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7 Tips to Help Pick an Email Marketing Service Provider

October 24, 2013 Bradford Group Administrator

We’ve said it elsewhere on our website, and I’ll reiterate it here: Email has had a transformational effect on our culture.

Likewise, email marketing has had a transformational effect on our businesses.

What’s not to love about a platform that costs fractions of a penny to use and produces an average revenue of $0.12 per email sent? In fact, a 2013 Econsultancy report found that two-thirds of marketers believe email delivers an “excellent” or “good” ROI.

If you’re like me, your email inbox is littered with communications from brands. According to the Direct Marketing Association’s 2012 Email Tracking Report, 49 percent of consumers subscribe to one to 10 brands, 24 percent subscribe to 11 to 20 brands and 19 percent subscribe to over 20 brands.

email-inboxConcert calendars. Movie listings. Coupons for oil changes. Daily deals. Shopping guides. You send it; I’ll likely read it.

If your company wants to get in on the email marketing action, you first need to decide which email service provider (ESP) to use.

Welcome to the rabbit hole.

Researching ESPs is fraught with lingo, competing value propositions and too many purposely-colorful opinions. To simplify the haze, here are seven tips to help your business pick an email marketing service provider.

1. Size

By size, I mean the size of your organization. Within the top ESP recommendations there are certainly ones that are better fits for large enterprises and others better suited to small to midsized businesses (SMBs). The difference primarily shows up in pricing (see below), and level of technical and graphic knowhow.

For example, enterprise providers such as ExactTarget allow for 100 percent design customization, but you need to have coding and graphic resources in-house. This is something that many small businesses lack, and even if you do have a developer on staff, more times than not that individual just doesn’t have the time to spend on marketing projects.

Here are a few enterprise and SMB providers to consider. (While I do have my favorites, I’ve listed these in alphabetic order to keep those opinions to myself. Look me up if you want my personal assessment!)



2. List Management

When organizing your email lists, segmentation is a must. Most, if not all, ESPs provide list segmentation. What does differ between one provider and another is the depth of segmentation possible and the ease of use.

Can you segment your list based on geography, or the date the user joined your email list? What about reaching out to individuals who’ve previously purchased items from your store. How about reaching customers who live in Baltimore who’ve bought a kayak from your store within the last six months? If you need that level of detail, you may need to spend a little more for an ESP that can provide it.

To discover how easy list management is, ask the provider for a trial period or see what people are saying on user forums. You can get a good sense of the overall strengths and weaknesses of a platform through the unfettered problems users work through on these forums.

3. Analysis

If you’re not planning to track how your emails perform—what offers and content generate the best open and click-through rates—you might as well not invest in this marketing channel.

Your ESP should provide multiple reporting statistics, from link-specific clicks to bounce reports. Additionally, capabilities such as A/B split testing can help you test things like subject lines, delivery days and times.

4. Design

Design can be a tricky one—beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? As long as your ESP can provide a clean template and easily manipulated layout, you should be on the right track.

Here are three examples from some of our clients to help you get a feel of different SMB platforms. Which is your favorite? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.





Constant Contact


Also, according to Informz, in 2012, 40 percent of emails were read on a mobile device. How do your emails look on a mobile device? Does your ESP provide responsive design? You need to find one that does. Additionally, make sure you’re able to incorporate video into your design.

5. Usability

On a scale from one to 10, how technically savvy is your internal email marketer? Is she comfortable with HTML? Does she have experience making custom images, or connecting with ecommerce software?

Some ESPs are perfect for businesses with little to no in-house design and coding capabilities—and these providers produce top-shelf emails without a fuss. On the other hand, if you do have a bit of technical prowess, an ESP that’s a bit less intuitive to the untrained eye can provide more flexibility—often at a cheaper price—than their less technical brothers.

A sister to usability is customer service and support. If you run into an issue when using an email marketing platform, you need to know what support services are available to your organization. This support can range from the hours that customer phone lines open to online channels to log complaints.

6. Integration

It’s a pain in the butt to maintain multiple databases of business contacts. ESPs with open source application programming interfaces (APIs) will let you sync your email distribution lists with your internal customer databases.

A common example of this is a company that uses Salesforce to track leads. Without integration, if a sales rep goes in and changes a prospect’s profile in Salesforce he will have to go in an make the same changes in the email database as well.

Depending on the industry, there may be some niche ESPs that make these types of integrations easy-peasy. For example, we have a nonprofit client that uses Blackbaud’s eTapestry ESP because it connects with the nonprofit’s donor database, which the firm already pays to maintain.


If you use emails to sell products or to organize events, make sure that your ESP integrates with popular ecommerce and registration software such as PayPal, PrestaShop and Eventbrite.

7. Price

While you shouldn’t pick your email service provider based solely on price, let’s be honest, it’s a big motivating factor for most businesses. ESPs typically charge their customer two ways: per-message or per-subscriber.

  • Per-message: You send a message, you get charged.
  • Per-subscriber: A flat monthly rate depending on the number of contacts you have in your email list.

Depending on the relative rates and pricing models, it becomes clear very quickly which ESPs are more cost-effective for enterprises that email weekly or daily, or small businesses that only need to send a quarterly earnings newsletter. Do the math, and figure out the right price for your company.

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