Product Messaging Tool Comparison: Intercom vs Customer.io vs Zendesk Connect

Product Messaging Tool Comparison: Intercom vs Customer.io vs Zendesk Connect

Hi everyone, my name is Ruben and I’m the founder of Practico Analytics, and today I wanted to walk you through a bit of a comparison of different tools that you can use to do product messaging or marketing messaging.

This is a pretty common request these days, specifically companies will say, “You know, hey, we wanna improve our onboarding flow after users sign up”. To do that, one of the things we wanna do is send messages. That might be email messages, or SMS, text, or maybe push notifications if you’re on mobile devices, if your users are on mobile devices, or maybe in-app messages whether it’s on mobile, you can also do in-app messages on web. The point is to send those messages at maybe very specific actions or points, and then guide users along a certain path or journey you wanna take them.

There’s really lots of tools to do this, just like anything. You can probably find ten, twenty, thirty options that will all do very similar things. So I picked the three that we hear a lot about, or we get asked a lot about and that is Intercom, which you can see in front of me, CustomerIO, which is also a bit of an older player, and then what used to be called Outbound.io, and they got bought by Zendesk, it’s called Zendesk Connect now.

And just off the top of mine now, I hear a lot about companies like Braze, Mixpanel, of course, has a messaging function built into it, Pendo might. There really is, so we’ll look at three options, but as we go through them, you can start to see some of the general principles or ideas of how we compare them and how you can do the same.

So let’s start right away with Intercom. The first thing we like to look at when we see a tool is just to understand what are some of the use cases they seem to be pitching. You can do this just by looking at the marketing website. Either by looking at case studies, or even just the general sales, marketing pages.

So Intercom really from the very beginning has been focused a lot on sales marketing, and they have some support with some helpdesk articles, but to me it always seemed that their focus was sales marketing from the beginning, and that was with the little chat box, which is sort of what makes Intercom famous, what people maybe know Intercom for. You can click the little chat box and talk to someone. That has a big focus on leads. If someone has a question, they wanna talk to someone on the sales team, and then their messages. So when someone becomes a customer or once you have their email address or something else, then you be able to send messages across different channels. They added some support recently, but these two seem to be the major use cases and really what we see them be used for the most.

Then we have Zendesk Connect or Outbound.io, and Outbound.io from the beginning was really focused on product messaging. So once a user became a user, once they give you the email address on sign-up, then you wanna be able to send them messages across the very similar channels that Intercom had. They all have logic based on actions they have taken.

Now, after being bought by Zendesk Connect, they now seem to be functioning really more of a customer support role, being part of the Zendesk universe, where you have people submitting tickets and things like that, and you can also message them, maybe do some preemptive action to prevent tickets or to help your customer support people. You can still, of course, tie people, it’s tied with some of the, I know Zendesk has a little widget too. It can still be used in the same way, but from our perspective, it seems to be much more geared towards customer support, less so for sales and marketing.

Thirdly, we have Customer.io. So Customer.io is a player that I alshave seenen for quite some time. Not as popular as some of the newer players, and that tends to be, their focus has been on email for a long time. So you can do marketing emails, transactional emails, and then they added the idea of going beyond email by using some integrations, Urban Airship, Zapier, and a few other things, but so their bread and butter is email.

They still have the same logic, you can still send messages based on things users did or didn’t do, or maybe properties, and tackle different aspects of email. Couple limitations that really stand out for CustomerIO, they don’t have mobile apps, they don’t really do much for customer support, in terms of help articles and things like that, but for email, they’re typically quite good. So this might be something that might not be the best fit for a software company, but maybe for a non-software company, maybe like a e-commerce company, might actually be better suited for CustomerIO. We can see some of the use cases do show software companies, but if you were to add mobile apps, like for example I know Reddit has mobile apps, they will have to make some kind of integration to be able to handle that. We’ll talk about that too.

Okay, so now let’s look at the support for messages, that is what kind of messages can you send. So these days, there’s really four types that companies will look for: email, SMS/text, push notifications, which is for mobile apps, or in-app messages, and in-app can be in-app on a mobile app, which is usually the most common or you can do in-app on the web. And in-app on the web tends to look something like this actually, maybe like a little widget here, you might have seen notifications, I think Urban Airship does them, where people actually use their notifications, and you get little things. Or maybe kinda what Slack does on Mac to give you a notification. Chrome has notifications too. Anyway, those kinds of notifications are for desktop devices.

So Intercom supports all of them. They support email, they support, just jump here into the messages product. They support email, they support push notifications, and of course, they have the in-app portion with the widget. And for SMS, they recommend integration with Twilio. So Twilio is a platform for being able to dial a phone call from SMS, so you have to set that up through them. That will take some implementation work, but if you really want SMS, that’ll be the way to do it.

For Zendesk, their support is also very similar. We’ll have email as the foundational one, then the website portion through the Zendesk web, which is very similar to what Intercom has. Then we have mobile push notifications, SMS, same thing, they ask you to provide an SMS provider account, that’ll be something like Twilio. And webhook is really more about integrating with another system. All three of them will help you integrate with other systems, but one of the things you wanna think about is how complex it’s gonna be to set up a specific channel. If you wanna do SMS, how complex is that integration? Is it just a matter of copying and pasting some API keys or something else? Or do you really have to go out of your way and build an entire integration with something else just to be able to send SMS.

CustomerIO, we know again, their bread and butter is email. That’s their main support, so let’s look a little bit beyond email. Alright, so we have email, we have webhooks, you know webhooks is for integrating just like we said before. Then we can do Twilio for SMS, Urban Airship, which is actually for in-app notifications like web and so on, and then Slack and Zapier for anything else. So we’re really seeing, we’re really set up with email, and if you want anything else, you have to do it yourself. You have to integrate either with the direct API or find something, maybe within Zapier or something else, that can help you do that.

Based on that, for software companies that have mobile apps or cross-platform, they might have a mobile app or a web app, Intercom tends to stand out as a really solid option. They got great marketing. The marketing has been quite good, despite what was a confusing product set. They’ve changed their products a little bit, they organized them a little bit differently over the past couple years. Now I think their products do make quite a bit of sense.

Zendesk would be a great recommendation if you’re already in the Zendesk world, that is, if you have Zendesk for ticket support, maybe have a few other things. Zendesk has a few tools now in their suite. So if you have a few of those, that could also be a good fit just naturally, you’re gonna be part of the same universe of tools.

If you’re really just focused on the email, maybe say SMS was an easy integration here, CustomerIO could be a good fit, just purely from the messages component. Now let’s go to pricing to understand what it would cost to send different things.

So Intercom, we have the three product idea. We have the messages, the messages going to different channels, inbox, which is what lets you do this little thing here that I keep closing and it keeps popping up, to do leads and conversations, and articles, which is like a helpdesk function. We’ll, more or less, ignore articles for this comparison just because CustomerIO doesn’t have it, Zendesk has it technically through a different tool, but we’re really focused on messages right now and being able to send targeted messages.

You pay a monthly fee for a product, and then there is – sorry – there’s a monthly fee for the product which is tied to actual people. So the number of active people that you wanna message. So here’s messages, we see the number of people you’re trying to message, and this might be again different messages over time, so I might begin initial sequence of onboarding and maybe you wanna message them later on and so on, so it’s a users amount here. For inbox, we have seats, so the idea of how many people can respond to the messages, or how many people can be on the chat. And articles is a fixed monthly price for that.

Quickly, do a quick, you know, the different plans here, essentially the pro and the premium, just look at the different differences real quick. So be able to A/B test messages, smart campaigns, which is an interesting feature of Intercom where you give them the messages, let’s say you say, “Here’s the five messages you wanna send, here’s our goal.”, and that goal might be an event, maybe they signed up for a subscription, and then Intercom will figure out the right order to send those messages in. It could be interesting way to experiment how to structure the original messages.

SalesForce integration tends to always be enterprise. Delivery windows, interesting feature, you wanna send the messages only between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. DKIM for spam, and also tends to be more enterprise. So we see a lot of things on the maybe more enterprise use case, maybe more premium use case. So that’s a little bit of the difference in terms of price. Pro and premium what they probably consider the enterprise solution.

Let’s say for 1000 people or 1000 users, let’s say for 10000 users, you’re paying about $200 a month to be able to message those people for their messages. Just that, that’s the number of compare.

Let’s take a look at Zendesk Connect here, and same here, Zendesk has a very simple user pricing just like Intercom does. So set it to 10000 member, and we get about 400 from here. The interesting thing about Zendesk is the difference between the message users versus active users. So really someone who receives a message. I could see Zendesk Connect having a slightly lower price than, as a whole, dependent on how many actual messages, you know, you might have, let’s say, 5000 users sign up for an account, they’ll get a message that month, but next month, only 1000 of them will get that message. So that’ll be something to consider.

Lastly, let’s look at CustomerIO here. So here, we have the idea of users. Not message users, but just users. So we have the basic product, 100k users for 100 a month, and a premium option which is their enterprise option. We have onboarding and a few other things for 1000 a month. CustomerIO, let’s see, gotta look for a same, so the minimum was 12k so it’s 150 a month there, so almost inline with what Intercom has. Yep.

The third area we’ll tend to look at is actually the integration portion, that is how hard is it to implement, so let’s quickly do a dive here into the developer’s portal for Intercom. Intercom, I’ll say, has probably one of the most extensive documentations I’ve seen. They really built them out. You have, also the app store component here, where they have a lot of different app integrations. That’s something that Zendesk has a little bit, CustomerIO has a little bit, but Intercom really has the most integrations. So if you want to do a quick integration with something like Slack, you’ll say to send messages into a Slack channel, that’ll be quite easy to do.

So for the docs itself, we’ll tend to look at what are some of the libraries that are available. We wanted to see a JavaScript library for anything we would wanna do on the web, we wanna see some libraries for a backend, maybe Ruby or Python or something else. Then, of course, mobile libraries, if they support that. Intercom does have all that. The REST API, the plugins, so we can see right away we have all the expected backend libraries we want, Rails, here’s the mobile SDK, and of course, there’s just the JavaScript library that we can use, I think it’s over here. REST API. Quite extensive options for be able to send data in common, you know, the data you’ll be sending here will be things like events, user attributes, and other things. That’s really quite good.

Let’s go find the same thing here. Support, support. Not training. Let’s do this, go here. Now all of them will tend to have an API you can work with, that you can send data to, so we don’t really compare on that. We assume that, if we wanted to work directly with the API, we do that. The point is to find SDKs that could make that a little easier. As we see, we have some of the backend libraries here, here’s a JavaScript library, mobile libraries, an integration with Segment, which they build right away. There’s one with Amplitude as well and some other libraries. Again, this will be a pretty easy integration on their end. One of the questions we had was something like, Zendesk Connect, would be how much of this library screen updated after the acquisition. Of course, a lot of the Outbound name’s still in the code so what would be the plan for them to update this to eventually match the Zendesk format. That would be something that would be on our mind for a limitation.

And the CustomerIO, let’s go. So again we have the RESTful API, let me see. Let’s go look at the API here. So this will be the API endpoints. So we see JavaScript here, we see backend libraries, no, not at a lot of integration with other things like Segment. We would see how extensive their JavaScript is. The actual visual work is actually very similar to what you would see at somewhere like Mixpanel or Amplitude or really any event tracking analytics tool. You have events, you have user attributes, you identify users, and so on. So really from the visual perspective, all three of them would be very similar, if you look at just integrations, like an app store, or if you go to different tools, Intercom will do much better.

And that’s really it, that’s how we tend to build comparison charts internally. Something else we tend to do is we’ll typically talk to sales reps, add the different tools, and just get a sense of what they think they’re good at, what some of the weaknesses, what some of the things the company should avoid if they want, if they’re concerned about Intercom, or Zendesk Connect or CustomerIO. But as a whole, all three tools are quite good.

If you have to make a recommendation for say, a software company, a cross-platform software company, we’d likely lean toward Intercom, just for their extensive support. If we’re talking to a more e-commerce company that might only need email, maybe wants to do other things with transactional email, like e-commerce tends to have a lot of transactional emails, in regards to orders, order confirmation, shipments and so on. CustomerIO would be a good fit there. And Zendesk Connect would be a good fit for someone who might want the same message capability, but they already have some existing tools from the Zendesk universe. In that case, Zendesk Connect would actually be a really good fit there. You already have a lot of data in Zendesk, just add the Connect product. This, over the Zendesk universe, get to have a lot of things around customer support. If you already have a lot of tools, Zendesk Connect is a logical upgrade to that.

Let me know if you have any questions.


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Ruben Ugarte
Ruben Ugarte
I'm the founder of Practico Analytics and I created this company to help companies use analytics data to grow their web and mobile products. I love combining data, psychology, and systems in work and in personal projects.

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