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Who Will Deliver For You? – How to Pick an Email Service Provider

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Today’s post is a collaboration with colleague and friend Scott Hornstein. He’s a fantastic marketer, and you can find out more about him and what he does on his website. Now, on to our post.(Where you’ll see Scott’s thoughts in italics.)

Who Will Deliver For You? – How to Pick an Email Service Provider

A colleague recently asked for some help sorting out which email service provider (ESP) would work best for him. We talked and found the right solution based on his needs, but I realized that in addition to being an exceedingly bright guy, Scott is also a really savvy and experienced marketer. So if he had questions, chances are a lot of you do, too.

Rather than just blather on about what’s what when it comes to email marketing tools, Scott and I decided to combine our different perspectives into one recipe for success.

Andy, let me elbow my way in and spell out my requirements, because I think it would be helpful to our readers.  My company sends a communication to all or parts of our database about once every six weeks.  We are working to have our database sliced by industry, client and contact, so that we can send a message personalized in content and in name to each individual.  The ESP has to be able to handle that, and provide us with the key metrics so we can analyze results based on list segment.  

Moreover, we’d like the list/database part of this to be simple.  Your list, and your ability to at least reach the people on your list, is the greatest determinator of your success.  If someone doesn’t get your message, well…  And the information that allows us to reach and understand these folks changes rapidly.  Think how many times you are updating cards in your address book.  So it would be best if the ESP drew from our database, rather than having to maintain two databases – one in the office and one at the ESP.

Andy’s the doctor, so here’s what he had to say:

Thanks, Scott. Let’s take a look at the various factors to consider as you decide which ESP is the best fit for your needs – or whether it’s time to switch to a new ESP because your current provider isn’t hitting the marks for you anymore.

Let’s start with the most important factor to consider, as Scott so wisely noted above: the list.

List Management
This is a key differentiator. Unfortunately it can also be one that’s difficult to grasp until you’ve actually dived in and played around with hit.

If you have one list and you send an email newsletter once a quarter, no big deal. You can skip to the next section. If, however, you have a list of casual newsletter subscribers and a list of customers who have already purchased, well, you’re going to want to send different messages to those different groups – and at different times. The different ESPs handle this feature in different ways, and some even offer the ability to set up not only multiple lists, but multiple segments within lists.

As I mentioned above, if this isn’t an area you’re already familiar with, you may have to dive in and run some test scenarios to gain a better understanding. Or give me a call and we can talk specifics.

Metrics and Analytics
Make sure you have a way to measure how well your campaigns are performing. You can’t adjust your approach if you don’t know what is – and is not – working. This is nearly as important to your success as the quality of your list.

A/B testing is an important capability for testing things like Subject lines, delivery days and delivery times. (If your list isn’t big enough to split for A/B testing, test these things anyway over the course of time. Not as scientifically rigorous, but still instructive.)

And of course, you’ll want to track how your content performs. If particular kinds of information perform best, generate more content like that!

Branding is incredibly important to me.  This has two meanings:  

First, can I maintain and put forth my brand, as it appears on my website, with my logo, to my formats?  Any communications have to be instantly recognizable as coming from me

Second, is the EPS’s name on the communication?  Absolutely not (for me).  This is supposed to be a personal communication and that absolutely says I’ve sent it to you and 15 million of my closest friends.


Great points, Scott. Let’s start with your branding: what kinds of design and template control does the ESP offer?

Content is king, but if your messages look so dreadful that they’re ignored, content doesn’t even come into play. Most of the ESPs offer a library of existing templates that you can adapt to your own uses. They are, as you’d expect, fairly generic, but they may work quite well for you depending on your design scheme, your logo, etc. The real acid test here is whether there is a template you can adapt to look like it relates to your website and other branding. If so, you’re all set and you should be able to re-use that same template for every new issue of your newsletter.

That ability to re-use issue after issue is also important. As Scott notes, the message has to look like it’s from you, and it has to look familiar to your audience every time they see it.

Taking branding and design a step further, if you have design help, or needs that the design library doesn’t address, you can design your own and upload the HTML code. Most of the ESPs make this quite easy. The trick is in being able to re-use that code time after time by turning it into a template. Some ESPs make this quite easy. Some charge a small fortune. This is a critical difference, particularly if you want a variety of templates for different kinds of communication.

One final point on design: many ESPs now include mobile-friendly design templates in their library. Use one, or if you’re designing your own, make sure it’s mobile-friendly. The majority of your audience probably view their email on a mobile device and that group keeps growing.

As for Scott’s second point, most ESPs default to including their “powered by SuperDuperFantasticMailer” message in the footer of your email and some make it quite difficult to get rid of that branding. Make sure you can remove them as part of the plan/package you’re considering.

Also check the tracking URLs. There’s not always a lot you can do about this, but some ESPs can only track certain metrics if they change the URL strings for links in your email. This shouldn’t be an issue for most marketers, but if absolute branding “cleanliness” is your goal, check out tracked links.

Dear Subscriber. Dear Andrew. I know which one I’d rather receive. Check how easy it is to use personalization services and what information you can personalize.

And I know from years of experience which one generates better open-ability and click-through.

Also be sure you know how to construct your list properly – if you have a “name” field rather than fields for “first name” and “last name” it’s going to be a lot harder to personalize emails with Dear Andrew. (And “Dear Andrew Schulkind? Please.)

Most of the ESPs have what are known as APIs. In a nutshell, these are ways for programmers to connect data from one source – your website, say, or your ecommerce system – with your email lists. This can get us into some pretty complicated programming talk, but it becomes more and more necessary as you move from your basic once-a-month newsletter with one list to messaging tailored to user interests based on their individual behaviors. Have your programmer standing by to talk to the ESPs tech team and, if possible, run through a demo or sandbox to make sure you can hit your needs.

Anti-Spam Policies
You’ll find these to be pretty similar give or take one set of lawyers’ preference for heretofore vs. nowhereunder, so there’s not much to differentiate the ESPs, but you should be aware that ALL of the major ESPs have anti-spam policies and many will require an actual phone call when you first start with them to talk about how you acquired your list, whether your subscribers have opted in, etc. Most of them absolutely, positively prohibit purchased or rented lists.

Why? Because their bread and butter is strong relationships with the ISPs (Internet Services Providers) for whom spam messages have an actual cost. (More traffic means a need for more hardware, etc. to handle the load. They’d like there to be zero spam.) In order to keep deliverability high, ESPs have to have the trust of the ISPs and they’ll lose that if they let too many spammers in amongst their customer ranks.

Also, there is a raft of state and federal laws rules and regulations that ESPs and ISPs must conform to, or they’ll have to raise their prices to handle their attorney’s fees.  These all revolve around the question, do you have the recipient’s opt-in to send them stuff.

This is another metric you may see the ESPs talking about, but it’s not really a point of comparison. Most providers will tout numbers in the very high 90s. This is good. It means that they deliver messages, say, 97% percent of the time a valid email address is the target. This is because they are trusted by the ISPs. (See above.) If you get into the mass-mailing business on your own, I don’t know what your deliverability will be, but it will be a whole lot less than 97%.

Automated Messaging
Automated messaging are messages sent out to individuals based on some action they’ve taking. At the very least, you should make use of automated messaging to send a welcome message to new subscribers as soon as they’ve signed up. Look for this feature in the ESPs you evaluate.

Previewing and Testing
Be sure you have a way to test and preview messages easily. As you get your system nailed down, you’ll need fewer and fewer tests for “spaminess” and layout compatibility, but you will still want to check for typos, bad links and other errors. Be sure to think about mobile devices as you test!

Cost / Pricing Model
Number one on just about every small business owner’s hit list is, “what’s this going to cost me?” There are typically two pricing models – per-message and per-subscriber.

Per-message are just what they sound like: you pay a couple of cents every time you send an email to someone. So your monthly cost is based on the the number of people on your list times the number of times you send them an email. This works well if you only send quarterly, for example.

The per-subscriber model is more of a flat-rate model. Your monthly fee is based on the number of subscribers you have on your list. Send one message a month, send one a day, send nothing – doesn’t matter. You still pay that flat fee.

Most of the providers mentioned below do both of these in tiered fashion. Per-subscriber price is one rate for up to 1,500 subscribers, a bit more for 2,500, still more for 5,000. Similarly, the per-message models usually reward bigger commitments. If you purchase credits for 10,000 messages, the per-credit cost will be lower than if you purchase 100 credits.

Don’t forget about add-ons and extras. Some are one-time fees, like template set-up charges. They can be quite steep, though you won’t care if they are items you don’t need or use. (More on this below.) Things like spam evaluators and “inbox inspectors” which check your messages for known spam triggers and for compatibility with various email programs respectively, are a must. Factor them in.

Key Players
The items above should give you a pretty comprehensive way to evaluate which ESP is right for you. There are many solid, even great, choices for small-business email marketers, so there’s no one right answer. And enterprise-level features continue to trickle down to the more affordable, SMB-focused providers. Here are a few you might consider:

Constant Contact is the first name that comes to mind for many. That’s too bad, because I’m not sure their services and pricing models have kept pace. Still, they may be a great fit for you as they are for many, many small businesses.

MailChimp is another popular choice. Their cheekiness may not be for everyone, and it’s a big part of their brand. If it doesn’t bother you, they may have the best set of tools among the ESPs mentioned here. Very worthy option for most small to mid-size businesses.

myEmma is a great choice, particularly if you are strongly focused on visual design.

Finally, iContact and Jangomail may be the closest things to a next step toward enterprise level tools, but they’re still firmly aimed at – and priced for – the SMB market.

So no more excuses. Get your email newsletter setup and start mailing. I’ll give Scott the last word on the importance of email to your overall marketing.

This is not an exercise. Communication of value is what keeps your brand in front of your key customers and contacts.  It’s time to go big or go home.

And if you’d like to know who I chose and why, drop Andy an email and you’ll get both our POVs.


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