Vendor Options for a Retention Campaign

Have you ever made a promise with the best of intentions, only to kick yourself when you realize you don’t quite know how to deliver on it?

I certainly have. And recently. Two weeks ago, I promised to talk about retention email vendors — i.e., those who provide the tools, technologies, and services you use if you have acquired opt-in email addresses and now want to retain and nurture those prospects by emailing to them.

Here’s the rub: There is no easy-to-compile, definitive list of companies that can help you launch and manage a B2B-focused email program aimed at cultivating your house list.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that there are dozens and dozens of email service and technology companies — large and small — in the message-deployment and database-marketing space. The second is that some of these companies may not be around in six months to a year. The third is that there are new companies emerging all the time with new technologies for delivering rich email, including streaming audio and video — which may well be the future of B2B email marketing.

And the fourth, which follows from the third, is that retention or relationship-building email marketing is still evolving for the B2B market.

So rather than give you a list of B2B email service providers, I’m going to arm you with the questions you need to ask in order to choose one yourself.

I’ll throw in some well-known names suitable for B2B email marketing. And I’ll list three categories of providers. But my hope is that after reading this, you will have a framework for making your own decisions.

Before you think about your budget, internal politics, or other logistics of embarking on an email program, start off by asking yourself some basic questions.

What’s your objective? What result are you looking for? Is your primary objective to move prospects to complete the purchase-decision cycle? Is it to upsell to current customers? Is it to inform both prospects and customers about company and product news? Is it to establish yourself as an industry leader?

What kind of product or service are you selling? If you’re marketing a high-end, technically complex product or service, your challenge may be to educate your relatively small target audience. In this case, a regular e-newsletter packed with useful information and including an appropriate offer could be your email tool of choice.

If you’re selling a lower-end, nontechnical product, you’re probably more concerned with volume. You want to grow your in-house list as rapidly as possible. You want to delve more deeply into your database in order to segment, target, and personalize your messages. You may want campaign automation, which includes message sequencing and automated responses.

What are your internal resources? And I’m not just talking budget. Who will be responsible for the care and feeding of your in-house list and your email program? Will this person or team be coordinating with your other marketing communication efforts so that you are delivering a consistent, resonant message across your Web site and through your email messages?

Is your dedicated resource a database marketing whiz or a creative content type? What kind of strategic and technical support will this person need?

Ask yourself these questions and more. Search your email soul, if you will. Because no matter what you’ve heard about email as the “killer app,” know that it’s the sustained, high-quality execution of an email program that is going to get you results.

Unlike an acquisition campaign that can yield click-throughs and conversion data within hours or days, retention email is about the long term. Whether you’re building awareness of your company as a thought leader or educating your target audience about product benefits, it takes time.

That said, here are the categories providers fall into.

The basics. If your objective is to deliver a regular e-newsletter, you need a reliable, reputable vendor who can help you continue to build your list (i.e., capture new sign-ups), deploy your messages, host your list, handle unsubscribes and bounce-backs, and provide basic reporting.

List hosting, delivery, and management companies include SparkLIST, L-Soft, and Lyris. Pricing is based on volume of messages delivered.

Low-cost, do-it-yourself software solutions appropriate for small businesses include MessageMedia’s MailKing (free 30-day evaluation), ListBot, and Roving.

A few more bells and whistles. If you want a lower-end solution to database-driven email marketing, you can opt for an application-service-provider (ASP) solution, or Web-hosted solution, offering you campaign management from your desktop.

You can segment your house file and personalize messages based on your own business rules, as well as determine timing and frequency of delivery. You can also send messages in text or HTML.

One well-regarded product in this category is MessageMedia’s UnityMail Express. To give you an idea of costs, UnityMail Express charges a one-time setup fee of $3,000 and then $600 monthly. Other midrange ASP vendors are EmailFactory and CheetahMail. And there are many others.

The works. Full-service, high-end players for customer relationship email marketing (a.k.a. “e-CRM”) include Annuncio, Digital Impact, DoubleClick’s DARTmail, eDialog, 24/7’s Exactis, E2 Communications, FloNetwork (just acquired by DoubleClick), Kana, MarketFirst, MessageMedia, and Responsys.

These guys can help you do it all — some offer a lower-cost, hosted version — or they can do it all for you, if you wish. The full-service model includes your own account exec, creative and strategic professional services, database hosting, message delivery, campaign management, response analysis, and more. This will cost you from $100,000 up.

Good resources. Want to start doing some research? These email vendors offer good information and resources on their sites: BoldFish, FloNetwork, MessageMedia, and Responsys.