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Selecting a Self-Service HTML E-Newsletter Vendor, Part 2

  |  November 28, 2001   |  Comments

All the ingredients of a near-perfect permission email marketing strategy are wrapped up in a corporate e-newsletter. You're creating it in an elegant, professional-looking HTML (graphic) format. Which service providers should you entrust with creation, deployment, and delivery?

Let's start with a quick recap. You've decided to launch an HTML e-newsletter. You're excited about the data you'll collect through open rates and click-through tracking, and of course you want it to look snazzy. Perhaps you are one of the following:

  • A professional services provider with no dedicated marketers on your staff

  • A sales division within a large corporation with a small departmental marketing budget

  • A brick-and-mortar company with little or no experience in online marketing

In any of these scenarios, you know you want an email newsletter that is "absolutely professional and flawlessly delivered," as Gail Goodman, CEO of Roving, makers of Constant Contact, puts it. You may be venturing into email marketing for the first time and don't want to spend a bundle. Most important, you're astute enough to know that email marketing and e-newsletters are not your core competence.

Not to worry. A growing number of application service providers (ASPs) are focusing on the creation and deployment of e-newsletters (as distinguished from email promotions). These companies are called self-service because they host and maintain your list and provide HTML templates and other add-ons, while you control the delivery and content of your e-newsletter through a Web-based interface.

In addition to the vendors I mentioned in Part 1, you might also want to take a look at CoolerEmail.com, messageREACH by Xpedite, Questiva, The Newsletter Place, and Topica. Note: Some of these self-service vendors (including those listed in Part 1) do not have set-up fees and cost less than $50 a month to send up to 10,000 emails.

e2 Communications is a full-service player that offers an ASP, or hosted, solution. MessageMedia and FloNetwork, which I mentioned last time, are part of DoubleClick's DARTmail (which also offers a self-service model).

Some companies are also resellers. GotMarketing is private-labeling its service through Yahoo Small Business. (In the interest of full disclosure, Constant Contact is a strategic partner of ClickZ's parent company, internet.com).

Last time, we looked at some of the back-end questions you should ask as you evaluate e-newsletter vendors. Today, I'll cover a front-end checklist. There's some overlap, of course.

HTML Templates

This is key. You should be able to choose from a variety of templates. They should be customizable with colors, fonts, your own logo, and other graphics and -- more important -- should be easy to set up for your e-newsletter. "The technology should be simple and elegant enough that the complexity is hidden for the marketer, " says Lynda Partner, CEO of GotMarketing. Translation: Any idiot ought to be able to produce a snazzy-looking newsletter. Reality: It ain't that easy...

Jeff Mesnick, VP of marketing for iMakeNews, explains that his company's technology is based on a content management system. When you customize an e-newsletter template, you define your own content modules. After that, you just drop new copy into your preset topics using Microsoft Word.

Trackable links are automatically created for you by most of these vendors. Hands down, Constant Contact has the most user-friendly interface I've seen. Dummy copy is included in all templates and provides you with "coaching steps." For an introduction, for example, you are advised to "catch your reader's attention with a compelling message."

Content and Copywriting

Here's the hard part. Once you've wrestled your template into shape, you've got to fill it -- month after month, or week after week -- with great content. iMakeNews, The Newsletter Place, and InternetVIZ can provide you with syndicated (or customized) content for an additional fee. Any old article won't do. It's got to be precisely targeted to the interests and information needs of your audience.

You might have a techie or salesperson on your staff who is highly knowledgeable about your product or service. Ask him or her to write a short 250-to-300-word article. Then, get a professional copywriter to edit it.

Additional Functionality

Add-ons you can look for are numerous. They include a hosted archive, instant polls (people love this stuff), "Forward to a Friend" scripts, and the ability to automatically switch from text to HTML (or vice versa). A "subscribe" box embedded in a newsletter is pretty standard. In addition, find out if you get a microsite where readers who click on a teaser in your e-newsletter go to read the full article.

Database marketing capability is probably the biggest differentiator among these vendors. If you want to segment your list and send different versions of your newsletter, find out if you can capture data points based on reader interest, your subscriber's location in the buying cycle, and so on.

Reliability

Socketware's VP of marketing, Tricia Robinson, was taken aback recently when an astute prospect asked her, "How many days a month is your service down?" She checked with her tech folks and was able to tell him "almost never." This is a crucial question when you're investing in a self-service, hosted solution. Ask.

Another good question: How easy is it to move your list if you decide six months down the road you want a different solution for your e-newsletter?

Test, Test, Test

I don't mean test your subject line (although you should do this as religiously with an e-newsletter as with a standalone email promotion).

To help you evaluate these vendors, take advantage of their free trials. Upload the email addresses of a dozen or so in-house contacts and business colleagues. Then, create an e-newsletter using one of their templates. Drop in some dummy copy and hit "Send."

What does the result look like in the HTML, text, and AOL versions? If you like what you see, send a test e-newsletter to 50 colleagues (yes, you'll have to put some decent copy in it). Ask for their feedback on the HTML design, on readability, and on your content. Think of it as market research.

Resources and Ongoing Support

A great e-newsletter resource is Ezine-Tips. Well-written and informative e-newsletters published by self-service vendors include Roving's Email Marketing Hints & Tips, Socketware's Subject Lines, iMakeNews' The Stepping Stone, and InternetVIZ's VIZible Value.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Debbie Weil

Debbie Weil is publisher of WordBiz Report, which focuses on the business of words online. It was awarded The Newsletter on Newsletters' Gold Award for Online Subscription Newsletter. A former newspaper reporter with an MBA and corporate marketing experience, Debbie is an expert on B2B online content and marketing at both the strategic and creative levels. She was Web content marketing manager for Network Solutions (now part of Verisign) before launching WordBiz.com.

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