Selecting an Email Service Provider (ESP)

The first step in developing your email marketing program 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 set up 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 routing 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 is simply not capable of 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, nonprofits, 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that sign up through your opt-in forms, process users that want to unsubscribe, and remove old email addresses that are no longer valid.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 with 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. It may also offer the ability to ensure your HTML template is compatible with most major email clients.

Autoresponders and Mail Scheduling

Your ESP will let you send a pre-written series of emails to all new subscribers over a period of several weeks or months. This is known as an autoresponder series. Your ESP will also allow you to create a calendar of future mailings and schedule mailings to send 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 deliver your email to subscribers’ inboxes 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 found in many typical spam messages or make other technical mistakes that may cause an email provider to block the message or deliver it to a subscriber’s spam folder.

Marketing Automation

Some ESPs will allow you to send a series of messages in response 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 create 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. They are primarily used by software developers that do their own list management through custom software. Often they can also be used to send transactional emails, 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 outside email server.

Here are some commonly used email infrastructure providers:

It is important to note that the quality of service can vary substantially between EIPs. In my experience, you get what you pay for. I had a less than desirable experience with a low-cost EIP a few years back, and have since then moved all of my EIP mailing over to a more expensive enterprise plan with SendGrid. I 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 your email actually makes it to your subscribers’ inboxes. 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 GESP is your best bet.

Here are some commonly used general email service providers:

Marketing Automation Platforms

Marketing automation platforms (MAPs) include a superset of the functionality that general email service providers offer. 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 any actions 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 set up ahead of time. When set up properly, MAPs can 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:

Purchase Considerations

When selecting an email service provider, there are several factors to consider. Here are some things to keep in mind:

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 one that offers high-quality list management services and advanced marketing automation tools.

While you might not use marketing automation functionality when you are getting started, you will want to have it available for use later on due to the incredible value it 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 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 those 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 provided. Use an ESP’s pricing page to calculate your cost now based on your current sending level, and consider 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 alleviate the situation.

Use Google to search for customer reviews of the ESP you are considering, 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 you actually read the terms and services of the ESP you are considering and understand what circumstances are grounds for shutting down your account.

One consideration that many businesses take into account is email deliverability, but I would not put too much stock into any reviews of a particular ESP’s deliverability.

If you are sending from your own domain and a dedicated IP addresses that your ESP provides, the email service provider you choose will make no significant impact on your deliverability. If someone is having deliverability issues with their ESP, it is much more likely they are having deliverability issues because of their individual sending practices and not some larger issue that impacts all customers of a given ESP.

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 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. You will also probably lose 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. But if you have done some looking and just can’t decide which email service provider is right for you, I generally recommend Drip (drip.com).

Drip is a modern platform that offers all 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, makes the process of adding an opt-in form to your website very easy, and the company offers great customer support. Finally, Drip offers a number of helpful tutorial videos that will help you learn their software quickly.

The only downside to Drip is that it does not have a free tier for low-usage users and is a bit pricier than MailChimp and some other competitors. Drip is a premium marketing automation platform and its price point reflects that.

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 to 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 with most providers.

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.

As of early 2019, I am currently paying about $6,000 per month to SendGrid for a package that allows me to send 50 million emails monthly. While the monthly fee is a big number, it is a small price to pay given that email marketing generates than several million dollars in revenue for my company each year.

Wrap-Up

Your email service provider will become the foundation of all of your email marketing efforts. They will provide the software and network infrastructure needed, so 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 list.

Action Steps

  • 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.

Recommendation: The Best Email Marketing Tools

You must choose the right email marketing tool if you are really serious about email marketing. There are many autoresponders available, so comparing them can be quite challenging.

Many online marketers use ActiveCampaign as an autoresponder to build their campaigns.

My online business depends on ActiveCampaign, which I have used for many years.

ActiveCampaign was founded in 2003. Businesses can connect with customers with its affordable email and marketing automation software.

Today, it offers a powerful email marketing platform and CRM platform with a history of more than a decade, so business owners can easily control email marketing.

My ActiveCampaign review is very comprehensive. Before deciding to use it, you may want to read it.

WordPress users looking for a cheaper email marketing tool may want to consider Groundhogg. Using Groundhogg will be more technical. 

With Groundhogg, you can manage your CRM, Email, and Marketing Automation directly in the WordPress dashboard. You have complete control over everything.

When it comes to CRM and Email Marketing, most people are forced to use expensive SaaS platforms, so Groundhogg is here to change this. I recommend reading my Groundhogg review to determine if it is for you.

Along with a powerful email automation tool, I found a tool that allows you to send videos via email. With only one click, you can insert videos into your clients’ emails for massive traffic, conversions, and sales. This is not a GIF, but a video.

Email Videos Pro is said to increase engagement by over ten times and profitability by over ten times, according to the developers. Check out my Email Videos Pro review to see it is suitable for you.

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