InfusionSoft’s expensive-ass certification program that has an entire big-ass module on deliverability. I have to give InfusionSoft credit: their certification program is legit and they really care about making sure you leave the training knowing your stuff.
  • The campaign builder is clunky and, while functional, it’s certainly less intuitive than the ActiveCampaign automations editor. (You’ve got to mark each step of an automation as “ready” before you can publish it…total PITA.)

InfusionSoft doesn’t come cheap, either. You’re looking at a minimum of $300/month plus a setup fee, unless you can get an insider deal from one of the InfusionSoft certified consultants. If you can get a deal, you might actually wind up with a good value. A friend of mine runs an agency and pays $300/mo for 50k contacts: that’s a steal! All the more so because InfusionSoft is a good fit for the agency model.

MailChimp and InfusionSoft are just two, contrasting examples of email marketing tools that do certain things well, but for a combination of reasons, don’t make a lot of sense for the majority of small to mid-size online businesses. There are dozens of additional tools along this spectrum that, hopefully, I don’t need to review one-by-one!

The point is this:

Since you’re working online, trying to grow your business, and are possibly looking to add a membership site to the mix, it’s important to pick tools that do what you need very well, do as little of what you do NOT need as possible, will grow with your business, and that are (relatively) reasonably priced both in the beginning, and at scale.

In my experience, Drip and ActiveCampaign are the two email marketing platforms that best satisfy these criteria in 2017. And with Leadpages recently acquiring Drip and investing heavily in its expansion—and with ActiveCampaign recently getting a round of venture funding—I suspect that both of these players will be around and innovating in this space for many years to come!

So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at these apps, starting with Drip first.

Why I’m Bullish on the Drip Email Marketing Platform

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About a year ago I went all-in with Drip. I switched all of my email marketing from Aweber to Drip. And now, more than a year later, I’m very satisfied with my decision.

It seems like every time I log into my Drip account I notice some new features, both cosmetic and functional.

drip dashboard - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

The Drip dashboard: clean and intuitive.

For example, Drip recently (mid 2017) added the ability to export workflows.

This was one of the huge selling points that ActiveCampaign advertised (arguably Drip’s biggest competitor) and which Drip lacked at the time.

This was a huge development because it meant you could now share your automations and download other Drippers’ workflows as well. If you want, you can even sell the automations you’ve created.

Because of my own encouraging experience with Drip, I’ve recommended it to several of my customers. And the feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

The only real complaint I’ve heard is that it takes a bit of time to understand how to use Drip, especially if you’re coming from a “simpler” platform like Aweber or MailChimp.

But that should neither surprise nor deter you. When you start working with a new tool that lets you do more, you’ve got to learn more. Can it be any other way?

beavis kicking it - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

From day one, Drip has provided comprehensive and easy to understand educational resources, guides, webinars, courses, live certification events, and an excellent knowledgebase – all for free to their users.

This is actually a big deal because, believe it or not, many widely-used apps lack good (or even barely acceptable) documentation and training. This hinders adoption, creates confusion, makes troubleshooting frustrating, and ultimately results in a lose-lose situation for both vendor and customer.

Drip has shown consistently that they care about their customers’ success by making such a wide range of training resources available. They sagely understood that it’s not enough to simply use a powerful platform like Drip; you’ve got to actually understand how it works, what it’s capable of, and how to implement the marketing automation strategies that give you the leverage that lesser platforms simply don’t offer.

Education is the key that unlocks and shows you this magical world.

Some of my favorite Drip features

Great training – Drip really cares about making sure their users know how to make the most of their app. They’ve got a comprehensive knowledge base, plenty of YouTube videos, guides, webinars, and articles all aimed at helping new users adopt the tech quickly, and existing users to continue making the most of it. As someone who does a lot of troubleshooting for my customers, I appreciate the ability to quickly find the answer to my tech concerns with a quick search.

Great support – If I can’t find the answer to a particular question or concern, I can always count on Drip’s support to be thorough and helpful. I’m actually surprised by the quality of Drip’s support given their mushroom-like growth. Perhaps the fact that they’ve been acquired by LeadPages has played a role in their ability to scale support smoothly along with their user base.

Powerful community – Drip’s got a loyal community of folks (mostly on the LeadPages Facebook group) who are keen to help, share, and ask for advice. I haven’t had much occasion to make use of the community but it’s good to know it’s there if I need to appeal to collective wisdom.

Free forever plan up to 100 contacts – You can take Drip for a nice, long test drive because they give you a free account up to your first 100 contacts. Boom!

Epic collection of integrations – It’s great to have native integrations inside of the apps you work with because they tend to be more reliable than using Zapier. Plus, unlike Zapier, you don’t have to pay extra to be able to use them. Check out Drip’s impressive list of integrations here.

Aggressive roll-out of new features – Drip regularly releases new features. They seem to put a lot of attention into improving the user experience inside of the app and making things easier to use. But they haven’t neglected functionality as evidenced by the recent update that allows you to export and import automations (among other updates).

Stable infrastructure – I’ve never had a problem with Drip going offline, or somebody not going through an entire automation. Which is unfortunately more than can be said for ActiveCampaign at the moment. The only complaint I have is that there’s sometimes a delay between an opt-in and that person being added to your account. This makes testing in Drip a bit frustrating. In ActiveCampaign, on the other hand, it’s instant.

Awesome affiliate program – I love Drip. So when I endorse it and get well paid for my recommendation, I appreciate the little bit of extra cash. And indeed, Drip has an excellent referral program that pays 30% recurring commissions in perpetuity.

I try to never let the prospect of getting paid a commission bias me. Methinks it helps that I’m not a terribly successful affiliate marketer. In my entire career I’ve earned maybe $5000 worth of affiliate commissions in total; and I’ve been at this online business stuff about 5 years now.

On the other hand, I’ve earned a pretty decent living by building a trusting relationship with my audience, which is something that it makes no sense to sacrifice for the prospect of a few affiliate dollars. I happily promote tons of apps, people and services without any kickback whatsoever (like ActiveMember360, for example, which doesn’t even have a referral program).

So when I get the opportunity to evangelize on behalf of a company that deserves it and earn a bit of coffee money at the same time, I think of it as a win / win. 🙂

Great deliverability – A lot of people report deliverability issues with ActiveCampaign. But I’ve not heard of any similar issues occurring with Drip. Deliverability is a huge deal in the email marketing world, so having strong inbox penetration out of the gate is one less headache to worry about.

List pruning – Drip makes it easy to “prune” your list of contacts who don’t open or engage with your emails via the bulk operations action. You can even create an automation to remove contacts after they’ve not opened your last 5 emails (for example).

Resend to unopened – A cool little feature of the email broadcast functionality in Drip is that you can check box that will re-send your email to anybody who hasn’t opened it in “x” days. You can also change the resend email headline to increase the chance of an open. Drip is bursting with thoughtful little gems like this.

drip resent unopened - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Unsubscribe from campaign but not from list – If you run a promotion or some kind of campaign it’s good to give your subscribers the opportunity to opt out if they’re not interested. But you don’t want to remove them from your list entirely. They’re just not interested in that specific thing. With Drip’s Campaigns feature you can remove people from a given promotion without irrevocably losing them as a subscriber.

Liquid – Liquid is a language created by Shopify which allows you to easily create if/then scenarios with email.

drip liquid - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Simple “if, then” logic that shows a different sentence to the subscriber depending on which tag they have in their contact record.

You can see in the above screenshot that liquid basically pulls data from a contact record and shows different content based on the conditions you specify. Can you imagine how much time you could save by using some Liquid tags in ONE email, instead of creating 10 variations of the same email…?

For a breezy intro to liquid check out this article:

5 Email Personalization Tricks to Increase Engagement Using Liquid

Pre-built email sequence blueprints – Drip features a growing library of email sequences that you can pre-load into a campaign with 1 click.

I mostly use these to start a campaign with a proven template and modify them as I go along. But you can just as easily use them “as is” if they fit your use case. Just change out the details to reflect your particular promotion and you’re good to go.

drip templates - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Choose one of the proven email sequences written by master marketers such as Ryan Deiss

Unlimited sub-accounts – One thing that annoys me about ActiveCampaign is that you mix all of your subscribers in one “pool” within your account. In Drip, you simply create as many sub-accounts as you want. Like the song says, “you gotta keep ’em separated”.

drip subaccounts - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Having unlimited sub-accounts lets you neatly separate different projects instead of trying to sort through them one one big ass list of subscribers

The value of a virtual mentor / evil genius.

Have you heard of Brennan Dunn? If you have, I needn’t say another word.

brennan dunn - What's the Best Email Marketing App for Membership Sites in 2017?

Don’t let the college boy smile fool you; this dude is an evil genius.

If you haven’t, here’s the scoop: Brennan is a well-known Drip guru who regularly posts tutorials on how to do incredible stuff with Drip. He’s even got a course called Drip Mastery which includes his infamous “Drip Pro Tools”.

To me, having a virtual mentor in the form of Brennan whom I can emulate and learn from takes so much guesswork out of the most difficult and yet most valuable part of email marketing, that I’d rather use Drip and have Brennan in my corner, than use another, more powerful tool, and try to figure everything out by myself.

The first strategy will make me a lot more money a lot quicker; the second strategy will lead to me having a great tool and not knowing how to make the most of it.

Brennan brings in $200k/mo in sales of his freelancing course virtually on autopilot by making the most of Drip’s segmentation, personalization capabilities. In one test, Brennan was able to double his sales just by personalizing the sales page to reflect the avatar of the subscriber who was viewing it (e.g. designer, developer, copywriter, etc.).

Check out Brennan’s funnel teardown here and tell me that it isn’t totally epic:

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