Putting the Service in E-mail Service Provider

Most marketers have moved beyond thinking of e-mail as the Internet’s version of direct mail — an inexpensive electronic medium that allows us to blitz prospects and customers with generic messaging.

This definition of e-mail was prevalent in the marketplace for many years. I remember countless meetings with marketers from financial services, retail, and entertainment where the idea that e-mail communications are more than glorified direct mail was scoffed at. I often heard comments like, “It’s cheap, we send a lot of it,” and “It works. We’re not sure why.”

Back in the early days, many e-mail service providers (ESPs) simply provided the enabling technology that powered e-mail delivery. Metrics were routinely cited: messages delivered per hour, deliverability ratios, open rates, click-through rates, and so forth.

In many of the RFPs (define) that I reviewed, there were pages and pages of IT-related questions and concerns about a wide range of topics. It seemed as though marketing and business decisions were being made more from the technology punch lists than from the ability for the partner to solve a business need.

Today, savvy businesses see e-mail communications as a channel to acquire new customers, build meaningful dialogues with existing clients, win back lost customers, and service all business areas. We’ve moved away from technical performance metrics as the sole determinant of an ESP’s suitability. In the ESP selection process, if you aren’t asking upfront, “How can you help me achieve my goals?” you’re missing a great opportunity.

Most ESPs power e-mail campaigns for a wide selection of customers challenged by a diverse set of business issues. The client services/account management organization within your partner company should do much more than tactically execute campaigns, regardless of whether it’s a full- or self-service relationship. That team should provide you insight on collective knowledge from deploying its clients’ e-mail communications.

Make sure you have meet with prospective ESP account manager/client services personnel who will work on your account. These people are critically important in helping you achieve success in this vital area. If the chemistry isn’t right, if the person is inexperienced in the e-mail business, you may be headed for trouble.

What’s the tenure of your target ESP’s account management team? A team with solid experience can be expected to provide stronger insight, and not only on industry best practices. More important, they’ll be experts on the technology platform that’s the backbone of your delivery strategy. Ask the question…upfront.

Don’t expect an ESP to divulge proprietary information about an individual company’s performance or strategy, but do expect the aggregate lessons from assembling best-practice information. Surely your account manager will have dealt with companies who shared similar challenges. It’s the account manager’s responsibility to help you maximize overall campaign performance. Consider asking for reference accounts, then call to find out if the account manager actually provides a high level of information and insight.

Granted, I’ve been in situations where clients weren’t enthusiastic about our insight and views. Some chose to ignore advice from someone who “didn’t understand our business.” That’s unfortunate because while a given account manager may have never worked in a bank, an auto showroom, or a theme park, he should know a great deal about what works and what doesn’t within the e-mail arena.

If your account manager isn’t being forceful in discussions about problems he sees in your campaigns before you run them, it’s time to get another account manager — or a new ESP.

No one expects marketers to know everything there is to know about leveraging this new platform. If you’re humble enough to admit you don’t know it all, you should be demanding enough to ask your account manager how to improve your performance. The effectiveness of e-mail communications is just too critical to your company’s business to miss out on insight that should be coming unsolicited.

E-mail technology has always been very powerful and in many cases intuitive. Unlocking this technology’s power and leveraging it to achieve your goals is the real challenge. When selecting your next ESP; make sure you aren’t trying to find the winning combination alone.

Until next time,

Al D.

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

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