For Assessing Email Solutions Vendors
a vendor or solution for email services can sometimes be a daunting
task. If you are exploring email marketing for the first time, you may
encounter elements of technology or processes that are new to you. The
questions and advice in this appendix were compiled to accelerate the
learning curve and help you avoid common pitfalls. They can serve as a
checklist for comparing the products and services of various vendors.
It was composed by Sharon
Tucci, President and CEO of Sling
Shot Media, LLC, a list hosting company. The questions are
organized into four parts:
part one: policies
long a term is the standard contract?
a trial period offered before entering into a long-term agreement?
a long-term agreement (i.e. 6 months or more) is requested, what are
the cancellation provisions?
Most businesses donít feel comfortable locked into a
long-term contract without a trial period or solid cancellation
provisions, especially when working with a new vendor. It may not be
advisable to sign long-term agreements if there is a possibility that
a more robust solution will be needed down the road.
What to look for: The need for any type of customization
will almost always mandate longer-term agreements. Most vendors also
require a 30-day cancellation notice. This is not unreasonable since
vendors need to predict volume and capacity requirements. The major
issue is to ensure that there is a way to end the service should it
turn out to be problematic in some way.
Some vendors provide more than one level of service for
clients. If additional services are a consideration for the future, be
sure that the vendor allows for service upgrades or transfers without
beginning a new contract.
What is the pricing method? Is it fixed? (A flat fee based on a
message cap) Scaled? (Based on the number of messages actually sent)
Per individual mailing? Per campaign?
What is the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) for overage?
there differences in rates for the time of day your mailing is sent?
reduced rates available for signing a longer-term contract or
upgrading to a longer-term contract after the trial period?
It is important to fully understand what the total costs will
be for the delivery of messages. This becomes more important if normal
publishing schedules deviate. Flat-fee services can be beneficial if
publishing on a regular schedule, while per campaign or CPM based
rates might be more beneficial with an irregular schedule.
If saving money is a consideration, term discounts can be
important to consider. Some vendors offer as much as one quarter of
service free with a one-year agreement. There is also the benefit of
locking in at current rates.
What to look for: Rates
change on a monthly basis at many vendors. Sometimes they increase,
but sometimes they decrease as well. Many vendors may be willing to
give a lock-in on current pricing for a specific period of time, but
that may cause higher pricing overall if the rates decline. Most
publishers do not fully consider the implications of CPM overage
rates. Sometimes these can be at 5-10 times the regular CPM.
ownership of data
there is a written agreement, does it specifically spell out who owns
Be sure that
there is no question about this. The data should be owned outright by
the client who created the material, not the email vendor.
What to look for: More and more vendors are including provisions
in their agreements that the data becomes the vendorís property
should, for example, the client default in payment. However, most
vendors do not specifically spell out in their agreements that the
client owns the data.
part two: customer services
fees for support
What additional fees are there for support?
What type of support services are included free of charge?
With some vendors, customer service fees can easily end up
costing more than hosting charges. It is important to know what is and
is not included. Preferably, there should be a written agreement that
spells out all of the details.
What to look for: Some
vendors have support fees built into their hosting fees, some have
support plans, and still others charge per instance for support. With
most solutions, customer support requirements diminish over time, so
weigh the cost/benefit of having it included in regular fees versus
having it as a separate charge. At the same time, keep in mind that if
the person primarily responsible for list management changes,
increased support will likely be needed for a while. Be sure to
determine which support fees are billable and which are not.
committed is the vendor to customer service?
vendors provide support in many different ways. It is important to
consider individual needs and the personality of the list manager when
What to look for: Obviously, the ideal situation would be to never
need support in the first place. The reality is that very few vendors
provide 24x7 support by email and phone. Even fewer vendors provide
guarantees on response times. Since the sales and customer service
functions at most vendors are separated, don't equate the ongoing
service from a salesperson with what will be provided by customer
support. Find out whether live support and/or email support are
offered. Determine whether or not support requests and responses are
tracked, and ask about the average response time for support requests.
1. What administrative reports are
vendor to the next, there will be a wide range in the number of
What to look for: Reports
relating to the number of new subscribers, removal requests, and
bounce counts now tend to be standard with most vendors. More advanced
reporting includes the tracking of:
are more, of course. Ideally every possible type of report would be
available, but there is usually a price associated with this.
Carefully weigh what types of reports are most important and what
value they bring. Also, consider whether or not these reports will
actually be used. If report information is a high priority, ask
whether reports are generated in real-time, on a daily basis, or at
some other time interval.
2. What privacy and security
policies are in place?
3. Are customerís lists opt-in?
that: 1) subscriber data will be safe, and 2) that all emails are
delivered to subscribers.
What to look for: Even
if the list is fully opt-in and permission based, make certain that
the vendor is very firm about hosting opt-in only lists. If they agree
to host any questionable lists, this might result in their servers
getting blocked by individual ISPs and listed on SPAM blacklists. Find
out what the vendor does to ensure that lists are opt-in both before
and after they are hosted. Along the same lines, it is important that
hosted clients are required to have privacy policies posted on-site.
4. What is the process for bounced
On a monthly
basis, expect to see anywhere from 1% to 6% of email addresses being
returned as undeliverable. Although most vendors today offer automated
bounce management, there are no established standards in the industry.
Some vendors remove addresses from a list too quickly (leading
to an unnecessary loss of subscribers) and
others take too long (so
clients are paying more than necessary).
What to look for: Ideally, undeliverable
addresses should be removed from the list once it can be ascertained
that they are permanently non-deliverable. Generally speaking, soft
bounces (i.e. a full mailbox) should remain on the list for at least
30 days; and hard bounces (i.e. the email address does not exist)
should be removed within two mailings.
that there is some way to access the addresses that are removed from
the list and that a reason is given for the addresses listed as
undeliverable, if that is considered important. It often happens that
vendorsí servers are blocked from certain ISPs or hosting companies
resulting in a false bounce. For lists that are very large or are
mailed on an irregular basis, at least one vendor offers a service to
ďcleanĒ a list before a mailing. This can dramatically reduce the
number of bounces.
part three: technical issues
How often are lists backed up?
What is the backup procedure?
that expect a great number of subscribe and unsubscribe requests, this
question will be important. Lists and databases must be backed up more
frequently than websites. Monthly, or even weekly, backups are not
sufficient in most cases.
What to look for: The best option is a
company that uses multiple backup procedures and does backups at least
once a day. It is also important that the company uses more than one
method for backups in case there is a failure of the primary method.
For those vendors which only use one method, ask whether the previous
backup is overwritten when a new one is done.
3. Can list owners backup
subscriber information at will?
Even if the
first two questions are of little concern to you, it is still a good
idea to take precautions. Being able to backup data at will is helpful
because it allows a safeguard should the email vendor have a temporary
lapse in service. Even more important, it ensures that subscriber
information is available if the vendor goes out of business without
What to look for: Choose
vendors that provide a way to backup subscriber lists at will or that
have a method of sending backup information to list owners on a
copies of the data stored in another facility?
if a natural disaster occurs at the vendorís data center and all of
your backups are stored? All information would be lost, of course. For
safetyís sake, it is important to look for a vendor that stores
backups off-site, unless the list owner also plans to perform regular
backups of the entire list.
What to look for: Verify that backups are stored off-site and
that the vendor has a secondary network located elsewhere.
What system does the vendor have in place in case of a minor or major
more frequently messages are delivered and the higher the number of
subscribe and unsubscribe requests received daily, the more important
this question becomes.
What to look for: For lists that have heavy traffic (multiple
messages, high numbers of subscribe requests, etc.) it is advisable to
ask about the vendorís preparation for minor or major power outages.
features & benefits
1. Does the vendor offer
detailed click-through tracking?
2. Does the vendor offer
types of data can the vendor collect about subscribers?
Advanced features can provide a significant increase in
return on investment (ROI). However, as with the advanced reports
previously described, consider the trade-off for the additional cost
that will likely be incurred.
What to look for: In an
ideal world, emails would be delivered based on certain criteria or
rules that the client has laid out, such as where the subscribers come
from or which subscribers have purchased as a result of the email
marketing efforts. This would allow for the targeting of future
mailings based on the historical behavior and demographics of
Only features that will actually be used should be sought. It
doesnít make sense to use a system that offers advanced
personalization or rules-based filtering if capturing the email
address of subscribers is the only priority. Consider the services of
an email marketing consultant if there is indecision about which
advanced features would be beneficial. Some vendors will provide this
service, but keep in mind that they are likely to steer prospects
towards their own premium services.
1. Can the
vendor integrate their system and link to already existing data?
This is an important consideration for in-house databases
that are continually updated if you want to make use of real-time
What to look for: Integration
charges can be quite steep, especially if using a non-standard
database. Many companies find that it is better to do an export of
data from their in-house list before mailings. Aside from the cost of
integration, determine how data is ported back to the in-house
database. (i.e. removal requests, click through tracking, and other
1. What is the vendorís
ability to assist, consult or make recommendations on the integration
of email campaigns with offline campaigns?
2. What is
the vendorís ability to design in-house creative and gather copy and
For people who are not using an agency or who are novices to
email marketing, the expertise and value-added services that many
vendors offer will be a definite benefit. Value-added services such as
response management, campaign analysis, and marketing strategy will
come at a premium price, but can be well worth the extra cost.
What to look for: Vendors that offer
value-added services will usually do so at a high premium. Before
committing to a vendor for value-added services, make certain to ask
for performance reports on services they have provided other clients.
Look at samples of creative work, and find out the credentials of the
people who will be working on the campaign. Do they have specific
experience in email marketing? Experience in another area of marketing
or advertising is not a substitute. Some vendors tend to specialize in
business-to-business, while others specialize in consumer markets.
Marketing strategy, campaign integration, and creative work all vary
tremendously between the two.