What Is an ESP?

For an industry that is routinely ignored by the trade press, email marketing is surprisingly vibrant.

How vibrant?

According to Indiemark and BlackBox, the number of companies that self-identify as an email service providers (ESPs) has steadily increased to an impressive and surprising 387.

But they aren’t the only ones counting. According to Email Vendor Selection, there are an astounding 459.

This begs the question: What’s an email service provider?

If you check out the list on emailvendorselection.com, you’ll of course find the usual suspects, but you’ll also find some surprising entrants. From Adestra to PostUp to Zrinity, you’ll find an amazing array of services that tackle the various challenges that have arisen as email has matured into the mission critical product it has become.

For one, an ESP doesn’t just send email. The ecosystem represented by emailvendorselection.com contains many companies that aid delivery, process bounces, manage CRM data, and organize cross-channel campaigns. They validate our viewpoint that email is not (just) about sending email anymore.

But can all of these companies survive in the era of the marketing cloud? Let’s look at the rise of another industry as disruptive and ubiquitous as email – the automobile.

Brought to market roughly 100 years before the rise of commercial email, the automobile offers many parallels to email marketing. For one, the early days of the automobile industry offered many models from many manufacturers. It was, like the early days of email, a complicated, full-service concept. Just owning an automobile in 1900 meant that you were probably either wealthy, technically sophisticated, or both. There were special gloves and goggles, hand cranks, and things broke down all the time.

But the more cars that were sold, the more roads and infrastructure were built to accommodate public adoption, and the more things started to settle down. Product choices became easier, if not less interesting.

At the beginning of 1928, there were more than 100 car manufacturers. But consolidation is a constant in business and in order to scale, the larger car companies – at that time GM, Ford, and Chrysler – sought to grow market share by acquisition, not unlike what is happening in the email industrial complex today. By 1935, the Big Three had 90 percent of the domestic U.S. auto market locked up.

Will we see the same thing with email marketing? How many providers will survive the era of the marketing cloud? And WHAT is a marketing cloud, anyway? Did it even exist before email?

Like the automobile industry, currently being disrupted by companies like Tesla, I expect the email marketing industrial complex to continue to thrive. As the concept of addressable audience gains a foothold in marketers’ consciences, brands will look to their CRM files for paid media reach. And as the chief marketing executive (CMO) gets more pressure to implement technology, she will be looking for ways to integrate and unite her owned and paid media strategies.

So look for further consolidation in the email industrial complex, leading to theoretically simpler marketing automation platforms produced by fewer players who seek to cater to marketers seeking standardization.

Where do you fit? Are you marketing-cloud-ready? Or are you an email Studebaker?

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