Issue #020

What I look for in an email marketing platform

There are SO many email marketing platforms to choose from in 2021.

How do you choose which one is right for you and your business? I have... many thoughts on this.

Back in 2009-ish, I began my journey into this wild world of email marketing by signing up for Mailchimp because 1) it was the only tool I'd actually heard of and 2) they kept sponsoring the conferences I'd go to, so 🤷‍♂️

Since then, the landscape has continued to evolve. I can no longer keep track of all the platforms that marketers are using.

My RightMessage inbox gets at least a handful of integration request emails a week, and since releasing the Template Pack those requests have quadrupled.

"Will your Pack work with Mailerlite? ActiveCampaign? SendFox? ........"

Hover over any of the links in my emails and you'll notice that I use ConvertKit.

While not perfect, it works for me.

And today I thought I'd do something I've really only ever done in bursts in tweets and talk about what I look for in an email platform and why I use CK.

The 3 things I look for in an email platform

Since I started using Mailchimp in 2009, I've since:

  • Ditched MC for Infusionsoft in 2012

  • Ditched Infusionsoft for Drip in 2015-ish (I think)

  • Ditched Drip for ConvertKit in late 2018

promise I'm not a glutton for the pain that comes with switching platforms!

Unfortunately, a lack of features, a shift in direction, or bad management has led me to go through the tedious effort of trying to migration in-motion email campaigns way too many times.

And I hope I never have to migrate again, but... who knows what the future holds.

Anyway, I get a lot of questions from business owners and marketers about what software I recommend they use.

My 3 requirements:

  • They process their emails before sending with the Liquid templating engine

  • You can automate the sending of emails and the modification of contact records in a non-linear way

  • They support content snippets / partials / whatever that allow me to reuse

What I don't care about:

  • What it costs – email marketing done right is ridiculously profitable, and if I can do the above I can offset spending a few more fractional pennies per contact

  • How many non-email things an email marketing platform can do (i.e. commerce, landing pages, ...)

Requirement #1: Liquid templating

Liquid templating is a language of sorts that was developed originally by the Shopify team.

It's old. So old that I was using it with the bespoke CMS I developed for the agency I worked for in 2007.

But it's continued to evolve over the years, and it's a pretty remarkable thing.

Here's the lowdown on Liquid:

The overwhelming majority of email platforms allow you to personalise your emails with something called merge tags.

In Mailchimp, you can type "Hello |FNAME|" somewhere in an email, and "Hello " will come out.

This is all good and well if you want to simply stick stuff you know about someone into an email, but Liquid lets you do a crap-ton of really useful things with their suite of included filters.

For example, the referral area at the bottom of this email is created by doing a bunch of mathematical operations with Liquid.

Here's a bit of how that's done:

The above "code" happily sits alongside my usual email content, but my God does it allow me to do so many interesting things.

I can take the number of subscribers you've referred to me, loop through the various referral tiers I've set up, figure out which tier you're in, and then calculate all the text and progress bar percentage stuff I need to show the referral area.

There's ZERO way you can do anything like this with merge tags.

So if your platform of choice doesn't support Liquid (or they haven't developed something akin to Liquid, which would be ridiculous), then you're shooting yourself in the foot. Seriously.

If the above Liquid templating code makes your eyes bleed, that's exactly why I created the Template Pack. I've created code that writes that custom "code" for you so you can just copy-and-paste it in to your email marketing app.

Requirement #2: Non-linear automation

Most email marketing platforms start out with linear sequences / campaigns / whatever they want to call spaced out email sending.

Send Email #1 ➡️ Wait 1 day ➡️ Send Email #2 ➡️ Wait 3 days ➡️ ...

Eventually, however, your needs will likely get more sophisticated and you'll want to do stuff like send Email 2A if someone likes ice cream, and Email 2B otherwise.

Or you'll want to modify something about a subscriber, like: "if they tell me they use ConvertKit, they're just starting out with email marketing, and they haven't yet bought, segment them as being someone I should promote Mastering ConvertKit to."

To do this, you need a visual automation builder that:

  • Can be triggered in a lot of interesting ways: someone changes their segmentation, a specific date is met, a product is purchased, etc.

  • Allows you to move people down different pathways based on contextual data (i.e. date) and subscriber data.

  • Can not only send emails, but can also change something about the underlying subscriber.

  • To keep things clean and tidy, these automations can ideally invoke other automations. This allows for reuse and portability.

A number of platforms now support this, but some of them are doing this pretty half-assed.

Requirement #3: Content snippets

This is something ConvertKit recently added, and I'm so happy they did.

The "marketable" idea of content snippets is pretty straightforward: if you have content that might frequently change and should be included in a bunch of automated emails, stick it in a snippet.

But snippets combined with the power of Liquid templating give you insane super powers.


Because I can be in an email, and use Liquid to say "Show me my custom testimonial box. Put XYZ as the quote. Attribute it to Rob Fitzpatrick. Here's his avatar pic."

...And out pops a rendered testimonial.

Super easy. Super clean. And if I decide to ever redesign what a testimonial looks like, I just need to update the content snippet where I keep the "code" for it.

Sure, plenty of email marketing platforms offer widgets. But you're stuck with whatever widgets they offer, and how they've structured them. Content snippets let you author any sort of widget you want.

("Will widgets kill my deliverability?" No.)

Other, more minor requirements

My platform of choice, ConvertKit, implements all of the above.

But there are a few other requirements I have:

  • Actual HTML email templates, and not just some fancy "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" template designer

  • A functioning API so I can get people into my database however I want, and trigger stuff outside of ConvertKit to happen when I need it to

  • Link triggers so I can run actions on contacts when specific links are clicked

And for the most part, the rest of the big platforms are pretty similar – you can segment with tags or custom fields, you can see an activity feed of stuff that's happened on a subscriber, and so on.

Change is expensive

"But Mailerlite is half the price of ConvertKit!"


If email is the primary way you make money for your business, forget about costs.

5,000 contacts in CK will cost you $79 a month. With Mailerlite, those same 5,000 contacts will cost $30.

When (not if) you outgrow the "cheaper" tool and need something that can do what I outlined above, you're going to HATE what you'll need to go through to update all your forms... all your integrations... export-then-import all the right contacts at all the right time... ensure that subscribers in your old platform are correctly "flushed" out while ramping up automations in the new platform... etc. etc. etc.

If you have a list of 5,000 people, the revenue potential of that list should make that $49 difference a rounding error to zero.

Not only does migrating platforms take a lot of time, but it's also risky. You could break things and piss off your subscribers in the process.

If possible, don't do what I did and hop from platform to platform.

Use one that can do all the right things (ideally, the 3 things I described above) and stick with them.

What I don't like about ConvertKit

OK, so CK isn't perfect.

I love the team (Nathan, their CEO, and I go way back) and I really like how focused they are on helping creators holistically.

But there's one somewhat minor, but always worrisome, annoyance...

ConvertKit has recently added commerce features.

You can now use CK as a one-stop-shop to create landing pages, do your email marketing, and sell stuff – i.e. the entire creator lifecycle.

And then you see other platforms like Podia, which started out as a way to sell and host online courses, adding built-in email marketing features.

There's a massive land grab going on for creators, and all these platforms are slowly morphing in to kitchen sinks that try to do everything.

While that sounds great on a marketing site and maybe for someone just starting out, the reality tends to be pretty grim. Do everything good, and you'll end up doing nothing great.

In a perfect world, ConvertKit would just do email.

But I realise that there's a tremendous amount of business potential in doing more than just email.

There's nothing I can do about that – it's just the way it is.

But I've always admired products like that don't even include forms – and they're an email marketing platform! Their thought process is that there are a ton of great tools out there that can capture a lead, and as long as you can string together those tools with the API you're good to go.

I like tools that specialise, and I want to continue building my business on best-in-class tools that work nicely with each other.

I left Infusionsoft because it was a kitchen sink, trying to bake in payments, CRM, and more into one single platform.

And while I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, I do always worry about products that end up going too broad.

That's all from me. I hope you enjoyed today's rant writeup.

If you have anything to add or opposite opinions on what I covered above, I'd love to hear 'em!