The Definitive 2017 ActiveCampaign Email Marketing Review

Bryan Harris —  Bryan Harris /

ActiveCampaign has a reputation of being one of the most powerful and easy to use email marketing platforms on the market.

But what’s the truth?

In this comprehensive review I’ll give you an unbiased review of ActiveCampaign and show you what it’s good at and where it falls short.

Part 1: What are some of the funnest features of ActiveCampaign?

Cool Feature #1: Split testing in automations 

This is huge! No other email service that I’ve evaluated or used has this feature and ActiveCampaign has executed it brilliantly.

It’s the ability to split test nearly anything inside an automated sequence.

This allows you to do things like:

1. Split test the subject lines of emails in your launch sequence.

2. Split test the time of day that you are sending out your automated emails.

3. Split test entirely different sequences against each other.

And on and on.

You would think this type of thing would be super-common nowadays, but it isn’t. Drip doesn’t have it. ConvertKit doesn’t have it. Infusionsoft doesn’t have it. And of course MailChimp and AWeber don’t either.

To my knowledge ActiveCampaign is the only ESP that has this. And it’s a game-changer. Especially if you are generating >$100k a year from automated sequences (like live webinars, launches, ppc funnels, etc.)

They’ve done a great job of building the feature too.

For example…

You can filter down the people who go into the test by almost any conceivable parameter, and set the test’s duration and its winning conditions.

Major kudos to ActiveCampaign for doing so well on this.

Cool Feature #2: Automation Marketplace 

What if you could use the same automated sequences that the best marketers use?

Like, copy and paste ithem into your email service?

ActiveCampaign gives you the ability to do this. They’ve set up an automations marketplace where other users can give away or sell their automations.

And it’s pretty awesome!

Go browse around and check them out.

These are like the pre-built email campaigns that Drip has, but even better because they’re fully built-out automated sequences.

Pretty baller.

Cool Feature #3: Segment builders everywhere

In nearly every piece of the app, you have the ability to heavily segment your contacts and target only the specific ones you want to talk to.

This seems basic, but the layering of these conditions and the depth of these conditions in ActiveCampaign is very good.

Cool Feature #4: Reply tracking and automations for broadcasts

The point of automating is to scale normal human activity.

One of the most common calls to action in an email is to “hit reply and share X.” I personally use this all the time.

However, automating actions based on that reply is very hard. It generally requires duct taping multiple solutions together or just manually replying to everyone who sends in an email (a viable but time-consuming solution).

ActiveCampaign has a great solution for this: reply tracking.

You can do this in a broadcast campaign or an automated sequence. You can then trigger a series of actions that happen when someone responds.

This is a really nice niche feature.

It allows you to do things like:

  • Immediately apply a discount to the account of anyone who responds.
  • Immediately trigger an email back to someone who responds.
  • Deliver a bonus to anyone who responds.

Cool Feature #5: Tons of automation triggers

One of the things I was most impressed with was the number of automation triggers that ActiveCampaign has.

Of the software I’ve used and evaluated, this is the most unique and flexible group of automation triggers I’ve come across to date

Part 2: What are some of the most annoying parts of ActiveCampaign?

Bad Part #1: The UX can be really confusing and annoying.

This is by far my biggest issue with ActiveCampaign.

The UX is a nightmare in many spots. It feels like they’ve spent so much time building features that they forgot to make the app easy to use.

Time after time I ran into usability issues, not being able to find things that should have been obvious, not knowing which buttons to click, and on and on.

By the end of my first major session with the app, I wanted to pound my head against my desk.

As a comparison, a few months back I used Instapage for the first time and was blown away by how incredibly easy and awesome the app was to use.

ActiveCampaign is the polar opposite of that.

A few examples of what I mean…

Example #1: Automation Marketplace

One of the best features in the app is their automation marketplace.

But the experience of installing an app is a nightmare.

Watch this:

 

Example #2: Visual email editor

This is just UX 101. Basic things like font changes and settings tweaks were frustrating due to poor UX design.

Example #3: Visual editor notifications

Visual editors are hard to design and implement well.

But it became really hard to do anything because there was so much going on. The notifications can’t be closed and come back to later, and when you try to address them there is no obvious way to.

There is just so much going on in this one screen that it’s easy to get lost and annoyed.

Example #4: Setting up an absolute date timer

After spending an hour trying to see if I could set up an absolute date timer for an automated sequence (ex: do X action on Feb. 28th @ 9 AM CT), I finally pinged support to ask for help.

They responded back quickly with this tutorial video.

After watching the video, I didn’t feel badly that I couldn’t figure it out. It feels like they tried to design that process in the most complicated way possible.

It takes 20 clicks to tell ActiveCampaign to send an email on February 28th at 9 AM.

TWENTY!

That’s insanity.

Alternatively, this is how Infusionsoft accomplishes the exact same task with 5 clicks and a much better UX.

Example #5: Sending a broadcast email

This is the screen you see to start creating a broadcast message.

Why does this screen exist at all? 5 of the 6 options in this screen belong somewhere else.

Automated, Autoresponder (a word used nowhere else in the app), RSS and Date triggered aren’t even broadcast message options. They redirect to different portions of the app.

And split testing: While I love being able to split test a broadcast email, why is it on this screen at all? Shouldn’t that be an option at the end before I send?

It’s all really confusing. It’s like no one has sat down in recent months/years and looked at the app objectively to think through how everything flows together.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.

Bad Part #2: Overall app performance 

My experience with ActiveCampaign’s overall app performance was sub-optimal.

Specifically I’m speaking of the app’s load times.

On many occasions I encountered this screen for 20+ seconds.

Trying to send a broadcast email, trying to select segments and trying to review reports.

It was EXTREMELY frustrating.

I tried multiple ActiveCampaign accounts and experienced this load-time delay on all of them.

If it takes me 2 minutes of waiting for screens to load in order to send a broadcast email, someone in product development has lost their way.

Bad Part #3: Why on earth do they still use lists?

The most perplexing part of ActiveCampaign is that they are a CRM and tag-based email service, but they insist that you use lists to send broadcast messages.

It’s weird and frustrating.

If you want to be a list system, great do that.

If you want to be a CRM system, do that.

But don’t MAKE ME create a list in order to send a stinking email. It makes no sense. When I explained this to them, they didn’t seem to get how odd this was.

Here is a video walk-through so you know exactly what I’m talking about.

 

Bad Part #4: Feature creep

Feature creep is something that every product has to work against. We talked about this some in the Drip review, but It feels like ActiveCampaign is even further down that road.

Two examples:

Example #1: They built a project management system into the app.

If I want a good PM tool, I’ll go buy one. Focus on improving your UX and load times and getting rid of the archaic list requirements and not building random modules in the app like this.

Example #2: Ability to pay $ to preview emails in certain email clients.

This is an interesting niche feature that could have a place at some point, but instead of building something like this that almost no one is going to use, why not spend time building the ability to send broadcast emails based on the subscriber’s time zone (a core feature every ESP has except ActiveCampaign)?

Part 3: How much does ActiveCampaign cost?

Here is the pricing:

There is no onboarding or setup fee for using ActiveCampaign.

They do offer a free 1:1 onboarding call with all new users. This is pretty awesome.

Overall, this is decent. Not the cheapest and not the most expensive.

Part 4: How is ActiveCampaign laid out?

Here is a series of tutorials on their site: http://www.activecampaign.com/training.

TL;DR

There are 4 building blocks of ActiveCampaign.

Building Block #1: Contacts

Any time someone subscribes, they become a contact in your ActiveCampaign account.

 

Building Block #2: Forms

To become a subscriber, someone has to fill out a form and give you their email address.

That is done in a form.

This is what ActiveCampaign’s form-builder looks like.

Screen 1: Initial setup

Screen 2: Visual form builder (very nice!)

Building Block #3: Campaigns 

Campaigns = Broadcast emails.

We’ll cover these more in depth in the next section.

This is what the broadcast email builder looks like.

Building Block #4: Automations

This is the visual workflow builder.

It’s powerful. A tad clunky to use at times, but really good overall.

This is what it looks like.

Part 5: How does ActiveCampaign do the stuff?

Scenario #1: How easy is it to send broadcast emails?

 

Overall Grade: C

Scenario #2: How does it handle Level 1 automation?

Level 1 = Welcome series, content upgrades and basic email courses

 

Overall grade: B

Scenario #3: How does it handle Level 2 automation?

Level 2 = Live events like webinars and course launches AND automated events like evergreen webinars and drip funnels

 

Overall Grade for Live Events: B+

Overall Grade for Automated Stuff: A-

Scenario #4: How does it handle Level 3 automation?

Level 3 = Really advanced stuff like onsite personalization and CTA customizations

It appears to handle on-site tracking very similarly to Drip, in that it allows you many advanced customization options.

However, I’m not a developer, so I’m ill-equipped to fully evaluate this portion of the app.

Overall Grade: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Part 6: What about all the other things? Does it do the things!? 

Item #1: How is their support?

Their support is really good.

They have both live chat support and email support.

The live chat support was really quick and helpful. Overall domain knowledge was high and they went out of their way to answer a few of my more advanced questions. They even created a personalized video showing me how to do the thing I was asking about.

Super cool!

Email support was equally responsive and helpful.

Overall Grade: A+

Item #2: Do they have an active community?

Sorta.

No Facebook group and no Slack group.

But they do have an internal forum thing. You can access it here.

It’s interesting: After evaluating two other services that have active Facebook groups, being forced to use an old-school forum felt weird and surprisingly impersonal.

I didn’t like it at all. And based on the lack of new threads and activity in that forum, customers don’t either.

With Facebook or Slack there is a certain immediacy and normalcy to the platforms. Forums just don’t have that. If you’re going to use a forum, do your best to make it a vibrant community.

Overall Grade: C+

Item #3: Does it have a 3rd-party marketplace for add-ons?

Sorta.

ActiveCampaign has a fairly large group of people who have built 3rd-party plugins. But it doesn’t have a central repository for that directory.

You’re going to have to hunt them down individually. I don’t understand why more services don’t create an internal 3rd-party marketplace directory.

Overall Grade: C+

Item #4: Does it have a fully functional API that is well-documented?

It does have what appears to be a solid API that is documented..

You can find their API here.

Item #5: Does it have good integrations with 3rd-party apps?

Yes! It is integrated with every major app we use in our business.

Here is a full listing of all 100+ integrations.

Overall Grade: A

Item #6: Can you edit unsubscribe messages?

Yes. Everything except the word “unsubscribe” is editable.

Item #7: Can you easily run A/B tests?

You can run A/B tests in both broadcast and automation sequences.

Unfortunately I would not classify many features in ActiveCampaign as “easy to use.”

Overall Grade: B+

Item #8: How good is their reporting?

Their reporting is solid overall. All of the basic numbers are available for both broadcasts and automated sequences.

At times, the reports do take an eternity to load, sometimes up to 30 seconds for some of the more basic screens to show up. This can be pretty frustrating and it can mean slow progress overall.

Get used to seeing this if you rely on ActiveCampaign reports:

Overall Grade: B-

Item #9: Does it have pretty email templates?

This seems to be an area where ActiveCampaign really cares about aesthetics.

They have 27 different templates and a drag-and-drop visual editor that lets you create pretty much any design you want.

The drag-and-drop builder isn’t my preference. I find most of these visual editors clunky and limiting. Theirs has its own quirks and nuances, but overall it’s solid.

Overall Grade: B

Item #10: Is the app pretty bug-free and fast-loading?

I didn’t encounter many reports or have any first-hand experiences of straight-up bugs in the app.

But the app itself has some severe performance issues.

The simplest of screens can take 5 to 10 seconds to load at times. Others can take up to 30 or even 45 seconds to load. On one occasion I was trying to send a simple broadcast email and I encountered 3 different loading screens that took 25+ seconds each to load.

This is nuts.

The first 2 hours of me using the app were extremely painful. After I got used to sitting around waiting for screens to load, I wanted to hurt myself slightly less. They have to address this.

Overall Grade: D+

Item #11: How stable is their email editor?

The email editor is pretty solid.

I didn’t encounter any major issues here. However, any time you go to a visual builder like they have, you definitely open up a Pandora’s box of potential issues.

I would much prefer that each ESP give you an option of a visual builder (like ActiveCampaign) or plain text builder (like Drip and ConvertKit use) or just stick to plain text.

It’s a tricky thing to navigate, because many marketers are all wrapped up in these graphic email formats, but they typically don’t perform as well and they open up a myriad of deliverability and IP reputation issues

But overall, their email editor is good.

Overall Grade: B+

Item #12: What service do they use to send their emails?

None. They send their emails via their own servers.

Item #13: Can you get a dedicated sending IP?

Yes, you can.

Item #14: Do they auto-upgrade and downgrade your account based on subscriber count?

No, they don’t.

If you used to have 10,000 subscribers on your list, and you did a list purge and now have 5,000, you will have to manually ping support to downgrade you.

This is kinda lame. It would take less than a day to write the code that would do this.

There is no reason not to do it. Services that don’t lose 5% respect from me.

Item #15: Can you give subscribers a selective unsubscribe page?

No.

If people unsubscribe from the list they are unsubscribed. They have no ability to selectively unsubscribe from certain sequences.

Item #16: Do they charge you for people who are unsubscribed but still in your account?

No. If people unsubscribe, you are not billed for them, even if you keep them in your ActiveCampaign account

Item #17: Can you schedule emails (automated and broadcast) to send based on the subscriber’s time zone?

Yes and no.

You can do it in automated sequences but not broadcasts.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If this seems odd to you, you’re not alone.

Part 6: TL;DR: My take and summary of ActiveCampaign

Here are the best things about ActiveCampaign:

  • Split testing automation sequences
  • Very powerful automation engine. Will do nearly anything you can think of.
  • Unlimited custom fields
  • Auto-detect time zone of subscribers based on IP address
  • Can share automations
  • Can install other people’s automations
  • Nice dashboard that shows you important numbers
  • Native and easy-to-use SMS integration
  • Good form modal options
  • Solid visual form builder
  • Solid visual email builder
  • Solid visual automation editor
  • Very good conditional logic in emails
  • Tons of automation triggers and actions (best in class)
  • Replay tracking

Here is a list of the not-so-great things about ActiveCampaign:

  • The most frustrating UX I’ve encountered (consider this a roll-up of all 28 frustrating UX things I found along the way)
  • Requiring lists to send broadcast emails
  • Insanely slow load times of many screens
  • Beginning stage of feature creep

Summary:

After spending 1 week using ActiveCampaign, talking to 23 different users, surveying 50+ users, chatting with their team and writing this review, I’ve come to appreciate and love several aspects of the app.

However, it is the most frustrating piece of software I’ve used in recent memory.

Slow load times aren’t a deal breaker on their own, but add to that a UX that feels like it was patched together in a rush with no foresight or review process and it’s mind-numbingly frustrating.

Things that should be simple and take seconds, like sending a simple broadcast email, are hard and complex.

Things that could be accomplished in 5 clicks, like setting a date-specific timer, take 20.

Things that are meant to be helpful, like notifications in the visual editor to set your “from” name in emails, are frustrating.

Drip and ConvertKit get a pass on some of their issues because they are less than 5 years old and have small teams. But ActiveCampaign doesn’t get a pass. They have a team of 100 people, have been around for over 13 years, and have raised over $30,000,000 in funding.

Use $150,000 of that to hire a UX person to fix these issues.

Use another $500,000 of that to optimize the app for speed, so that pulling a basic report doesn’t take 2 minutes to load.

Do those two things and it may just be the best app on the market. Without that, users will bang their heads against the wall.

There are many things that ActiveCampaign is good at.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Once you get past the rough edges, ActiveCampaign is a nice app. With marketing automation second to none and a remarkable integration directory and feature set, it’s flexible enough to do almost anything you can dream up.

Their conditional email logic is great.

Their automation split testing is the only one on the market, to my knowledge.

And their team is extremely responsive and wants to build an amazing app.

Short Version:

If you are a beginner or if efficiency is something you value, ActiveCampaign will make you want to physically harm yourself.

If you need extremely powerful automation and can tolerate a slow app with some clunky UX, ActiveCampaign is a really good option

Curious how other email services compare?

This ActiveCampaign review is just 1 of 6 major email services that I’ve reviewed.

If you’re curious how ActiveCampaign stacks up to the competition, go check out the other reviews.

ActiveCampaign <— the one you’re reading now
Mailchimp
Aweber
ConvertKit
Drip
Infusionsoft
Or if you want to know how to start or rapidly grow your email list, take the free Jumpstart Your Email List course here.

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  • Edward Haskins

    As a consultant that specializes in ActiveCampaign, I concur with many of your findings…both good and bad. However, I think your frustrations of using a new, feature-rich app such as ActiveCampaign may be simply that you had not had enough time to learn the system. It’s really not an application that takes long to figure out. I’d also like to make some comments and corrections below.

    Installing Marketplace Automations:
    Yep, not completely intuitive. However, the biggest mistake with the automation installation is not on ActiveCampaign. Instead, it’s on the automation creator. The creator should have a Note on each step so that you know what to select during the Setup Wizard. It’s a breeze when they do.

    App Performance:
    Yep, been a little slow. However, I happen to know they are in the process of a large infrastructure over-haul. I expect once this is complete in the next month or two, we should benefit with much faster performance that we would expect from such a great application.

    (Not a) Project Management System:
    ActiveCampaign didn’t build in a project management system. That is an extension of their CRM, a sales pipeline tool. It allows a sales team to move Leads (attached to a Deal) along the various stages of the sales lifecycle. This is a fantastic tool for coaches, service providers or small sales teams. It’s also only available in mid-tier pricing package.

    Facebook and Slack Groups:
    Yes, they have both…
    FB: https://www.facebook.com/groups/activecampaign.community/
    Slack: Get Invite here: http://www.activecampaign.com/community/

    “Most frustrating piece of software I’ve used in recent memory.” Really??
    Seriously. Have you ever logged into Infusionsoft (Confusionsoft)? ActiveCampaign is a robust marketing automation platform with a significant number of features. You can’t hang all features off of the main menu. For the most part, I think it’s pretty intuitive. Sure, for some lesser used features, you’ll need to dig. That happens in all software.

  • David Osborn

    Hi Bryan! This email comparison was exactly what I needed! You did an awesome job–thanks man! I have a quick question: according to AC’s website, they have a tracking pixel that can be used to track contacts behavior on your website (similar to Drip). Can you highlight the difference(s) between AC & Drip’s tracking capabilities? Thanks again!