How to build SaaS for email marketing like Mailchimp?

Chatbots, interactive content, influencers... If you’re running a B2C business, you might get the impression that unless you’re making use of the state-of-the-art marketing solutions, it’s virtually impossible to reach new customers and keep the old ones engaged. While it isn’t entirely wrong to think so (it’s no secret that novelties are exciting to most of us), you shouldn’t underestimate the power of more traditional ways to get in touch with your target audience: emails.

Once again, you may be tempted to think that in 2020, email marketing is dead. Nonetheless, it’s enough to take a brief look at recent statistics to see that this claim is far from the truth. To prove my point, let me quote just three email marketing facts:

  • According to data gathered by SaleCycle, marketing emails influence the purchasing decisions of 59% recipients and cause 50% of them to buy advertised products at least once a month,
  • Campaign Monitor claims that email marketing produces $44 for every $1 spent which translates into an amazing 4400% ROI,
  • as stated by Fluent, 68% of millennials say promotional emails have influenced their purchase decisions.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that numerous B2C companies are relying on email marketing to connect and bond with a global audience – and to streamline their efforts, many are using marketing automation platforms like Mailchimp, Constant Contact, or GetResponse.

Of course, there are plenty of solutions available on the market – this doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t make your mark by building your own email marketing SaaS. And today, drawing from our own experience of working hand in hand with Sendinblue, we’re going to show you how to do that.

Table of contents

Mailchimp: the leading marketing automation platform
   How the platform evolved
   What makes Mailchimp stand out from the crowd?
How to go about building a successful marketing automation SaaS?
Core functionalities of an email marketing platform like Mailchimp
   Email editor with ready-made templates
   Recipient segmentation within a web app like Mailchimp
   Email automation
   Message scheduling within email marketing app
   Performance monitoring
   Third-party integrations
Competences and technologies needed to build an email marketing tool
   What technologies we used in analogous project
Merixstudio’s experience with marketing automation web app like Mailchimp: Sendinblue case study

Mailchimp: the leading marketing automation platform

Before we dig into the formula allowing you to develop your own successful product, let’s discuss what the most prominent email marketing automation tool is and how it works.

How the platform evolved

Mailchimp’s story begins in Atlanta in 2001. Back then, Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius were running a web design agency and at some point, they decided to build an alternative to the early 2000s email software that would empower primarily small businesses. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that Ben and Dan decided to leave the agency life behind and focus exclusively on Mailchimp.

As years passed, the tool was growing not only in popularity but also in functionalities like a Marketing CRM and landing pages, as well as channels covered such as Instagram and Facebook. In 2019 alone, Mailchimp launched 41 new features and reached a staggering number of over 12 million active users.

MailChimp's stats 2019

An excerpt from the 2019 Mailchimp stats

What makes Mailchimp stand out from the crowd?

Although it started as a tool for small businesses, Mailchimp has evolved into an all-round solution for startups, SMBs, and enterprises alike. With so many alternatives available on the market, what makes this platform so special?

  • Putting customers first

No matter how creative and innovative a marketing campaign is, it’s unlikely to succeed unless it responds to the needs and desires of its target audience. For this reason, Mailchimp provides its users with ways to get to know their customers better – both as individuals and as part of a larger community – and to utilize the gathered data to optimize their marketing efforts. Some of the audience-oriented tools include audience dashboard, tags and custom fields, integrations, as well as behavioral targeting.

  • Launching multichannel campaigns

As you already know, for the last two decades, Mailchimp has significantly grown the list of communication channels and tools it covers. As of today, it offers not only emails but also landing pages, digital advertisements, social media posts, postcards, and many more – all to reach customers wherever they are, online or not.

  • Optimizing marketing efforts

Some of the most important lessons come from making wrong decisions. This holds true for all aspects of our life, including designing marketing campaigns. With features like reports and analytics, predicted demographics, as well as send-time optimization, Mailchimp allows its users to test their predictions and make fewer mistakes.

Of course, that’s only a bird's-eye view of what’s Mailchimp capable of. Below you’ll find a more comprehensive list of the platform’s features by FinancesOnline:

Overview of MailChimp's features by FinancesOnline

How to go about building a successful marketing automation SaaS?

Now that we’ve dug deeper into what Mailchimp is and what it does, we can proceed to the formula for building an analogous email marketing and marketing automation tool on your own. Before you jump into the deep end, however, you need to carefully plan the roadmap for your project’s success. As far as your pre-development work is concerned, you need to focus on the following two steps:

  1. Start by conducting market research. See what competitive solutions are already available on the market, what their offering is, and who they’re targeted at.
  2. Define your product idea as thoroughly as you can at this point. Think about what features you want to equip the product with, who your prospective users are, what they need, and how you can reach them. Don’t forget about the down-to-earth factors like the amount of time and money you can devote to building an email marketing tool like Mailchimp.

Once your business idea has taken shape, it’s time to bring it to life and there are two ways to do this. The first option is in-house, which calls for assembling a competent team on your own. The other solution is to look for a tech partner who will help translate your vision into a tangible product. Bearing in mind the current digital landscape which calls for shortening the time-to-market, the fact that many – especially freshly minted – entrepreneurs don’t have an unlimited budget, and all challenges that hiring an inhouse team poses, there’s a good chance you’ll end up outsourcing software development.

IT outsourcing dilemmas Merixstudio ebook

In that case, your number one priority will be to find a trusted partner whose processes are not only comprehensive but also transparent. What does this mean in practice? Regular communication (be it in person or remote), explicitly defined roles within a project, clear task division – these are but a few examples of transparency rules battle-tested in our 20 years of remote collaboration with clients.

Going back to the software development process itself, here’s a summary of what you can expect when entrusting your email marketing SaaS to a software house that puts quality first:

  1. Pre-production phase that can take two forms. If your product concept isn’t crystal clear, you might want to consider going for a fully-fledged product design workshop, the aim of which is to identify the best solutions and prepare a draft of your future product. If, on the other hand, you’re already equipped with a prototype, it’s a good idea to take part in a scoping session to – as the very name suggests – assess the scope of your email marketing project.

  1. Actual software development process. There are a couple of project management methodologies around which the process of building a digital product can be structured; however, you care about transparency and flexibility, Agile is the way to go. Along with writing code, the outsourced team is most likely to be conducting tests and fixing bugs. The conclusion of this stage will be marked by the deployment of the new Mailchimp’s competitor that you dreamed of at the beginning.
  2. The aftermath. Your product is a living organism so once it’s launched, it needs to keep evolving. At this point, you might want to work with your tech partner not only on maintenance but also on scaling it up to the exponential growth or adding new features allowing you to outrun the email marketing and marketing automation competition.

Core functionalities of an email marketing platform like Mailchimp

Let me state the obvious: it’s not how well it mimics Mailchimp but rather how it responds to market needs that contributes to your product’s success. The truth is, however, that to do the trick, the SaaS you’re building needs to have a couple of core features shared by the most prominent email marketing solutions:

Email editor with ready-made templates

Most of us buy with our eyes. As presentation is key to commercial success, our list starts with an aesthetics-oriented feature: email builder.

It’s likely that many of your tool’s users will be neither graphic designers nor developers – for this reason alone, a user-friendly editor that facilitates creating a professionally-looking email is a must. To begin with, provide your clients with ready-made templates that are visually appealing, diverse in terms of style, and above all responsive.

MailChimp Koble templates

A sample of Koble themes compatible with numerous email service providers

Then, ensure all elements of the templates, including fonts, colors, social media buttons, etc,  can be easily tweaked to the users’ liking. Moreover, pay attention to streamlining the customization process with an intuitive UI. In most cases, WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) drag-and-drop type of builder will be just the right choice. Finally, you should consider allowing the more advanced users to build their own HTML-based layouts as well.

Recipient segmentation within a web app like Mailchimp

Everybody who works in a B2C industry knows relevancy is the key to your customers’ hearts. According to Campaign Monitor, personalization increases email open rates by 26% and segmented campaigns drive a 760% increase in revenue as opposed to the one-size-fits-all campaigns. But to benefit from targeting emails, the users of your Mailchimp-like SaaS need to be able to segment their target audience in the first place.

The segmentation tool of your email marketing solution ought to make the entire process of contact management simple yet precise. To ensure optimal user experience from the very beginning, it should allow uploading contact information and marking attributes in bulk (e.g. by copy-paste or CSV file) – otherwise, your prospective users may simply get tired of entering all data manually and switch to a different product.

Recipient segmentation in Sendinblue

Segmentation by behavioral criteria in Sendinblue

Even more important, however, is the level of detail at which your segmentation tool can arrive. The more exhaustive you get, the better; thus, filtering according to the socio-demographic data like a place of residence or employment as well as behavioral criteria such as past purchases or visits to specific elements of the website is fundamental. If you want personalization to be the main characteristic of your marketing automation SaaS, you might also want to get inspired by Mailchimp’s advanced segmentation and take targeting to the next level by basing it on different sets of nested conditions.

MailChimp advanced segmentation

Example of Mailchimp’s advanced segmentation

As your email marketing SaaS helps categorize recipients based on various types of data, it would be advisable to enrich it with an audience lookalike finder as well. As the name suggests, this functionality will help your clients identify potential target audiences based on what preferences link them to the existing recipient segments.

Email automation

When it comes to B2C business, it’s one thing to share relevant content and a completely different thing to do it at the right time. That’s when marketing automation steps in.

Email automation is indisputably the core functionality of your Mailchimp-like SaaS for a couple of reasons. As it contributes to automating tasks within a predefined workflow, it allows your clients to focus on chores that need to be handled manually. Then, marketing automation makes it easy to create personal connections with your tool’s users’ target audience, no matter what time zone they live in and what holidays they celebrate (more on that later). All of that results in achieving more ambitious goals with less effort.

The backbone of email automation are triggers and workflows. As was the case with the email editor we discussed earlier, consider adjusting your product to both less and more advanced users. Provide the former with some ready-made goal-based scenarios and give the latter a chance to set up their own paths – ideally, with no limit to the number of steps and triggers that the custom campaign can be based on.

Sendinblue Automation Workflow

An exemplary automation workflow designed with Sendinblue

If you’re looking to delight your product’s users and support their marketing efforts, the scope of your solution’s automation functionality ought to be as follows:

  • automations that start the conversation

You only get one chance at making the right first impression and in email marketing, it’s usually made with the thank-you-for-subscribing messages. The fact that this type of email causes 21% of all their recipients to engage with the brand only emphasizes the importance of greeting new subscribers in a timely and personal manner. With welcome automation, the users of your SaaS like Mailchimp can achieve this goal pretty effortlessly, regardless of whether they wish to send a simple “hello” or a series of messages telling their brand story.

Uber welcome email

Source: Instapage

Once the first impression is made, it’s time to make date-based automation do the trick. Sent before birthdays, public holidays, or even sign-up anniversaries, they not only make the customers feel special but also drive sales and increase engagement.

  • automations that spur customers into action

Once the consumers make a purchase, it’s essential not only to inform them about the status of their order but also to keep them in the loop about the shop’s offering. To help your clients achieve this goal, furnish your email marketing app with all sorts of transactional emails, such as abandoned cart notifications which are believed to cause 10,7% of all orders to be recovered, order notifications allowing to modify the purchase, or product recommendations responding to shoppers’ preferences. Usually, based on behavioral triggers, transactional emails will surely contribute to building trust and increasing revenue on your client’s side.

Abandoned cart email

Source: Sleeknote

  • automations that pamper customers

Last but not least, it’s a good idea to supplement the email marketing platform like Mailchimp with automations that show consumers they’re well taken care of. These may include follow-ups asking for feedback, messages reaching out to customers who ceased to make purchases, as well as emails rewarding patrons with special offers or discount codes.

Feedback followup email

Source: WordStream

Message scheduling within email marketing app

Speaking of email automation, there’s one more feature you might want to consider adding to your offering: message scheduling allowing your users to send an email at just the right time of day. This feature is inspired by Sendinblue’s send-time optimization. Powered by a machine learning algorithm, it utilizes data on when consumers open emails to find the best timeframe for the offer to be delivered to their inbox – and that applies to each and every recipient in a given campaign segment. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?

Performance monitoring

Launching a campaign is a job half done. The other half is all about testing, monitoring, and improving its performance – and to make it possible, you need to supply your marketing automation tool with another set of features.

One is split testing with which your users get to compare how effectively two versions of the same message convert recipients into customers. Then, it’s crucial to endow your tool with advanced analytics able to turn behavioral data (e.g. about deliverability, open and click-through rates or subscriptions) into actionable insights. Armed with comprehensive marketing data, your users will be able to optimize their campaigns for send time, content design, or even device type.

Sendinblue Opener Report

Opener report generated in Sendinblue

Third-party integrations

Last but not least come integrations with prominent e-commerce and digital marketing platforms used by your prospective customers. Making your email marketing web app compatible with industry giants like Shopify, Salesforce, Eventbrite, or Canva (just to name a few) will surely streamline the marketing efforts of your clients, thus increasing app engagements and user retention.

Competences and technologies needed to build an email marketing tool

Now that you’re well aware of the functionalities your email marketing SaaS needs to possess to notch up success, it’s time to assemble a knowledgeable team and get down to business.

At the beginning of this guide, we’ve already sketched out the process of creating a digital product. To make it happen, however, you have to decide on the specialization and the number of experts involved in it in the first place. If you’re in need of a smaller number of developers, you can either take this task upon yourself and resort to staff augmentation. If, on the other hand, you’re in need of a more complex service, you might prefer to choose software project outsourcing. For further explanation of differences between the two, read our article comparing different cooperation models.

As far as our involvement in Sendinblue, (an email marketing project which we discuss in greater detail below) was concerned, Merixstudio brought together a dedicated, self-managed Agile team that delivered results 100% remotely. Based on our experience in this regard, we suggest going for an all-round team composition including:

  • Developers skilled in frontend and backend technologies. Ideally, the developer team should consist of individuals who are not only knowledgeable enough to seek possible loopholes and suggest solutions even at the pre-development stage but also have high communication skills. It’s a good idea to include an engineer with a holistic point of view as well.
  • Quality Assurance specialists who are dedicated, detail-oriented, and skilled in conducting both automated and manual tests.
  • Product Designers with strong communication and analytical skills who are ready to translate business goals into functionalities.
  • Project Manager curating the team’s effectiveness by maintaining the proper workflow and facilitating communication with the client’s representatives.

If you’d like to learn more about why such team composition works well for outsourced projects, read our behind the scenes guide on that topic.

What technologies we used in analogous project

The next step is to choose technologies your email marketing web app will be based on. Ultimately, the decision ought to be a result of a comprehensive analysis of your business objectives as well as consultations with the experienced and knowledgeable team. Nevertheless, to look at viable options, you might be interested to learn about the solutions used in Sendinblue.

Here’s Maciej, our Senior Project Manager, explaining what to consider when choosing tech stack for your project

As far as the backend is concerned, the core of the product is PHP, which is often the primary choice for web development. Popular (it fuels almost 80% of all websites) and mature, this server-side language has become faster than ever before with the introduction of version 7.

Starting our work with Sendinblue, we knew that the system we were building was supposed to be one of microservices used by tens-of-thousands of people every day. Our aim was to deliver a scalable, high-performing, and secure solution. For that reason, we went for Symfony as the main framework on the backend.

The choice of MongoDB as the DB engine of choice was based on two factors. One reason is that the template builder deals with a high amount of JSON data to store all the changes a user makes. The other was that a part of the reusable bundles we would use on the backend needed to interact with MongoDB for different purposes such as user authentication. This meant we already needed to have MongoDB in the project to be able to use those bundles – and adding a whole bunch of other technologies would simply make everybody’s life harder.

When it comes to the frontend, we went for the following solutions: React and Redux for building an interactive interface, Draft.js for creating a fully customizable text editor suited for the client’s needs, as well as React Beautiful Dnd for building the drag and drop experience.

Merixstudio’s experience with marketing automation web app like Mailchimp: Sendinblue case study

All we’ve said so far about building a successful email marketing SaaS comes not only from an in-depth analysis of Mailchimp and its functionalities but also from our own experience of working at a competitive project: Sendinblue, an innovative SaaS solution enabling businesses of all sizes to manage the sending and tracking of marketing and transactional emails and SMS.

At the outset of our collaboration, Sendinblue was a startup looking for a reliable tech partner who would not only help them scale up the existing product but also support their teams with engineering and UX acumen.

The scope of Merixstudio work encompassed empowering users to automate their marketing efforts with email scheduling, customer segmentation, and email templates. The real challenge, however, was integrating the web app we were building with the client’s system – which is why we ended up scaling our team up to 10 members including developers, QA specialists, a UX designer, as well as a Project Manager.

Since the project called for perfect synergy between all components of the platform, we paid close attention to both functionality and uniformity of the implemented designs and the behavior of the interface. As a result, in addition to building and testing the application, we were responsible for conducting a UX audit and introducing UX enhancements as well.

Sendinblue Form Generator

You can read more about the project and the implemented Scrum workflow in a Sendinblue case study on our website.

Final thoughts

Examining Mailchimp and its features, we’ve shown you what functionalities a competitive platform should be made of. At the end of the day, the success of SaaS for email marketing depends to a large extent on its unique value proposition and the way it responds to its users' needs. This is why it’s so important to build your product together with an experienced full-stack team ready to propose custom solutions. A team like ours.

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