At Tinuiti, we often help our clients navigate the complex process of selecting a new email service provider (ESP). The landscape of ESPs has changed considerably in the past few years. Many young companies have come to challenge the existing players with new and innovative ideas and are changing the value proposition.
7 Tips for Selecting an Email Service Provider
With all the options available, it is important to make sure the ESPs you’re considering are evaluated fully to ensure that they meet the needs of your email program or your broader marketing program.
Most ESPs have a few features in common, but they often differ in the level of sophistication at which you can execute email. Some have so many options available that navigating the ESP can be a challenge in and of itself, where others simplify the experience to get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
It is important that the user experience for potential operators of the ESP makes sense. The depth of technical knowledge on your email marketing team should be evaluated alongside the tools you’re vetting in order to ensure the ESP you select is user-friendly. Adapting to the experience of a new platform can take considerable time and expense; the greater the difference from the current ESP, the longer the training and acclimation period will be.
For the traditionalist, building emails through HTML is available with any ESP and will provide you with the most flexibility in design and highest compatibility with various email clients. For visual email builders, email building has gone beyond the WYSIWYG editors of yesteryear (though they are still offered by many) and has become even easier with the introduction of drag-and-drop editors. Drag-and-drop editing can be dead simple: drop email elements like an image section or text section and edit it with the content that you want.
Visual editors achieve their ease of use by using a more modern method of building emails. This method is well-supported by modern and evolving email clients like Gmail and Apple’s Mail app, but has so-so support in applications like Outlook in which direct HTML coding is preferred. If your audience is primarily opening your emails on mobile devices or web providers like Gmail, you are likely to be able to get by with visual email tools. B2B companies, who often have a lot of Outlook users on their list, will want to ensure emails are coded with HTML unless the emails are plain text.
Segmentation is a critical piece of any marketer’s toolbox. It helps to avoid over sending emails, ensuring the right audience is receiving the appropriate messaging and can be helpful to understand your audience by filtering them by their characteristics and activities.
In examining the segmentation capabilities of an ESP, you will want to assess how complex you need to get. Simple single level segmentation such as X AND Y AND Z is available on practically every platform, but if your needs go to a second level like (X AND Y) OR Z, or even three-plus levels, you’ll want to make sure the platform can support that level of sophistication.
Going beyond the depth of segmentation, you’ll want to review the parameters on which you’ll be able to segment. Being able to target contact-level fields is a given (subscription status, opt-in source, etc.), but not every ESP makes it simple to use engagement data (like email opens or clicks) or past purchase data to generate segments. Assess your program’s specific needs and run through a few use cases to determine if the ESP in question can support the logic you’re likely to need. If you plan to utilize custom data or tables, you will want to confirm that they can be selected within the segmentation tool.
Integration capabilities can provide a big advantage to your marketing program. Turn-key integrations are becoming more popular as they help to reduce the cost and complexity of migrating platforms. Integrating your eCommerce platform with your ESP can take a lot of work if it has to be built from the ground up, so do some research on the ESPs that play best with your current platform.
Integrations are not only limited to eCommerce platforms. They can cover a wide range of tools such as rewards platforms and pop-up managers. Selecting an ESP that has plug-and-play integration with most or all of your tools can help to expedite the ESP transition and keep your data easily in sync. With no engineering effort required, it reduces the need for additional resources to get all your marketing efforts online with your new ESP.
If an integration does not exist, most ESPs have an API available to feed data into the platform or even trigger whole emails. But not all APIs are created equal so be sure to review documentation to ensure the ESP you’re considering has the functionality you need.
In today’s marketing environment, the number of digital channels is always evolving. Many ESPs have responded by expanding their channel offerings, sharing data with other channels like social media in order to support remarketing efforts and audience targeting via look-alikes. Others have gone even further and allow for full execution within the platforms for channels such as SMS and mobile push.
Consolidating the management of multiple marketing channels under a single platform gives marketers the advantage of being able to see – and control – more of the customer journey. You can send a push notification and follow up with an email to the non-engaged an hour later, or retargeting contacts who clicked on the push notification or email but didn’t purchase. This scenario is dependent on the channel support of the ESP and your own marketing mix, but it is a very compelling proposition to marketers.
Verify the capabilities of the ESP’s cross-channel capabilities. Just because they “support Facebook” doesn’t mean they have the full publishing capabilities of the native Facebook platform. Some SMS integrations only support the acquisition, but not broadcast, or have limits on interactivity.
We would all like to believe that things never go wrong, but we often find that belief to be a pipe dream. Support levels vary by ESP, with few offering after-hours support or help with more complex technical projects (without an additional fee), and many only providing an email address to get in touch.
Email can be just as fast as a phone call in some cases but sometimes having a person on the phone for real-time support can be meaningful. Examine the offerings provided by the ESPs, as support can come with restrictions. Some ESPs will offer the basic guidance and will not be able to directly work on your email or system without a paid service tier. Others may be happy to do so but cannot provide priority unless it is a platform issue. Service Level Agreements (SLA), if available, can help to define the support structure and timing.
Pricing and proposals can vary widely but are certainly a major factor in the ESP selection process. The proposal that you receive will usually be determined on factors that you provide to the ESP:
· Number of contacts
· Email volume
· Any value-add options
Those data points might seem straightforward, but they’re a bit of a moving target; contingency costs often arise due to exceeding projections. What happens if the number of contacts grows quickly or you exceed email volume allocations? Make sure you can anticipate these scenarios so there are no surprises, and be aware of overage premiums to determine whether or not the ROI is there.
The length of the engagement with an ESP should also be scrutinized. One-year deals are quite common, but options for multi-year engagements can result in significant cost-savings. The savings might introduce a risk, however, if you become unhappy with the platform, or outgrow its functionality.
Understanding your must-haves and nice-to-haves beforehand undertaking an ESP review will inform your decision-making process and ensure that the option you select will support minimum viability for your marketing needs. Picking the right ESP will give your email marketing program the tools to grow and succeed.
If you still find yourself looking to make some moves with your email marketing program, consider reaching out to Tinuiti. We have done many ESP migrations for clients ranging from startups to enterprise-level, in addition, to help build and manage email programs.