How To Choose an eMail Marketing Partner

Lately, I have had a number of clients and private equity investors asking me to help identify who are the best email marketing companies and how they differentiate themselves.  Quite frankly, it’s confusing.  And you need to choose wisely because it’s typically going to be a long term relationship.

Mr. Zip , 1960-1980

Mr. Zip , 1960-1980

Choosing an eMail Service Provider (ESP) is critical to ensuring the deliverability of your message to the right audience at the right time.  An ESP may be used for transactional emails to your existing customers in process, and for prospecting to lists of former and prospective customers and those who have signed up for newsletters and such.  While there are many technical and interface usability issues to consider, I look at these top five areas when evaluating email service providers:

  1. Support
  2. Professional Services
  3. Deliverability
  4. Reporting
  5. Pricing

1) Support.

During the sales process you will meet rainmakers, executives, subject matter experts, high level technical support, and creative directors and so on.  The real question is: who is going to be there after the contract is signed?

  • Account Management – who specifically is responsible for your daily needs? Is this person a sales person, or a true account manager who is assigned to make sure you are getting the most for your money every day? Great account managers are incented to be your advocate inside the organization and get you what you need. They also bring best practices and help connect you to other experts who can help you to improve what you do. The Account Manager should have a voice inside the company, and an escalation process for when things go wrong. If not, then you are on your own, subject to whoever is yelling the loudest at that particular moment.
  • Executive Level Support – Ideally, the CEO will know you are a new customer and will reach out to your CEO. He or another executive should be available to you in the event you cannot get satisfaction through the regular channels. There needs to be a relationship with an executive who will be assigned to you as an ultimate escalation point. If are they too busy being executives to deal with customers like you, then you need to keep looking.
  • Ongoing support – you need to clearly define support levels you will receive, paying particular attention to the contractual Service Level Agreements (and penalties for failing to comply), how support works during business and non-business hours. Are the services US based, or based overseas?

2) Professional Services.

Depending on your internal or agency resources, and your level of experience in email marketing you will likely want to engage your ESP for professional Service.

In addition to delivering the email, what else can the ESP offer in terms of professional services?  Creative services, deployment services, white listing, data hygiene, analytics, personalization, multivariate testing and measuring, and so on are the types of services you may need.  First you need to understand what your ESP does and does not offer, what your options are, and how pricing works.  Some companies will charge you on a time and materials basis, others sell you blocks of time which get used over a defined period (typically 12 months).  Make sure you understand how the project scoping process works, change order management, account management, and sign off once services are delivered.

Also make sure you understand the ESP’s database backup and recovery procedures, and how long they keep your data.  Understanding service level agreements is critical here.

You may also find some ESP’s have certified third party consultants who can handle part or all of your email campaigns on an outsourced basis.  This is a pretty good option, especially if you are new to email marketing – you can rely on them and train your internal team members as you grow the program.

3) Deliverability

Spam is running higher than ever, so deliverability is key and should not be assumed or taken for granted.  The very best ESPs will already have a relationship with an email reputation monitor, a third-party that will monitor email address services providers (Google, AOL, MSN, Yahoo, etc.) to see whether emails are arriving safely and provide blacklist monitoring, pre-deployment spam filter checks and more.  The best in class ESPs will have direct relationships with the major ISPs and participate in their advisory boards or other forums.

Ask specifically who your prospective ESPs are working with and what they do to keep their reputation high. Directly ask what their latest reputation score is. The higher the score, the better their deliverability rates are; so ask what the ESP does to keep itself above board, maintain its white list status, and what will they do to prevent you from making a fatal mistake that could result in blacklisting.

Adhering to CAN-SPAM is a two way street – the client owns this responsibility as well.  Not only is it a legal concern, but it’s just smart business.

4) Reporting.

Email marketing lives and dies by its analytics, and your ability to take action based on the data.  Your ESP needs to provide great analytics that work with your existing platforms.

An ideal ESP reporting platform will measure your email campaign results and performance with advanced tracking tools and easy-to-read reports.   Basics include:

  • Delivery open and bounce rates
  • Link click tracking and performances Track who clicks your links and who doesn’t.
  • Sales revenue from subscribers.
  • Segmentation based on click, open, and sales activity.
  • A/B and Multi variate test results for messages, subject lines, forms, offers, ad campaigns etc.

Advanced ESP’s will provide, or integrate with,  a predictive modeling and analytics platform to identify your most profitable customer segments and predict the optimal marketing campaigns for each.   You will also need an API that will easily integrate with your database.

5) Pricing.

Email marketing is probably one of the most cost effective parts of your overall marketing portfolio.  It is relatively easy, inexpensive, and does not consume a lot of resources.  An effective email marketing manager will find lots of existing creative assets which can be repurposed as part of your email marketing campaign.  But some ESP’s have pricing schemes that will just drive you crazy.

Things to look at when considering ESP pricing include:

  • Monthly annual retainers or minimums – may ESPs will lock you in for a minimum commitment, even though you may not reach that level for some time. Look for a model that scales with your campaign, maturity in email marketing, and usage
  • Cost per email. Look at this from a number of angles, including cost per delivered email, opened email, cost per visit and so on.
  • Services – pricing for professional services is where a lot of money is made by ESPs, and a sore spot with me. The very best ESP’s will construct a flexible professional services pricing schedule that allows you to scale your usage without having to commit to unreasonable levels or to speculate as to how much service you will need 9 months in the future. Ask for volume disco9utn look backs on a 12 month basis or other ways to let you use their PS organization cost effectively. Ask what the cost per hour is for the people doing the work – often times a fair amount is built in for account management oversight fees.

Shopping for a new Email Service Provider ESP.

I have a very simple process which is most effective for choosing an ESP.  I advocate a three step approach:

  1. Define what you want to do, and what your expected outcomes are.   This is harder than it sounds.
  2. Send that definition to several (no more than 7) reputable ESP’s as a Request for Information (RFI) to see if, when, and how quickly they respond with a tailored response outlining how they can address your needs.
  3. Based on the responses and what you learn, send a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) to 3-5 of their very best respondents to your RFI.  From here you can evaluate their hunger for your business, working style, responsiveness, and ability to meet your needs and add additional value.

Always check references and ask deep, probing questions.  Dig deep into their worst experiences and how things were handled.  Once you choose and ESP, the cost and aggravation of switching will be very high – so you want to get it right the first time and have a phenomenal long term relationship with the winning partner.

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3 Responses to “How To Choose an eMail Marketing Partner”

  1. Bryan Stapp on October 4th, 2009:

    Marketing Profs was kind enough to post their own interpretation of this post – it’s pretty good!

  2. Marco Marini on October 4th, 2009:

    Bryan, this post is dead-on and in line with what we’ve been preaching for years. Since we offer the largest selection of ESPs in the nation, we have a unique view of the various ESPs and how they can fit (or not) with a specific client’s needs. Please feel free to download our “How to select an ESP” whitepaper ( – you’ll find our 20 factors to consider (with your 5 all in there). Again, great post.


    Marco Marini
    President & CEO
    ClickMail Marketing, Inc.

  3. uberVU - social comments on October 4th, 2009:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by CadenceMarket: How To Choose an eMail Marketing Partner