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The marketing automation industry has skyrocketted from a $500m market to an expected $5.5bn in 2019 over the past four years. According to Salesforce’s State of Marketing Report (2017), 67% of marketing leders are already using at least one marketing automation platform and a further 21% planned to start using one in 2018.
At the same time, the list of marketing automation platforms continues to grow with new tools hitting the scene every year.
The luxury of choice is a great thing but it makes choosing the right automation platform for you increasingly difficult.
Despite an endless variety of marketing automation services to choose from, I’m going to focus on five of the most popular & highly-rated services for SMEs:
I’ll also be touching on two options aimed at larger enterprises: Pardot and Active Campaign Enterprise.
TLDR: In my opinion, ActiveCampaign is the best option for the majority of businesses. Unlike some of the marketing automation tools above, their pricing is reasonable and they offer an impressive range of features. We use ActiveCampaign across all of our ventures at Venture Harbour (I’ve written about how we use it in more depth here) and love it.
Over the past few years, I’ve either demoed, used, or gathered opinions from multiple long-term customers of all seven of these (plus a handful of others that didn’t make the cut). This post ended up being quite in-depth, so if you’re looking for something specific feel free to skip to one of the sections below.
- The pros and cons of each marketing automation software provider
- A comparison of marketing automation software prices
- The conclusion: which solutions are best for different types of business?
First things first, though. With so much variation between services, what do you need to look out for when comparing software providers?
What to consider when comparing marketing automation software
Before we go into the pros and cons, or the pricing comparisons, it’s important to know what to look out for.
I know several friends who signed up for marketing automation software, only to realise one month down the line that it wasn’t compatible with their CRM. Ouch.
It’s also very easy to get burned by the sliding scale pricing structures and unexpected additional costs.
My point is, it pays to do your research. Below are a couple of important considerations and questions to have in mind when comparing the various software providers.
Let’s start off with the deal breakers. These are the first things you should look out for when comparing marketing automation software providers.
- Pricing – Most marketing automation tools are priced on a sliding scale with additional costs for training and add-ons. They can become ludicrously expensive very quickly if you’re not careful. I’d recommend taking a 3-5 year perspective when weighing up your options.
- Usability – Marketing automation is inherently complex. As such, usability is extremely important as it’ll determine how much value your team extract from the tool. The less intuitive the software is, the more you will pay for training, and the more headaches your team will endure.
- Integrations with your existing software – This is extremely important, yet sometimes overlooked. Some marketing automation tools only allow integration with a small number of third party apps / CRM systems.
Now let’s look at the preferences. Some of these may be deal breakers for you, but they’re mostly to do with what features the software providers.
- CRM / sales capabilities – Some marketing automation tools have an in-built CRM system with lead scoring, and advanced tagging capabilities. Others have no in-built CRM, as they expect you to connect the software with your existing CRM.
- Email capabilities – while all marketing automation tools enable email marketing in some capacity, some are better than others. Do you need drip campaigns? subject line A/B testing? Demographic segmentation?
- Content capabilities – Do you need to create landing pages, webinars, or other forms of content to send out to your contacts? While most marketing automation tools enable this, some are easier to use and more extensive than others.
- eCommerce capabilities – Do you sell products online? Some marketing automation tools, such as Infusionsoft and Ontraport, can act as your product database. These tools usually offer features like coupon codes, and affiliate programs.
- Social media capabilities – Some marketing automation tools integrate with Facebook and Twitter, enabling you to control social advertising or build social apps from within the service. Some also offer social media monitoring, to pull comments made on social media platforms into your CRM. These features are usually nice-to-haves, but it might be worth considering whether or not they would be useful for you or not.
- Training & set-up – Another consideration is how long will it take your company to implement the marketing automation software, and at what cost? This is not particularly well advertised on any of the software provider’s websites, so be sure to ask.
The Pros and Cons of Marketing Automation software providers
In this section, I’ve written a quick summary of the main pros and cons for each of the aforementioned marketing automation providers.
I’ve kept the reviews relatively short so that you can skim over the pros and cons.
ActiveCampaign – 5/5
Venture Harbour has grown by 330% in the past year – and we owe a lot of that growth to ActiveCampaign. I’ve already written about 20+ ways ActiveCampaign has enabled us to systemise our business, so at risk of repeating myself I’d urge you to read this post if you’re interested in learning more about what you can do with ActiveCampaign.
But if you just want the overview of why ActiveCampaign is awesome, here goes:
- Affordable – ActiveCampaign starts at $9/month and remains reasonably priced as you grow your contact list. There are no mandatory training packages or hidden costs. They were also one of the first marketing automation tools to offer a (good) solution under $100/month. Since then, other tools have had to reduce their pricing to keep up.
- Innovative – I’ve been using ActiveCampaign for over three years now, and the product just keeps getting better. This year alone, ActiveCampaign released a site messaging tool, a chrome plugin, a marketing attribution tool, A/B testing within automation sequences, and a handful of other extremely useful upgrades.
- It’s stable – When I speak to friends using other marketing automation tools they’re often quick to complain about email deliverability, buggy interfaces and downtime. As an ActiveCampaign user, I struggle to relate.
- Intuitive – The visual campaign builder is extremely user-friendly, to the point that I’ve had staff build complex marketing automation campaigns with no prior experience or training.
- Responsive support – I’ve probably contacted ActiveCampaign’s customer support team less than five times over the past three years (not bad given that we use it daily) and they’re always genuinely helpful and quick to respond.
Frankly, I can’t really think of anything negative to say about ActiveCampaign without being very pernickety. Hence, a well-deserved 5/5 rating.
Infusionsoft – 4/5
Infusionsoft used to be considered the ‘Rolls Royce’ of marketing automation platforms; Expensive, but worth the high price tag. This was before competitors like ActiveCampaign began to gain mainstream attention.
From my conversations with numerous Infusionsoft users, many of whom referred to the software as ‘confusionsoft‘, it seems as though Infusionsoft has struggled to keep up with the competition.
To give credit where it’s due, Infusionsoft is an extremely powerful tool and was one of the first marketing automation providers to offer a visual campaign builder.
Back in 2014-2015, I used to rave about how this campaign builder alone put Infusionsoft miles ahead of their competitors, but these days visual campaign builders have become the norm across virtually all marketing automation platforms.
The CRM system on Infusionsoft is very powerful. Like most CRMs, you can expect to see lead scoring, unlimited tags, automated quotes, pipeline reporting, and much more.
If you have the eCommerce package, you can also use Infusionsoft to manage your website’s eCommerce system, which obviously automatically adds customers into your CRM, enabling up-selling, customer life-cycle marketing etc.
There are five things that I’ve come across that are not so great about Infusionsoft. All are relatively minor issues, but worth mentioning.
1. A mandatory initial training package – Infusionsoft used to charge a mandatory $1,999 training fee for new users. Given that other options like ActiveCampaign allow you to get up and running for $9/month with no training, this became a bit of a deal breaker for many businesses. Infusionsoft still charges a mandatory training fee but it’s been reduced to $249.
2. A/B testing is difficult – Split testing is possible in Infusionsoft, but it’s definitely not as easy as it could be.
3. Mediocre reporting – The reporting on Infusionsoft is okay, but given the amazing data it collects, I’m surprised that it’s not significantly better.
4. No recurring PayPal payments – If you want to use recurring payments, you’ll have to pay for Infusionsoft’s Customer Hub add-on.
5. Mediocre email templates – They’re not bad, just a bit average.
The bottom line is that Infusionsoft is a great tool with a few legacy issues. Would I choose it for my business or recommend it to a friend? Probably not given the other options on the market. But is it right for your business? Maybe – which is why I believe it deserves a spot in the top five marketing automation tools.
Ontraport – 4/5
Ontraport is a bit of an underdog in the marketing automation space.
I first heard about them from a friend at Mindvalley, who mentioned that they were using Ontraport, and were really pleased with it. Mindvalley is pretty awesome when it comes to automated marketing, so this was a big tick.
After that, I began hearing about Ontraport everywhere.
What was really interesting was the diverse range of people who I was hearing about them from. From entrepreneurs turning over a few hundred thousand to $50m companies with 200 staff, everyone seemed to say good things about Ontraport.
My first impressions were that everything I didn’t like about Infusionsoft, Ontraport did really well.
Recurring payments were easy to setup, there was no initial training cost, and you could sign up as a customer directly from their website. On top of this, everything is split testable without needing a strange workaround.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Ontraport reporting dashboard, which is just a panel of KPI metrics. Personally, I’d much rather a more visual layout with fewer, more important, metrics displayed over time.
Ontraport’s sequence builder is really good, although not quite as fun to play with as Infusionsoft’s campaign builder. That said, it integrates way better with WordPress, Facebook, Google Adwords, and other platforms. While it doesn’t feel quite as ‘SIM City-ish’ as Infusionsoft, it does feel just as, if not more, powerful.
One final touch which is really cool is the ability to automate SMS messages and postcards from Ontraport. I’d love to experiment with this in more detail to see how SMS messages and sending postcards in the mail influence customer behaviour, but it would certainly help with standing out from the crowd.
Out of all the tools reviewed, Ontraport is probably my favourite.
It’s one of the more affordable marketing automation tools, and also very scalable, as the price doesn’t increase very much as your list size grows.
Marketo – 3/5
Marketo is a good contender for medium-large sized businesses. With a base cost of $895/month, it’s quite a step up from Infusionsoft and Ontraport.
I haven’t used Marketo myself, but I’ve heard consistent feedback about their platform from friends who do. In a nutshell, it’s great… once you get over the steep learning curve.
Frankly, all of the marketing automation tools have a pretty steep learning curve, but I’ve heard that Marketo is particularly unintuitive and hard to get used to.
On the plus side, they’re regularly praised for having excellent customer support, and a fast-evolving product.
I’d love to hear from any Marketo users in the comments below.
Hubspot – 2/5
I’ve never really bought into the hype around Hubspot.
Pretty much everything that Hubspot offers can be found elsewhere for free, or for much less money. Their software does a lot, but it doesn’t seem to do anything really well.
To give them credit, their software is really intuitive and easy to get the hang of. The analytics are relatively good, and it’s convenient having everything they offer in one place.
I can see how many small businesses would be impressed with their offering, but It’d be dishonest to say that I recommend them considering how much they charge.
Hubspot charges mandatory training fees in the $500 – $2,000 range, on top of a typical monthly cost between $800 – $2,500.
If it were me, I’d take this money and instead spend it on Ontraport, which is a significantly more advanced marketing automation platform. With what’s left over, you could get a pro subscription to a good piece of SEO software like Moz ($99/month), and do some training on Google Analytics.
I might be missing something, and if so please correct me in the comments, but based on demoing their software and speaking to their users, I don’t understand why you would choose to pay so much for insights that can be uncovered for significantly less money elsewhere.
Pardot – 3/5
Pardot has had an interesting few years of Russian doll acquisitions, after being acquired by Exact Target in 2012, who were later acquired by Salesforce in 2013.
With a base cost of $1,000/month, they’re one of the more expensive marketing automation services.
Pardot receives a lot of great praise for their customer support, both pre and post-implementation. Unlike many of the other services mentioned, they don’t charge a setup cost and training is free (or… covered by the large monthly fee)!
Salesforce isn’t the greatest when it comes to user experience. Naturally, learning how to use Pardot is a pretty steep learning curve, and there are a lot of features that are very confusing to get your head around.
One important thing to note is that their lower tier of $1,000 / month is quite limited in terms of functionality. If you want A/B testing, PPC integration, social media support, or anything else beyond basic CRM and email functionality, you’ll need to pay for their $2k/month package.
If you’re an enterprise brand with demanding automation needs, ActiveCampaign Enterprise is probably the first tool you should look at. You get all the best CRM, automation and email features of ActiveCampaign bundled into a more flexible and powerful system for big businesses.
First of all, you get unlimited user accounts with custom user permissions. You can also send an unlimited number of emails and you get your own custom mailserver domain as part of the package. Another interesting feature is ActiveCampaign’s automated social data gathering, which collects social details from all of your contacts and allows you to use this for list segmentation – so you can contact all LinkedIn users under 30 in your area, for example.
Going enterprise also means you get a dedicated account rep who knows the platform inside out but also becomes familiar with your business and its needs – someone who’s always there when you need a helping hand. You also get priority support across phone, email and chat should you run into any technical issues.
In terms of performance, ActiveCampaign guarantees 99.9% uptime on its Enterprise package and you get extensive customisation features, plus unlimited integrations with more than 150 business and marketing apps.
The list of features goes on.
If you need the best marketing automation features as well as the power and flexibility of enterprise software, be sure to check out ActiveCampaign’s enterprise package.
Comparing the price of different marketing automation software providers
It’s quite a challenge to do a like for like comparison of marketing automation service prices, as some price tiers are based on the number of users, while others are on features or number of contacts in your database.
I’ve done my best to do an accurate comparison of the different services based on the following criterion:
- Entry-point cost (the minimum you could possibly pay for their product)
- The minimum cost if you have 10,000+ contacts in your database
- The minimum cost if your have 100,000+ contacts in your database
- The minimum cost if you need to have 5+ users
Also, bear in mind that these prices may well change over time. As of the date of writing (15th November 2016) they are all accurate.
ActiveCampaign – $9 / month
Infusionsoft – $99 / month (+ mandatory one-off $299 training fee)
Hubspot – $200 / month (+ mandatory one-off $575 training fee)
Ontraport – $79 / month
Marketo -$895 / month
Pardot – $1,000 / month
Minimum price for 10,000 contacts
ActiveCampaign – $111 / month
Infusionsoft – $299 / month (+ mandatory one-off $299 kickstart package)
Hubspot – $2,400 / month (+ mandatory one-off $2,300 training fee)
Ontraport – $297 / month
Marketo -$895 / month
Pardot – $1,000 / month
Minimum price for 100,000 contacts
ActiveCampaign – $369 / month
Infusionsoft – Not listed
Hubspot – $3,300 / month (+ mandatory one-off $2,300 training fee)
Marketo -Not listed
Pardot – Not listed
Ontraport – $597 / month
Minimum price for 5+ users
ActiveCampaign – $55 / month
Infusionsoft – Not listed
Hubspot – $920 / month (+ mandatory one-off $2,300 training fee)
Ontraport – $597 / month
Marketo -$895 / month
Pardot – $1,000 / month
ActiveCampaign Enterprise – Call for prices
No marketing automation tool is definitively the best. I’ve summarised which options I think are best for companies of different sizes, and sectors.
For small businesses (under $5m revenue) & online businesses
For small to medium-sized businesses, it absolutely has to be ActiveCampaign.
While there are other popular options like Infusionsoft and Hubspot, these tools pale in comparison to ActiveCampaign’s product, while somehow costing 5-10X more.
For medium-sized businesses ($10m – $100m)
For medium-sized businesses, the choice of marketing automation software is most difficult, as this is the market that most providers cater to.
For enterprise businesses ($100m+)
For larger businesses, your list of options becomes much smaller. Pardot and Hubspot both offer genuine enterprise versions of their software but the likes of Infusionsoft and even Marketo (to a lesser extent) are more suited towards small and medium-size businesses.
As far as I’m concerned Hubspot doesn’t offer enough to justify its enterprise price tags while Pardot isn’t much cheaper at this level and the user experience can be pretty laborious.
Something else that might limit your choices is integration with your CRM platform.
This is something you don’t have to worry about with ActiveCampaign because it comes with a very capable CRM system (we’re using it ourselves) and the company doesn’t hike prices up for enterprise customers to the same extent as other providers.
For enterprise businesses who want an all-in-one marketing automation, email and CRM platform, ActiveCampaign is going to be hard to beat.