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All ESPs look the same. This is how they’re different….

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Just like identical twins, ESPs look very much the same at first sight. They all have similar features. And say they can do data management, reporting, content editing, segmentation, triggers, split testing, auto-responders and marketing automation.

In discussions, you hear: “All ESPs do basically same thing.” But is it true? Are they identical twins? Perhaps you’ve created a feature tick list and found all vendors tick all the boxes. How can you decide now? Here’s some advice for brands to consider.

I know both sides of the story, from working within an ESP before and on the other side of the fence over the last six years. As an independent email consultant I’ve used a dozen of the top ESP solutions in the course of my work.

All ESPs have different strengths and weaknesses

Perhaps a good vendor pitch and 30 minute canned solution demo, will have you convinced the software is a great fit. But is it?

I’ve found head slapping vendor specific limitations with A/B split testing, reporting, data management, dynamic content, the depth of historic data held, to mention a few. In fact all ESPs have strengths and weaknesses.

Here are examples of seemingly odd restrictions some Marketing solutions have:

  • Automation in which it’s impossible to get a contact to re-enter the same automation. Needed for automations such as browse abandon or quote follow-up.
  • Not possible to send a follow-up email based on particular link click, only if any link was clicked.
  • No way to trigger automation instantly based on someone joining a list. Needed for timely welcome emails.
  • Split testing that only allows for two treatments, no way to run an A/B/C… test
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  • CRM integration that syncs contact details but not account details or open/click/bounce activity data
  • No way to view or edit contacts on a list. Have to export and import records to manually edit
  • Proof emails that don’t show personalised values making accurate proofing hard
  • Unable to move dedicated IP addresses between transactional service emails and marketing emails
  • Google Analytics integration with no ability to customize utm tag values. This means you can’t have the Google reports setup in the way best for you.
  • Maintenance periods that stop email links working. Just hope your customers don’t want to click and buy during maintenance.
  • No reporting for transactional and automated emails
  • Segment builders that take so long to calculate segment counts that build segments can take hours
  • Split test that don’t allow 50/50 test. Only part of the list can be used for test treatments
  • Deliverability reports showing bounce by domain but no open rate information by domain. Open rate is a great indicator or inbox placement.

One ESP might have easy to use content setup, another much more flexible reporting and another better segmentation capability, etc. The devil is in the detail.

After feature comparison, ask “how does it work?”

The most important point is to be clear about your requirements, not only features, before evaluation. Fix your email strategy and where you expect to go over the next two years.

It makes no sense to try and evaluate every single aspect of a solution. Focus on the areas that are most important to find your best fit. This is better done with use cases rather than only feature comparisons.

Document a real campaign requirement, one that demands a lot from vendor technology, perhaps a multi-step campaign with triggers, automation, events and conversion tracking.

Then go through with the vendor exactly how it will work. Not just whether it can work but exactly how it can work. If it’s really easy to do the vendor should be able to show how. Draw your own conclusions if they can’t.

Twins-esps

Perhaps your most complex requirement is not about campaigns but rather managing campaigns across multi-international offices, being able to scale up to tens of users or specific 3rd party solution integrations.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of buying what sounds like the most capable and newest whizzo technology on the basis of convincing yourself you’ll work out what to do with it afterward and it will be brilliant.

Resources: the speed and ease of getting things done.

Marketing resources are always stretched and the ability to execute can make the difference between moving forward with your program versus never getting anywhere.

Include the skills and resources needed to create the more complex campaigns in your evaluation. How much time will be needed to achieve your goals? Whilst a solution may, in theory, be capable of something, if the time and difficulty in doing it are too high, it’s the same as not possible at all..

Are there things for which you’ll need the vendors help to do, customisation, setup etc? This can increase price and cost precious time. Often a missed evaluation criterion is the speed and ease of getting things done.

How good is the support you will get?

Once you’ve found your way around a solution, you’ll hopefully have little need for support from the vendor. However, you will need it at times. So in addition to evaluating the solution, evaluate the support and support resources.

• Is there a clear and useful online documentation?
• What type of users are articles and documentation written for?
• Is there a user community to turn to?
• Is training available, online or face to face?
• Can you see open support issues via a portal? And can you see your colleagues support tickets?

The quality of support resources varies a lot, just as the detailed solution capabilities do.
What about the speed of support? When it comes to contacting support, the best ESPs provide support answers in well under 24 hours. Real answers not just holding answers. In many cases, I see support answers in 2 to 4 hours. If support time is critical, you’d like to make it official and ask for a service level agreement (SLA).

Enterprise level account management

And if you are working at Enterprise level, what about account management? What are the responsibilities of your account manager? In the majority of cases the account manager looks after the commercial relationship and is a point of escalation if you have issues with the support or service in general.

How much time will your account manager have for you and what can you expect them to do for you? If an account manager looks after forty other accounts, that easily translates to 1 day of help per quarter.

Where to turn to for ongoing strategy and services

If you are looking for ongoing help with your email marketing strategy from a company that really knows your brand and campaigns, then you’ll most likely need to get additional services. Very possibly from specialized email marketing agency or consultant who does this type of work but isn’t tied to sell more technology.

My experience has taught me the ESPs do definitely vary, with different degrees of Feature, Resource and Support fit for particular brands and verticals. There are some great ESPs and platforms available but there is no one best ESP.


About Tim Watson

Tim Watson is an independent email marketing consultant at Zettashpere providing strategic guidance, to B2B and B2C brands, with email volumes up to 90 million/month. He’s over 12 years of email experience, covering all aspects of email marketing; strategy, behavioural targeting, automation, CRM, email design to data quality and deliverability.

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