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Selecting a Self-Service HTML E-Newsletter Vendor, Part 1

  |  November 14, 2001   |  Comments

All the ingredients of a near-perfect, permission email marketing strategy are wrapped up in a corporate e-newsletter. Why not do it in an elegant, professional-looking HTML (graphic) format?

There’s no consensus (nor hard data) on whether business-to-business (B2B) readers prefer receiving HTML or text. But judging from my in box, from my own newsletter, and from what clients say, increasing numbers of B2B subscribers request e-newsletters in HTML.

If you’ve spent any time evaluating vendor options for launching and maintaining an HTML newsletter, you’re probably a little dizzy. How do you choose?

I’m drawing a line here between companies that offer a broad range of email marketing services and a smaller group of vendors focusing specifically on the e-newsletter market. You know who the "big guys" are: CheetahMail, Digital Impact, e-Dialog, E-Mail Vision (based in France), DoubleClick’s DARTmail, Responsys, and others.

I’m referring to the handful of application service providers (ASPs) that offer a self-service Web interface while hosting your list and handling e-newsletter delivery, unsubscribes, and other back-end functions. Many offer spiffy-looking HTML templates; some will also provide content. All are affordable if your budget is in the thousands, but not tens of thousands, of U.S. dollars. All claim to be easy to use, quick to launch, full-featured, and so on.

(If you want to do it right -- and get quantifiable results -- don’t even think of using a do-it-yourself software solution, no matter if you’re a small to medium-sized business or a department within a large corporation.)

Among these self-service e-newsletter vendors are Accucast, Constant Contact by Roving, ExactTarget, GotMarketing’s Campaigner, iMakeNews, InternetVIZ, MailerMailer, and SparkLIST.com (this is not a complete list).

Pricing usually involves a one-time set-up fee of up to several thousand dollars, along with a monthly fee based on message volume and additional services. This can run from $50 to $500. So how in heck do you evaluate these companies when all their solutions seem identical and the pricing doesn’t differentiate much from one to another?

Let’s create a comprehensive checklist for selecting a self-service e-newsletter vendor. I’ll do this in two parts. This week’s article covers the back end, all the nitty-gritty stuff the technology can do for you. Next time, I will address the front end, including HTML design, editorial content, copywriting, and other add-on features.

Capturing Email Addresses

Whether you start with 300 or 3,000 email addresses, your vendor needs a rock-solid data capture process so that you can grow your subscriber list. Technically, this is a simple piece of code that you add behind your sign-up box on every page of your site.

There’s more to it than code. As with so much of email marketing, the devil is in the details. Can you use either a single opt-in or double opt-in sign up? Can you write your own welcome (or confirmation) message? And can the confirmation message be on your own Web page, or must it be on a template page provided by the vendor?

The sign-up process, which can be measured in seconds, is your subscriber’s (i.e., a potential customer’s) first point of contact with your newsletter. If it doesn’t go smoothly, or if any part looks amateurish, you’ve lost some of the credibility you’re trying to build.

Customer Service

Which brings me to the human thing. No matter how "easy, quick, and simple" your vendor’s Web interface is, you’re going to want to talk to a real person the first couple of times you send out your e-newsletter. There’s always a wrinkle you hadn’t anticipated. Some vendors provide a dedicated customer service rep; some don’t. Some provide 24/7 technical support; others provide support only during business hours. Know what your needs are, and be sure to ask.

Web Interface

This is a sticky wicket. What’s intuitive to one person may be maddeningly frustrating to another. Get an account rep to walk you through setting up an "easy HTML template" for your e-newsletter. If things don’t work (you can’t upload your logo, for example), don’t write it off as a temporary quirk.

Can you take the entire process for a test drive? Some vendors (GotMarketing and MailerMailer, for example) offer a free trial, enabling you to build and send a sample HTML newsletter to a limited number of email addresses.

Delivery

Make sure you understand how to send test versions of your newsletter to yourself and a few recipients within your company (as well as to Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, and other accounts) so that you know exactly how the first issue will look when it lands in subscribers’ in boxes.

How many times does the service attempt to deliver your newsletter? How fast is delivery? Can it be scheduled ahead of time? This is the part of the vendor’s list management capability that you need to investigate carefully. How are bounces handled? What kind of reporting do you get on delivery -- both successful and attempted?

Tracking

Some vendors provide click-through tracking as part of their basic service; others don’t. Ask to see exactly what the interface looks like so that you know what kind of statistics you’ll be getting. Even the most basic reporting should include the open rate and how many recipients clicked on which links. Is reporting in real time? It should be.

Next time: front-end questions to ask a potential e-newsletter vendor.

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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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