An email service provider, or ESP for short, is the system you use to send out promotional emails. When Katey Charles Communications first opened as an email agency in 2003, there weren’t many platform options available. Email marketing was still relatively new, and it felt like everybody was a small player back then.
Now it’s a whole new world of email marketing. Mergers and acquisitions happen frequently in the industry, and startup companies show up regularly as well. There are hundreds of email marketing platforms, and while they may all have the same core functionality (create, send and report on email messages), they all boast different strengths.
Some are simple and straightforward and still pretty low tech overall, which also means lower cost for small organizations that just need a way to get an email newsletter out. Others have complex features that allow marketers to create one-to-one dynamic emails that align with the customer journey. Many ESPs now offer multiple marketing channels, including email, social, web and SMS texting.
Our team has partnered with multiple vendors and also used additional platforms for specific projects. We have helped many clients through the sometimes arduous process of choosing a new platform to best fit their needs. If you are considering switching ESPs, here are some important things to consider:
Give yourself plenty of time
Let me be completely honest here: choosing a new email service provider is an intense process. It’s not easy at all. It will make your brain hurt as you evaluate all the options. It’s really, really hard, if not impossible, to compare apples to apples. You’ll need to schedule demos with multiple platforms and sometimes follow-up calls to gather additional details. Some organizations choose to do a formal request for proposal process once they’ve narrowed down their top few choices, while others make a decision based on demos and basic pricing proposals alone.
If you’re brand new to email marketing, you’ll also need to factor in the time it will take to complete set up and get fully trained on a new platform. On some systems, migrations and training can be done pretty quickly, especially for small organizations. But for larger companies with more complex email marketing programs, migration can take several months. In general, we recommend starting the search somewhere between six months and one year prior to your target go-live date.
Identify what you need
Start with a list of the capabilities you’re looking for in an ESP. If you have a current platform, what do you like or not like about it? What limitations of your current platform are holding you back? What creates a headache for you or your team as you work in the existing platform?
Is a WYSIWYG editor that can be used by a staff member who doesn’t have coding skills an important feature? Or do you want the flexibility to dive into the code and make changes there? Do you need the ability to assign different roles and permissions to your team so that only certain people can schedule an email to send? Do you need the email platform to integrate other systems your company uses? What about dynamic content to personalize emails? Or the ability to send transactional emails for order confirmations that are separate from promotional emails? What sort of list segmentation capabilities do you need? What kind of reports do you require? And don’t forget about customer service. What kind of partner are you looking for in that regard? Do you need a dedicated account manager, or are you okay with just email support?
After you brainstorm your wish list of features, put them in priority order or at least group them by must-haves and nice-to-haves. The list of must-have features can help you weed out platforms that don’t fit your most critical needs.
Assess your budget
Pricing for ESPs can get complicated quickly, so it helps to know your total budget and to understand the different pricing structures that platforms might use. Some charge a base monthly fee and then a CPM (cost per thousand emails) rate for the emails you actually send. Others structure their pricing as a flat fee based on tiers of maximum monthly or annual send volume. There may be additional fees for initial setup/migration, training, template creation, additional advanced features or support beyond basic technical issues once migration is complete.
As a first step, gather details about your current email volume and the CPM you’re paying, if applicable. Also look at any other fees you are paying your ESP for email marketing support, such as strategy, graphic design or coding support, to assess your current investment in email marketing. Then consider the budget range you’re willing to invest for email marketing. Sometimes migrating to a new platform can save you money, but sometimes it doesn’t.
For small organizations, there are even some free email marketing platforms, though the drawbacks that come with this might not be worth it. Free platforms often mean shared IP addresses, which means your emails may be blocked at times when another customer sends out spam on the IP address. Also, it’s harder to get help on the free platforms if something’s not working right. Most of the time, they offer email support and maybe chat, but not phone support.
Very few ESPs list pricing on their websites, so you’ll need to schedule a demo or a sales call to get those details. Knowing your budget limitations up front can help you ask the right questions and eliminate any platforms that are out of your price range.
Develop a comparison matrix
Before you start scheduling demo calls, pull together a comparison matrix based on the list of must-have and nice-to-have features that you’ve already brainstormed and prioritized. If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, it could just be a list of questions you type in a Word document and use to guide information-gathering efforts on each call.
The big goal here is to make sure you’re gathering information that aligns with your priorities from each potential platform so you can compare them later. Trust us when we say that you won’t remember the details of any specific platform after you’ve reviewed five different platforms in three weeks. It all starts to blur together, and your comparison matrix or list of standard questions gives you something to go back to as you evaluate the options.
Watch out for shiny object syndrome
There are some really impressive ESPs on the market with lots of bells and whistles. It’s easy to fall in love with a beautifully designed dashboard or a slick WYSIWYG editor, but if those items aren’t at the top of your required-features list, don’t let them distract you from your top priorities. They may be pretty and shiny, but are they moving you toward your email marketing goals? Now, it’s entirely possible you view a platform that has a feature you’ve never even considered because you didn’t know it existed. If that’s the case, take some time to evaluate that feature in light of your identified priorities and see if it holds up to the rest of your priorities.
Yes, choosing a new ESP can be an overwhelming process because there are a lot of details involved. Approaching it methodically can help you navigate the process a little more smoothly. If you need some outside help with the process or want to learn more about the platforms we offer, please reach out so we can chat about your needs and help you through choosing a new ESP.