The Never-Ending Quest to Find the Perfect Email Service Provider
One of the most common questions email marketing consultants get is "What's the best email service provider?" My diplomatic answer is, usually, "It depends on your needs." In reality, all providers have their pros and cons. Whether it's functionality, usability, deliverability or price, they all have their weaknesses. Fortunately, with careful consideration you can find the provider that best suits your company.
B-to-B Versus B-to-C
B-to-B businesses can have very different needs than their B-to-C counterparts. For example, do you need the ability to interface with a CRM system or send emails on behalf of a salesperson? Be sure the functionality exists or is easy to implement before committing to a service.
Cost Structure: List Size Versus Volume
ESPs which focus on small businesses will charge by list size. Enterprise-level services will generally charge on a CPM (cost per thousand) basis for emails sent in addition to set-up costs, professional service expenses and other functionality add-on costs. Assume extra functionality will add incremental costs as well. Time, money and headaches will be avoided if you fully assess the services, volume and functionality you'll need ahead of time and work the information acquired into your selection and initial contract negotiations.
Type of Content
Are you sending simple e-newsletters with basic personalization features or complicated, dynamic content? Do you need a copy and paste HTML solution or templates? ESPs vary widely on the templates they provide and the functionality of the HTML editor. Evaluate your needs and the functionality carefully.
Do you need a full-service provider who will do everything from designing the emails to managing your data to sending the emails? Or do you need a simple solution into which you load your HTML and send it yourself? Do you have an experienced designer and HTML programmer or will you depend on your ESP for those services?
Most ESPs include basic reporting — deliverability, clickthrough, bounce and open information. Consider your requirements for email reporting, report formats and integration with your web analytics provider when evaluating if an ESP's reporting functionality will meet your needs.
Contrary to what some people think, sending email isn't free. Although it's still the most cost-effective marketing channel online, email costs money. Adding bells and whistles costs even more. Do a full assessment of your needs and how much volume you intend to send to get a realistic view of what your program should cost and what extra services you'll use. Working with a consultant who can help you determine integration points and where extra money up front will save or make you money in the long run can be worth the initial cost as well.
All ESPs claim to have excellent customer service; you won't know the truth until after contracts are signed and you're stuck with a question you can't find the answer to. Do some investigation by contacting current customers and a few user groups to find out how responsive customer service is after the onboarding process is over. Also, push for an increased level of customer service during contract negotiations.
There's no standard ESP user interface (UI) and some companies are more intuitive than others. Often companies select an ESP based on what the email marketing manager has used before. Sometimes when everything else is equal, this can be a good enough reason. However, you need to weigh functionality and other factors. If a tough UI will make it harder and take more time to send email, that may be a big enough reason to eliminate an ESP from consideration. Just be sure to fully consider the learning curve versus actual usability.
Continue to Expect Perfection for Your Business
In a world of agile development and the Wild West of internet entrepreneurship, companies are launched with a core competency and add enhancements later on. Unfortunately, many of those enhancements are "mission critical" for e-commerce companies. I predict that this year many ESPs will get there, as I've seen many make great strides through acquisitions and putting resources in systems development and adding human resources. I challenge ESPs to increase their service and functionality and to put the burden back on themselves. Take the burden off their customers so they can continue to focus on their core businesses. I believe that this is the year technology catches up with the industry.
Liz Ryan is president of Relish Tray Media.
Related story: 3 Near-Death Experiences for Email Marketing