Do you use email as one of the puzzle pieces in your overall online business strategy? If the answer is yes, and it probably indeed is yes, then you should look into what some of the best SMTP providers can do for you – and that’s both in terms of giving you new tools to make your existing tasks easier, as well as revealing totally new possibilities.
But before we get into that, let’s start at the beginning:
To say it simply, email deliverability isn’t a problem … until you need to send a lot of it out.
When you think about it, as a getting-started WordPress website, you don’t need any email-related delivery service at all. You can just use MailPoet (right?), and have all your email sent no problem. Well, yes, that is technically correct, but it’s also perhaps not the most optimal solution.
Best SMTP service providers compared in this article are:
- Sendinblue (www.sendinblue.com)
- Amazon SES (aws.amazon.com/ses/)
- SendGrid (sendgrid.com)
- Mandrill (mandrill.com)
But before we get into it, let’s answer some crucial questions that often pop up around the topic of SMTP servers.
The problem with sending email, summarized
The first thing we need to do here is distinguish between two main types of email that a website or a web service can send to its audience: bulk email and transactional email.
- The former is what’s classically referred to as email marketing. It’s where you create a standard email campaign and have it sent to multiple recipients (your list of subscribers) all at once.
- The latter is something you send to individual recipients – it’s direct one-on-one communication – based on that recipient’s action or inaction. More or less, it’s the recipient that triggers the email to be sent in their direction.
That whole second thing – transactional email – is the topic of today.
Transactional email is often the most important type of email-based communication between a business/website and their audience or customer base. Long story short, if you have a tool, or an app, or a website, or a plugin, or a web service, etc., and you want for that thing to be able to communicate with your users automatically based on specific triggers then this is when transactional email happens.
In that scenario, you don’t click on any “send” button by hand. Instead, the tool’s algorithm decides when to send out emails. Like the name implies, the email is sent out when a transaction happens and the person needs to be notified of that fact. Those emails are only relevant to a particular recipient and often highly personalized. Think things like:
- account creation emails – “welcome emails”
- order confirmation emails, purchase receipts, shopping cart abandonment emails and all sorts of other cart-related messaging
- messages related to user account activity (like password reminders)
- product notifications, user account notifications, etc.
- “somebody responded to your comment” -emails, etc.
Transactional email, by definition, touches upon important transaction-related issues, so you really want your recipients to be getting those delivered without fail, and fast!
And that deliverability, or sometimes lack thereof, is often where the problems start. If you’re just getting started with direct email communications then you might be tempted to do one of two things:
Not recommended alternatives to services offered by some of the best SMTP servers:
- The first possibility is sending out messages through your web server directly. This can be done via, say, PHP’s
mail()function, or similar functions in other technologies. However, you can run into some deliverability issues here. Especially if you’re on a shared web server, the server’s IP might already be on some spam blacklists, which will prevent your emails from getting delivered basically right away. Plus, you’ll find that every web host limits the number of emails you’re allowed to send before getting in trouble. Here’s a cool resource about that compiled by the guys behind MailPoet.
- The second alternative is Gmail SMTP. I know this isn’t a particularly forward-thinking setup, but Gmail still lets you send up to 500 emails per day, and if you really want to, you can integrate it with your site (WordPress included) or app through standard SMTP settings. The benefit here is that you get your mail sent from Gmail servers, which should be better for deliverability. Still not perfect, though.
What it all comes down to is the simple fact that above a certain volume, handling email on your own becomes rather unreasonable.
So this is where some of the best SMTP providers and services come into play to save us a lot of headache and simply allow us to have our email taken care of.
“Can’t I just use Mailchimp?” – you ask
Well, yes, you can. But also no.
Bear with me:
First of all, Mailchimp is rather expensive … something we talked about when going through the cheaper Mailchimp alternatives. Secondly, it doesn’t support transactional email by default.
Using standard Mailchimp works great for bulk email campaigns. But if you want to send a single email to a single recipient, and trigger it based on the person’s action (or inaction) then it won’t be very useful. You can’t automate such a thing, per se, through default Mailchimp.
You can, however, use an add-on to Mailchimp, a thing formerly known as Mandrill.
Back in its day, which wasn’t that long ago, Mandrill was probably the top solution among the best SMTP service providers out there. But after it got acquired by Mailchimp, the prices went up and a big chunk of Mandrill’s former user base decided to move over to alternative solutions. But more on that in just a minute.
🥊 With all that being said, let’s get into the individual companies and talk about what’s good and bad about them.
- Round 1: Pricing vs how many emails you can send
- Round 2: Scalability
- Round 3: Features
- Round 4: User reviews
- Round 5: WordPress integration
Round 1: Pricing vs how many emails you can send
Let’s start with probably the no.1 detail that everybody wants to know in relation to the best SMTP providers on the market: the pricing and how it relates to the number of emails you’re allowed to send.
|Free: up to 62,000 emails per month, but special conditions apply here. You can only take advantage of the free tier if you’re an Amazon EC2 user and “when you call Amazon SES from an Amazon EC2 instance directly or through AWS Elastic Beanstalk.”||Free: up to 9,000 emails per month. Limited to 300 emails per day.||Free trial: valid for 30 days, during which you can send up to 40,000 emails. Then send 100 / day for free, forever.||Free trial: 2,000 free email credits (sends) in total. Once those are gone, you need to upgrade to a paid Mailchimp account and start buying more Mandrill credits to continue sending emails.|
|$0.10 per 1,000 emails + $0.12 per GB of attachments sent.
$1 per 10,000 emails
|$25.00 per month: up to 20,000 emails monthly.||$19.95 per month: up to 50,000 emails monthly.||$40 per month: up to 25,000 emails.|
|$32 per month: up to 40,000 emails.||$34.95 per month: up to 100,000 emails.||$60 per month: up to 50,000 emails.|
|$45 per month: up to 60,000 emails.||$89.95 per month: up to 200,000 emails.||$80 per month: up to 75,000 emails.|
|Unlimited number of contacts stored on all plans.||You can have up to to 2,000 contacts stored without additional fees. Then, every 10,000 new contacts is +$10 / mo.||All of the tiers above have been calculated by me based on Mandrill’s needlessly complicated pricing model, more on which below. Also, Mailchimp’s main monthly membership has been included in the pricing above.|
Obviously, there’s an elephant in the room. Or rather two elephants. Let’s start with the first one:
Amazon’s prices are way below what everyone else charges, so they seem like the best option on the list at first glance. However, Amazon SES is a really bare-bones solution. I mean, it just allows you to send emails via Amazon’s API or SMTP, and that’s pretty much it.
We’ll discuss the specific features that each of these best SMTP providers offers, but for now, let’s just keep in mind that Amazon gives you no analytics, templates, reports, or any other helpful tools except for just the raw possibility to send your emails. You’re more or less on your own here.
So, price-wise, Amazon could indeed be the perfect solution for businesses really operating at scale and sending millions of emails every month. In a scenario like that, even though they need to invest in their own custom mechanisms for stats or other related features, at the end of the day, the savings they get based on the volume of email they send still makes everything worthwhile. However, for most businesses or WordPress websites, working with Amazon can be rather difficult to handle. Cheap, but difficult.
For that reason, I don’t advise looking at price only when making your choice. This is always about the ratio of time and effort needed to set everything up vs the final cost. In other words, you’re probably going to be better off with a slightly more expensive solution, but one that handles all the difficult technical heavy lifting for you.
Finally, about Mandrill. First off, Mandrill is now an add-on for Mailchimp. What this means for you is that in order to use Mandrill, you first need to be a paying customer of Mailchimp’s. The cheapest plan is $20 / month. Then, you need to add the cost of Mandrill on top of that.
IMO, Mandrill’s pricing is complicated mainly to hide how expensive it actually is to use the service. In case you don’t know, what you buy with Mandrill aren’t actually “email sends” like you do with Amazon and the other SMTP providers. With Mandrill, you buy a “block” of 25,000 emails. The prices on those vary from $20 a block to $10 a block.
- If you’re planning to send, say, 100k emails, you need 4 blocks at $20 a piece, so $80 in total + the price of Mailchimp subscription.
- But if you want to send 1M emails, you need 40 blocks at $18 a piece, which is $720 + again, your Mailchimp membership.
And as you can see, the prices per “10k emails sent” aren’t that attractive either. The entry-level plan is as high as $16 per 10k emails, which is waaaay above what everyone else offers.
Lastly, keep in mind that the prices presented above are for email distribution only. They don’t include things like dedicated IPs, for example, which you might be forced into buying separately based on the size of your email operation.
Just to give you an idea of the pricing, Sendinblue charges $12 / month for a dedicated IP, while SendGrid includes one for free on plans above $79.95 / month (additional IPs at $20 / month). At Amazon, dedicated IPs are $24.95 / month.
Round 2: Scalability
Scalability is one of the main benefits of having your email handled by an external SMTP provider. If you’re on your own email infrastructure – managing your own servers – scalability becomes very tough. If you ever want to, say, double your volume of emails then it might mean doubling your server infrastructure as well.
With an external SMTP provider, however, there’s no such problem. Those services are able to handle whatever volume you throw at them, or rather whatever volume you want them to be able to “throw.”
With solutions such as Amazon SES, you can scale your volume up nearly indefinitely, and surely way above what any small business or mid size business could ever need from transactional email.
Chances are, if you have an operation that requires more than 2M emails being sent every month then you already know very well what your specific needs are and which company you want to work with, so let’s just focus on numbers lower than that for the purpose of this comparison.
All of the companies featured on this list are more than capable of letting you send upwards of 1M emails every month, and the only thing you need to worry about in relation to that is the size of your bill.
Unfortunately, not every one of the best SMTP providers here has a pricing model as clear as Amazon’s, where doubling your volume basically means doubling your bill.
With some companies, as your volume grows, you might find your costs skyrocketing even quicker. Here’s an adjusted pricing table that I averaged out based on each company’s official pricing. Specifically, here’s how much it costs to be sending 1M emails every month with each company:
|$100 per 1M emails||$603 per 1M emails||$399.95 per 1M emails||$740 per 1M emails|
If you are looking for an affordable Amazon SES alternative, Sendinblue is the right one. While a bit more expensive, it is more of a feature-rich solution than Amazon SES.
Round 3: Features
Each of these best SMTP providers offers APIs, which lets you send emails through your app, web tool or any other piece of software that you’re building. Apart from that, some of them also give you additional features that enable things like sending email directly via the provider’s own interface, for example. But there’s much more under the hood.
Here’s an overview of what each of the best SMTP providers featured in this comparison give you:
- Basically all you get is their API and SMTP.
- Basic numbers on successful deliveries, complaints, and bounced or rejected messages.
To even use Mandrill in the first place, you have to be on a paid Mailchimp account, so you get everything that’s available there as part of the deal. Here’s the complete list of features in Mailchimp. In addition to that, the Mandrill module gives you:
- Optimized delivery infrastructure (e.g. globally distributed infrastructure, multiple domains per account, and more).
- Email templates (even though Mandrill is a part of Mailchimp now, the tools it offers when it comes to your email design and templates are not as robust).
- In-depth analytics (searchable activity log, automatic tagging, tracking options per email, and more).
- Split testing and comparative reports.
- Customizable sending options and white-labeling.
- You can send transactional email and standard email campaigns.
- There’s a complete user panel through which you can send email manually.
- There’s marketing automation features.
- There’s SMS messaging.
- Drag-and-drop email templates.
- Good stats and reports on the performance of your emails.
- Import/export features for email data.
- Store subscriber lists and segment them however you wish.
- Sendinblue also offers a lot of other interesting side-features, such as their new chat module, for example. This saves you from having to get the chat functionality from a third-party (you save money).
- APIs supporting Node.js, Ruby, Python, Go, PHP, Java, and C#.
- Secure sending environment (for example, two-factor authentication when sending).
- You can send transactional email and standard email campaigns.
- Nice email builder with drag-and-drop, plus message templates.
- Scheduling, segmentation, A/B testing and other marketing features.
- Real-time analytics, measure sends, delivery rates, bounces, spam reports, link clicks, opens, unsubscribes, and more.
At the end of the day, when picking from the best SMTP providers for yourself, sometimes the additional perks make the biggest difference. For instance, every player on this list is capable of sending huge numbers of emails and with good deliverability. But at the same time, only a few of them give you truly good tools for building email templates, or give you good stats and A/B testing features.
All this adds up to your overall user experience and the kind of stuff you can do with your transactional email (or standard marketing email). Or, to say this another way, if your provider only gives you tools to send email and nothing more then it’s on you to come through the door with an already highly optimized process, marketing plan, and an overall good strategy as to what you want to do.
But the more you get from the SMTP provider, the more you can adjust on the way and thus make your email efforts more effective as a whole. Depending on what you need, one service may be better than the other. A general rule of thumb is to try looking through the available features of each, and try deciding which of them you really like vs which are missing from some of the other best SMTP providers. You might find your perfect blend of features this way. Also, keep in mind that if you’re really missing a given feature from a given provider, it’s not likely for them to introduce that feature anytime soon. It’s probably better to pick an alternative in that case.
For instance, as great as Amazon SES is, you can only send emails through it. No templates. No good stats. No marketing tools. I mean, it’s truly first league when it comes to sending those emails, but you do get nothing else apart from that.
And I’m not only talking about things like elaborate user interfaces or drag-and-drop templates. The other three best SMTP providers also often include dedicated IPs, SPF and DKIM authorization (for making it clear that your emails haven’t been forged – PDF for further reading), IP mapping and more, some of which are important for having your email evaluated as genuine.
While Amazon SES lets you do this too, authenticating your email with SPF in SES as well as setting up DKIM records isn’t done automatically.
Here’s how it works with the remaining three from our list of best SMTP providers:
|SPF and DKIM signatures included and managed through Sendinblue’s domain names.||SendGrid can manage your DKIM and SPF records for you, automatically. Both out the box, plus after adding dedicated IPs as well.||Custom SPF and DKIM records included by default for all accounts.|
|There’a also a possibility to enable them on your own domain.||You can also send your emails from a private IP address or IP pool.|
Round 4: User reviews
Here’s what people think about each of the best SMTP providers featured here:
Round 5: WordPress integration
There are two sides to this:
First, if you have a custom WordPress setup – like a web tool running on WordPress, or a large e-commerce website, or anything else that’s unique and isn’t a standard WordPress blog install – then you will probably integrate everything manually via the API provided by your SMTP.
All of the APIs seem to be similarly easy to interact with, and all of them provide layers for PHP and other common technologies. So, done and done.
Secondly, if you simply want to use a given SMTP provider in a more direct manner – like trigger an email yourself or send even a standard newsletter – then you can do that via a couple of WordPress plugins.
Here are the best SMTP providers featured on this list that have their own plugins:
Mandrill’s original plugin, wpMandrill, hasn’t been updated in four years, but you can use the forked version released a while ago.
Apart from those, you can also use MailPoet. The plugin allows you to pick an alternative sending mechanism – all you need are your SMTP connection details.
Conclusion: Who wins among the best SMTP providers
In all honesty, I can’t pick just one of the four best SMTP providers and say that it wins on all fronts. There isn’t such a thing I’m afraid. However, we can still narrow things down based on some specific characteristics that are the most important from your point of view.Where do you see yourself on the following spectrum:
What do you think of the best SMTP providers that we’ve chosen to feature in this post? Have you tried any of them out? Feel free to share what your experiences were in the comments section below.
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