5 Tips For Choosing An Email Service Provider
By Kate Jarosinska / June 9, 2016

An email in the inbox today can contain cats that dance and jackets that change type depending on whether it’s raining or windy when the recipient looks at their inbox. But should it?

Choosing an email service provider can be tough when 100+ competitors clamor for attention and opportunity.

An email marketing program’s success depends most on the match between a company’s needs and the types of service a vendor can provide. No one wants to be one of the email service clients who uses less than 10% of their program’s capability. Nor does anyone want to hear that their ESP can’t send the one million emails per week that the subscriber base has now grown to. Both over-buying and limitations can severely limit return on investment.

So what should you look for? And how do you start?

1. Understand Current Pain Points

Typically, a marketing team takes one of two approaches to finding an email service provider: sending out an RFP to many vendors or narrowing down the field to a select few and then submitting an RFP. How many RFPs can one organization’s team read? We’ve learned from experience that after about six or so, the unique features each one offers begin to blur into meaninglessness. There have even been reports of marketers running for the hills, hair a-fire (not really, but sometimes the experience makes you want to). 

Those who turn attention inward on email effort, look at successes, failures and—most of all—pain points, before shopping for an ESP, save a great deal of time and confusion in the long-haul.

First and foremost, it’s key to connect with all internal stakeholders to warrant the move to switching vendors. Too often, marketers don’t realize their current program can and does address their specific program goals. As mentioned above, some marketers only use about 10% of their platform’s capabilities! Consulting with the current ESP’s customer service and account management teams can help determine how to achieve better ROI, open and deliverability rates that can be a better investment of time; rather than researching and switching ESPs altogether. Email experts know that the relationship with the ESP can mimic a marriage: the more invested, the more received. With no effort, the relationship may start to fizzle out.

However, on the other hand, if the email list has grown beyond the capacity of the current ESP or it offers no appropriate API when the time to integrate arises – a switch should most definitely commence. Legitimate pain points exist – potentially it’s a dissatisfaction with customer service. Not surprisingly, this is the number one reason organizations switch email vendors. When evaluating ESPs, zooming in on how each potential option addresses a particular pain point can help separate the winners from the potentials. It also gives marketers a starting place when venturing into the noisy and chaotic bazaar that the ESP market can be.

2. State Your Purpose & Have A Clear Email Strategy 

Email can do a great deal, but capturing all opportunities in the world will take all the budget in the world. No brand has the ability to do that (though I’m sure all wish they did). Instead, limit and narrow in on the strategic organizational goals and venture out with the emails that achieve the right goals one at a time. As we all know emails not only have the power to build awareness, convert, provide post-purchase and upsell opportunities – but they also are the vehicle through which we send personalized and relevant offers and ultimately, create raving fans for a lifetime.

The more goals selected, the more sophisticated the email service provider needs to be. Still, by operating on an a la carte basis, most mid-market and enterprise-level ESPs can expand and limit their offerings (and their pricing) depending on client needs. Select top priorities and be ready to explain them to a short list of email service providers.

While assessing goals, keep in mind marketing superstar Jay Baer’s prime directive: “ The most important goal that a well-designed email marketing program achieves is building a relationship of trust and mutual warmth with your users. Everything else [including profits] follows from there.” Well said Mr. Baer.

3. Try To See Past The Cool Features

Developers love what they do (and they love getting paid for it even more). That’s why they code-up all the fun stuff that goes viral that we all love sharing and commenting on.  Email today offers so many fun, shiny-new-objects, it’s understandable that marketers get starry-eyed when looking at and considering them all. But be sure not to let email marketing dreams exceed a budget. Focus on what you need and how the potential vendor at hand can deliver on it for you.

Email goals get polished and tweaked in the process of narrowing down a potential ESP vendor list. A growing ecommerce company may be set on A/B testing, triggered, transactional, automated and email personalization to improve revenue and overall customer lifetime value. A software company, on the other hand, may get more engagement and conversions through comprehensive nurture programs, optimizing their landing pages and SEO keyword monitoring.  Similarly, a company with team members handling much of the work in-house may not even need deliverability management or analytics offerings that the email service provides. A company simply sending out quarterly shareholder reports may not need a laundry list of exciting email features. An ecommerce retailer dependent on email for producing 25% of their revenue, on the other hand, should be grabbing up email opportunities like plastic eggs at an Easter party.

Those still drawn to “cool” features, must ask themselves: “Will this increase our conversion rate?” If not, leave it to next year, after conquering current goals.

4. In-House or Out-Source: Who Will Do What?

The better an email is optimized, the higher the ROI. But conscientious optimization takes boots on the ground and man hours to be the success it has the potential to be.

If you’re strapped for resources (as many and most of us are), leveraging the ESP’s Strategic Services team can help you create, execute and continually optimize any email marketing programs you currently have in place or want to bring on board and launch as new. BlueHornet client, Columbia Sportswear, had a team of 1 with an extremely long list of lifecycle messaging programs they wanted and knew they needed to put into place – immediately. So they turned to BlueHornet to handle everything from strategy and execution to performance analysis. Not only did open rates and click through rates increase, the team was able to extend multiple lifecycle messaging programs throughout more than one channel of the Columbia brand.

Those with lean-running teams (non-profits for example) can choose to receive not only training, but on-going monitoring, support and recommendations . . . also known as “soup to nuts!” from their chosen ESP. Determining which email tasks will be out-sourced and which shall be kept in-house helps marketers sort through their exact needs when determining the best email service provider.

5. The Key to Email Marketer Satisfaction: Service

Inadequate + poor customer service is the number one reason organizations leave their current ESPs. When interviewing and researching ESPs, however, it can be tough to ferret out the exact and true level of service, because most brands are going to want to show you the world and make promises they necessarily may not be able to keep. One can ask questions like, “do you have 24/7 service?” or “are the top experts available at 11:00 at night?” Knowing that you can get answers, help, strategy and helpful tricks at your fingertips is key to overall program success. Working with an ESP that has exceptional customer service should be a must when considering your options. 

Final Quick Tips for Choosing an Email Service Provider

  • Has the ESP had success with other mid-market and enterprise-level businesses in a similar industry? Review their case studies. Look at their client logos, social profiles, blog posts. Get in their world and see what people are saying about them.
  • If your email program will need customization, make sure to ask about other cases in which the ESP has provided it to companies similar to yours. Where one ESP specializes in the most recent, bolt-on bells and whistles, another may have those amazingly talented developers that implements seamless integrations.
  • Don’t limit list size to the current number of subscribers. Instead, think of the number it could grow to in three, five and 10 years. Think of the number you want it to be and your subscriber growth goals. Will the email service provider be able to scale up with your future business?
  • The more detail involved in the RFP submitted to the vendor, the more detail the vendor can return. Vaguely worded pain points, experiences and goals can only elicit vague responses. Accurate measurement depends on precision. Of course, the best ESPs contact the company for verification of certain points, but be specific, direct and aggressive in your goals, needs and wants. An ESP wants to deliver on those for you – so state it all at once and let them try to deliver you the world.
  • After submitting the RFP, marketers should give the vendor at least two weeks to respond. They are going to have many moving parts to assemble from several different departments – so giving them the need time to create a seamless and coherent response will ultimately lead to the success of your digital marketing programs.

Taking the time to select the right email service is crucial to the success of both a company’s email marketing program and their overall brand success.

Looking to switch ESPs? Want to learn more about BlueHornet?

BlueHornet helps companies reach their email potential with a unique combination of enterprise-scale email marketing solutions and award-winning services. From emerging businesses to Fortune 500 companies, BlueHornet’s customers rely on our powerful, intuitive cloud-based software to implement highly-targeted lifecycle messaging programs that optimize email marketing ROI. Contact us for a demo today. I 866-586-3755 I