Time To Ditch Mailchimp?

Mailchimp attracted extreme criticism this week when it became clear how its new marketing services would impact its core email offering — particularly in terms of pricing — leading many long-time users to start explore alternatives (including this one).

I have been a loyal and happy Mailchimp customer for over eight years. I have also recommended Mailchimp to thousands of other authors. There have always been cheaper services, or those with more bells-and-whistles when it comes to advanced automation options and the like, but — for me at least — Mailchimp was always the perfect combination of price, user friendliness, and reliability.

Until yesterday.

FYI: this is a long and comprehensive post going over the changes to Mailchimp’s Pricing Plans and Terms of Use. If you want the short version, if you had a (paid) Monthly plan before May 15, you are protected from the worst of the changes for now, but might still want to scoot down to Alternatives to Mailchimp at the bottom of this post as I still think bad things are on the horizon for you. For everyone else — i.e. Free, Pay As You Go, or New users — the negative implications are much more immediate.

What Happened With Mailchimp‘s pricing and policies?

Mailchimp announced its pivot towards a full-service marketing platform on Monday. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that Mailchimp Legal began emailing existing users about changes to the Terms of Use that were kicking in immediately that day.

These changes included entirely new pricing tiers and policies, and a revamping of associated feature sets, with some pretty radical differences. Mailchimp’s emails weren’t clear on what was changing or who was affected, Help pages weren’t updated properly, and Support was giving out conflicting information.

When the dust settled, it wasn’t pretty.

The biggest change of all is that Mailchimp no longer determines monthly charges based on total subscriber count — as has historically been the case, and as is standard among email services. Instead, Mailchimp now bases monthly charges on a new metric which it calls Audiences, which some users may have noticed appearing in their accounts recently.

Key here is that Audiences also includes unsubscribed emails, meaning that users will be charged for unsubscribed emails as well as subscribed ones. Naturally, this announcement was received very negatively by Mailchimp users, as some would be facing increases of over 100% in their monthly charges (myself included). The situation was compounded with a lot of confusion, as the Help pages at Mailchimp weren’t yet fully updated to account for these changes, and Support seemed confused about whether existing users would be grandfathered in under the old terms.

First, Mailchimp explicitly told me in an email that legacy users would be affected by this new policy.

Mailchimp Policy changes email

Several hours later, after a hugely negative reaction online, Mailchimp appeared to backtrack, saying that legacy users would be unaffected by these changes — which would only apply to new users. Whether this was a change of heart, or muddled messaging, or a simple error, it’s hard to know for sure.

However, this doesn’t appear to be the full story — which seems typical of this bungled rollout. And several more crucial changes buried in the new Terms of Use haven’t been communicated to users at all. Some of which are pretty damn big. (You can read the new Terms of Use here.)

Furthermore, a close examination of the now-updated Help pages shows that legacy users of the Mailchimp’s Free plan will be badly affected by these changes. Previously, Mailchimp’s pricing model was free up until a user reached 2,000 subscribers, at which point you transitioned to a paid plan. It was a clever approach from Mailchimp which got them lots of new customers and made it the easiest service to recommend.

Mailchimp’s pricing policy is now changing. Not only will unsubscribed users count towards the 2,000 threshold, all those on a Free plan who subsequently transition to a paid plan will do so under the new pricing regime with no option to be grandfathered in under the old system.

New Mailchimp policy on Free plans

Additionally, those who are paid customers under the Pay As You Go system — where users pay per send rather than per month, something which was very popular with users who emailed more sporadically then regularly (for example, if you only used your list to announce new releases) — will be adversely affected also, despite Mailchimp’s claims.

First, any credits they purchased before 15 May will expire in one year — despite Mailchimp previously stating that these credits will never expire. That could get Mailchimp in some legal hot water, of course, and has caused extreme anger, particularly among those who stocked up and bought significant numbers of credits recently.

Mailchimp is explicit about not offering any cash refunds for purchased credits, but it seems email credits will now convert into dollar credits towards a Mailchimp Monthly plan. However, anyone converting to this monthly plan, even if they do it right away will be subjected to the new pricing regime, with no option to be grandfathered in under the old system.

New Mailchimp policy on Pay As You Go plans switching to Monthly plans

The only customers spared — for the moment — are those who were on a legacy paid Monthly plan as of 15 May, the day these changes were announced. I asked Mailchimp if they could guarantee that legacy Monthly plan users wouldn’t be forced into the new pricing regime at any point in the future. I also asked Mailchimp if moving to a new pricing tier (i.e. when your subscriber count increases) would trigger a move to the new pricing regime.

Mailchimp failed to respond to these inquiries and would only confirm that if you purchase any add-ons to your legacy plan, this may immediately trigger a move to the new pricing regime. So, I think it’s probably wise to conclude that this change will come to legacy Monthly plans too, sooner rather than later, I would guess — probably under some guff about “harmonizing the Mailchimp payment plans” or similar corporate blather.

Indeed, in a statement to TechCrunch, all Mailchimp would say is that legacy customers will “maintain current pricing structure and features for the time being” — which isn’t very reassuring and sounds very temporary.

Naturally, this has some people asking what the alternatives are, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But you’re probably asking yourself how we get here, and, crucially, whether there is any chance of this change being rolled back.

UPDATE September 11: As predicted, Mailchimp pricing plans for Legacy users have now changed and prices increased have by 15-20%.

Mailchimp’s Big Pivot

Mailchimp has been slowly building out additional marketing services over the last couple of years: customizable landing pages, a real-world address finder so you can do things like send postcards to your customers, and the ability to run Facebook, Instagram, or Google Ads to your email subscribers via their platform.

This week, Mailchimp fully pivoted to becoming a CRM platform — short for Customer Relationship Management. Essentially, Mailchimp wants to be your go-to platform for managing the entirety of your relationship with a customer, not just for email marketing.

This begs a lot of questions of course. Why would Mailchimp want to do this? Well, according to founder and CEO Ben Chestnut, this pivot will help Mailchimp bring in a staggering $700m in revenue for 2019.

The other obvious question is why anyone would want to run their Facebook or Google ads via Mailchimp, and that question is much harder to answer. Mailchimp claims these changes are driven by customer demand but that is difficult to believe.

You may or may not be interested in the deeper reasoning behind this big change from Mailchimp, I merely explain it to show that this is new set of policies has been a long time coming, is part of an overall corporate strategy which Mailchimp views as central to its future. In other words, this approach is unlikely to be reversed. It seems that Mailchimp has invested to much in this pivot.

Which leaves authors with a choice. Can they keep recommending Mailchimp? Can they keep using Mailchimp — even though switching is a giant pain in the ass?

I’ll argue momentarily that the answers to those questions is “No” and “Probably Not” but let’s break down the full implications depending on what kind of user you are, before looking at alternatives recommended by the Newsletter Ninja herself — Tammi Labrecque.

Why Mailchimp’s Pricing and Policy Changes Are Bad

Mailchimp’s rebranding as a supposed one-stop-shop for all your customer marketing needs is more worrying on a general level, as it indicates a lack of focus on the core product — particularly pertinent when Mailchimp launches those other services by making adverse changes to its email offering.

Of particular concern, however, are those immediate and negative changes to email:

  1. Charging by Audiences is patently unfair. You aren’t using those contacts, but you have to maintain records of them for GDPR compliance (and other reasons I’ll get to), so there is no justification for deciding how much you pay based on inactive subscribers.
  2. This will inflate costs for mosts users, significantly in some cases. If you have a large mailing list, you will have a lot of unsubscribes. It goes with the territory. Things that also increase unsubscribes include very common practices such as listbuilder promos, competitions, reader magnets, BookFunnel giveaways, or any kind of advertising aimed at boosting your mailing list. Most galling of all, those who are strict about engaging in email best practices such as list hygiene/list culling and using onboarders to weed out users who shouldn’t be on your list, will have a lot of unsubscribes for the most legitimate of all reasons. Finally, if — like me — you run your onboarder through a separate list, which people do for various logistical reasons, all new sign-ups essentially get unsubscribed when they finished onboarding and moved to a new list. Which means in practice your Audience size will be over double your actual subscriber count. Under the new Mailchimp pricing regime, this means your costs will now double too.
  3. Mailchimp’s justification for charging by Audiences is that you can now use their remarketing services to reach these unsubscribes, like by sending them a postcard or running a Facebook campaign to unsubscribes. But Mailchimp will charge you for unsubscribes even if you never use these services. Which is completely ludicrous. You can’t charge customers for services they have never used and have no intention of using.
  4. Deleting unsubscribes is definitely not the answer, as I’ve seen some suggest. Deleting unsubscribes could cause you two kinds of legal trouble. First, under my reading of GDPR, this will put you in breach of the requirement to maintain records of how a customer subscribed. You can only delete their records if they request a deletion. (That’s my understanding, at least, as someone who is not a lawyer and definitely not a GDPR expert.) Second, if Customer X unsubscribes from your list in the normal manner, and then enters some kind of group competition or promotion (like BookSweeps or a BookFunnel giveaway) that you are participating in, you are not legally allowed email Customer X again. But if you have deleted them as a contact, you will have no record of this unsubscribe, you will add Customer X to your list again when importing all the participants, and then when you invariably email Customer X again you will be breaking the law. Third, if you have any level of visibility, you might be attracting junk/spam sign-ups to your list. If you are a big author, you probably get a lot of junk sign-ups. Leaving these spammers as Unsubscribed acts as a kind of block from them signing up again under that email and keeps the problem manageable. Simply deleting these junk sign-ups leaves spammers to sign up again under the same address, removing your only real defense, other than double opt-in — which doesn’t prevent it from happening.
  5. Mailchimp’s workaround is extremely problematic. Mailchimp has attempted to defend the above by saying, “If you plan to use Mailchimp for only email marketing, you can archive your unsubscribed contacts so that they are not counted towards your whole audience pricing.” I’m not entirely clear on the GDPR implications of archiving contacts, even after reading Mailchimp’s Help pages and explicitly asking Support about same in numerous emails — a subject which was ignored, I should note. Even leaving that non-trivial matter aside, archiving unsubscribes fails to deal with the problems above surrounding importing previous unsubscribes, preserving customer history for various business reasons, those who do onboarding via a separate list, and fails to prevent junk sign-ups. Even with this workaround, it will still increase your costs as Mailchimp’s pricing plan will charge you based on the highest point your audience reached over the last 30 days. It also creates yet another layer of busywork, forcing users to manually archive everyone that unsubscribes, and the more irregularly you do that, because it’s a cumbersome process and Mailchimp hasn’t designed the tools to do it easily and quickly, the more you will end up paying. As with double-counting subscribers who are on multiple lists, Mailchimp has again made a top-down business decision that unfairly costs users unless they engage in continual, maddening busywork. Except this is several factors worse as no one can avoid unsubscribes.

And, of course, there is a massive trust issue with Mailchimp now, where there was none really before. It’s hard to give your backing to a company that has screwed its users in such a dramatic fashion.

UPDATE May 22: A UK lawyer has been in touch to dispute some of my interpretations of GDPR above and I’ve noted those issues at length in this comment below. Doesn’t materially affect the overall post, but fans of GDPR arcanery — everyone, right? — might want to read that.

What Should You Do?

Given all the above, here are my recommendations for New users, Free users, legacy Pay as You Go users, and legacy Monthly users.

I think New users should avoid signing up for a Mailchimp plan unless they reverse these changes — which I doubt will happen. So New users should look for alternatives. You’ll get info on some of those below.

Same goes for Free users. They may have a little breathing time until they hit that 2,000 Audience total limit, but Free users should start planning ahead and looking at other services.

The same also goes for Pay As You Go users. The situation is a little more complicated for them, depending on how many credits they have purchased. Those with significant credits may wish to interface with Mailchimp’s billing department to see what options are available in terms of converting to Monthly plan credit. But, in general, my recommendation is that Pay As You Go users should look for alternatives so they are ready when their credits are used up. It’s an open question whether Mailchimp is planning to phase out Pay As You Go altogether at some point — it could explain why credits suddenly have a 12-month shelf life.

The situation is more nuanced again for legacy users on a paid Mailchimp Monthly plan (which includes me). For the moment, we seem to be spared this new pricing system. It’s notable that Mailchimp Support were reasonably quick to respond to my other questions yesterday, but pointedly refused to give any guarantees that legacy Monthly users wouldn’t eventually be subject to the new pricing system at a later point, despite numerous opportunities to do so.

My take is that it will probably happen at some point for legacy Monthly users too. Indeed, the new Terms of Use — which everyone automatically agrees to by continuing to use Mailchimp after 15 May — explicitly gives Mailchimp that power.

Mailchimp Billing Changes from Terms of Use

Because of this, and all the foregoing, particularly the trust issue which has now appeared out of nowhere, my recommendation for legacy Monthly users is to start looking for alternatives too — although you appear to have a little more breathing room than everyone else. For now, at least.

More Stealth Changes At Mailchimp

In case you are still unconvinced of the need to look elsewhere for mailing list services, I discovered some more changes which weren’t communicated to users at all. These currently affect new users only, and anyone else switching to a paid Monthly plan, but I think we can expect them to impact everyone eventually. Certainly, they indicate the direction Mailchimp is heading. And that is a very worrying direction indeed.

Basic Mailchimp plans are now limited to just three audiences. In other words, you can’t have more than three separate mailing lists without paying for a premium plan which costs 50% more. This will greatly affect anyone who writes in multiple genres, or keeps separate lists for whatever reason (onboarding, different niche, separate pen name, blog subscription, side business, etc.). Even the premium plan only allows you to have five audiences. To show how limiting that is, I currently have seven audiences before I even launch my new pen name. And, of course, the new pricing regime means you can’t even combine audiences without getting charged double for moving those names across.

Most shockingly, Mailchimp’s basic paid plans will no longer include multi-step automations. This is a fairly basic feature for any email service — it’s normal to welcome new sign-ups to your list with an automated sequence of emails. Mailchimp will no longer include that feature in new Monthly plans, unless you upgrade to a more expensive plan, which will be charged at an even higher rate per month. Also not included in entry-level plans anymore are previously included features such as send time optimization and delivery by time zone.

Another change which is bound to be hugely unpopular, and sure to cause Mailchimp trouble as they haven’t flagged this to users either, is that Mailchimp will no longer automatically move you up (and down) the various pricing tiers depending on your usage/subscriber count.

Mailchimp Paid Monthly Plans - Terms of Use changes

Instead the onus will be on you to continually and proactively purchase higher plans as you grow. If you fail to do so, Mailchimp will levy penalty charges on your account. Despite Mailchimp saying in the new Terms of Use that these charges are detailed on the pricing pages, I couldn’t find them anywhere.

Finally, Mailchimp has had a long-standing and permanent 10% discount for using two-factor authentication. This is now transitioning to a temporary, three-month discount. It’s yet another back-door price increase, and 10% is not nothing either.

To sum up all the financial aspects, Mailchimp pricing has massively increased through underhanded means, and features have been gutted at the same time. To give a real-world example, if I was starting a new Monthly plan with Mailchimp today, the cumulative effect of these changes would mean I’d actually be charged triple what I’m paying right now without even getting the full set of features I have right now. For that, I’d have to subscribe to the Premium plan where I’d be facing an increase of up to 500%. It’s crazy!

Alternatives to Mailchimp

As I have been using Mailchimp for the last eight years, without needing to look at alternatives, I thought it best to bring in a real email expert to make some recommendations here. Regular readers will know that I named Newsletter Ninja as my book of the year in January. Here is the author, Tammi Labrecque, with some quick advice for those looking to switch providers:

If budget is your primary concern, MailerLite represents a nice intersection of cost and functionality. If money is less of an object, ConvertKit is recommended by heavy hitters like Andre Chaperon. And if your focus is robust tagging, segmenting, and automations, ActiveCampaign is an excellent choice (and it’s what I use).

Tammi Labrecque, email expert.

In the interests of full disclosure, please note the MailerLite/ConvertKit links are affiliate links (mine not Tammi’s) but the Active Campaign is not. I’m also a Mailchimp affiliate, and have been for eight years, in case you think such relationships color any perspectives here.

I haven’t made my own decision yet, but I’m personally leaning towards MailerLite. I will send maybe a million emails in 2019, so I’m a reasonably heavy user. While I do have onboarding sequences and engage in a little tagging and segmenting, I don’t go heavy into those activities at all, so, for me personally, I think ConvertKit or Active Campaign might be overkill. But they may suit your needs better, so check them out.

I couldn’t possibly do a comprehensive survey of all available alternatives in this already long post. But if you have personal experience of any service you wish to share, please do that in the comments below; I think everyone would find it helpful, whether your experience was positive or negative.

Making Lemonade

While all this is undoubtedly a giant pain in the ass I’m going to try and weave a silver lining here and redo my automations when I switch. Freshen them up, link to some of the previous highlights of the newsletter. Tweak a few things here and there. Doing all that is a pain normally, but if I must redo them again, I might as well buff them up.

If you want to use this an opportunity to reorganize your lists, change your email approach, get better at automations or tagging or segmentation (or learn what all that stuff is), then I’d strongly advise you to purchase Tammi Labrecque’s superb book Newsletter Ninja.

And if you want much more hand-holding, as luck would have it, Tammi’s excellent Newsletter Ninja course is opening up again in July and there are only a few places left. I took it myself previously and it genuinely was career-changing. I don’t say things like that often, people.

You can check out the course here, but let me just stress that it’s not just a bunch of videos. You get group classes and individual consulting as part of the package, so you really do get tailored solutions for your particular mailing list needs. (I’m not an affiliate for her course, by the way, and only get paid in the frustratingly soft currency of kudos, which isn’t accepted in any of my local bars.)

That’s it! Thank you for making it to the end of this post before dying of old age. Please do comment and tell us about your mailing list provider experiences and consider sharing this post with your fellow writers so they know what’s up.

Oh, Mailchimp. What a self-inflicted and catastrophic fail.

UPDATE May 22: A UK lawyer has been in touch to dispute some of my interpretations of GDPR above and I’ve noted those issues at length in this comment below. Doesn’t materially affect the overall post, but fans of GDPR arcanery — everyone, right? — might want to read that.

UPDATE July 4: I went with MailerLite in the end. I’ve been using them for several weeks and am very happy. I published a guide to from Mailchimp to MailerLite right hereit covers everything from pricing and feature differences, to moving your subscribers, rebuilding automations, logistics, and pitfalls to watch out for.

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David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.