Choosing a Broadcast E-Mail Vendor, Part 1

Can the right vendor optimize your email marketing? Maybe, maybe not. But the wrong one can definitely wreak havoc with results. I regularly get email from readers asking me to recommend broadcast email solutions. Some are unhappy with their current provider; others are new to the channel and looking to enter the arena for the first time.

I’m in the process of helping two clients choose a vendor. One has an established email program and is in need of a high-end solution; the other is new to email marketing and looking for a low-cost provider.

Here’s the initial process I went through with both of them, one I’ve used many times over the years. You can easily commandeer this same approach to choose a broadcast email solution for your organization. A future column will cover phase two, evaluating vendors.

Outsource Versus In-House Solutions

Many in-house IT departments are enthusiastic about managing a broadcast email solution. Be careful. I’ve worked with IT departments that had the best intentions but quickly found themselves in over their heads.

There was one group that mistakenly sent the first email in “discussion list” mode, so everyone who replied to unsubscribe unwittingly sent their email to the entire list. It was an honest mistake, but it hurt the company’s standing with the people on their house list.

Outsourcing provides three key advantages:

  • Dedicated staff. These people’s job is to know email inside and out, from technical aspects to ISP relationships to standards and best practices.
  • Adequate bandwidth. The more email you can send per minute, the quicker the message gets out. Outside vendors can do this without slowing down your internal systems or forcing you to send in the wee hours of the morning.
  • Ongoing upgrades. Competition forces vendors to keep their knowledge and systems up to date. Because of the time and cost involved, that’s harder to do with an in-house system.

Many companies cite cost as a reason to bring email in-house. Today, good outsource solutions are available at all price points, making this a less-compelling argument. Unless you have a very strong technical team willing to dedicate people, systems, and other resources to email, you’re likely better off looking at outside solutions.

Estimate Your Usage

The most important aspects of usage are list size and send frequency. After determining this, you’ll want to factor in any list segmentation or message versioning, autoresponders, and viral marketing email. I like to do a breakdown by month as well as an annual total. Most vendors have some kind of variable pricing based on the total quantity sent per month or year, as well as the number of versions. This information allows them to give you a price quote. It also helps you to estimate total annual cost.

Identify Your Needs

You’re going to want the basics: tracking and reporting, list hygiene, some type of automated subscription/registration, HTML integrity check, a presend spam score, and so on. Don’t stop there. Polls, surveys, online couponing, and other features can add real value to email campaigns, depending on your industry and goals. Many vendors provide these capabilities as add-ons.

Determine Your Budget

As I mentioned earlier, there are great solutions at all price points, starting at $25 per month up to $15,000 a month and more. Do you get more with a more expensive solution? Yes. But many companies make out very well with more affordable packages that run $300-$5,000 per year. You’ll sacrifice some support and ISP relationships, but you’ll get the tracking and reporting, list hygiene, and basic functionality necessary to be successful. You can always trade up when you’ve got your email marketing working so well you can justify a budget increase.

Narrow the Field

Many vendors can meet your needs and budget; you just need to identify them. I use a variety of methods to narrow the field, including:

  • Colleague recommendations. Who do you know who’s doing email marketing? What are they using? How do they like their solution?
  • Case studies. Often, articles or case studies reference vendors. Make a list and check them out. If a solution gets recognition for current clients, it could work for you as well.
  • Customer lists. For a large client, I investigated which vendors worked with other companies in the client’s general industry. Though we didn’t want to go with a competitor’s vendor, we knew a company that served clients in our business area would be familiar with our needs and probably be able to meet them.

Learn as much as you can about each vendor from its Web site and from what comes back when you run a search on its name. Make notes and narrow the choices to those that not only meet your needs and budget but also make you feel most comfortable. Identify at least three, and no more than seven, vendors to look at in more detail.

Talk to the Vendors

For lower-end solutions, this may actually entail email, although you can call many and speak with a representative. Smaller operations don’t have outside sales reps. Your best bet is to research and do an overview of each, including a cost estimate.

If you’re looking at higher end solutions, I strongly recommend writing an RFP. Use open-ended questions. Instead of asking if they track deliverability (where “yes” or “no” suffices as an answer), ask how they do it.

I like to call and speak with reps before I send an RFP. It increases the response rate. I also like to be available to answer any questions reps may have. This allows them to target their responses and tells me how much they know about email. Asking good questions during the due-diligence phase suggests they’ll be on top of the account once my client becomes a customer.

A mistake I made years ago, which you should avoid, was talking to vendors not on my original list. They were friends of colleagues or people who had heard about the RFP and wanted in. With two of these, I spent a lot of time going through the RFP, explaining in detail what we needed to do and the functionality we required (something the vendors I’d chosen didn’t need — they already knew).

In the end, these “extra” vendors turned in proposals that were two and three times the cost of the other participants. Basically, we’d pay for them to develop the capabilities we needed from scratch. It was a waste of my time and, to be honest, a waste of theirs.

Next up: the process of evaluating different vendors and choosing one to work with. Until then, may all your email marketing efforts be successful!

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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