A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Email Marketing Platforms: Which One is For You?

Email is still important.

Of all the marketing tools available to you, it’s got the highest return on investment. According to Salsa, if you spend $1, you’ll get $40 back. And, if you’re a nonprofit, it drives a third of your online fundraising revenue.

Especially for a non-profit, choosing the right email platform is essential. But there are so many to choose from. Where do you start? How do you know which one is good for you?

There are plenty of articles out there that will grade the top platforms. Like this one from PC Mag. Or this one from Top Ten Reviews. They do a great job of breaking down all the features available so you can easily compare.

But I’m going to do something a little different. As someone who deals with this stuff everyday, I’m going to share some of my own real experiences with three popular, but very different, platforms: Mailchimp, NationBuilder and Salesforce Marketing Cloud



Good for: a nonprofit just starting out

Here’s the big thing about MailChimp: your account is free – yes, free – up to 2,000 contacts. For that fact alone, MailChimp is the favorite of any nonprofit on a budget. Once your list grows beyond 2,000, their prices are reasonable and they offer nonprofit discounts.

But it’s not just the price that’s good here.

MailChimp is one of the easiest email platforms to integrate into your website. Integrations are the hardest part of building a website because you’re depending on another company’s code. But many CMS, including WordPress, have an easy, out-of-the-box plugin you can use to integrate Mailchimp. This means you can connect your website to your MailChimp account very quickly and in some cases without a developer.

And MailChimp easily integrates with many other tools. For example, if you’re using Stripe for your donations, MailChimp offers a free tool that lets new donors automatically sign up for your email list. Fair warning, though – some of the integrations, like PayPal, are paid.

MailChimp has some great pre-fab templates with easy, drag-and-drop functionality. Even the most low-tech person on your staff can create a beautiful email. If you want something custom, you can create an effective template with lots of flexibility.

templates.PNGdrag and drop.PNG

And the reporting isn’t too bad. The interface is clear and intuitive with a nice graph showing your open and click rates over time. A plus here – you can filter the graph to specific lists. But a downside – you can’t filter to segments of a specific list. Another plus – industry open rate data is right in the graph so you can see how you stack up. But another downside – you’ll have to do some math to see what your own average open rate is.


Overall, MailChimp is a good, solid, all-around option. But if you want something a little more robust…



Good for: a nonprofit getting most of their donations from their email list

NationBuilder is an “all-in-one.” It doesn’t just do email. It’s a site builder, a donation platform, an event registration system, a CRM, and more.

If you’re using NationBuilder for more than just email, you can get crazy-specific with your targeting. You can filter your users by a number of criteria including what lists they’re on, their gender, whether they clicked a link in a particular email, the average amount they’ve donated in the past, and more.

Think about it. It’s #givingtuesday. You sent out an email early in the morning asking people for donations. The following day, you want to send a reminder email that people can still donate all holiday season. Well, if you sent the reminder email to everyone, you might seem desperate and spammy. However, with NationBuilder you can target only people who did not open your first email and people who have donated in the past. These people want to get your reminder email!


Talk about a good return on investment.

There is a downside to NationBuilder though. Email isn’t their focus. So, from a strictly email perspective, it’s not the best product.

Most of my clients copy and paste their email content from a word document into their email platform. This always has it’s share of headaches, even if you use a “paste from word” function. However, because the WYSIWYG in NationBuilder is so limited, this can be a real headache. Nearly every week, I’ll have a client using NationBuilder call me because they can’t understand why their paragraph is magically in the same font as their heading. If you don’t know HTML, this can be a real pain.


Additionally, the email analytics are the most bare-bones I’ve ever seen. It should be simple to find your average open and click rate for your emails over time. I hope you like spreadsheets, because you’ll be exporting and manually calculating nearly everything.


How much does NationBuilder cost? It depends on the size of your list and what features you want. Assuming you don’t need much beyond email and donations…The low end is $29/month to email 1,000 people. The high end is $539/month to email 35,000 contacts.


Salesforce Marketing Cloud

Good for: a nonprofit with a huge, complicated database

If you have a huge database with hundreds of lists, it can be difficult to keep them organized.

Salesforce is primarily known for being a CRM, or customer relationship management platform. So it makes sense that their email platform, which is a part of their marketing platform, really stands out when it comes to list organization and segmentation.

Say you ran ads sending users to a series of landing pages with email sign-ups. You can create a folder for advertising, and then have a separate list for each of those landing page sign-ups.

And then, you have local branches of your non-profit. You can create a folder for local branches, and then have a separate list for each branch.

But say you want to reach people across different lists. For example, maybe you need to reach everyone in your database who lives in Ohio. Easy. You can filter all your lists for particular profile attributes and save it as a group.

And just like with your lists, you can organize your groups into various folders.

Salesforce email kinda has it all. Great analytics with data visualization. A/B testing. A powerful editor that doesn’t require HTML. And, if you’re using Salesforce for your donations, an easy integration.

salesforce analytics.PNG

email creation.PNG

The downside to Salesforce? It’s not very intuitive. It’s easy to get lost in the admin interface and difficult to figure out how to do what you want. The learning curve with Salesforce is one of the steepest I’ve seen. And also, it’s one of the more expensive platforms out there. Pricing starts at $400 a month.



MozCon 2016: 10 Key Takeaways

1. You can eat anything at Pike Place.

Turns out there is only one direct flight from DCA to SEA on a Sunday. And Katie was on it. She arrived in Seattle at 10am and had nothing to do.

After a bit of googling, she booked an afternoon tour of Pike Place with Savor Seattle. Two or three bites at seven different restaurants equals an afternoon well spent.

Turns out Pike Place has more than men throwing fish. It also has amazing fresh donuts, Filipino sausage that melts on your tongue, and clam chowder that lives up to a Boston girl’s standards. The highlight? The best Greek yogurt in the world at Ellenos. Once you taste their yogurt, you’ll never look at Chobani or Fage the same way again.

yogurt chowder



Preventative maintenance: the key to keeping your website healthy and safe

Life is full of things we do because we have to. Trips to the DMV.  Jury duty.  Paying taxes. Dental appointments.  Oil changes.  These things are no fun.  But as painful and tedious as these tasks are, the consequences of not doing them are far worse.  

Spending $50 and an hour of your life getting an oil change sucks.  Having your car break down and paying thousands for repairs sucks worse.

In the web development world, updating your site’s software and server operating system are the equivalent of getting an oil change.  It is preventative maintenance done to mitigate the risk of future failure.  And given the lack of an immediate, tangible benefit, it is something that many are tempted to skip.  

Most of the sites we maintain are run in LAMP/LEMP (Linux Apache/Nginx MySQL/MariaDB PHP) environments and powered by Drupal or WordPress.  We typically recommend clients perform preventative maintenance on their sites once a quarter, speeding up the timeline when critical security updates are released.  There are a number of reasons why keeping to a regular, preventative maintenance schedule is important:

  • Security.  Platforms like WordPress and Drupal are extremely popular and widely used.  Given their ubiquity, malicious users are constantly working to hack or hijack sites powered by these platforms for personal gain.  If you don’t perform security updates regularly your site runs a high risk of having major security holes that hackers can exploit..  
  • Bug fixes.  No platform as large and complex as Drupal and WordPress is 100% bug free.  If you have worked in either platform there is a good chance you have stumbled on a small bug that impacts your work.  By performing regular updates you get access to bug fixes made by the community.  
  • Access to new features.  Hundreds of developers are constantly improving Drupal and WordPress  through the release of new features.  You can only get access to these new features if you update to the latest software version.  You have access to the latest and greatest version of the platform.  
  • Preventing obsolescence.  If you keep up with updates, the time investment is pretty low.  On most sites a few hours a month are all that are needed to maintain a site.  If you put things off for years, the problems pile up.  The updates become difficult or even impossible in some cases.  A neglected site can get so behind on updates that it is obsolete.

While we try to communicate the need for preventative maintenance to our clients, we’ve been involved with a number of projects where it wasn’t a priority.   In some cases the client has skipped updates for long periods without any negative consequences.   But we’ve seen other cases where clients have suffered disastrous losses as a result of neglecting updates.

Recently we had a client with a site built in WordPress who hosted and maintained their site themselves.  They got behind on updates on one of their core sites and a hacker got access to their administrative tools as a result.  Likely in effort to improve SEO on a site they were affiliated with, the hacker quietly inserted links to third-party sites on highly trafficked pages and created a bunch of new, spam pages.  The hacker exploited the site for months before they were detected.  As a result of the attack the client’s SEO rankings for the keywords they are taking took a big hit and they spent tons of time trying to expel the hacker and manually cleaning up content.

We came across another example recently when talking to a prospective client.  The organization was years behind on Drupal updates and were targeted by a malicious hacker.  The hacker defaced their website, deleting content and hijacking their homepage.  In addition to not updating the site, the client also wasn’t performing regular backups.  As a result they had to rebuild their entire site from scratch and rewrite a great deal of content.  It was a disaster.

Businesses and organizations spend untold time and money building and maintaining web presences.  Given the investment and importance of web programs to most organizations,it is dangerous and short sighted to not invest in preventative maintenance.  

design system

How to generate a style guide using Hologram & Gulp

Why do I need a style guide?

Let’s be honest, I code differently than you.  And you code differently than the guy sitting next to you with Cheez-it crumb fingers playing Pokemon Go when no one is looking.  So how can we (front end developers) make sure we are providing consistent high quality code across a team?  Enter the style guide!  This post will walk you through how to setup a build system using Gulp.js, Sass and Hologram to generate a living style guide.

Where we started

When our Brick Factory team first began using style guides they consisted of 4-5 HTML files that we maintained separate from the site itself.  We would set up the style guide statically at the beginning of a project to make sure it contained all of the base components and HTML elements . This was all fine and dandy, but after a few months (or weeks) it became out-of-date simply because it was “separate” from the code we were writing.

I started doing some research on how we could get a style guide that generates automatically, and lives somewhere easily accessible.  There are some great options in this space, but after much deliberation and testing we landed on Hologram by Trulia. (more…)


How to create a members only section that people will actually use

If you work at a membership-based organization such as a professional society, trade association or nonprofit, the situation below may sound familiar:

Your members have periodically asked you to provide them with ways to collaborate with each other.  You decide to act on the request and build a new members only section on your website with frequently requested features such as a member directory, member profiles, message boards, group chat and document library.  You launch the new section and get good initial feedback.  But after a few weeks it becomes clear that no one is using the new tools and after a few few months it is a complete ghost town.

You bought the groceries and cooked the meal, but no one is coming for dinner.

In my experience, this is the rule rather than the exception.  The features that sound the most exciting in theory are often quite different from the ones members will actually use on a daily basis.  Perhaps more importantly, your member’s only section is competing for attention against the likes of Facebook, Slack, LinkedIn and Pokemon Go.  Getting people to make your site a part of their daily or weekly routine is a tough ask.  

To help prevent you from wasting blood, sweat and tears building something no one will use, below are some lessons I’ve learned building members only sections for clients.  

(1) Listen to your members

A lot of expensive and unneeded features that get included in members only sections are the result of anecdotal requests (“Board Member A thinks Feature X would be really cool”) and/or poorly constructed membership surveys.  Asking members what features they want is a vital part of the planning process, but you have to ask the right way.  You need the right mix of quantitative and qualitative research.

Don’t just send an open ended email survey asking members what features they would like to see.  Instead, develop a list of features you are thinking of adding and ask members to rank them in order of importance and/or to tell you how often they would use each of them.  You need to a way to prioritize features into “must” and “nice to” haves.  

Be sure to send the survey to all your members, and not just a small subsection.  The needs of your most involved members are going to be different from those who are less active.  Don’t let the loudest voices drive your development priorities.

Lastly, supplement the email survey data with qualitative research.  Interview a few members over the phone or in person to get a sense of how they are using your current members only section (if you have one) and/or how they would use the new features you are contemplating.  Interview members from a variety of backgrounds and engagement levels.  These interviews can be really helpful in understanding how members actually use your site and fine tuning requirements.

(2) Don’t recreate Facebook and LinkedIn

I have worked with a lot of clients who want to build advanced social networking functionality into their members-only site.  They basically want to create a “private” LinkedIn or Facebook for their organization, with groups, status updates, chat, message boards, etc.  

In my experience this approach is nearly always a mistake.  These types of social features sound cutting edge and exciting, but are rarely used in the context of a members only section.  Most of your members aren’t going to spend enough time on your site to support features like chat or message boards.  

If you do want to experiment with social features, a better approach is to try to leverage social networks your members are already using.  Start a private group on LinkedIn or Facebook.  Experiment with Slack.  Start an email discussion list.  These tools are more cost effective and likely to success than trying to build your own walled garden on your site.

Fish where fish are.

(3) Start small and expand

In software development, “the minimum viable product (MVP) is a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.”  In the context of a members only section, the MVP should consist only of the “must have” features you and your members have identified.  Start out by building just these features and then expand later based on your site analytics and member feedback.  This approach allows you to move quickly, and saves you time and money that might have been spent building features people won’t actually use.

As an example, we recently built out a members-only section for a professional society.  They started out with a long list of feature requests that included expensive social features.  After research and a series of discussions, their MVP consisted of the following features:

  • User accounts for members with different permissions based on membership level.
  • Members-only document library
  • Listing of members-only events and continued learning opportunities
  • Access to proprietary database showing overall industry trends
  • A really good search of all the members-only materials.

The professional society had a wealth of proprietary content that their members rely on in their day-to-day work.  Providing their members with a way to quickly and easily access this content was far and away the most important feature for the new members only section.  So for phase one of the project, we focused on doing that one thing really, really well.  We focused on the area where the professional society could provide its members with real value.