Marketing Automation for Startups & Small Businesses

When I started Munchkin Report, it didn’t make sense to buy an expensive marketing automation tool. But, like many startups, I still wanted to do basic marketing automation. Luckily, there is a crop of what I’d consider entry-level marketing automation products at a very reasonable price point.

I even wrote a post called the $9 Marketing Stack which shows you step-by-step how to piece together a substantially high-powered marketing stack on a shoestring budget.

Drip is the foundation of the $9 Marketing Stack and it’s the product I still use to power both Munchkin Report and this blog. When I first wrote the tutorial it included ActiveCampaign for $9/month for up to 500 subscribers. Drip is free for up to 100 subscribers, so technically it’s now a $0 stack.

Once you surpass that 100 subscriber mark, however, the water gets a little murky. Drip isn’t the clear winner and many other players in the marketing automation space become viable options.

I’m about to hit the 5,000 subscriber level for Munchkin Report. This will push my bill from $99/month to $149/month until I hit the next tier at 10,000 subscribers.

In this article, I’m going to explore my options and perhaps even rip Drip out of the $9 stack.

Drip woes

I’ve had systemic issues with SPAM form submissions on Drip that forced me to implement double opt-in. This mostly stopped fake subscribers from entering Drip, but I get about 15 bounce notification emails a day to let me know that bots are still submitting my Drip forms.

Drip support is adamant that the only way to stop this is to implement reCAPTCHA, which I really don’t want to do. Imagine a reCAPTCHA in here?

Drip popup form

Worse yet, new subscribers have also started to complain that the subscription confirmation is going into their junk folder. When they dig it out and click “confirm,” Gmail warns them that the link seems suspicious.

Others have reported widespread deliverability issues, which I haven’t even begun to investigate.

So, I’m on a mission to switch away from Drip.

The 6 Essential Marketing Automation Features

What is marketing automation anyway? Here’s how I think about it.

People hit your site, they fill out a form to sign up for your newsletter, demo, webinar, or email course. You now have a contact record that stores their info and their activity. This is your marketing database.

You should be able to put people into an automated workflow with if-this-then-that logic that can be segmented based on information you know about them or the actions they’ve taken. You can also send them one-off broadcast emails.

Ideally, you can send custom information (e.g., billing ID) or events (e.g., completed a purchase) from other systems into your marketing automation tool about a person so that you can better tailor your marketing.

We can boil this user story into 6 must-have marketing automation features:

The Vendor Shortlist

Here are the entry-level plans for the four products I’m considering compared to Drip:

Tool Sub Limit Cost Missing Features
Drip 2,500 $49/month None
ActiveCampaign 500 $9/month None
ConvertKit 1,000 $29/month Custom event tracking
MailChimp 2,000 Free Custom event tracking
HubSpot Starter 1,000 $50/month Custom event tracking, automation

And here’s what the cost + feature structure looks like as you near 5,000 subscribers:

Tool Sub Limit Cost Missing Features
Drip 5,000 $99/month None
ActiveCampaign 5,000 $69/month None
ConvertKit 5,000 $79/month Custom event tracking
MailChimp 5,000 $50/month Custom event tracking
HubSpot Starter 5,000 $130/month Custom event tracking, automation

HubSpot

With HubSpot, in order to get automation, you need to jump up to the Professional tier which starts at $800/month. To get custom event tracking you need to jump up to the Enterprise tier, starting at $3,200/month. This takes them out of the running.

If I were HubSpot, I’d make the free plan include 2,500 subscribers, email marketing, automation, and event tracking. Make the $50/month plan include 5,000 subscribers. They could own the market and make it very hard for people to choose Drip, ConvertKit, etc. Plus they’ve got the free unlimited CRM! No brainer!

This seems to be what MailChimp is doing with their pricing, and something tells me you don’t bootstrap a business to $525 million in revenue by making poor pricing decisions. MailChimp makes a ton of sense if you’re an e-commerce business, but if you have a sales team, there are countless reasons that HubSpot will be a better fit as you scale up.

You could make the case that HubSpot shouldn’t waste time and resources competing for ultra-price sensitive businesses. But they already are. They’ve put resources into HubSpot Marketing Free, but that plan doesn’t even include email marketing at all so to me it’s not viable even for the smallest of businesses. And HubSpot Marketing Starter isn’t compelling vs. ConvertKit and Drip for the reasons cited above. If they’re going to compete, they should compete to win, and boy could they win.

MailChimp

MailChimp’s pricing makes it very compelling, and they’ve made major leaps forward from their days of being a simple email newsletter platform. The free version even includes their new landing page builder, popup forms, ad platform integrations, and more. But they’re missing custom event tracking entirely.

I rely pretty heavily on custom events to track certain milestones within the Munchkin Report app. For instance, once someone starts a free trial in the app, I fire a “Started Trial” event in Segment which then notifies Drip so that the person who just signed up gets our new user onboarding sequence. Key milestones in app usage are also triggered by Munchkin’s mobile and web-based apps which change the email marketing workflows. It works flawlessly and is pretty important.

I might be able to figure out a way to achieve this by having Segment update a person’s attributes in MailChimp, but that would require significant (and hacky) changes in my Segment code.

The beauty of Segment is that, in theory, I can rip out Drip and plug in something else and everything Just Works™ because Segment is the singular API that knows how to transform all my event tracking code into a format that makes sense for all the different apps.

ConvertKit

ConvertKit’s UX is impressive and I’m a big supporter of the founder, Nathan Barry. The pricing is great and most of the key features are there.

Again, no event tracking! I could use tags, but there are a few drawbacks to tags. Tags are either there or not, events can be date/time based (e.g., “Made a purchase” event triggered on 2018-12-28) and can occur multiple times for a given subscriber. I love the ability to have both.

I might delay my switch just to give ConvertKit a chance to implement this feature. While it doesn’t seem to be on their short-term roadmap, it does seem like there’s demand for it.

ActiveCampaign

I was shocked when I discovered ActiveCampaign years ago because it was so amazingly full-featured for the price. Drip came along, won me over, and then proceeded to turn into a bit of a train wreck after the Leadpages acquisition, which I can’t say I would’ve predicted.

So it’s time to give AC another spin. It looks like they’ve drastically improved their event tracking and workflow builder, so I’m pretty excited to start a new trial, poke around, and figure out if I’m going to make the big switch. I’ll report back here with what I find.

Switching from one marketing automation vendor to another is kind of a big deal. There are a lot of moving parts–historical data imports, people currently enrolled in campaigns, re-engineering automations, and more. Hopefully this post gave you a bit of a head start if you’re in the market for an entry-level, budget option to get started with marketing automation.

Am I missing any other viable options? Let me know in the comments. (Don’t say Infusionsoft.)