The first step in building your email marketing empire is to put the technical infrastructure in place in order to handle the type and volume of email you will send. If you were going to setup a call center, you would never try to run it using only your personal phone number. You would hire an expert to tell you what you need, get dozens of phone lines and other telecommunications hardware and put software in place specifically to handle the routing of calls. Likewise, you should never try to run an email marketing campaign using your personal email account. A standard email account with Gmail, Outlook or Yahoo just is not setup for organizing and contacting large numbers of people through a mailing list. Instead, you will want to work with an email service provider (ESP) that provides specialized software and infrastructure that can help manage your mailing list and deliver email to your subscribers.
What Email Service Providers Do
An email service provider is a company that provides email marketing software and delivery infrastructure to businesses, non-profits and individuals.
Here are some common tasks that your ESP will handle:
- List Management – Your ESP will store the list of active subscribers on your mailing list(s). They will also automatically add new subscribers to your mailing list that sign-up through your opt-in forms, process users that want to unsubscribe and remove old email addresses that are no longer valid.
- Templates – Your ESP may offer pre-made HTML templates that will provide your email a unique look and feel. Most ESPs also offer the ability to upload a custom HTML template created by you or a web designer that you hired. Your ESP may also offer the ability to make sure that your HTML template is compatible with most major email clients.
- Auto-Responders and Mail Scheduling – Your ESP will let you send a list pre-written series of emails to all new subscribers over a period of several weeks or months. This is known as an auto-responder series. Your ESP will also allow you to create a calendar of future mailings and schedule mailings to be sent out at a particular date and time.
- Delivery Engine – Sending a large volume of email requires a significant technical infrastructure and knowledge of how email deliverability works. Your ESP will provide the servers and software needed to actually deliver your email to subscribers and can help if you ever run into a deliverability issue, such as being blacklisted.
- Tracking – Your ESP will be able to track important metrics related to the performance of any given email, including the total number of sends, opens, bounces, clicks and unsubscribes. Some email service providers may also provide a tracking pixel that will allow you to tie any given sale back to a particular email.
- Spam Testing – Your ESP can gauge the content of each email that you send against commonly used spam filters. You will receive an automatic warning if you use language commonly used in spam messages or make other technical mistakes that may cause your email to be blocked or delivered to a subscriber’s spam folder.
- Marketing Automation – Some ESPs will allow you to send a series of messages to users that take a specific action, such as opting in for a new offer, purchasing a product or abandoning their shopping cart on an e-commerce site. This functionality, known as marketing automation, allows you to send more targeted email to your subscribers and will likely improve the long-term success of your email campaign. Please note that the quality of marketing automation tools can vary widely from ESP to ESP. If marketing automation is something that you want to take advantage of, select an ESP that was built with marketing automation in mind.
- Dynamic Messages – Your email service provider will allow you to dynamically customize the content of each email to tailor it to each subscriber. The most common use of this functionality is to open each email with “Dear [FirstName]” instead of a generic greeting.
- HTML and Text Formatting – Your ESP will be able to emails that are formatted as both HTML and plain text, which may improve your deliverability rates.
Types of Email Service Providers
Not all email service providers (ESPs) provide the same tools and functionality. There are three categories of email service providers that have different strengths, focuses and levels of service: email infrastructure providers (EIPs), general email service providers (GESPs) and marketing automation providers (MAPs).
Email Infrastructure Providers
Email infrastructure providers (EIPs) focus primarily on the actual delivery of your email. They provide the network infrastructure and email deliverability expertise necessary to make sure that your email actually gets delivered to your subscribers’ inboxes. EIPs generally do not provide list management services, templates, marketing automation or email scheduling tools. EIPs are primarily used by software developers that do their own list management through custom software. They are commonly used to send transactional email, such as welcome messages and order confirmation messages. EIP users will often schedule messages using an SMTP server or an API provided by the EIP in lieu of a web-interface. Generally, you would only select an EIP over a GESP if you are writing custom marketing software or are using a piece of third-party software that requires an out-side email server.
Here are some commonly used email infrastructure providers:
- AmazonSES – http://aws.amazon.com/ses/
- Elastic Email – http://elasticemail.com/
- Mailjet – https://www.mailjet.com/
- Mandrill – http://mandrillapp.com
- PostMark – https://postmarkapp.com/
- SendGrid – http://www.sendgrid.com/
- Socket Labs – http://www.socketlabs.com/
It is important to note that the quality of service can vary substantially between EIPs. In my experience, you get what you pay for when working with an EIP. I had a less than desirable experience with a low cost EIP about a year ago. I moved all of my EIP mailing over to a more expensive enterprise plan with SendGrid and haven’t had any major issues since.
General Email Service Providers
Like EIPs, general email service providers (GESPs) provide the necessary network infrastructure and deliverability expertise needed to make sure that you email actually makes it to your subscribers’ inbox. GESPs will also provide all of the list management, templating, mail scheduling, performance tracking and spam testing that ESP customers expect. If you are building a general mailing list for the purpose of sending newsletters and other content to your audience, a general email service provider is your best bet.
Here are some commonly used general email service providers:
- Aweber – http://www.aweber.com/
- Constant Contact – http://www.constantcontact.com/
- Campaign Monitor – https://www.campaignmonitor.com/
- Drip – http://www.getdrip.com/
- iContact – http://www.icontact.com/
- GetResponse – http://www.getresponse.com/
- MailChimp – http://www.mailchimp.com/
Marketing Automation Platforms
Marketing automation platforms (MAPs) provide a superset of the functionality provided by general email service providers. In addition to providing email delivery infrastructure and list management services, MAPs will provide special tools that allow you to send a specific email series to an individual subscriber based on an actions that they take or tags that you assign them. For example, if a customer purchases a certain product, you might want to send them a series of emails that provide instructions to use that product. With a MAP, new customers will automatically be tagged as a purchaser of that product and will receive the email series that you setup ahead of time. When setup properly, MAPs can be used to send more targeted and relevant email to your subscribers, which will dramatically improve the effectiveness of your email marketing campaigns.
The line between general email service providers and marketing automation platforms has blurred during the last several years. Some older GESPs have added marketing automation functionality to compete with services that were built from the ground up with marketing automation in mind. At the same time, MAPs have worked to make sure they offer the same level of list management and email delivery services offered by GESPs.
Here are some commonly used email marketing automation platforms:
- Active Campaign – http://www.activecampaign.com/automation/
- Drip – http://www.getdrip.com/
- Ontraport – https://ontraport.com/
- Infusionsoft – http://www.infusionsoft.com/
When selecting an email service provider, there are several factors to consider. Here are some things to keep in mind when selecting an email service provider:
- Type of ESP – Determine whether you need an email infrastructure provider, a general email service provider or a marketing automation platform. Unless you are writing custom software and need to send email through an API call, your best bet is to choose an email service provider that offers high-quality list management services and advanced marketing automation tools. While you might not use marketing automation functionality when you are first getting started, you will want to make sure you have it available to use later on due to the incredible value marketing automation can provide to your email marketing efforts.
- Functionality – Most email service providers offer a similar baseline of functionality, including list management, email delivery, templating, spam testing and message scheduling. List any advanced features that you might want to leverage in your email marketing strategy and compare and contrast competing services to see which might offer the best combination of tools and services for your business.
- Age of Software – Email service providers do not age well because of a variety of software and database issues. Some older ESPs that launched between 10 and 20 years ago have simply not been able to keep up with the functionality, user interface and quality of service offered by ESPs that were launched more recently. Older ESPs have to deal with massive datasets of customer information and with legacy software code, which make them difficult to upgrade over time.
- Cost – Pricing between ESPs can vary significantly based on your usage and the level of service that they provide. Use an ESP’s pricing page to calculate your cost now based on your current sending level, as well as what using an ESP will cost you as your mailing list grows over time.
- Customer Service – Some ESPs offer much better customer service than others. If you inadvertently get added to a blacklist or have some other deliverability issue, you are going to need an ESP that has your back and can step in to help ameliorate the situation. Search for customer reviews of the ESP that you are considering in Google and also search for the company’s name followed by the word “sucks” to see how many users are dissatisfied with a given service.
- Terms and Conditions – Some ESPs will suspend your account without warning if too many users mark your emails as spam or if you have too high of a bounce rate. Make sure to actually read the terms and services of the ESP you are considering and know under what circumstances they can shut down your account.
Take a considerate amount of time to research and compare email service providers before selecting your ESP. After you have started building a mailing list with an ESP, it can be very difficult to switch to another email service provider. A new ESP might require you to reconfirm your entire mailing list, which could cause you to lose a major portion of your subscribers. If you have to switch to a new ESP in the future, you will also probably lose all of your past message history and performance data as well.
A Personal Recommendation
In the previous section, I provided a framework for you to evaluate and compare multiple email service providers. There are many good email service providers that will serve your email marketing efforts perfectly well. If you have done some looking and just are not sure which email service provider is right for you, I can wholeheartedly recommend Drip (www.getdrip.com) as an email service provider.
Drip is a modern platform that offers all of the functionality that you would expect from an email service provider, including list management, templating, performance tracking, mail scheduling and marketing automation. The service is intuitive and easy-to-use. The company offers great customer support and makes it very easy to add an opt-in form to your website and. Finally, the service offers a number of helpful tutorial videos that will help you learn their software quickly.
There are only two minor downsides to be aware of with Drip. First, many major opt-in form plugins and services do not yet integrate with Drip. While Drip does offer multiple types of opt-in forms that you can add to your website, they are not as customizable of feature-rich as some dedicated opt-in form plugins. Second, Drip does not have a free tier for low usage users and is a bit pricier than MailChimp and some other competitors at lower tiers. Despite these two minor drawbacks, Drip is a fantastic service that will serve every email marketer well.
Please note that I do not receive any affiliate commissions or any other form of compensation for endorsing Drip.
Email Service Provider Costs
The ongoing monthly cost of using an email service provider will be based primarily on the size of your mailing list and the frequency that you email your list. When you are first getting started, several email service providers offer a free tier that allow you build a mailing list of a few thousand subscribers before you have to start paying an ongoing monthly fee. For example, Mailchimp allows you to build a list of 2,000 subscribers on their free tier. As your list grows to 10,000 subscribers, you can expect to pay $50.00-$75.00 per month to use an email service provider.
Your monthly fee will continue to grow as your list grows, but do not let that be a major concern. Paying a large monthly email service provider is simply the cost of success. I am currently paying about $2,000 per month to SendGrid for a package that allows me to send 10 million emails monthly. While the monthly fee is a big number, it is a small price to pay given that email marketing generates more than $1 million per year in revenue for my company.
Your email service provider will become the foundation of all of your email marketing efforts. Your ESP will provide the software and network infrastructure needed so that you do not have to focus on the technical intricacies of sending out email at scale. With a high-quality ESP in place, you can focus on growing your mailing list, writing marketing content and generating revenue from your mailing list.
- Research and compare email service providers.
- Select an email service provider and register for an account.
- Become familiar with your email service provider’s software platform.