What’s the difference between a CRM and an ESP (email service provider)?

Does a CRM tool (customer relationship management software) store customer’s email addresses and allow you email them? If so, what’s the difference between that and an email service provider like Mailchimp, Active Campaign or Constant Contact? And do you really need both?

It can all get a bit confusing, so let me explain the differences and where they sometimes overlap.

Whats a CRM?

I explain what a CRM is in more depth in this post, but the short story is that CRMs store information including customer contact details, what your customer bought and when, the dates and notes of any phone conversations you’ve had, a record of the emails that have passed between you and more, depending on which CRM you choose.

You’ve got mail. Lots of mail.

What’s an email service provider (ESP)?

An email service provider enables your business to manage its email marketing. At its most basic it allows you to send the same email to many people on a mailing list at the same time.

So they are two completely different things, then?

Yes, but they often need to work together. Also, many email service providers have added in features that you might expect to see in marketing automation software, such as…

  • Web forms that people can fill in to subscribe to a list or create an account in your CRM
  • Tagging subscribers or contacts so that you can search for them or send an email to them
  • Workflows so that subscribers clicking a particular link are added to a list or tagged

Which leads us neatly on to…

What’s the difference between marketing automation and CRM?

Marketing automation is marketing focused, whereas CRM is sales focused. In other words, a CRM focuses on looking after customers or converting leads into customers. Marketing automation is more about reaching out to people who don’t already know you, educating them so they become leads (which can include activities like segmenting them into groups with similar characteristics and sending them content that is tailored to their specific interests), then scheduling all this activity and tracking progress.

As the boundary between marketing and sales is fuzzy, the boundary between CRM and marketing automation tools is also going to be fuzzy. And some tools, such as Hubspot, do the whole shebang (marketing automation, CRM and email marketing), anyway.

OK, let’s get back to the difference between CRM and ESP

As you can see, some ESPs have snuck over the line into marketing automation, which is great news for micro businesses because you get access to marketing automation features that are both less complex than a full-on marketing automation tool and cheaper. Examples include Mailchimp and ConvertKit. On the flip side there can still be quite a learning curve.

There’s a good chance you’ll want to hook your CRM up to your ESP, too. For example, if you add someone to your CRM you may want them to be automatically added to one of your email marketing lists, although – honk! (that was the GDPR klaxon) – make sure you do this in a GDPR compliant way.

The bottom line

Yes, all this can be enough to make your head explode. So before you start browsing through the features of all these different tools…

  1. Work out what features you really need to meet your business goals
  2. Add in a little room for growth
  3.  Check out my post on choosing a CRM
  4. And if you need any more help, just let me know

Finally, although CRM for micro businesses is my main thing, I also work with email service providers like Mailchimp, Aweber, Constant Contact and Active Campaign. As you can see from this post, the two are closely related.  So give me a shout if you need any help with those, too.

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6 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a CRM and an ESP (email service provider)?”

  1. This is a really helpful explanation Helen. The cross-over between email marketing systems and CRMs is very confusing. Working out what does what, where you need something else and how it fits together can be baffling.

  2. That’s a helpful article. I am wondering though if you tried using elasticemail.com for example? I switched from Mailshimp because of a better pricing and support.


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