MailChimp Makes Blasting Inboxes Easy

Time for a new weapon in war that is e-mail marketing.

Trying to land business using Microsoft ( MSFT) Outlook, Google ( GOOG) Gmail, Yahoo! ( YHOO) Mail, Apple ( AAPL) Entourage or any of the dozens of e-mail tools on the market is a serious pain.

On the face of it, e-mail marketing is a lovely thing for small businesses. With a fat e-mail list, one should be able to print money. But converting those potential dollars into cash is an exercise in insanity.

Sometimes messages go through, sometimes they don't. Sometimes customers respond, sometimes they don't. Sometimes subject lines resonate with client, sometimes they don't. And nobody knows why.

Many small shops rely on e-mail marketing firms. We have used Constant Contact (stable, but inflexible) and FeedBlitz (powerful, but difficult to use). This week, we move to our next contestant: Atlanta-based MailChimp. The company offers basic accounts for free, which limit the number of subscribers and e-mails that can be sent. But for $250 a month, users can have 50,000 subscribers and send unlimited mailings.

We have been testing the system internally for about a month. And it seems ready for primetime.

What you get: a powerful e-mail tool at a reasonable cost.

It's clear that a lot of time and money went into making the site easy to use. Users navigate MailChimp through simple menus with names such as Dashboard, Campaign, Lists, Reports and Autoresponders. This is a vast improvement over the sequential screen layout of Constant Contact, which feels like a never-ending Mensa exam.

MailChimp has even managed to make its virtual assistant, a monkey, into a useful guide. There's also decent online support and video tutorials.

I like the way the service treats data. Most information can be exported directly to Microsoft Excel, a blessing for us data nerds. And I found that my designers, coders and editors understood the system quickly. MailChimp might spare us the four-figure cost of hiring $100-an-hour coders to optimize my $10-a-month e-mail software four times a year.

Given the average small-business mailing list of just a few hundred, one should be able to set up an e-mail marketing campaign in a Saturday afternoon.

What you don't get: a surefire solution to your e-mail marketing problems.

MailChimp is a step forward, but we're still talking about e-mail. You'll still have to deal with spam filters. For example, there is a cryptic note on the MailChimp Twitter feed about how a new filter by Barracuda Networks will affect delivery.

The sign-on and subscription rules might seem overly complex to some. And even in spite of MailChimp's power, it's still not clear how your e-mail will appear to clients.

If e-mail marketing is critical to your business, it's better to spend $1,000 a month for a sophisticated, customized campaign. MailChimp is no substitute for the daily massaging that e-mail marketing requires.

Bottom line: MailChimp is worth considering if you use e-mail to find new customers. But don't ask it to do too much.

MailChimp makes a good attempt at an impossible goal: automating the tricky world of e-mail marketing. Don't stake your business's future on this thing. As cool as it looks and as easy as it is to use, there's too much that can go wrong with e-mail.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.