Benchmark Email Review
For many an evening in 2004, three people sat around a single desk in a small medical office – an office which served as the group’s conference room, lunch room, and idea hub. Backed by a small programming team in India, the trio (consisting of Benchmark Internet Group founder Curt Keller, his wife Denise, and an SEO expert) discussed ideas for how to implement a deceptively straightforward concept: simple email marketing. Many of their ideas were beyond the means of the fledgling company, but that didn’t stop Keller from planning ahead.
The first customers of Benchmark Email were small businesses located in close proximity to Benchmark’s one-room HQ in Long Beach, CA. Keller and his team personally sold them on the use of email marketing, while working hard to create a simple user interface that would be easy to operate. All the while, the company championed such novel ideas as customizable templates and software which adapted to user needs. They also made sure from the outset that anyone who needed help would have quick access to excellent customer support.
Benchmark has continued to grow and prosper. Its current focus: providing global email marketing services to small and medium-sized businesses while continuing to honor a commitment to help children in need. This does not mean that Benchmark is a little-guys-only service, however; it has stuck to its core principle of adaptability and serves large organizations such as UNICEF and Kaiser-Permanente through its High Volume Enterprise plans.
Today, Benchmark serves upwards of 73,000 users from across the globe, but the company hasn’t forgotten its roots. Benchmark still maintains good relationships with small, locally-based businesses. In fact, the company offers a full page of testimonials from local users of the program. You can read more about Benchmark’s history and development here.
Benchmark offers a huge variety of pricing plans, including a free plan and a massive scale of paid plans that can service anywhere between 600 and 7,140,000 subscribers.
Benchmark’s free plans do not require credit cards, which is always refreshing. The only catch: there will be a small Benchmark logo at the bottom of every email you send out. Of course, you can always opt to upgrade to a paid plan if you don’t want the Benchmark branding. The free plan allows you to send up to 14000 emails to up to 2000 subscribers and gives you access to most but not all of Benchmark’s features list. Notable absences to the features list for free accounts include email automation and sub-accounts (allowing multiple users to access one Benchmark account).
Users with small contacts lists and limited monthly messages have the option of paying for their email marketing based on the number of emails they send each month.
- Medium Plans: 600-50,000 subscribers, $11.95-$230.95 per month
- Large Plans: 55,000-100,000 subscribers, $260-$449.95 per month
- Extra Large Plans: 125,000-1,000,000 subscribers, $600-$3,885 per month
- Massive Plans: 1,070,000-7,140,000 subscribers, $4,500-$29,200 per month
Benchmark accepts all major credit cards and also allows you to pay through PayPal. They also offer a 25% discount for nonprofits and educators.
Web-Based or Locally Installed:
Benchmark is entirely web-based and does not require any installation on your computer.
Specific Size of Business:
Benchmark designed its 3-tiered pricing structure with the goal of serving everyone from the smallest kitchen-table startup to large email marketers. However, the company’s main focus is on small to medium businesses, especially those just starting out in email marketing. This is especially reflected in the fact that customers subscribing to the medium plans get unlimited emails, while larger plans have limitations.
Ease of Use:
Signing up for a Benchmark account is pretty straightforward. After entering your name, email, phone number, and company name, you need to confirm your email address. This was a five-minute process for me. Upon logging in to my new account (using the free plan) I was greeted by an attractive User Interface that gave me a clear direction in how to create my first email campaign. Great start!
Email Campaign Creation
On its dashboard, Benchmark offers users three main options: Create Email, Create New List (or Add Contact), and Email Tools. Clicking the “Create Email” button yields a drop-down list with three types of email campaigns: Regular, RSS, and Autoresponder.
Choosing the regular campaign leads to a form with fields for several basic pieces of information: email name (for your records), sender name, sender/reply address, and subject. All fields but subject are auto-filled based on the information you provide when signing up, a nice time-saving measure. The program also provides hints for writing a good (read: not spammy) subject line and several “Advanced Options.” Here you can opt to offer readers a link to a web page version of your email, set automatic Facebook and Twitter updates, and add Google Analytics Tracking to URLs.
The email editor offers templates, a drag and drop editor, and HTML-based design. It also supports Benchmark’s older, legacy editor to make backward compatibility with older campaigns a more painless option. I have to say, this process is surprisingly simple (and can even be a little fun, depending on your disposition).
After finishing the content of your email, you will be prompted to enter your address before moving on to the final review stage. The last page in the process offers check boxes which allow you to add social share buttons, add the email to the Benchmark Community page, and archive the message within your account. There is also an option to AB Test your message’s subject line, as well as a clear explanation of the advantages of AB testing and how to use the feature.
Sending the Email Campaign
If you are just starting out, you can do as I did and manually enter contacts one at a time. However, for those who already have a list, there are several ways to import it. You can upload a CSV, xls, or txt file directly from your computer; import contacts directly from Salesforce.com, Hotmail, or Gmail accounts; or copy and paste large lists of contacts into a text form. Once you create your Benchmark lists, they’ll appear on your dashboard, along with a Master Unsubscribe List.
The actual sending of the email is quite easy. Once you have finished all your tweaks, you can either save the email as a draft, send it immediately, or schedule a date and time for delivery. If you want to verify all is well before unleashing your email on the world, you can send it to yourself to preview it as many as 10 times/day. I chose to schedule my email for delivery to see how timely the automated system would actually be. I scheduled my email for 2:45 and received it at 2:50, so while the timing was not exactly perfect, it was probably within tolerance levels for most users. If you are one of the more rare users who need on-the-minute email sending, you might need to look elsewhere. More worryingly, my email did not go to my primary inbox but was automatically sorted into my “promotions” folder. Definitely not ideal.
Email Campaign Reporting
The first thing I noticed about Benchmark email reports was something I’d read about in a few reviews: they are really, really fast. I mean lightning fast. Opens register in the Benchmark system almost instantaneously. I have worked with several other programs where these reports take hours or even days to appear.
Benchmark provides users with several key pieces of data about each campaign. The arguably most important statistic, the open rate, appears in both pie chart and numerical form. In addition, Benchmark provides users with stats for clicks, forwards, bounces, unsubscribes, and abuse. Each stat further breaks down to the exact email addresses associated with a given action. Users can export this data for further analysis via a csv or xls file. There is also a social media area which reports shares via Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, as well as a map which breaks down, by country, who opens your emails.
Though all of this information is great and necessary, it is not enough to sustain higher level marketers who need more information such as conversions, which links were clicked, and revenue analysis. Though Google Analytics provides a lot of that information with proper integration, there may come a time when serious marketers need more information than Benchmark provides. Whether or not a small business will get to that point varies, of course, based on the business.
Customer Service and Support:
Benchmark offers its users a lot of support resources. Customer service is generally responsive, with minimal waiting times. The site offers good learning resources, but can be needlessly opaque at times. Key information is often buried and difficult to find, especially if you don’t know precisely what you’re looking for, particularly when it comes to minute details about plans. As an example: the Free For Life plan includes Benchmark branding on every email, but you won’t see that mentioned on the Free For Life page, not even in the fine print. Nor will you see it mentioned when you sign up. The only place it’s mentioned is in the FAQ, here.
Here are some of the resources Benchmark offers:
- Live Support and Email – Benchmark provides live one-on-one support through the following means:
- Email Support: Contact Benchmark at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the company’s contact form here. Available 24 hours Monday – Friday and limited hours on Saturday.
- Phone Support: You can reach Benchmark at 800-430-4095 (U.S.) or 001-562-252-3789 (all countries). Available weekdays from 6 am to 5 pm PT.
- Chat Support: Available nearly 24 hours per day Monday – Friday and limited hours on Saturday. Offered in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.
- FAQ – Benchmark’s FAQ section is somewhat mislabeled as it’s closer to a Q&A-format knowledge base than a typical FAQ. There are over 900 entries, sorted into 18 topics ranging from “Getting Started” to “API.” Users can perform a keyword search of any topic (or sub-topic) or of the FAQ as a whole. One caveat: with such an extensive knowledge base, it’s pretty much inevitable that some entries will be out of date. Some of the Q&As provide information which is wholly inaccurate, so in some cases, you may need to contact support to hash things out.
- Video Tutorials and Webinars – Benchmark provides about two dozen video tutorials which take users step by step through the features of the program. The company also offers a webinar called “Benchmark Email Crash Course.” You can view it live each Friday at 10:00 a.m. PST or watch the recorded version at any time. You can also request a special webinar on a number of other topics. Live webinars include the opportunity to ask questions during the presentation.
- Email Marketing Manuals and Articles – You can find more in-depth information on email marketing in general, as well as the Benchmark program specifically, in the Manuals Section. These downloadable documents also cover industry-specific issues. Articles, similar to blogs, offer users advice beyond that found in the FAQ section, but in shorter, more digestible chunks than the manuals provide.
- Glossary of Email Marketing Terms – This is a particularly helpful tool for those new to email marketing who feel consumed by all the jargon. Benchmark provides a glossary with 50 of the most popular email marketing terms from “above-the-fold” to “whitelists.”
- Blog and Newsletter – For current information about email marketing trends, check out Benchmark’s monthly newsletter, as well as its extremely active blog. All subscribers automatically gain access to current newsletters, and Benchmark also provides an archive of newsletter posts from November 2007-October 2012.
- Social Media – Benchmark is quite active on Facebook; users will often get a response within a few hours. The company generally posts to Twitter 5-7 times a day, with links to blog articles, videos, and small business tips. You can also check out the company on LinkedIn and Google+.
- Benchmark Community – Benchmark users can post their latest newsletters on message boards in the Benchmark Community. This forum allows users to discuss newsletter creation strategies, vote for their favorite newsletters, and gain inspiration from other Benchmark users.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
I was not able to find many people who disliked their Benchmark experience. However, I was able to find a couple of complaints:
- Inconsistent Send-Times: Apparently some users experience an issue with Benchmark where their emails are sent hours after they were scheduled. One customer theorized the issue might arise from long lists of recipients. Not all customers of Benchmark will have time-sensitive sending needs, but others will. If you need your emails to go out precisely when your schedule indicates, you might need to consider this issue.
- Buggy Social Media Integrations: I saw several user reviews that remarked the social media integrations in Benchmark are not up to par.
- “Spammy” templates: Some users were concerned that Benchmark’s templates can feel like spam mail, leading recipients to mark them as junk and not reading the contents. Since the whole point of an ESP is to stop this from happening, this might be an issue.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
Benchmark Internet Group is not BBB accredited. It does, however, have a rank of B-, with only one complaint on record within the past three years. The iPhone/iPad app gets 3.5/5 stars in the iTunes App Store … though this is based on only 8 rankings. The less-than-a-year-old Android version has been more well-received, 4.5/5 stars.
Some common points of praise:
- Top Notch Support – This is perhaps the most common observation regarding Benchmark, and something I noticed for myself as well. People tend to find support prompt and helpful, and some say it’s really the element that distinguishes Benchmark from its competitors. The company also receives praise for its blog posts and videos.
- Feature Selection Across All Plans – Some users praise the inclusion of features like AB testing and surveys in all plans; many companies charge extra for such features or only include them in their pricier plans.
- Ease of Use – Users tend to find Benchmark’s interface extremely intuitive and user-friendly. The program gathers praise from a wide range of demographics, from first-time ESP users to people who have tried a variety of programs before settling on Benchmark.
- Mobile Friendly Emails: Users were impressed with the mobile-friendly email design of Benchmark’s templates. Since more and more people access their email from mobile devices, this is an increasingly important factor to consider.
While most of the features Benchmark provides are on par with the rest of the industry, one of the standout characteristics of this ESP is the fact that nearly all its features come standard with each account — including the free ones. Here are some of Benchmark’s most notable offerings:
- Hundreds of Industry-Specific, Themed Templates – Benchmark offers all users access to its library of over 400 templates. These are organized into 19 categories, some of which are tailored to specific industries such as education, entertainment, and retail. There is also a category for social media-specific templates.
- Video Emails – Perhaps the best-known advantage of Benchmark is its support for video emails. The company explains the benefits of this feature here.
- Online Surveys – You can create professional-looking online surveys using one of Benchmark’s 6 templates. Post your survey on your website or build it directly into an email.
- Dedicated Email Server – All of Benchmark’s High Volume plans come with a dedicated IP address to help increase deliverability rates. Users on other plans have the option of paying for this service ($30/month) to increase their own delivery stats. Read more about the benefits of dedicated servers here.
- Email Delivery Management – Benchmark’s email delivery management program is all about getting clients’ emails into inboxes. The company is a member of the Email Sender and Provider Coalition and works with ReturnPath, a leading email delivery and consulting service. The company also communicates with ISPs on its clients’ behalf.
- Mobile App – Benchmark’s mobile apps allow customers with an Apple device to access several functions on the road. They can access and add contacts, read reports, send videos through integration with a YouTube account, and even design and send quick email blasts with one of 10 available templates. This is quite a bit more than many other companies offer on their mobile apps, making them considerably more functional.
- Photo Editing: If the photos you plan to use in your email campaign are not perfectly sized or need some color adjustment, you can use Benchmark’s integrated photo editor. This is a pretty handy feature if you do not have photoshop available.
- Code Editor: If you have the know-how to work magic with HTML, Benchmark offers this ultra-customization option with which you can build your emails from scratch.
- Autoresponder – Each Benchmark customer has the ability to design up to eight custom autoresponder messages. These can be scheduled as a series or event lead-up, or designed as annual messages such as birthday or anniversary emails.
- Sign-Up Forms – The only way to be successful in email marketing is through growing your list, and Benchmark really promotes doing this through sign-up forms. The company bases its Free For Life account entirely around website and Facebook sign-ups and provides an easy-to-use tool to create custom templates for each medium.
- Inbox Checker – Because every email program is different and each web browser has a signature style, making sure your emails look good across the board is important. You can use Inbox Checker to look at the way your email displays in Gmail using Explorer and Outlook 3. Using the full program (which checks everything from AOL to Yahoo, Explorer to Safari, mobile to PC) is a paid add-on service, available for $14 per 100 checks.
- RSS-to-Email – Regular bloggers can create newsletters from their blogs automatically through the RSS-to-Email feature, which works with any blog which handles an RSS-feed. Users only have to set up a campaign and template within Benchmark once.
- API Integration – An API (Application Program Interface) allows different software programs to communicate with one another without a formal plug-in connection. Benchmark’s API Integration feature allows users with XML-RPC, HTTP POST, or HTTP GET skills to retrieve data from other programs that use JSON, XML, XML-RPC, or PHP serialization strings. In a nutshell, this allows them to perform three functions: manage contact lists, manage campaigns and campaign sending, and check statistics. The company explains this function in more detail here.
- Advanced Metrics – Benchmark offers both List Segmentation and AB Split Testing.
- Multiple-Language Interface – Benchmark is available in seven languages: Chinese, English, German, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Integrations and Add-ons:
Benchmark offers roughly 20 plug-ins and integrations. If you don’t see the integration you want, there’s still hope: you can use the API or request an integration by sending an email to email@example.com.
- Benchmark Events – Benchmark Events is event marketing software designed to integrate fully with Benchmark Email. Launched in 2012, this program allows users to create and customize events, promote and sell tickets, and track the success of their events through their Benchmark Email accounts. A variety of subscriptions are available, including a free option.
- Salesforce.com – This integration allows users to import contacts directly into Benchmark and use Benchmark’s email system to keep Salesforce customers engaged. Read our review of Salesforce here.
- WordPress – Benchmark Email Lite is a WordPress plug-in which allows users to easily build an email audience through their readers. The plug-in can automatically create email versions of blog posts and allows users to connect up to five Benchmark accounts.
- Highrise – Merges Highrise contacts with a Benchmark list. Read our review of Highrise here.
- Benchmark Power – This free plug-in allows you to source images for your Benchmark emails from locations across the web. Benchmark Power captures images you find and instantly uploads them to your Benchmark account for future use.
- Flickr – Users with Flickr accounts can link Flickr to their Benchmark image galleries.
- Shopify – You can link a Shopify account to Benchmark and automatically add Shopify customers to Benchmark lists. You can even add subscribers to different lists based on which products they purchased. Read our review of Shopify here.
- PayPal – Users can add any of their PayPal customers to their Benchmark email lists by linking the accounts. Read our review of Paypal here.
- Easy List – Learn more about this simple list-making app and download it here.
- WordPress – The ever-present blog and website builder offers an integration with Benchmark. Use it to send emails of your blog posts and use the analytics to see how your subscribers react to them. Learn more here.
- Zapier – Gain access to Zapier’s huge integration library here.
Social Media Integrations
Because of the integral connection between social media and email marketing, it is important to look at the social media features included in Benchmark.
- Social Media Templates – One section of Benchmark’s massive email template list consists of social media-specific templates which directly promote your company’s participation in social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
- Facebook “Like” Button – Benchmark offers a simple function which allows you to add a Facebook “Like” button to your emails.
- Facebook Sign-Up Form – Benchmark provides easy-to-create sign-up forms (see “Features” above) for both websites and Facebook fan pages, to help you convert followers into subscribers.
- Social Links within Email – Once you link your Benchmark account with your Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn account, you can add buttons to every email which will direct your subscribers to each of your social media pages.
The company also fully complies with the U.S.-E.U. and U.S.-Swiss Safe Harbor Frameworks regarding the collection of personal data from citizens of those countries. When customers provide credit card numbers to Benchmark, the company uses secure socket layer (SSL) protection to encrypt the information. The entire platform is encrypted to ensure the security of all customers’ personal information.
Anti-Spam Policy & Protection
Like all legitimate ESPs, Benchmark takes spam seriously and outlines a clear zero-tolerance policy for any of their users trying to engage in spam activities. The company is fully in compliance with the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Benchmark also takes several measures to preserve its reputation as a spam-free provider, among them membership in the Email Sender and Provider Coalition. The company uses the program SpamAssassin to filter messages sent through its server.
To prevent users from unknowingly sending spam-like materials, Benchmark provides a spam check feature which looks for words commonly used in spam messages. It scores each email on a scale from 1 to 5; 5s are assigned to content that is likely to be blocked. In the event of a high score, the program suggests “less spammy” alternatives. Individualized IP addresses also help large-volume senders reduce their spam numbers.
Benchmark is a solid program. It is easy to use, open to innovation, and competitively priced. Its free options may very well be the best in the business for anyone who just wants to dip into email marketing (particularly small, local businesses). For that matter, any Benchmark plan can work well for a small business which views email as a minor aspect of its marketing and has no desire to work beyond the basics just yet.
If you are a small or even medium-sized business looking for a simple email marketing program with a host of great features, Benchmark is an excellent choice. Though there may come a time when you outgrow the program, it provides a lot for the money, offers excellent support, and the company appears to be sensitive to the needs of its users. You can’t ask for much more.