What to Look for in a Bulk E-Mail System

In an online forum, someone recently asked whether to go for a software or service e-mail marketing solution. A number of well thought-out responses outlined the pros and cons of each option. Other responses recommended a build-it-yourself approach, making truly outlandish claims of how quickly and cheaply this could be accomplished.

I would have attributed these remarks to the vagaries of online, except I’ve seen this same sentiment espoused many times. Then a few days later, I saw a chart from Forrester that indicates 15 percent of e-mail marketers use a custom in-house solution. This figure stunned me. As the chief architect of an e-mail marketing system and a software developer with 20 years’ experience, I know firsthand the challenges and costs of creating and maintaining an effective e-mail marketing platform.

First, there’s a platform’s subtle complexity. Sending an e-mail is a trivial task and it’s easy to think, “How hard can using an in-house system be?” But managing bulk e-mail delivery can be very hard. Million-to-one chances, things you’re never likely to see using your desktop software, show up every day and must be handled gracefully. Plus the major ISPs all have their own standards for acceptable bulk delivery. They have a multitude of concurrency and session limits, extremely variable response codes, and a plethora of other requirements, some of which contradict Internet standards.

A second challenge is scope. A good system must handle bounces, vacation messages, replies, click-throughs, opens, opt-outs, opt-ins, profile management, and forwards to a friend. It must be able to monitor deliverability and reputation and facilitate corrective action where necessary. And it must be capable of collating these results and presenting them in a meaningful manner in real time.

Third is moving goalposts. Once a system is built, it must be maintained. In this young medium, best practices are constantly evolving and your system must run just to stand still. Adding support for systems such as DomainKeys and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) takes significant time and expertise. We can expect this trend to continue with such requirements as support for SMS (define), RSS, behavioral targeting, and dynamic messaging.

Finally, there’s expertise. The same Forrester report indicates that most companies have fewer than four employees managing their e-mail marketing programs. The additional requirements of software, e-mail, and deliverability expertise will inevitably require the team to be substantially larger with a commensurate increase in cost. Staying abreast of current developments and industry best practices can be a full-time job.

Over the years I’ve worked with many companies with list hygiene and deliverability issues, and the worst cases are almost invariably those using homegrown systems. A recent example was a multibillion-dollar software company that believed it had an excellent system and no significant deliverability issues. When we evaluated its lists, however, we found almost 40 percent of addresses were undeliverable. It turned out there were entire classes of bounces the system wasn’t recognizing, and the staff had no idea.

If you currently use a homegrown system, I strongly encourage you to do two things:

  • Perform an audit. Test your system to confirm that it’s working the way you think. In today’s environment it’s not acceptable to miss bounces, click-throughs, and, most important, unsubscribe requests.
  • If you aren’t yet working with a third party to monitor deliverability and reputation, find one and start. Every e-mail service provider (ESP) offers this kind of service for a reason. Without it, you can’t be sure what’s happening to your messages. You need independent verification.
  • Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly situations where building your own platform makes sense. If e-mail is central to your organization and you have the infrastructure, expertise, and commitment, you may see substantial benefits from tightly integrating an e-mail platform with your existing systems. I’m also not advocating using an ESP, as there are a variety of software solutions out there that may be appropriate for some organizations. For most organizations, however, there are significant pitfalls and costs associated with a homegrown system. The risks may vastly outweigh the rewards.

    Until next time,


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

    Related reading