An email service provider (called an ESP) is a company that offers software as a service to create, send and track emails for marketing purposes. Choosing an ESP is an important decision. Why? Because it’s a huge hassle to change from one email service provider to another.
There are hundreds of suppliers out there, each touting their specific and unique features that they claim are “must have” to do email marketing. Even if you plan to work with an agency or hire a freelancer to handle your email marketing, you want to have a high-level understanding of what you are paying them to handle for you.
Know this: Once you’re established with an email marketing service provider, the switching costs and hassle factor to change to another supplier are substantial. That’s why a lot of the suppliers offer a “free trial”. If you want to switch you’ll likely pay another setup fee to the new supplier, and then you’ll need to do a lot of things you won’t want to like: learn a new tool, conduct testing to ensure your templates work, and load your customer information. It’s best to choose carefully and think long-term when selecting your email service provider.
From our experience: If you plan to do anything beyond sending a basic newsletter, personalized appointment reminders, and special offers, we strongly recommend that you work with an experienced email marketing specialist (either a freelancer or an agency). These experts will be well-versed in both the technology and the nuances of email marketing.
Overview of email marketing features
The email marketing industry and suppliers use a lot of jargon and terms. You’ll need to understand some of this so that you can make intelligent decisions about what you need and what you don’t.
ESP = email service provider
Email list and data management
Your customer email list is one of your most valuable marketing assets, so you want to ensure that it is secure and clean. Hopefully you’re creating your own list of customers and prospective customers, and perhaps “renting” a list here and there to supplement this effort. Your program will only be as good as the list you have and the way that list is managed.
What do you want to do?
Do you want to keep your email list on your own computer and transfer it (called uploading) to an email service provider only when you want to send a message?
- If your list is small and being derived from a number of sources (say a registration card in your store, a sign up form on your website, and a tell-a-friend program), it may be easiest to maintain the list in a spreadsheet and upload it to the ESP each time you want to send a message.
- If you are having another company save your customer and prospect data, they have a very valuable asset. Choose them very wisely, like you would do if you were choosing a bank.
Do you want the ESP to manage your list in its entirety?
- Many ESPs can host your email list for you on their servers. Servers can a physical computer dedicated to running software services. You can manage the data on your own server or outsource this. If it’s outsourced to a reputable ESP, then they’ll back-up the data and have redundancy systems in place to ensure the data won’t be lost. They’ll typically do a much better job of this than you may because it’s their business to guard and maintain this information.
- If you are maintaining a customer database with other customer information (mailing address, purchase history, sales contact history information, etc.), you’ll want to be sure your email list and the list at the ESP are kept current with each other.
Do you want to keep your list on your own server but establish an automated mechanism that keeps it synchronized with the one on the ESP’s server?
This is called an application programming interface, or API and is a good choice if you’re making other changes to your database.
Know this: Email law mandates that anyone who requests to be removed from your list must be removed within 10 days. This is true whether they click “unsubscribe” to go through an automated process provided by your email marketing company, or if they just send you an email saying “take me off your list.” The law doesn’t care if you have two databases and didn’t keep them current with each other, so you need to be sure that your unsubscribe process is very clear and anyone asking to be removed will no longer receive your email marketing messages.
Know this: Regardless of the method you are using to grow and maintain your list, you must adhere to all facets of the CAN SPAM act. If you decide to maintain your email list in a spreadsheet, be sure to document the opt-in date and keep a copy of all opt-in permission records, whether electronic or hard copy.
Key list and data management features you want an ESP to offer
- Required to get your list into the email system.
- Be sure to check how many lists you are allowed under the contract you’re considering.
Automated unsubscribe management
Email law requires that you quickly grant requests to be removed from your email list. It’s a cumbersome process when done manually, so you want to be sure your tool does this for you.
- When an email cannot be delivered, for whatever reason, it is considered a “bounce.”
- Sometimes emails bounce because the email address is incorrect, or has been shut down. But they may also bounce due to a temporary technical issue with their personal email provider (e.g. Google, Yahoo, etc.).
- Bounce management sets rules so that a message is re-sent a certain number of times. After bouncing that number of times, the email address will be removed, or sequestered for you to manually address.
List building features
Depending on how you are building your email list, these may come in handy. This will allow you to post an email signup form (some companies let you customize this, with others it’s just standard) on your website and have those subscribers go directly into the email provider database. This is a good choice if you anticipate rapid growth and are seeking a more turnkey solution.
Individual contact management
This allows you view and edit individual contact details at anytime.
Many email service providers offer the ability to segment your list by interest, demographic, or any other criteria in your database. This is important if you plan to send customized messages. For example, perhaps you want to send a message to only those people who’ve indicated they have children. This feature makes this easy to do.
Customizing your email messages
What do you want to do?
How many many email templates will you need?
- Templates are the graphic look-and-feel of your email message.
- Most small businesses sending email newsletters and blasts use the same template and just change the message content. This saves time and money and creates consistency for your customers/prospects.
- Other small businesses and non-profit organizations want to create a “series” of templates to be used for different things (Newsletters, customer services messages, product alerts, etc.) All of these could go on the same template, or templates could be unique to each message.
- Whether you use the same template or a series of templates, it should be consistent with your overall brand look. Use the principles of integrated marketing to “look big” by making sure all your marketing and sales materials are coordinated.
Do you want to create the templates yourself?
- If so (unless you’re a designer) you’ll want something called a “WYSIWYG” (pronounced whiz-e-wig) editing tool. This stands for what-you-see-is-what-you-get and simply means that the email will appear in the tool the same way it will appear to the outside world. Most word processing programs are like this.
- Try the tool from the ESP before signing on with them.
Do you want to use an email template?
There are thousands of ready-made email templates available. Most email marketing service providers offer a library of templates to choose from, or you can purchase them for a number of suppliers.
Key message customization features to look for in an ESP
WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor
This feature generally employs a “drag and drop” method or other intuitive interface that will feel like other software you’re already familiar with (Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and others). This makes it easy for even the non-technical people to create and send professional-looking emails.
Auto-generated text version
Have you ever been asked if you prefer to receive your email as html or text? This feature becomes important for those people who select “text.” While you don’t have to ask the question any more (sophisticated “sniffers” can now tell how you have your email settings configured and will deliver the correct messages based on that), you certainly don’t want to do double the work to be sure everyone gets what they want.
Look for an email marketing service provider that automatically generates this text version based on the html message you create.
There are libraries of pre-made email templates that you can purchase or, in some cases, simply use. Most email marketing service providers have a library of their own. If you want something a little more custom, start with a template and change it around a bit to suit your business brand.
- This feature works much like mail merge in your word processing program. If you want to personalize your email using data from your list, such as first name, this is the feature you need.
- Dynamic content is not a “must have” requirement but the ability to personalize your email messages to say “Dear Jane,” instead of “Dear Customer,” goes a long way toward building a more credible relationship.
- Some email marketing companies offer only limited “merge” capability, while others allow you to customize on every field in your database.
Customizable “thank you” pages, “welcome” pages, and “unsubscribe” pages
If you want to provide a completely custom experience for your email subscribers, then you’ll want this feature which allows you to give all of these pages a look and feel that matches your website. Some of the less expensive email service providers offer standard pages that are branded with their logo and look and feel.
Email message testing
A basic testing feature is a critical part of any email service provider you choose. Testing is important because:
- You want to ensure your message is delivered to an inbox, not flagged as spam and sent to a junk mailbox.
- You want to ensure that your messages “look good” to your recipients, regardless of which email software they may use.
Key email message testing features to look for
General deliverability testing
The ESP tool should have a built-in testing processes that includes confirming the way the message will appear when delivered to the most popular email browsers, like Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.
There are several things you can do when building your message that will trigger spam filters and increase the chances that your messages will be flagged as spam. Any email service provider you choose should have a tool in place to test for these things, alert you, and provide alternatives so that you can change them.
Key features to look for
- Message scheduling is a great feature if you want to be able to set-up a “drip irrigation” system so that your list subscribers receive a pre-set group of messages on a pre-established schedule.
- Generally this feature allows you to send immediately, send at a specific date and time, or send at a specific time based on when the subscriber joined your list (so they could receive a message 1 day, 3 days, and 2 weeks after joining the list).
- This is also important if you plan to send marketing campaigns by email.
Customizable “from” field
- This gives you the flexibility to have your emails come “from” different people or lists.
- For example, you may have one series of messages that comes “from” Customer Service, and another series that comes from “Daily Deals”.
Forward to a friend
- Email is an excellent viral marketing tool. Many of the email service providers offer a built-in “forward to a friend” feature that makes this very easy.
What do you want to do?
How will you measure the success of your email marketing program? While there is almost an infinite amount of data that can be made available, you need to be realistic about what you will actually use and find a tool that provides enough data, without being overwhelming.
Key email reporting features to look for
Basic metrics. These include number of emails sent, number opened, click through rate, unsubscribe rate.
From our experience: Many of the email service providers are now offering a reporting package that will integrate with your Google Analytics program that’s tracking your website traffic. This is a really convenient approach and one we recommend so that all of your analytics data is in one place.
Cautions and things to consider when choosing an ESP
- Different email service providers talk about pricing differently which makes it harder to shop and compare prices.
- Some companies will charge you based only on the number of contacts in your email list. You pay a flat monthly fee per number of contacts, and can send as many messages as you want to the people on your list. This is good value if you’re not sure how often you plan to message and your list is fairly small.
- Others will charge based on email volume. This is the total number of individual messages that are sent. For example, if you have 100 people on your list, and you send them three messages during the month, your volume will be 100 x 3, or 300 messages. If you have 10,000 people on your list, and send them three messages during the month, your volume will be 10,000 x 3, or 30,000 messages.
- Most providers charge in one of these two ways (based on list size or volume).
- Some may also charge a “license fee” for access to their tool, in addition to a per message fee. As a general rule, the higher your email volume the lower your per-message cost.
- Think long-term. Remember, it’s a huge hassle to change providers once you have things set up.
- Any reputable email service provider will have relationships in place with the major email “client” companies (also called Internet Service Providers – companies like Yahoo, Google, Hotmail and others), that indicate they are a “trusted sender.” In the industry this is called being on the “white list” which means you are a reputable email marketing company.
- Any company that is “blacklisted” is one that’s been known to abuse the system and send spam. You want to steer very clear of these companies so be sure and ask for credentials of anyone you work with.
The ESP company logos appearing on your messages
Many of the low-cost email marketing companies require you to include their logo on all email messages sent. While this may be acceptable to you, you should be clear about this going into a contract. Most will allow you to remove it – often for an additional charge.
- For an image to be included in a message sent from an email service provider, it has to “live” (or be “hosted) on the email service provider’s “server” (computer). This takes up space.
- Most email service providers will include a base amount of image hosting in their contracts, but if you plan to use a lot of images you’ll want to fully understand what the limits are and be sure it’s going to work with your plan.
Training and support
- If you plan to manage the program on your own and are not familiar with email marketing tools, be sure and find a company that offers the kind of support you need.
- Nearly all the providers have some kind of web-based or email support, but if you want a phone number and a live person on the other end, you’ll need to check carefully for that. And know that you’ll probably pay more for this.