Email Deployment Systems: A Step-By-Step Buyer’s Guide

Greetings, Marketers!

This week, I thought I’d discuss researching email deployment systems. When doing research for our own purposes, we look at and consider many things. We take our clients’ needs into consideration, especially how they use email and how we will handle campaigns on their behalf. You know your business needs better than anyone, and you should add and delete items to reflect your own situation.

The best vendor searches and comparisons are done with a request for proposal (RFP) or similar document. Do your homework and understand your needs before you get too far down the road with vendors, partners, or agencies.

One of the best places to start is to consider what information you need in your reporting and campaign analysis. From there, work back to figure out how sophisticated your needs list is. For instance, if you send a newsletter once a month and need only a basic tool to get the mail out, don’t spend extra money on bells and whistles that provide data you are never going to act or base your decisions on.

Here are some of the things I consider when I look at systems or talk to salespeople.

Ease of use: This one’s self-explanatory. The shorter the learning curve, the better.

User support:

  • What is the availability? Do you have both phone and email access to your team?
  • What is response time to problems or inquiries?
  • What service/support packages are available for more advanced assistance, such as programming or technical integration?
  • What are the charges? Where might they kick in if you do need support outside your original agreement?
  • Are there any marketing-consultation-type services?

System:

  • What is the uptime guarantee?
  • How many servers are sending mail, and at what volume?
  • What is the back-up system for your data?
  • How is mail prioritized? Once you hit submit, what’s the expectation for when mail will actually be delivered?

“White hat” status and ISPs:

  • What happens if you get spam complaints?
  • What happens if you find out you are being blocked by an ISP? What support does the company or tool provide, and how does it provide the support? (If you’re using desktop software, you’re on your own here).

List services and hosting:

  • Does the provider host the list, or do you upload it each time?
  • Does it handle unsubscribe capture (if the provider hosts the list it probably will, but you need a way to manage this process)?
  • Data merge options: How many fields can you personalize in a message?
  • If your list is hosted, what are the options for uploading new lists and downloading data you may want to append to another database or pull into other reporting tools, software, and so on?
  • What are the options for electronic data exchange if you want to host forms on your own Web site and just send the additions or changes? Email or XML packets are common here.
  • Is the company deduping? If so, based on what criteria (e.g., email address)?
  • How many additional data fields can you store beyond email address?
  • What are the options for splitting a list easily for A/B testing or “nth panels,” allowing you to send a sample list a test message then follow up to the universe without hitting those same people with the same message?

Click-through data:

  • Is it stored at the user level, or is it aggregate (meaning can you find an individual or create a list of people who clicked on something versus just knowing that 5,000 people clicked)?
  • Can you track links using meaningful names, not just the gibberish the system might append to that link?
  • Can you track the same destination URL multiple times so you can tell, for example, that the button in the masthead was in a better location than the link in the body of the message?

Reporting:

  • How do you access it?
  • What is provided?
  • Can you export it so that you can marry it to other data ?
  • Does the company help you track HTML opens?
  • How often is data updated — real time, once a day?
  • Does the system report on true sent mail? How are bounces considered in the sent items count? For example, if bounces take two to three days to “final out,” how is that taken into consideration in reporting?

Bounces:

  • How many times does the system try an address?
  • Does the system track bounces to an address and eventually flag them, so that you don’t keep counting those numbers in your database when they really aren’t valid?
  • How do you access/manage bounces so you can recover addresses?

Forms and surveys:

  • Does the provider help you with sign-up forms if it hosts your data?
  • Can you build custom questions?

Referral or viral marketing:

  • Does the company provide this type of tracking, and to what level? Does it link the referee to the referred (allowing you to reward people for spreading the word)?
  • How easy is the tracking to set up?
  • How easy is it for the user? Does she have to go to a form, or can you include a simple link in the message that forwards?
  • How many forwards does the system track?
  • How are referred names flagged in the database? You do not yet have permission to email them. Are they protected so that you don’t?

“From” and “Reply to” email address options: Can you use an email address of your own, or are you limited to the provider’s?

Reply management: What are the options for sorting or forwarding mail going to addresses the provider owns or manages?

Format options at send:

  • Do you have to know in advance what the recipient can receive?
  • Does the system make assumptions about format, or does it send multi-part or mimed messages that help you deliver HTML to more recipients?
  • How does the system interpret AOL addresses?

Automated message options:

  • Can you set up messaging to deploy based on actions, inactions, time periods, specific interest requests, and so on?
  • Can you set up variable content to be included based on data in the database (e.g., gardening information specific to a region — the Northeast versus the Southeast)?

This covers the big stuff. Systems and pricing differ widely for email services these days. Per-message pricing may not vary greatly, but you’ll find the options listed here can greatly impact pricing and the decision you make. Try and find three comparable tools or services in your search. This might provide a better basis for negotiation.

If you are shopping for vendors, ClickZ is building a list of service providers in its new Email Strategies section.

Have a great week!

–Jackie G.

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