Email Marketing - Use A Service

I occasionally get requests from clients for assistance with sending out email marketing to their existing clients. My advice in these situations is always the same: Use A Service.

Every client that I’ve dealt with that’s interested in this kind of marketing starts out planning to do it using their regular email account, but there are good reasons not to do so. The reasons for using a service break down into three key areas: creation of your content, distribution of your content, and management of your address list. Keep reading for some notes on those.

Creation

While it’s possible to build a fancy graphic mailing in Word or a desktop publishing application, email isn’t print. What goes out in email will be HTML (unless you’re going to be mailing out PDFs with embedded fonts, which most people will never look at), probably with the images attached though they might be loaded from a remote server. The design tools that most of us have conveniently at hand and are experienced in using will frequently not produce the same effect that we’re trying to achieve when we create something, then convert it to HTML (assuming that conversion to even be available).

The services that provide email marketing, on the other hand, have invested in providing design tools and pre-built templates that can be used for mailings. The output of their tools should work well across a wide range of email readers – webmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail.app, etc. At least one service provider (VistaPrint) can also coordinate the appearance of your campaign with letterhead, business cards and other materials ordered from them.

Distribution

There are three common ways that company email is set up: in-house servers that send email directly to the destination, in-house servers that route outbound email through an ISP or “upstream” mail server, and direct use of a mail server at an ISP or hosting provider. Larger companies will usually have the first setup, smaller companies may have any of the three. Very small companies may actually be using a webmail service such as Google’s GMail, MSN’s Hotmail/Windows Live Mail or Yahoo’s email (which is also used by some ISPs such as AT&T/SBC).

No matter which of the configurations you’re using, there may be problems if you’re sending large volumes of bulk marketing email. Sending messages may consume all of your available bandwidth for hours causing delays in other email messages and other impact on other users. It might cause some of the larger mail providers (e.g. AOL, Comcast, Yahoo, Hotmail/Windows Live) to block your mail server as a source of spam. It might cause your ISP or hosting provider to shut down your outbound email for a time to keep the same thing from happening to them.

Mail Delays

If you’re using an in-house mail server, being just a little sloppy about the size of images or attachments can cause real problems if you’re sending to many email addresses. For example, if you include pictures that make each outbound message 1 megabyte (MB) in size, 2,000 messages comes up to 2 Gigabytes (GB) – not much for a current hard drive, but if you’re using a T-1 line at your office it’s going to be completely tied up for at least 3 hours to send that 2GB of data, slowing all other Internet traffic from your office. In addition, most mail servers operate on a first-in-first-out (FIFO) basis, which means that the very short very important email message that someone else is sending may be delayed until after all of your marketing messages have been sent.

I’ve encountered this from the small ISP side when a customer using our mail server started sending marketing messages with 3-4 MB of high-resolution images to several thousand customers; in addition to some user training on how to build appropriately-sized messages we also ended up adding prioritization rules on the mail server to keep their messages from interfering with other customer’s outbound email. The same kind of thing can happen if you’re using a hosting provider for email; this makes your service providers cranky and they may charge you for their cleanup efforts.

Spammer!

Even if you have permission forms signed in blood from everyone you’re sending messages to, some of your recipients will click the “This is Spam!” button when they get your message. Just a few of those can cause a provider like Comcast or AOL to block all of your messages, and their automated systems just don’t care about whether you really have permission. There are ways to get unblocked, but given how responsive their customer service departments can be, do you really want to be the person coming to them with a more technical issue of your messages being blocked?

Management

Finally, if you’re going to be running a mailing list you need to provide ways for people to get off of your list. In some places that’s just common courtesy, but in an increasing number of areas it’s actually legally required. The people trying to get you to purchase prescription drugs or stocks don’t follow those rules because by comparison to illegal drug sales and pump-and-dump stock marketing the penalties for abusing email are pretty low, but for your legitimate small (or large) business at a fixed address marketing to your existing customer base, those laws can have teeth – and even if they don’t, common courtesy should.

If you’re only doing a one-time mailing to thank customers for their past business and invite them to your going-out-of-business sale, you don’t need to worry about future mailings to people who’ve requested to be removed from your mailing list. Everyone else does. Maintaining the list in Excel, Outlook, or whatever other program you’re using still requires you to manually edit the list every time someone asks to be removed. If you’re sending to many people that can easily chew up some of your or your staffs’ time every month, and you need to ask yourself whether the cost of that time is worth more than the cost of an email service – particularly if you also have someone spending a few hours a month preparing marketing materials that can be done faster using the online tools.

Email Sending Programs

There’s software available out there that will let you automate the management side of email marketing, but it’s still going to suffer from the creation and distribution issues I discussed above. While you would be making completely legitimate use of these programs you have no way of knowing how others are using them, and you don’t know if messages originating from your program are therefore classified as “spam” by mail filtering systems.

Some packages may even offer to handle the distribution of email using their “distributed networks of email sending computers.” Another way to phrase that is “we’ll use the virus-infested PCs that we’ve infected to send your email.” Stay away.

Email Marketing Service Providers

Here are three companies that provide email marketing services that I’ve either heard good things about, have done business with or know someone who has done business with them and been pleased.

  • MailChimp – the smallest of the email marketing companies, MailChimp is a privately held Internet startup (since 2000) based in Atlanta, Georgia. They focus entirely on email marketing. They have the smallest product line (all email marketing plans), but if you don’t have many addresses then you can’t beat their free plan that’s valid for up to 500 email addresses and 3000 messages/month – beyond that level all of the providers have pretty much the same pricing.
  • Vistaprint – Vistaprint provides email marketing to complement their traditional business line of printed business products. They’re a larger company (on the NASDAQ as VPRT), and they have the big advantage of making your email marketing match your printed material – business cards, letterhead, etc. if you’ve also purchased it from them. I’ve used them for printed products and received excellent quality and value.
  • Constant Contact – Constant Contact is probably the best known of the email marketing firms, in part because they advertise fairly widely (and not just with email). They’re publicly traded as CTCT (NASDAQ), and they provide some additional services such as online surveys (at additional cost) where with the others you need to use a third party such as SurveyGizmo.

With the exception of MailChimp’s free account for under 500 addresses ($15 from the other companies), pricing from all three companies is pretty much the same – $30 for up to 2500, $50 for 5000, $75 for 10,000 addresses, etc. All three companies have free plans or free trials, so it’s worth signing up with all three and looking through their offerings and software tools in more depth.

Further Education

Both MailChimp and Constant Contact have additional information about email marketing available. While both are somewhat biased towards their products, there’s also significant useful information even if you’re not using either of the services. For Constant Contact, check out the contents of the Constant Contact Learning Center.

For the most information of general use, I highly recommend reading through MailChimp’s Articles & Guides and reviewing the MailChimp Blog for coverage of email marketing approaches, tactics, pitfalls and more. Check out the blog archives as well, or just look through the categories (list on the right side of the page) for much useful information and some “war stories.” One particularly useful article covering many of the pitfalls you can run into relates to Comcast’s policies on handling spam: Comcast Delivery Tips.

Feedback

If you’ve used one or more of these companies for email marketing, please share your experiences below.

Updates:

2010-04-10 Added Further Education section

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