Marketing Automation Software: A Useful Comparison

  Marketing Technology
Tyler Pigott
Tyler Pigott

04.18.2018 | 6 min read

The world of commerce is and always has been subject to seismic technological change. This was true when mechanization reshaped manufacturing and agriculture, and it is true this day as marketing automation software has become the cornerstone of business viability. To  remain competitive in the modern economy requires companies to leverage both their human capital and their available software capabilities, with both being essential to business performance in distinctive and important ways.

Being early to the game is not always an indicator of subsequent marketplace resilience (ask MySpace)...

What is interesting about this truth is the degree to which it goes unacknowledged by those who most stand to benefit from embracing it. Which brings us to marketing automation software and to three of it's most prominent purveyors: ActiveCampaign, SharpSpring and HubSpot. When properly contextualized, this species of software is best understood as an investment.

Investments have one thing in common: The returns take time. Admittedly, some investments show a return more quickly than do others, but the principle holds all the same. This is true of the stock market and it is true in terms of marketing costs. If managed wisely, the development of a solid, dynamic, efficient marketing automation platform will yield returns sufficient to dwarf the money invested in as much, particularly when automation is correctly leveraged.

Key Marketing Automation Features 

The role of automation in marketing software can be broken down into several smaller categories; or, for our purposes, into five core areas, which are as follows:

  1. Marketing Campaigns and Lead Nurturing
  2. Social Media Outreach
  3. Web Analytics
  4. Segmentation
  5. Automations

There are a ton of marketing automation tools out there that offer one or more of these capabilities. Some specialize in managing your social media and others just offer a suite of email marketing tools. These solutions offer a lower-cost solution for smaller business. The problem is, the larger your business gets, the more your jigsaw of marketing tools costs, both in dollars in in time. A full marketing automation solution brings all the major features of these tools together under one umbrella. This does a couple things for you:

1. You can eliminate the cost of your other platforms, offsetting the new cost of a full automation platform. 

2. Everything is easier when it's under one platform. Tracking becomes smoother and more accurate, and you save time not having to jump around for every task. 

Each of our identified software providers offer most or all of the core capabilities to one degree or another. Let’s demystify these three platforms through a high-level comparison.

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Marketing Automation Platform Comparison: HubSpot vs. Active Campaign vs. SharpSpring 

Active Campaign  

Dating back further even than HubSpot, ActiveCampaign was founded in 2003 and has been a veritable fixture within the marketing realm for some time. Though perhaps slightly less versatile than other marketing automation providers, Active Campaign is considered a sound and largely reliable platform, perfectly suitable for smaller or medium-sized companies across all industries.

Active Campaign has its strong suits and one or two shortcomings. Aligning its broader functionality with your specific needs is key to understanding whether the platform can support the marketing efforts you intend to undertake.

Features

  1. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  2. Lead scoring
  3. Automations 
  4. Personalization options
  5. CRM

Strengths

  • Pricing: Budget is a big concern for nearly every business owner in existence. Attracting and retaining customers is a costly business, and much of software used to accomplish those goals is also expensive. Not so with Active Campaign, which on the lower end of its service offerings is nearly free. Even the higher-end premium package is fairly affordable.
  • Easy Setup/No Annual Contracts: ActiveCampaign makes the setup and integration steps preposterously easy for its clients. Though the process is designed to be manageable on the client side, ActiveCampaign is home to an excellent Support Team trained to see all activation aspects through to completion. Considering the service’s low cost, this is a noteworthy of ActiveCampaign’s operation.

Weakness

  • Integration Fees: Certain app integration measures require added fees to be implemented. ActiveCampaign is not overly sweeping in terms of broader software/app integration. Though there do exist workarounds, the most direct path to achieving full-scale integrative functionality is to cough up the required cash.

Taken as a whole, ActiveCampaign is very much as advertised: A solid marketing automation service geared largely towards the middle-market economy. Strong service reviews and attractive pricing render it very much deserving of your consideration, provided your integration needs are, at most, modest.

SharpSpring

SharpSpring was founded in the relatively recent year of 2012. SharpSpring has undeniably benefited from the foundational knowledge produced by its forerunners, which is evidenced by the quality-life-features they introduced early on. Things like a drag-and-drop email builder and design-friendly landing page interface were at the top of the list.  

Even the savviest of companies will on occasion find themselves in need of technological support from a vendor or two...

Not overly different in terms of its primary offerings, SharpSpring positions itself as something of a lean, cost-effective, flexible alternative to the juggernauts (and their copycats) within the industry. A close look at their business suggests there may be considerable legitimacy to that framing.

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Lead scoring
  4. Automations (workflows)
  5. Personalization options
  6. Social media management for scheduling and reporting on posts
  7. CRM

Strengths

  • Potential: The SharpSpring platform is consciously designed with streamlined use in mind. It very much succeeds in that regard. But the solution is in fact laden with complex marketing automation potential which, when properly understood, allows the user to engage more intricately with various reporting and targeting capabilities.
  • Tech Support at No Additional Cost: Even the savviest of companies will on occasion find themselves in need of technological support from a vendor or two. SharpSpring offers exactly that…and at no additional cost to the client. Given the customizable nature of their software, a round or two of backup from the provider might well be in order at least once during the life of your month-to-month subscription. Note the Contextual Help-In App when reviewing the linked support page.

Weakness

  • Complexity: On its face, SharpSpring is not an overly complicated software platform. But once your need/desire for data reporting and re-targeting capabilities materializes (and it likely will), you may find yourself struggling to proficiently wield the tool at your fingertips.
  • Clunky: Based on our one team member's use of SharpSpring in 2019, the interface can be clunky and much more difficult to use than its pricier competitors.

SharpSpring has actively worked to contend within a very crowded field of deeply entrenched competitors. Their approach is to adhere closely to lean business practices while consciously pricing their products and services below the market average. Combined with their solid approach to customer service, this company is arguably punching a pound or two above its proverbial weight. If costs are a significant factor with respect to your own marketing plan(s), SharpSpring might just fall within the budget.

HubSpot

Nearly prehistoric by software company standards, HubSpot was founded in the year (brace yourself) 2006. In many ways it continues to drive the industry it helped create. Being early to the game is not always an indicator of subsequent marketplace resilience (ask MySpace), but HubSpot has maintained a strong competitive edge throughout its 12-year run and is regarded as a sort of “benchmark” against which fledgling marketing automation organizations are measured.

Familiarity alone will go a long way towards engendering favorable impressions amongst clients, both prospective and active, but the fact remains that being competitive requires any software company to keep pace with technological developments and changing consumer demands. While the competition has burgeoned in recent years, HubSpot does remain something of a metonym for the automation software space.

Like all software companies, HubSpot has a number of core proficiencies with which it is closely identified and many secondary/tertiary capabilities which its customers use to varying degrees. Though reflexively characterized as the industry gold standard, HubSpot should nevertheless be subjected to a features, strengths and weaknesses analyses to better understand what it does well and where customers find it wanting.

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Lead scoring
  4. Automations (workflows)
  5. Easy-to-use CMS platform
  6. Personalization options across multiple tools
  7. Social media management for scheduling and reporting on posts
  8. CRM

Strengths

  • User Education—The HubSpot brand is synonymous with knowledge sharing and with the idea of empowering customers to better understand and properly use the technology at their fingertips. Marketing is inherently characterized by a guerrilla component which makes mastery of its tenets all the more elusive. Offering a series of certifications through its academy, HubSpot provides its users an opportunity to develop key marketing skills or to further hone those they already have. It’s a commendable feature.
  • Intuitive Interface—HubSpot absorbs the lion’s share of the backend coding responsibility to spare their clients that trouble. The interface is highly intuitive and can be easily engaged with by those with limited technological inclination

Weakness

  • Free and “Free”— Much of HubSpot’s software is free, a price many small businesses find attractive. However, there are limitations to “free” software, particularly when it comes to the number of stored/reachable contacts within your system. Based on the size of your company (or your growth trajectory), you will likely find yourself upgrading to one of HubSpots premium packages, which are priced towards the middle-high end of the automation software spectrum. There are also costs associated with receiving technical assistance.

We might a bit biased as a HubSpot Platinum Partner (shameless plug), but there are good reasons for HubSpot having maintained a slight edge over many of its competitors. Its interface is easy-to-use and clean, making the barrier to entry much lower for entire teams that want to use the platform.

Marketing Automation Software, Concluded

The more precise you are in gauging a marketing platform against your needs, goals and budget, the more likely you are enjoy a successful partnership with your platform of choice. Do right by yourself and your marketing efforts in closely evaluating the software services available to you in that arena, and don’t be shy about seeking external, objective input where necessary. 

If you're looking for a HubSpot Partner, our team works in HubSpot every day. Just schedule a call and let us know how we can help!