One of the most important decisions you’ll ever have to make in email marketing is which company to choose for delivery. Though I’m not going to talk about individual vendors (many, many good ones are out there), I am going to give you some things to consider, questions to ask, and online resources to help you as you evaluate different services.
All of this is based on my experience, and I’ve done everything from managing a request for proposal (RFP) process to finding a vendor for an organization sending more than 6 million emails a month to searching for a cost-effective solution for my own, much smaller volume email newsletter. The good news is many of the more affordable solutions have now added features that were once only available from the high-end vendors. So no matter what your budget, you can probably get all the features you need and want.
In-House or Outsource?
This is typically the first question you’ll face. You actually have two outsource options. Here’s how the choices break down:
- In-house — purchase or license software you install and maintain on your host
- Outsource/self-service — contract with an ASP to use its Web-based email program
- Outsource/full service — contract with a company to have it send your emails for you
An in-house solution is a good choice for you if:
- You have a strong internal IT team with time to learn the application.
- You want to keep your data in-house and can handle security issues.
- You have or will invest in the necessary hardware and pipeline to the Web to handle your volume.
- Your IT group can handle internal support, upgrades, and other maintenance.
- You want to make a larger initial investment and minimize or eliminate ongoing fees.
An internal IT team can make or break an in-house email solution. If you’re uncertain whether your IT group is up to the task, don’t risk it.
An outsource/self-service solution is a good choice for you if:
- You want someone else to manage the IT side of the application, including upgrades, bug issues, and other maintenance.
- You feel comfortable having someone else manage your data and be responsible for security issues.
- You don’t want to invest in additional hardware or Web pipeline.
- You don’t mind paying an ongoing fee.
- You’re comfortable with computers and online interfaces.
Many organizations, both large and small, go this route, and there are vendors at both low and high price points. It’s important to find a vendor you trust and check the company out carefully, taking an especially hard look at data security and the company’s long-term viability.
An outsource/full-service solution is a good choice for you if:
- You like the sound of the above solution, except for the last bullet about being comfortable with computers and online interfaces.
- You don’t mind paying for service.
- Your content isn’t time sensitive (usual turnaround for a send is 24 to 48 hours).
This model is more common for one-off emails than email newsletters, probably because of the cost. Also, as the interfaces on the other solutions have become more user friendly, doing the send yourself has become less daunting.
For more on this topic, read Brady Brewer’s ClickZ article, “A Case for Outsourcing Email Marketing.” Although it was written over two years ago, the points he makes are still relevant today.
Tracking and Reporting
Tracking and reporting are two of the benefits email offers over postal mail. These capabilities can tell you a lot about your readers. Things have come a long way here; both big and small providers can now offer most of these capabilities:
- Open rate (HTML only)
Though it’s helpful to get the aggregate quantities, make sure your chosen system will give you the granular details, such as which recipients opened/clicked and when (day/time). Also, look for a system that provides you both total and unique figures for the opens and clicks, preferably by link for the clicks.
Making it easy for people to opt in to your email newsletter is critical to your success. Make sure the solution you provide delivers. Here are some options to look for:
- Registration page. At a minimum you want a Web page where people can register to receive your email newsletter. This is much better than just having them send an email message to subscribe (especially if you have to then manually add them to your database). You’re able to collect a bit more information on them with a dedicated page, and it goes directly into the database.
- Subscription management system. A step up from just a registration page, this allows the recipient to go back and change her personal information, unsubscribe, change format (text to HTML), and so on. If you have more than one email newsletter, you can put opt-ins for all on this page as a way to cross-sell. Increasingly more services offer this, and it’s a real benefit for both your readers and yourself.
- Confirmation messages. Choose a program that sends an auto-reply when a subscriber is added to your list. Most programs do this, and it’s good email etiquette. You can also use it to convey a welcome and give the recipients an email to file and reference if they ever want to unsubscribe, contact you, and so forth.
This won’t be an issue if you’re going to simply forward your content to a full-service vendor that will input and send it. But if you or someone in your organization is going to handle the send, noting that interfaces vary is important, so choose one you’re comfortable with. Some things to look for are:
- Look and feel. Do you want to cut and paste content around the HTML code, or would you prefer to put the content in designated boxes and not look at the code? It all depends on the editor’s comfort level and preference. You’ll probably have more flexibility with the first option, but if looking at HTML code is too daunting, be sure you get a product/service that offers the second type of interface.
- Auto-generation. Auto-generation allows you to enter the text once and create both text and HTML versions. Some folks offer this, but it’s not always 100 percent consistent from version to version. Nice to have, but not necessarily critical.
- Scheduled sends. This I recommend for convenience. You can create your email in advance, then queue it up to send at the designated hour. Not critical, but a nice feature.
- Quality control. Many systems allow you (some force you) to do a test send to yourself before sending to the entire list. I highly recommend doing this, and if your software has this built in, all the better. It lets you catch HTML problems and other issues before your entire subscriber base sees them. Get this built in if you can.
ClickZ, on its Email Strategies subsite, provides a list of email service providers, which you can use as a starting point in your search. Check out the rest of the ClickZ Email Strategies site for additional articles about choosing a vendor.
Another helpful site is Ralph Wilson’s Survey of E-Mail Marketing Programs, which he produced a few months ago. He surveyed his readers about the email marketing systems they had used (70 in all). Data collected includes the list sizes each vendor handles, training, ease of use, support, and overall quality. The basics are available to everyone; to see the open-ended feedback you must be a paid subscriber.
Thanks for reading and happy holidays! I’m always happy to get feedback, so let me know what you thought of this article or share a suggestion for a future article.
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