CiviMail versus external email services

(MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc.)

The following is a comparison of various factors of bulk email delivery between the built-in CiviMail system and external email marketing services for a nonprofit using CiviCRM.  The assumptions are that you send a variety of message types—including newsletters, action alerts, and fundraising appeals—to supporters over the course of the year, wanting to target mailings effectively, track interactions, and maximize the open rate.  While we typically find that CiviMail’s integrated approach offers the best set of tools for a nonprofit, a standalone email service’s one-stop approach can be useful in many cases.

 

CiviMail

External Service

Composing

Composing messages in CiviMail is just like writing a regular email, with one key difference: you can insert mail-merge “tokens” that pull information from each individual contact’s record.  Practically any field in CiviCRM is available as a token, and there are also automatic greeting tokens like “Dear John” that are customizable from contact to contact, whether that should be “Dear Dr. Smith” or “Hey Smitty”.

Various services’ composition windows vary, but writing a message should be just as easy as CiviMail.  You can also insert values from recipients’ data, but you can only insert fields that the external service knows about.  You will need to update your external service regularly, either when you send a message that includes a certain field or as the data in CiviCRM changes.

Templates

Templates are effectively saved, reusable messages.  It’s easy to generate and save new templates, but the tools for creating them are the same as composing a message: the composition window with its basic word-processing tools, writing HTML from scratch, or re-using an existing template.  You can also set standard headers and footers to use for announcements or other messages that need less formatting.  In practice, most organizations have their website designer or CiviCRM consultant write one to three templates and/or header/footer pairs that match the look of their website.  They then stay within those options to maintain a consistent graphic style.

Depending upon the service, creating new templates can be easy for anyone to do, from changing colors to altering whole layouts.  For creating the first mailing, this makes it easy to get started.  For an organization trying to maintain a consistent look, this can be more complicated: it’s easy for senders to make choices that diverge from the organization’s style.  You can also generally add custom HTML templates and re-use messages.

Tracking

CiviMail comes with the options to track deliveries, opens, link clicks, bounces, and replies.  It also comes with links for unsubscribing from a mailing list, opting out of all emails, and forwarding a message to someone else.  Except for delivery tracking, unsubscription links, and bounce handling, all tracking is optional.

Most services track deliveries, opens, link clicks, bounces, and replies, and they insert links for unsubscribing.

Privacy

You can choose how much to track: privacy-sensitive organizations can turn off tracking and just know whether the delivery was successful and if someone wants to unsubscribe.  Unless you’re using a third-party SMTP service, nobody else has the full record of your messages’ content and recipients (though as always, someone intercepting data traffic could grab upon a snapshot of it).

While you may have the option to turn tracking on or off, you can’t completely control the amount of tracking that your external service is doing.  Even if you don’t see recipients’ activity, there’s no guarantee that they aren’t being monitored by the email marketing service, who could potentially create a profile of a recipient’s interests by analyzing the content of your message and others’ sent through the service.

Footer options

Each message is required to include the token for the domain address (the mailing address of your organization) and at least one of several opt-out/unsubscribe tokens.  It’s up to you to include them in an attractive, understandable way, but you also have full flexibility to place them within your message, template, or footer.

Most services have a standard footer that is applied to the bottom of your message automatically, including mailing address, an opt-out/unsubscribe link, and the service’s logo.

Targeting

Any set of contact search results can be sent a mass mailing using CiviMail.  This means that mailings can be targeted by geography, past activity such as donations or event attendance, or custom field values.  You can automatically exclude prior messages to ensure that contacts only receive a single email, even if they otherwise fall in several segments.  You can also target paper mailings, SMS messages, and other activities in conjunction with mass emails, tracked opens, etc.

You can target messages according to fields that are synced over from CiviCRM, but you need to ensure that the data you have is complete and up-to-date.  Targeting other actions based upon email activity requires syncing that information back to CiviCRM.

List management

Groups in CiviCRM can be enabled as mailing lists. These include static groups that are populated manually, as well as smart groups based upon search criteria. Profile forms can be enabled to add contacts to mailing lists, and you have the option of requiring double opt-in for security.

A contact can click an unsubscribe link to remove themselves from the mailing list (even a smart group), or they can click an opt-out link to automatically exclude themselves from all bulk emails. The “do not email”, opt-out, and deceased flags automatically exclude contacts from bulk emails.

Mailing lists are static groups or ad-hoc searches based upon data synced to the email marketing service. Forms are provided that allow visitors to subscribe to lists, and you often have the option of requiring double opt-in for security.

Unsubscriptions are automatically recorded, and the system will exclude unsubscribed contacts automatically. You must sync your data regularly in order to ensure that “do not email” preferences from CiviCRM are recorded in your mailing service and vice-versa.

Deliverability

Bounces are tracked automatically and update the contact’s record to put the email address on hold. However, this must be configured upon initial setup. If you are sending directly from the server, you will need to regularly check your IP address against blacklists.

If you use an external SMTP provider, they will track bounces and spam reports, but you will need to ensure that those are updated within CiviCRM—some services, such as CiviSMTP, do this automatically. An external SMTP provider will also ensure their IP address is clear on blacklists.

An external email marketing service will manage bounces and blacklisting automatically.  However, you will need to sync bouncing addresses back to CiviCRM to mark them on hold.

Speed

You have full control over the delivery speed, within the confines of your delivery method.  Sending directly from the server, you will find that recipients’ mail servers will defer messages if you send at too fast a rate.  Some hosts will also limit the number of messages sent per hour or day.  Using a third-party SMTP server, you can send messages to it as fast as you like, but it will throttle sending according to your reputation and their optimized speeds.

An external service will throttle the send rate according to your reputation and their optimized speeds.

Looking for implementation help? AGH Strategies supports both CiviMail as well as integrating CiviCRM with external email services. Contact us for more information about seamlessly integrating your CRM data and online communications.

You might also be interested in our calcuator of third-party SMTP pricing for CiviMail.