What to Expect From Your ESP

One of the best-attended sessions at last month’s ClickZ E-Mail Marketing Conference was the panel I hosted on choosing an e-mail solution. Attendees had lots of questions about in-house and outsource solutions, and some raised specific issues that were troubling them. It got me thinking: what should a client reasonably expect from an e-mail service provider (ESP)? Here’s a short, and by no means complete, list.

Tracking and Reporting

Whether you’re using an in-house system or an ESP, you should be able to get metrics on bounces, opens, and clicks. We’ve been able to track opens since 2000. Bounce and click-through tracking have been around even longer. There’s no excuse not to get them.

One conference attendee wanted to know why her ESP needed two weeks to provide this information; no one on the panel had an explanation. Our advice was to get a new ESP. It’s standard procedure to provide real-time tracking of these metrics. Don’t accept anything less.

And don’t accept bogus arguments for not providing this information. An IT group managing an in-house e-mail solution recently told me they considers tracking opens and clicks an invasion of recipients’ privacy, so they don’t do it. If that’s really the concern, you can protect individuals’ privacy by providing only aggregate data, not specific data by e-mail address. Any group that refuses to provide any tracking and reporting is shirking its responsibilities and doing a serious disservice to the group sending the e-mail messages.

Bounce Management

Bounces have gained importance over the years. There are a number different flavors of soft bounces, some of which include messages from spam filters. Your ESP or in-house IT team should have someone reviewing the bounce messages and determining if there’s a deliverability problem. If not, here are some general rules of thumb for bounce management:

  • E-mail addresses returning a hard bounce should be removed from a list right away.

  • If an e-mail address consistently returns a soft bounce over three or five sends, it should be removed.

Make sure your solution isn’t applying any unrealistic timeframes to these rules. In working with a client’s list some time ago, I found a group of addresses had consistently returned soft bounces for at least nine months. We later learned their ESP’s bounce rules removed e-mail addresses that returned three soft bounces in a 30-day period. Since the client was only mailing to this group once a month, none of the soft bounces ever qualified for removal.

Continuing to send to an e-mail address that soft-bounces is a waste of money and can make you appear to be a spammer, since you aren’t cleaning your list. Make sure soft bounces are removed promptly and regularly.


It seems basic to say an ESP or IT team responsible for the in-house system should support its customers. But many account representatives and IT managers are responsible for more clients than they really have time for. Support quality can suffer, especially if you opted for a self-service, rather than full-service, solution.

When my queries on a customer’s database hosted by an ESP were getting hung up, the account manager initially suggested I try the customer discussion board. She said maybe someone there could help me. Not acceptable. There are times when it helps to get information from another source, but if it involves use of a tool the ESP provides, it should be able to provide support.


ESP account managers used to be knowledgeable about standards, best practices, and regulations related to e-mail; the ESPs spent a good deal of time and resources training them. This was a huge benefit of going with an ESP over an in-house solution. But as the market has pushed prices lower, it seems this type of training has suffered.

I was contacted by a woman who had some questions about getting her e-mail sign-up page to comply with COPPA. Rather than answering her questions, her account manager sent her to me for some free advice, since I’d tackled a similar issue for a mutual client of ours.

The ESP should have had someone there to counsel her. COPPA is a federal regulation regarding the collection of personal information online, which is what growing an e-mail list is all about.

Bottom Line

If you aren’t getting these things from your ESP or in-house solution, escalate your needs to a higher level within the organization. If you still aren’t satisfied, it’s time to switch.

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