’Full Service’? Caveat Emptor

As Jackie pointed out last week, an email marketer’s to-do list can be both cumbersome and overwhelming. It requires either one multitalented taskmaster with energy to burn, or an entire team to make sure that all systems are go — for every single campaign. That means heavy-duty analysis of previous campaigns; development of new offers and creative based on that analysis; setup of lists and tracking with perhaps some dynamic and viral-oriented messaging thrown in… The list goes on.

Those who do it right know that creating a new and successful email marketing campaign on a regular basis is more science now than it ever has been. Not exactly an easy job, which is why more and more companies seem to be outsourcing to full-service email marketing specialists.

If you’re thinking about using an outside firm to help you with your email marketing efforts, that’s great. You’ve probably done the math and figured out that you can hire a world-class, full-service email marketing agency to handle your creative and deployment requirements for less than the cost of hiring one full-time professional. If you haven’t done the math, then you owe it to yourself to do so.

Let’s say that you’ve decided to make that leap, which means you’re probably talking to a lot of sales reps and comparing corporate capabilities, core competencies, client lists, pricing, and so on. That’s a full-time job unto itself.

One other thing you might also discover is the overwhelming number of “email marketing firms” that position themselves as being “full service.”

Whoa. This is the time to really dig deep and find out exactly what they mean by “full service.” In more cases than not, they’re really just offering a back-end solution that may provide a few things — like tracking and such. But if you listen to them, they can do everything for you — they’re “experts” at HTML, Flash, streaming video and audio… you name it. They’ll even pick up your dry cleaning. Such a deal! (Not.)

The following are some of the main things that a full-service email marketing firm should be excellent at to deserve your business:

  • Strategy and offer development. This is a critical start to the success of your email marketing efforts. Basics such as your positioning, branding elements, integration of offline efforts, and offer development are integral to your success. There’s more, but you get the point. Do you want to entrust these essential things to anyone but a professional with years of experience? I think not. However, many of these “full-service email marketing firms” will leave you in the hands of a gum-snapping junior executive. My advice: Definitely do a lot of probing about this before you sign on the dotted line.
  • Creative development. Once you get the basics down, you’re ready for the creative development. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is the time to get all the necessary details documented in the form of a creative brief. And not only should your creative be aesthetically pleasing, it should also be strategic, compelling, and motivating for the target audience. So… ask the folks at the “full-service email marketing” firm whether they write a creative brief before they start the creative process. Chances are there may be a pregnant pause, a heavy sigh, and a confused retort. Hint: this is not a good sign.
  • Setup of your house list. Piece of cake, you say? Maybe not. Because if at this stage you’re not consistent with the way you set up your house list, how will you ever use that information later? It would be a bummer if you couldn’t get back to that information because you forgot how you set it up in the first place. Like the old saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
  • Updating of your house list. This is a critical part of the management of your database. Jackie’s laundry list from last week should provide you with enough impetus to ensure that you hire a true professional firm.
  • Tracking through to deployment. How do you know if your campaign did well? Did you test different elements? Make sure that the email marketing agency you hire is also an expert in direct marketing. This can make the world of difference in all of your campaigns. (Hint: Not too many companies out there are experts in direct marketing and email marketing.)

Then there’s the hybrid — the traditional agency that decides to jump on the bandwagon and add an interactive arm — complete with “full-service email marketing” (because “it’s the thing to do” and because “email is so hot now”). Don’t get me wrong; these traditional agencies are very good at what they do in their traditional space. And oh, of course it’s very sexy to hire that mega-world-class traditional agency with instant name recognition so we can tell all our friends and family. However, I caution you to research the agency fully before you sign on, because email is a different medium altogether. Caveat emptor.

Okay, all this begs that we ask the question, “Which is a true-blue, full-service email marketing agency?” You have to be the judge. I can only offer a few names that you may want to contact, but make sure you do your research carefully. so, that said: Some full-service email marketing firms are Digital Impact, Digital Cement, e-Dialog, Responsys (not an agency model, but they offer full-service email marketing, nonetheless), Avenue A (again, not an agency model), and of course (shameless plug), Inbox Interactive.

That’s it from me this week. So long until October 9.

–Lynne

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