Comparison of Online Email Marketing Companies

February 21, 2010 - Reading time: 9 minutes

If you work on commercial web-sites, eventually you find the need to add email marketing services such as newsletters and special advertisements. The article compares 4 services: Campaign Monitor vs. Constant Contact vs. Mail Chimp vs. Topica in several categories, primarily templating abilities, the usability, and the documentation. This review does not cover the reporting capabilities of these products, but all of them offer the standard set of success metrics.

DISCLAIMER: The review only reflects my own experience using each product for about an hour each; I’m not affiliated with any of these companies.

Campaign Monitor

Price: Pay as you go: a flat delivery fee of $5, plus 1 cent for each recipient.

Templates: HIGH MARKS. You can get started with a library of their own templates, and you can easily customize the HTML and CSS via their custom tags, e.g.
<$title link='true' default='Enter Title Here'$>
They provide a good cheatsheet and plenty of template samples.

Limits: only 10 custom fields allowed on email forms.

API: HIGHEST MARKS. Very well documented, code samples of each method in various languages. Like Mail Chimp, Campaign Monitor also offers plugins to various CMS’s including WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Expression Engine etc.

Demo: Yep, try it totally free. You only pay when you send an email.

Summary: Very easy to use, offers one of the most flexible templating systems available with a lot of samples and a really helpful CSS comparison guide for styling emails for different email clients. Campaign Monitor distinguishes itself from Mail Chimp with its ability to resell distributions (you can set up campaigns for multiple clients through one account) and its payment structure.

Constant Contact

Price: uses pricing tiers based on the max number of emails you will send. Starts at $15 a month for up to 500 emails/month; there are also limits to the number of images you can host in your account.

Templates: Somewhat limited… the UI felt boxy, and although they support custom HTML/CSS, the pseudo code they used did not resemble anything I’d seen before: it uses XML-looking tags, so they are difficult to see once they are actually used alongside HTML. Clicking on the help links dumped out to a PDF page… but the PDF never loaded, so I had to email customer service before I could check out the Advanced Editor’s Guide and see how they handle templating.

Limits: varies per subscription level; the site itself is not friendly with Safari, and there were problems accessing their PDF docs.

API: Yes, but it’s a little hard to find: The interface is very XML centered (which is not PHP’s strong suit) and the docs are a bit hard to navigate and don’t include many examples. As expected, you can Import Outlook or csv files to populate your contact list.

Demo: 60 days with full support.

The strengths are that this company also does Online Surveys and Event Marketing in addition to the Email Marketing, and they get HIGH MARKS for customer service — a representative called me to follow up and sent me an email with links for everything I asked for. But I have to take off points for limiting special characters in the account passwords (If you’re gonna pretend like you care about my password strength by putting a Password Strength widget on your form, then you gotta follow through and allow special characters in the passwords!). Their representative assured me that their email templates were tested and functional across all browsers, but their control panel doesn’t work with Safari and there were problems accessing the PDF documents — even their little helpful survey widget asking “how you doing?” failed to submit properly, probably due to some browser-specific Javascript.

Mail Chimp

Price: HIGHEST MARKS! 3 options:

  • Monthly (50k subscribers): starts at $380, up to 600k sends.
  • Pay as You Go (you buy “email credits”, starting at 3 cents per email)
  • Forever Free (up to 3k sends/mo, list less than 500 contacts, emails include affiliate badge in footer)

no built-in surveys, but there is a built-in integration with SurveyGizmo.

API: Yes! HIGH MARKS! Documented for PHP, with some code samples in many languages. There are plugins for Drupal, FoxyCart, ExpressionEngine, etc.

Templates: HIGH MARKS! Yep, you can choose from their starter templates or use your own HTML/CSS using tags like this:
The tags even support if statements and formatting options. Template Language documentation is here:

Demo: Yep, free to try for as long as you’d like.

Summary: High marks all the way around. Flexible pricing options, custom templates, thorough API, and helpful videos. This is a very good product.


Price: starts at $49.95 for up to 1,000 names… but the pricing page is hard to find.

Templates: You can use your own HTML, CSS, and images, but you can’t store them on their server — it’s a bit difficult to see where to do this, exactly: go straight to the “Campaigns” menu and choose to use “No Template”. You can use up to 15 custom tokens (configurable under “Preferences”), e.g. ${token1}, but heavy use of tokens is discouraged because it increases database load.

API: Yes, it’s SOAP based, but (again) it’s hard to find: As expected, you can do bulk imports and bulk exports of contacts or audience data.

Demo: Limited 14 day “demo” is available, but it’s really an “opt-out” purchase requiring credit card authorization “If you do not cancel during your trial period, your account will remain active and be charged a minimum monthly fee of $49.95” as well as $0.01 per name in your database if you use more than your selected capacity.

Summary: Topica gets HIGH MARKS for customer service, and their biggest strength is that they’ve been around a long time and their servers are said to be in the “good-graces” of most ISPs and, like Constant Contact, they got people available to take your calls. They have reasonable customer service: questions were answered during normal times. However, the site is hard to navigate, it has some browser display issues and even a couple 404 errors in the control panel (!), and searches for documentation tended to funnel me back to contact their sales/support people instead of to actual pages. And personally, I’m not too keen on an opt-out purchase agreement in order to “demo” the software.


In summary, I’d say that MailChimp and Campaign Monitor were the best I looked at: both offered very flexible templates, thorough examples, and a flexible, well-documented API. I’d have to say that Campaign Monitor code samples are amongst the best I’ve seen, but Mail Chimp has excellent documentation and an equally flexible templating system. Topica came across as a bit boxy and overpriced for smaller campaigns given its features. Constant Contact was somewhere in the middle… I know it’s a popular option, but browser issues in the control panel and the lack of a sensibly-documented API make it an unattractive option for me.

-- Everett Griffiths


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