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How to choose email marketing software: A basic guide for 2021

by Kate Lindemann  |  April 28, 2021

7 min. read
Illustration of a woman sitting at a desk using email marketing software.

Successful email marketing is a combination of creative inspiration and technical know-how. You’re brimming with ideas, but you’ll need the right tools to bring them to fruition. That’s where email marketing software comes in.

This article will cover everything you need to know to find the right email marketing platform for you – and highlight some of the best options on the market today.

What is email marketing software?

Email marketing software helps you manage your email contacts, send email campaigns and track performance metrics like clicks and opens. Many types of email marketing software also include advanced features to design emails, optimize campaigns and personalize your communication with each subscriber.

What to look for 

Most email marketing software will give you the basics: A place to store your contact list and the ability to email the subscribers on it. However, there are a few variations and extra perks you should keep in mind to make sure you get one that’s right for you.

So before we get into recommendations, let’s go over some email marketing software’s most important functions, and what you should pay attention to for each one.

List management

Good email list management is the foundation of any successful email marketing strategy. If your list isn’t healthy and well-maintained, even the best marketing emails won’t make much impact.

Here’s what you should look out for.

Subscribe and unsubscribe forms – Any email marketing software worth its salt will provide email sign-up forms to add to a website. The same goes for the link to an unsubscribe page.

Screenshot of an email sign-up form for a fashion retailer.

Segmentation optionsEmail segmentation divides email contacts into groups or categories, making it easy to customize campaigns to different groups of subscribers. If you want to segment your contact list, your email provider should make it easy to tag and filter contacts.

CRM integrations – If you already keep track of customers, leads and other contacts in a CRM, there’s no need to create extra work for yourself by maintaining a separate email list. Simply use your CRM’s email marketing software, or pick a tool that syncs with your existing customer database.

Email send limits

Most email software pricing plans are based on two things: how many contacts you have, and a daily or monthly limit on how many emails you can send. Figure out your needs before you start shopping to make it easier to compare prices.

Personalization options

Every email interaction builds a relationship with customers, so don’t be afraid to get a little personal. Email is one of the most personalizable marketing channels out there, so make sure you pick an email marketing tool that gives you some options, from addressing people by name to sending campaigns targeted by zip code.

Automation features

Another way to personalize emails is to customize the timing with email automation. Most email marketing software will let you send a welcome email to new subscribers, but many offer more advanced options too. A perfectly timed abandoned cart email might be just the thing you need to make a connection.

Screenshot of automation options in Mailchimp's email marketing software.

Tracking and testing

One of the great things about email marketing is that you can get more conversions just by refining technique and getting to know your audience. Email campaign optimization requires solid data about how people engage with your emails, and tools like send time optimization and A/B testing.


Email design is more than aesthetics. It’s an important part of reinforcing your brand, and can even boost your conversion rate. If you’re not a designer, or your HTML skills aren’t up to scratch, be sure to take a look at any software’s email building tools and templates.

If you don’t like them, it’s not a lost cause. You can always use a third-party email builder, but keep be sure to budget for the additional cost.

Collage of glossy, HTML-heavy email designs from major brands.

Technical and legal compliance

A huge advantage to using email marketing software is being safe in the knowledge your emails are properly configured to stay out of the spam folder. Choose a tool that uses domain authentication, which protects email deliverability by showing email clients that you are who you say you are.

On the legal side of things, many providers also offer checks to help you keep your email marketing compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act and the EU’s GDPR.

Our top picks for email marketing software

So now that you know what to look for, let’s dive into your options. There are seemingly countless email marketing software options out there, from established martech brands to new startups nipping at their heels.

To narrow your choice a little, we’ve pared the list down to some of the top names.

1. Mailchimp

Screenshot of template selections in Mailchimp's email marketing software.

Mailchimp has long been one of the top names in email marketing software. They’re an established and trusted brand that’s been in the email marketing game for decades. And they’re still one of the most popular email solutions: Mailchimp’s customers sent over 300 billion emails through their tools in 2020.

With Mailchimp, you can expect all the bells and whistles you could need for email marketing, including advanced testing and optimization options, sophisticated automations and easy list management.

They’re also starting to branch out into other areas of marketing and e-commerce, with solutions for customer relationship management, social media integrations, web design, domain hosting and more.

Who it’s for: While Mailchimp has a range of pricing options and a plan for nearly everyone, I’d recommend them mostly for small to medium size businesses. Their email tools are tried and trusted, and their growing suite of related solutions show they’ll keep growing alongside their customers.

2. HubSpot

Screenshot from Hubspot's email analytics dashboard.

If Mailchimp is essentially an email marketing software growing into a full-service marketing hub, HubSpot has been a full-service marketing hub from the beginning. With marketing automation, CRM, email marketing and sales tools all rolled into one, they’ve long been one of the best end-to-end martech solutions on the market.

Who it’s for: HubSpot’s software isn’t cheap and has a steep learning curve. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re just getting started in email marketing. But if you need a sophisticated marketing tool that does email and a whole lot more, it’s hard to go wrong with HubSpot.

If you just need email marketing and nothing else, Mailchimp might be the better choice.

3. Salesforce Pardot

Screenshot of the Salesforce Pardot email builder.

Speaking of all-in-one martech solutions, Salesforce Pardot offers a comparable alternative to HubSpot. While these are very similar systems, Pardot is a bit more of a CRM powerhouse focused on sales enablement and customer journeys. HubSpot has a stronger focus on inbound marketing automations.

Who it’s for: Pardot is a great option for teams already using Salesforce. Both Mailchimp and HubSpot have Salesforce integrations, and many marketers will feel more comfortable with their user interfaces. But if you don’t mind a more technical interface, keeping everything in the same system will be more convenient, with fewer syncing errors and less hassle setting up automations.

4. Campaign Monitor

Screenshot from Campaign Monitor's email builder showing countdown clock element.

Of course, not everyone needs a state-of-the art email marketing software complete with a fancy CRM and marketing automations. Price-conscious teams who just need the basics have lots of options to choose from will appreciate Campaign Monitor’s straightforward interface, versatile templates and solid analytics.

Who it’s for: Campaign Monitor is a great choice for teams just getting started with email marketing. It offers everything you need – including email builders and advanced analytics – with none of the extra tools you don’t.

And now for the fun part

Picking the right email marketing software now will save you lots of time, money and frustration down the line. Whether you’re a small business just getting started or a growing company making the leap to a full-service marketing suite, there’s a tool out there to meet your needs.

Once the decision is made, it’s time for the fun part of email marketing: getting those creative juices flowing and designing some killer campaigns.