I’ve been using HootSuite, a popular social media service, since 2013. Soon after exploring their free account, I decided to upgrade to a premium account to access features such as connectivity to more than three profiles and advanced message scheduling. Without doing an in-depth analysis of my return on investment (ROI), the performance and experience have been excellent because I can manage all my social media activities from one dashboard. That alone is worth the $10 I pay monthly.
On the flip side, during the same time horizon, I had been skirting by with free email marketing services i.e. opt-in forms and newsletters. Given the high ROI of email marketing and higher conversion rate over social media marketing, using free tools was a poor business decision that I was inflicting on myself.
You’re Probably Here
It’s funny how many of us have money for coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, snacks, Uber rides, and other, but withhold from making additional investments in our businesses. A fully functional online business can cost less than $100 a month to operate.
Numerous people in the online game try to scrape by with free tools and services in the belief, or denial, that freeness can produce their desired results. For instance, I know a lot of online workers who use SumoMe and MailChimp simply because they’re free. Admittedly, I previously used SumoMe, but instead of using MailChimp, I used MailPoet, a free WordPress plugin. (Note: I had used MailChimp before MailPoet, but they randomly suspended my account without providing any details. Among many other disadvantages, it’s well known that MailChimp frowns on internet and affiliate marketing activities.)
Two different groups use free tools; beginners and people who are unwilling to invest in their businesses. For beginners, I totally understand. If you’re just starting out, free tools are a fantastic way to test and learn about your options while you gain some experience. Furthermore, it’s an intelligent cost-saving approach until you generate enough money to reinvest in your business.
For the second group, an unwillingness to invest in your business, through premium plans and account upgrades, will compromise your efforts and limit your income and sales. My reluctance to invest in premium opt-in forms and email marketing services was hurting my online business. The use of free tools and plans prevented me from implementing a more strategic approach, automation, and best practices.
What You Don’t Get
I’m not totally against using free tools if they can deliver against my objectives, but this has hardly been the case. Here are some disadvantages associated with using free email marketing tools and other services as they apply:
Templates and Forms
Free users are typically able to access a limited number of generic templates and forms. These products are basic, not flashy and lack the ascetics to increase conversions. Paid customers receive dynamic and innovative products, and they’re able to access various types of forms such as in-line, two-step opt-in, slide-in, scroll mat, ribbon, and others.
Customization and Options
Customization relates to the point above and the ability to fine tune certain behavioral aspects of the tools themselves, for example, if you would like to have an opt-in form appear every seven days or remain hidden after a subscriber has subscribed, you likely won’t have these options with free plans.
Standard Functionality and Features
A free tool is a hamburger without the meat. Free tools will do what you expect them to do, but not much else. You’ll get enough to make things work, but less than what is required to supercharge your activities. For instance, if you want to conduct A/B tests to understand which formats and text attract the highest conversions, you won’t be able to.
Restrictions and Limitations
MailChimp promotes their “Free Forever” plan to death, but as everyone knows, they need to make money somehow to keep operating as a business. This stripped down plan limits you to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month without any bells and whistles. In all fairness, the Free Forever service is aimed at beginners, but you’ll have to pay to access to essential features to expand your email prowess.
Analytics, Insights, and Reports
Free tools will often provide basic conversion and click statistics, but they’ll exclude heavy duty data and reports which are necessary to make better tactical decisions. For example, you may want to analyze which countries your subscribers are coming from or which products in your newsletters receive the most clicks. If you do, only a premium plan from a leading service provider will produce these insights.
Integration and Connectivity
Let’s say you choose two different providers for your opt-in forms and newsletters as I have with Thrive Themes and AWeber. You’ll likely want to connect the two services so that new subscribers automatically flow into your newsletter list. Makes sense doesn’t it? When I was using free tools, I couldn’t connect my services, rather, my processes were manual and involved the downloading and uploading of CSV files from one provider to the next. This was just one more non-value added activity that got in the way of my revenue generating activities. API integration is usually a paid feature that yields connectivity and information flow between two or more providers.
Automation and autoresponse sequences are the bread and butter of email marketing success. An autoresponse or drip sequence is a series of emails that get sent to a subscriber in the order and frequency that you decide. For instance, a welcome email is sent to a new subscriber followed by a website orientation email two weeks later. Since I was using separate and disconnected providers, I couldn’t set up an autoresponse sequence.
Customer Service Support
Indirect support through forums is commonly associated with free services whereas direct support usually accompanies paid services. Depending on your technical expertise and sensitivity to time, receiving direct support when you need it can be of tremendous value.
How do you spot an online business amateur? Easy, you identify the provider’s name or logo on his opt-in forms. This shortcoming is very annoying, and I hated that branded tools were on display at my websites. A product paired with supplier branding is a smart advertising technique used by the provider to elicit more interest and customers. Many users accept this nuance in exchange for free use, but nothing projects a lack of commitment than showcasing supplier branded tools.
Where you are in your business, commitment, and operating budget should help you to determine your next steps, if any, regarding the free and paid services you use to drive your business and sales forward.