There are all kinds of solutions out there, but I'm primarily focusing on software solutions that streamline your email marketing efforts, companies like Constant Contact, Emma, ExactTarget, MailChimp, Bronto and Vertical Response. I am trying to cover the basic questions you should ask yourself and ask of the provider before you sign up. If anyone has other ideas about basic questions (not overly detailed or technical ones) please leave a comment.
- What is the fee or cost-structure? Do you have to sign a long term contract? Is it a SaaS model? I would not bother with any email marketing software you have to install and maintain yourself. The main value of an email marketing system is the deliverability - they make sure your thousands of messages get into most people's email boxes. Do they price by the number of people on your list? By the number of messages you send? Build a simple model of what the service will cost you over the next 12 months. If you have a big list but send emails infrequently, you might be better off paying per email, or if you have a small list and send weekly, you might want to pay by the size of your list.
- Can one person manage their solution and still utilize all the features of the software? How much time does it take? This seems like an obvious one, but make sure you see a demo or use a free trial so you understand what it takes to implement an actual email marketing campaign. Your time is probably a lot more valuable than the amount of money you will spend on the tool, so make sure it is quick and easy to use. You may find that you're paying for features you don't need, or won't have the time to leverage. Or worse, you may need specific features that are not part of the package you purchase.
- Does it have the metrics and tracking you need? Email marketing is all about testing, measuring and improving. At HubSpot, we do Internet marketing, so we always conduct tests of different email subject lines, different content, different calls to action, etc. Here's a quick list of features you'll probably want to have: (1) Tracking click-through rates (2) Tracking open rates - though reliable open rate data is becoming harder and harder to get (3) This is more advanced, but A/B testing can be important - How easy is it to split your email list so that you can test different subject lines and different content, and (4) Layout and design controls - how easy is it for you to make a nice looking email that will convert well? Does the provider put their logo at the bottom of the emails? Can it be removed?
- What is the process for post-sale customer support? What about consulting services? Again, just like with any software application, having customer support after the sale is crucial. You don't want to be left by the wayside with a robust email application, a campaign that needed to go out five minutes ago, and a blazing fire that you can't put out because you don't have the appropriate customer support channels from your provider. Do they have an 800# conspicuously posted on their website? The most frustrating thing is to need to send out a campaign today nd not be able to contact a support person quickly to get an answer to your question.
- How will their application ensure you comply with email laws? This is the technical side of email marketing that could be considered boring if you're not into things like U.S. CAN SPAM law compliance issues. Who doesn't love a good compliance issues conversation? Most of the big providers are OK, but you should check if you are using someone less well known. You are the one held liable for violations. A couple quick reminders - legally, every email needs to have a method to unsubscribe, and also include a physical address of your business and phone number.
- What about managing bounce rates? What about unsubscribes? Another important task is managing your unsubscribes. Make sure their application offers an easy-to-use unsubscribe system. The quickest way to annoy a prospect is to send them an email after they have unsubscribed, or to make the unsubscribe process difficult.
Whether you're in a B2B or B2C market, you need to be utilizing smart email marketing tactics. While I believe that more and more the right way to communicate with prospects is through a blog that uses RSS and email updates to your subscribers, email marketing is still an effective tool when used properly and sparingly.