An email marketing platform is the foundation of modern business marketing, but you must look beyond the basic function of "create and send" to be more than simply competitive.
Choosing an email service provider (ESP) or email marketing software is not an easy task—you have to find a solution that meets your business needs today and also make sure that your future marketing goals are attainable.
Choosing the Right Mode: Managed, Hosted or In-House?
Before you look at features and options, you have to decide what software model is best-suited to your business. There are a number of different email marketing optiomns to consider regardless of whether you are a first-time buyer or looking to upgrade existing software.
Email marketing platforms can be a fully managed service where you contract with the vendor to develop and send your email campaigns. SaaS (software-as-a-service) or ASP (application service provider) is another popular choice. This is a contract with a vendor to use its Web-based email interface and bandwidth, while you keep control of the data. There are also in-house solutions to consider. With an in-house solution, you develop and purchase (or license) the software and the hardware is installed and maintained on-premises.
Aliya Zaidi, a research manager at Econsultancy, said the key decision in choosing between different types of platforms will largely depend on your experience. "With fully managed [services] you'll have a lot more input from the email vendor, whereas SaaS lets you have more control. If you want something in-house, the hardware requirement is an issue you have to consider," Zaidi said.
A fully managed service is a good choice for businesses with little email marketing experience. It's typically offered on a pay-as-you-go (or cost-per-email) basis, but provides the least amount of control because the vendor handles the business strategy, campaigns and data management.
When choosing a SaaS platform, you have access to Web-based tools to create and deliver campaigns, while the vendor takes care of the back-end integration and bandwidth. SaaS email marketing will provide you with more control than a fully managed service, but understand that you'll need experienced marketers to manage the campaigns.
In contrast, in-house systems, which give you the most control, require you to maintain the hardware, software and bandwidth, in addition to the email marketing strategy.
The Email Service Evaluation Process
Lora Downie, digital analyst and email marketing specialist for Catalyst, provides strategic guidance to clients when it comes to email services and integrations. The process that Catalyst uses offers helpful insight on how to find the best email service provider for your business.
According to Downie, there are a variety of reasons that companies shop for an email marketing platform, most often because a change in business growth brings forth a shift in the overall business communication strategy and its objective. A business may simply outgrow its small, in-house tools, a provider may only be able to offer some of the functionality needed, or a business may be looking for a new vendor because it is not happy with its current service.
"Service is the biggest area where clients feel underserved. A business s may have issues with its current platform—they might have errors with triggers or send times, for example—and then realize there is probably a better solution out there," she said.
To find the best ESP for your business, you first have to know your business's goals and objectives and look at your existing strategy. If you're looking for a new platform, Downie advises that this is a good time to decide if you need to refresh your overall communication strategy, because this bears heavily on deciding on what tools you'll choose.
"From this fundamental but basic perspective we would then reevaluate a customer's communications strategy and look at how are they use email now and how they should be using email. That will certainly shape the tool we decide to use," she explained.
Email Features, Trends and What to Look For
Today, businesses have copious amounts of data at their disposal, information that in turn can be a tremendous asset for email marketers. "The more sophisticated your platform the better you can integrate data sources and optimize your email as part of a wider campaign," said Zaidi.
To find the right email marketing platform or email service provider, you have to be aware of what your needs are—both for today and tomorrow. Is it cross-channel, mobile marketing or trigger-based sends? For example, if triggered messages are a huge piece of your new strategy, Downie recommends ensuring that the functionality is not only serviced by the new ESP, but that the provider has a great track record in that area.
"After deciding what a business needs, we then go through a requirements process," she said. "We would literally list out the functionalities required, based on the company's strategy, and look at what specific ESPs provide a high level of account management, then weight based on need. For example, a client in the banking industry would have a higher weight placed on security."
Today, companies tend to look for solutions that have strong performance and they often choose vendors with a solid track record in security, according to Downie. "As email evolves into this ever-integrating channel, being able to do more than just email within a single platform is very important," she said.
In some cases, a business may have limited choices, especially if it has a complex data structure. In this scenario, which is common in the enterprise, you're likely to choose a vendor that is familiar with your existing database and system to ensure that migration goes smoothly.
Businesses also need to consider future-proofing when looking for a new email marketing platform. Even if you are starting off just doing email, "you want to have a platform that will grow with you because the cost of switching platforms is high," Zaidi said.
"It goes back to the question of what is our vision, but what is attainable? You certainly don't want to pay for a Cadillac if all you need is a Ford," said Downie. "But finding something a little bit above where you're at today would probably suffice."
Email Marketing Vendors
Once you've narrowed down your list of needs and have determined what services, model and industry expertise you need, the next step is to find the best ESP to meet those strategic goals.
Unless you're involved with a client services company to do the hard work for you, you need learn what's out there and investigate your options to ensure that you choose a trustworthy vendor with a proven track record. Here are 20 email marketing vendors to get you started:
For more in-depth research, the "Forrester Wave Email Marketing Vendors Report" offers a look at 74 email marketers, and Econsultancy compares 20 vendors in the "Email Marketing Platforms Buyer's Guide 2012." Another good resource worth investigating is this Email Vendor Selection List, which offers details on 300 email service providers.