Courtney Eckerle

Marketing Technology: Choosing an email service provider to fit your needs in 4 steps

February 24th, 2017


As one of the most commonly outsourced services, an ESP (email service provider) can be a great asset to a marketing team. Choosing the wrong one, however, can slow projects and inhibit email creativity, as well as cause issues with subscribers.

Finding the best ESP for your company means more than just wandering out into the marketplace with a wad of cash. It’s about understanding what your team — and your customers — uniquely need from the email marketing channel.

Many of the case studies I produce for the MarketingSherpa email marketing newsletter deal with an ESP switch, in differing variations. Usually, I’m writing about a stellar campaign that was produced after a marketing team broke free from the constraints of an ill-fitting ESP.

If the search for an email service provider is done correctly, it should be labor intensive. Which means you don’t want to have to do it very often.

Step #1: Perform an audit on the processes and workflows you currently have in place

This step is vital in helping you define your requirements for a new email service provider.

It will help you narrow down the field and approach the ESP team with clear objectives you want them to assist you with. Then, you can discuss how and to what level they can help you with those goals. From that point, both parties can enter the relationship transparently.

Determine what data sources you have (behavioral, transactional, etc.) and what you want to learn from them

Personalization and data are always a big issue — have a discussion on how much of it you’re doing and where you’d like to expand in those areas. In that same vein, understand what manual processes could be enhanced by the use of technology.

In order to fix the problem, you need to specifically identify what parts and processes are causing said problem and understand whether it is possible to change them.

Get your IT department involved in the selection process to provide an understanding of how the new technology must interact with the platforms and technology currently used in your organization.

This is part of a bigger necessity of this process: interview involved teams.

Find out what functionality your team currently has that is essential, what functionality they aren’t using, and what functionality would help them become more effective.

Interviewing all involved teams will help you keep backend usability considerations in mind. You have to understand the sometimes necessary trade-offs between ease-of-use and robust capabilities.

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is that marketers want to have their cake and eat it too.

In other words, most marketers who are looking for an ESP wish to gain deep insights into their data from that ESP, but they don’t want to have to work hard to get those results.

It’s a delicate balance between easy and robust — make sure you understand how effective features like a drag-and-drop or filter feature will be before queries become inefficient.

Step #2: Prioritize your requirements

There’s never going to be a Baby Bear (of Goldilocks fame) ESP — one that’s just right for your company.

It’s important to prioritize your requirements, as gathered in the above steps, to understand who comes close in providing the core functions you need.

This will help you narrow down prospective providers by eliminating those who don’t meet those core requirements, and then you’ll be able to conduct a deeper review of a short list.

Start off by breaking all of the requirements collected from your involved teams into “must have” and “nice to have” categories.

Then, for each of the “must have’s,” ask the following questions:

  • What am I going to do with this?
  • When?
  • What resources will I need?
  • What is the expected ROI from it?

This will help you understand what should be at the top of your list, and it can help keep you grounded to accomplishable goals.

Step #3: Explore your options at all levels

Along with reviewing established providers, it’s important to research newer companies and startups as possibilities, especially if your budget is smaller.

Also, spending some time either seeking recommendations or researching the providers of institutions similar to your own can shed light onto what is more or less likely to work for your organization going forward.

Whoever you choose, make sure that the provider will be able to grow with you long-term.

By anticipating what your email channel needs will be further down the line as your company grows, you’ll be able to maximize the effectiveness and utilize email to help encourage that growth, instead of stifling it.

I wrote a case study a few years ago with Johannes Neuer, Director of Customer Experience, The New York Public Library, on his search for a new email service provider.

He remarked that, “Email marketing is the most effective form of online marketing at the New York Public Library … Therefore, it is very important to have a good email service provider that ensures the system does not limit your creativity or my ambitions as a marketer.”

By choosing an ESP that you, your team and your company can grow into, you’re choosing not to limit yourselves in any way.

Part of that email channel growth, according to Johannes, was finding a system that would provide proactive feedback on efforts that would be valuable and timely.

It is also wise, he added, to find a provider that will venture to ensure they will meet future needs by continuing “updates to the system, implementing new tools so that your program can stay ahead of the trends in the industry.”

Step #4: Map out an implementation plan

Technology implementation is important when transitioning to a new ESP, especially in teams understanding who will be working with the technology and considering how they are to approach it.

Remember, this goes beyond your own team and could include your ecosystem of agencies and consultants.

Reporting is one example where it is important to understand how the implementation will work in your business’ environment. Sometimes this will be automated, but at other times, it has to be performed manually.

Make sure that before, during and after implementation, everyone is aware of the role that they play, is happy with it, and have progress meetings to ensure you have made the right choice.

Preparing teams for this new change ahead of time can help ease in a new technology platform, and staying connected throughout will help avoid mistakes and misunderstandings.

You might also like…

Email Marketing: Template test drives double-digit increases for Dell

Marketing Technology: 4 essential steps when choosing an email service provider

Vendor Selection: How The New York Public Library chose a new email service provider

Courtney Eckerle

About Courtney Eckerle

With a focus on aspirational, customer-first marketing, Courtney’s goal has been to produce clear, interesting and actionable external content for MarketingSherpa readers. This has included writing over 300 case studies, moderating live event interviews, and producing video content. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Mass Communications and Film Studies from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and was a correspondent for USA Today College prior to joining MECLABS Institute.

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