AT-Earth You probably know that you need to have an easy way to broadcast communications to your prospects and customers. But what might be less clear is how best to go about that. Right now you may be communicating using your regular email program, sending mass emails to your list with all your customers’ email addresses in the BCC field (or, GASP!, in the TO field) of a standard email message. If the limitations of this approach haven’t yet become clear to you, I promise they soon will. The real solution is to use a dedicated Email Service Provider to handle your broadcast messages.

What Is an Email Service Provider?

An Email Service Provider (ESP) is a company you pay a monthly fee to in order to handle sending broadcast emails and managing your list automatically. There are many different ESPs doing business, all offering different features and different pricing. Choosing the right one for your needs might seem tricky, but can be broken down into a few simple steps.

What Do You Need?

The first thing to consider is how you plan to use email marketing with your business and what features you will need. First, some definitions of the different features an ESP might be offering:

Broadcast – This is the most basic functionality which all ESPs should be offering (though it might be called something different) – the ability to craft an email message and send it to everyone on you list.

Autoresponder – If you would like for your subscribers to automatically receive a message or series of messages upon subscription to your list, this is what you are looking for. Some ESPs offer autoresponders, but check their description carefully, since some are more full-featured than others (allows for multiple separate messages in an autoresponder series, with even different time intervals between messages).

List Segmenting/Multiple Lists – If you plan to send separate targeted messages to subsets of your entire list, being able to easily query data in your system and break out groups of email addresses into separate lists for mailings is necessary. Also, if you plan to manage multiple campaingns in your account (a “prospects” list and a “customers” list, or an “e-zine” list, a list of people interested in “Product A”, or “Topic B”, etc.), you should make sure that capability exists and is easy to use.

Custom Data Fields – If you want to store more data about your subscribers than the standard Name/Address/Phone info, investigate the capabilities for custom data fields. Some ESPs might offer a limited quantity of custom fields, whereas others will make it unlimited. Be sure your ESP allows enough for your purposes.

Subscription Options – Your ESP should provide an easy way to generate the HTML form code to be placed on your website for your subscribers to sign up to your list. Some ESPs also provide other ways to subscribe including: importing a list of email addresses, sending an email to a custom email address, providing a hosted form which you can direct visitors to with a simple URL, etc. Discuss your needs with your web developer to be sure the ESP you are considering will fit your subscription needs.

Email Message Composition/Templates – If you aren’t very HTML savvy and plan to compose and send your messages on your own, you should make sure you are comfortable with the tools provided for email composition. If the ESP provides generic templates for you to choose from, you can get started quickly, and if you have the capability to store a custom template (provided by your web developer, for instance) or to customize the standard templates to match your website and branding, you will find that creating your messages is easy and the look will be professionally consistent. If you will have an assistant or web developer creating your messages for sending, have her take a look at the tools and make sure she will be comfortable using them.

Other Integrated Services – If your online plans include additional things, like a shopping cart or digital product delivery system, you might consider looking for an ESP that either includes those features, or clearly integrates with other systems. Requiring your ESP to offer additional services can dramatically limit your ESP choices, so make sure the one you are looking at provides the other features you desire.

How Much Will It Cost?

Different ESPs have different pricing models, so once you find a few with the features you require, check their pricing carefully. You might end up paying more to have a more full-featured ESP, but that will probably be worth it to you over the long-term.

Most ESPs charge a monthly or yearly rate for your service. For some the price varies according to how large your list is or how many messages you send each month. Others charge for more features and functionality.

When you are just starting out, it might be a good idea to sign up with an ESP that charges less for a smaller number of subscribers, the price increasing with your list size. Look ahead, though, and make sure that with your list building plans, you will not quickly “outgrow” the more affordable levels of service and wish you were with a different ESP in the near future.

You need to balance current needs with future growth when choosing the right ESP since switching ESPs is a pain you will want to avoid as much as possible.

Web Action Steps

  • Think about your email marketing strategy, both short-term and long-term:
    • What features do you want to use immediately?
    • What features will you need in the future?
    • How large is your current list?
    • How large do you foresee your list growing within a year?
    • What are you willing to spend on your email marketing each month?
  • Now research Email Service Providers looking for those that meet your criteria and will fit your budget.
  • Sign up for a trial, if you can, to get a feel for their user interface and tools, and send a few test messages to yourself before committing to a service.
  • As soon as you have decided and have your account set up, get your new sign-up form onto your website.

Signing up with the right Email Service Provider will make your email marketing go smoothly and grow with your business. If you are totally befuddled by the choices and need help, please contact me today.