Affordable marketing is a challenge for every small business and startup.

No matter what stage your business is in, there is one thing you can do for free that will build your market and help you grow: email marketing. The best part? You can start building a list any time—even before you open for business.

We’ve looked at some of the dozens of email marketing providers, talked with customers and experts, and there’s a clear winner: MailChimp.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

Who should use MailChimp

An in-house email list is one of your business’s most important marketing assets. It’s a surefire way you can stay in touch with people who want to know about your business. No matter how third parties such as Google, Facebook, or Amazon change the rules of the game, your list is yours and you can reach the people on it.

The best part? You can start building a list any time—even before you open for business.

MailChimp is ideal for companies starting a list or who have fewer than 2,000 subscribers and send up to 12,000 emails per month. This keeps your account in the bounds of MailChimp’s Forever Free plan. If your needs surpass this, MailChimp can still be a great fit—but it’s also a good time to price other services (and we list some other strong contenders at the bottom of this article).

However, keep in mind that you’ll mainly be on your own for support. MailChimp maintains an extensive Knowledge Base to help you work through any issues, but support is only available with paid accounts.

How we chose

We chose MailChimp because its free account option really sets it apart from other players, and its intuitive interface can help even the non-technical customer wrap their heads around the ins and outs of email marketing.

MailChimp didn’t pay us to write this review. We also talked with both a MailChimp customer and expert on email marketing and small business—and you’ll be hearing from them throughout this review.

Why MailChimp is our #1 email marketing provider pick for a startup or small business

MailChimp is ideal for the startup and small business customer that needs to grow an email list with industry-leading tools and best practices.

A durable, trendsetting presence in the industry since 2001, the Atlanta-based firm sends over a billion emails per day and is the go-to choice for over 14 million organizations and individuals around the world.

MailChimp is affordable; their New Business Forever Free plan is no cost for up to 2,000 subscribers (you can send up to 12,000 emails per month)—no trial period, no contract, not even a credit card required.

MailChimp also scales with your business, offering powerful email automation workflows, insightful analytics, and flexible payment tiers help you balance business needs and budget.

Above all, MailChimp’s interface is easy to use even for the non-techie, enabled in part by a quirky sense of humor—right down to a Curious George-esque monkey logo—that actually makes email marketing fun.

Sign up for a free account here (don’t worry, we’ll wait).

A spoonful of sugar

That sense of humor is actually more important than you might think. It’s said that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down; this is also true in email marketing. Building a list and setting up email templates and campaigns takes time. You have to comply with laws about permission, opting in, and honoring unsubscribe requests. There are metrics to review.

MailChimp helps you with all of these things. Yet part of what has made the company such a dominant force in the email marketing world is its “spoonful of sugar”: MailChimp’s sense of fun and humor makes using the service feel easier.

For example, finishing a campaign and ready to send or schedule it? A large cartoon of a monkey’s hand pushes a big red button—and then slaps up for a high-five (in fact, if you keep high-fiving, a game launches). MailChimp turns email marketing into something you’ll not only understand as a vital part of your business growth and outreach, but something you’ll even look forward to doing.

“I use Mailchimp for the distribution of weekly newsletters, and for list growth via opt-ins for multiple types of campaigns. It’s also perfect for segmenting groups and keeping track of my clients and potential clients,” says Joanne McCall, a publicist, media training expert, author, and speaker, who’s worked with clients such as Dave Ramsey and The Deepak Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

“The first thing that caught my attention is that MailChimp offers a free service. That gave me some time to work with the platform, explore its features, and really learn how to use it before committing dollars. Second, it’s very easy to learn and use. In this day and age, ease of use is everything. Plus, I love the sense of humor the company and its employees have. It always makes me laugh.”

How MailChimp keeps email essential and evergreen

Commercial email began in 1978 and exploded with the widespread growth of the internet in the 1990s. That can make email seem dated, something we take for granted. After all, now there’s Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and on and on.

Sure, you might have a Facebook Page, a shop on Amazon, or an excellent page presence on Google and Bing. Trouble is, third-party platforms sometimes fail, plus they change the rules all the time—and those changes can erode or eradicate the reach you had with your customers and prospects.

Your email list, however, is your asset. Social networks come and go, but people always have an inbox—and they want to be connected with people who bring them value.

“MailChimp allows me an easy way to communicate to my clients and communities,” says McCall. “This has led many people from being interested in what I’m doing, to hiring me to help them to publicize their business and book.”

So, while MailChimp makes email easier for you to use, their user-friendly design also conceals a powerful suite of tools and options:

Attractive templates and an easy-to-use editor

Choose from a range of pre-formatted templates or upload your own.

MailChimp’s templates also use the latest best practices in responsive design, ensuring that your emails look good in any inbox on any device (they also have inbox testing tools so you can preview messages before sending). A drag-and-drop editor makes it easy to customize messages with text, photos, video, design elements, and more.

Automation and triggered emails

Set up email workflows that send based on set criteria, schedules, or milestones. Automated emails help you appeal to your market’s needs and steer them to your sales funnel.

Sending options

Send all at once, schedule for later, send based on the recipient’s time zone, or even let MailChimp send the email based on when it says there will be maximum engagement from your subscribers.

A/B testing

Easy split testing of things such as subject lines. Set up a test, and MailChimp will automatically send to a designated split portion of the list, choose the winner, and then send the winning email to the rest of the list.

Advanced stats

From opens and clicks to other actions, MailChimp gives robust reports that show subscriber activity, what worked and what didn’t in an email campaign, how a campaign is reaching your business goals, and even how your campaign compares with other MailChimp users in your industry.

Segmentation

Your customers are not one size fits all. Neither are your emails. Segmenting tools let you send the right message to the right people at the right time.

“I love MailChimp because the company is forward-thinking,” says Amy Hall, a business virtual assistant who’s specialized in MailChimp for email marketing since 2010.

“They solve problems with email deliverability before they become problems. They were the first third-party email service to emphasize mobile responsive email templates. They moved, rather quickly, to drag-and-drop mobile responsive templates. It’s not something their customers even have to think about. MailChimp proactively did what was best for their customers and moved to all mobile responsive templates.”

Hall recommends that new MailChimp users set up a regular email schedule and immediately customize MailChimp’s default emails that welcome a new subscriber to the mailing list. “These should include links to your website, blog, social media accounts, and a link to some type of information your audience finds valuable and will use (usually a free opt-in offer), and a little about how often they can expect to see your newsletter and what info they’ll receive on it.”

8 tips for using MailChimp

With over a billion emails going all over the world each day, getting each email to the inbox is crucial. MailChimp dedicates itself to email deliverability, with a 96-99 percent deliverability rate, according to Shero Designs. They also dedicate themselves to ease of use for the customer, and it’s easy to get your feet wet before taking a deeper plunge into more involved campaigns, segmentation, and automation workflows.

“Spend some time on the platform getting to know it,” suggests McCall. “Take advantage of the free option. This gives you time to develop relationships with your customers. Experiment with the features that are easy to utilize: I like the reports it produces and can utilize that information for my business communications.”

As you get set up on MailChimp, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Take advantage of automation

Hall suggests you quickly move from the free plan to the first paid plan, which starts at $10 per month for up to 500 subscribers. The reason is simple: you gain access to MailChimp’s powerful automation tools.

“Automation is the secret sauce of MailChimp,” she explains. “If done right, it gives a richness and depth to your email marketing strategy like nothing else can. You can run as many nurture campaigns as you’d like, run one for each type of customer, potential customer, investor, and potential investor. They will make your connection with the reader better and you’ll see results because of it.”

2. Consider support versus DIY

Only paid accounts are eligible for email or chat support.

That being said, MailChimp has an extensive DIY knowledge base that can help you quickly and comprehensively find answers to questions and solutions to problems.

3. Authenticate your domain

“Most users won’t authenticate their domain,” warns Hall. “This means their deliverability will be lower because newsletters will come from a MailChimp email address instead of their own email address.”

Authenticating your domain name raises your deliverability rate because the email is coming from your domain. If you have an IT person or web developer, you can ask them to handle it. If you also wear the IT hat, MailChimp walks you through step-by-step on what you’ll need to do to verify your business’s domain name and then set up custom domain authentication.

4. Look into third-party platform integration

MailChimp has plugins and other tools that can help you utilize subscription boxes and other features across multiple social, content management, and ecommerce platforms, including Squarespace, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Magento, Google Analytics, Salesforce, and PayPal.

5. Know that what matters is list quality, not quantity

“Don’t get too caught up in building a big list and open and click-through rates. These don’t matter if you’re not receiving any sales leads from your emails,” explains Hall. “Who cares if your list is ten thousand people if you only get one lead from it? I’d rather have a list of a hundred people that really want to hear from me and I get ten replies or click-throughs on my ‘Hire Me’ button.”

6. Keep an eye out for free system upgrades and features

MailChimp is always evolving to meet the needs and requirements of the market, law, technology, and subscriber preferences. They keep their system at the state-of-the-art so you don’t have to worry about it—you can just take advantage of rock-solid features.

Recent upgrades include hand-picked web fonts (giving you more options for the typography available in emails) and a new dashboard when you sign in, giving you at-a-glance access to vital data and stats, tips for improved campaign success, subscriber growth, effectiveness of signup sources, campaign engagement tracking, and how much revenue is being generated by each of your campaigns and automation workflows.

7. Monitor stats and campaign reports

“Your list stats give you a world of insight into your reader demographics and how they like to digest information,” explains Hall. “Your campaign report gives you the open rate and click-through rate. Your open rate tells you if your subject line was good. Your click-through rate tells you if you’re confusing your readers. After all of that—don’t live by these stats! Live by your sales.”

8. Think long-term

MailChimp’s free starter plan is a no-brainer to get you setup in the world of email marketing. They might call it “forever,” but odds are your business won’t be staying at that level forever.

Know how MailChimp can scale as your business scales. Review MailChimp’s pricing plans (they offer both Monthly and Pay As You Go options), plus additional paid features such as MailChimp Pro (advanced features such as Multivariate Testing and Delivery Insights), Mandrill (one-to-one automated e-commerce and transactional emails such as order confirmations and password resets), and Social Profiles (helps you segment subscribers based on publicly available social network data).

Where MailChimp falls short

Of course, MailChimp isn’t perfect, and it isn’t the end-all and be-all for every business. Here are some cons and caveats to keep in mind:

  • Lists larger than the Forever Free plan’s limits may not be the most competitively priced. If your list is more than 2,000 subscribers or you’re sending more than 12,000 emails per month, be sure to shop around.
  • Automated email sequences—which send to subscribers based on time, actions, or other parameters you set—are available only to paid accounts. However, you can access this feature for as little as an additional $10 per month.
  • Having multiple lists can be tricky, as it can be hard to make sure you aren’t duplicating emails across multiple lists. If you have the same email on different lists, you could wind up annoying a customer because they’re getting too many emails from you.
  • Support staff are only available for paid MailChimp accounts.
  • Some email marketing services provide design services for an additional fee; MailChimp doesn’t. You’ll need to be ready to work with their templates, or have access to your own designer who can design or customize a template for you.
  • MailChimp is focused exclusively on email marketing. Some other providers may also do more for social media management, event registrations, webinars, landing page design, or other features. Make sure you’re picking an option that serves your business needs.

Other options

MailChimp is a great email marketing solution for many startups and small businesses, but if you need something else—or just want to see what other options are out there—here are some other great email marketing providers to look into:

Email marketing made easy for startups and small businesses

Ease of setup, free starter plan, and a user-friendly interface (with monkey humor) all make MailChimp the perfect choice for startups and small businesses to build an email list and contact customers and prospects.

“I have recommended MailChimp many times and list it as a resource to my communities,” says McCall. “It’s the best choice over the other options. User-friendly, and love the interface. You do not have to be too ‘techie’ in order to use it. Plus, it’s fun.”

Bplans and Palo Alto Software are strong supporters of entrepreneurs and small business owners. We work with like-minded partners who also want to help your businesses succeed by providing the best tools and content for the job.

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