How to determine when it's time to ditch your internal e-mail solution and call the pros.
Many business-to-business (B2B) companies start small with e-mail by doing it all in-house. As their e-mail list grows and their needs become more complex, they realize their homegrown solution no longer fits.
This is what happened to Mpix, a division of Miller's Professional Imaging, the largest U.S. professional photography lab. Mpix had an e-mail database of over 150,000 pro photographers and advanced amateurs -- and a legacy in-house marketing system.
Eventually, the company hit a wall trying to e-mail all those contacts on its own. Deliverability declined, servers were overburdened, and the company had no way to track who was opening its e-mail.
As Mpix embarked on the busiest season of the year, executives realized they were leaving money on the table in terms of unrealized e-mail-generated revenue. And so they migrated to Bronto, a leading e-mail provider.
The main benefit, according to Joe Dellasega, Mpix marketing manager, was a quick fix to the deliverability problem. "One of our primary marketing strategies is our weekly e-mail blast program," he says. "When photographers log on to our site, they essentially 'raise their hand' and tell us they're interested. But until we have that first order, we don't have a customer. So once they're signed on, it's important that we put some information about us in front of them each week and eventually convert them to a customer.
"When we were sending e-mails ourselves, a lot of the messages were getting blocked. We weren't getting the responsiveness we needed, and we couldn't track effectiveness," Dellasega explains.
Once they turned over their e-mail marketing to Bronto, things changed rapidly. For example, Bronto's director of marketing, Susan Wall, recounts, "Mpix was sending e-mails that were one big JPEG -- which is just bait for a spam filter. Since it was important, as a digital photography lab, to display images in their e-mails, we were able to show them how to ensure that their imagery rendered properly through the use of an alternate text tag, as necessary."
Bronto helped Mpix implement such industry best practices as maintaining clean contact lists, ensuring proper whitelist status with major ISPs, and complying with CAN-SPAM regulations.
Immediately, Mpix e-mail marketing improved. The e-mail list for Miller's Professional Imaging, a B2B segment of professional photographers, benefited from automated list cleaning. Deliverability for that list jumped from 86 to 98 percent. Its average open rate is now 50 percent, and its click-through rate is 20 percent. The Mpix contact list, which is more of a business-to-consumer (B2C) segment geared toward advanced amateurs, now also has a deliverability rate of 98 percent and an average open rate of 34percent.
While visibility for Mpix e-mail campaigns increased, operational costs decreased significantly.
"In the beginning, it can seem like an in-house e-mail solution has no cost," says Wall. "But after a while, companies realize just how expensive it really is. They may not be paying hard dollars for an outside e-mail provider, but there's a high cost involved in terms of time and productivity lost when you run an e-mail marketing program yourself. You may also find that your e-mail campaign is taxing your servers -- because they really weren't made to support this function."
She chuckled when recounting that the client told her, "The whole thing became so out of control that sending e-mails to the whole database took 12 to 24 hours -- and basically all the stars had to align in order for e-mails to go out."
"We did not previously factor in the additional 'hidden' costs of operating an in-house solution, such as the time our engineering and IT teams spent supporting the cumbersome technology, as well as maintaining associated database and servers," Marcus Miller, Web developer for Mpix adds. "By working with an outside provider, we greatly reduced our operational costs and gained visibility into our e-mail marketing campaigns that was not possible with our legacy system."
Dellasega also appreciates the testing process that Bronto puts his e-mail through to make sure it shows up correctly in every kind of browser. "In our e-mails, if a reader can't see the graphic, there's no way they're going to click through. Now, I have the confidence that everything is going to look right no matter where we send it."
Clearly, the state of the e-mail marketing industry has evolved to such a complexity that it's no longer possible to manage an in-house e-mail marketing solution. My sense is even if your e-mail database is small, it's probably better to go with an e-mail provider from the beginning to avoid growing pains later -- and for better bottom-line results right from the start.
Where are you in the e-mail marketing continuum -- just starting out or state of the art? Share your challenges and case studies with Karen.
Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.
Karen Gedney, an award-winning creative director and copywriter, shared her insights as a ClickZ Experts contributor from 2000 through 2009. She was known for her successful track record of achieving high e-mail response rates for Fortune 1000 companies and leading organizations. She died Nov. 16, 2010.
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