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Email Service Providers

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The purpose of ESPs

There’s a wide array, obviously, of email service providers (ESPs), including hosted, cloud-based online email marketing systems and services. These include Gmail and Yahoo! Mail. There’s a lot of them out there.

An ESP provides a platform for managing and segmenting your contacts, and your lists especially, building email templates, and sending and tracking your campaign on a larger scale than personal software allows. ESPs are the people that help you along the way. These are the companies that are like the middleman.

MailChimp, for example, will help you make the connection to a user who’s on Gmail or on Yahoo!, as opposed to you just having a massive Excel spreadsheet, sending out a BCC list. And then, of course, when you do that you get blocked a lot of times. You get listed as spam. It’s a lot more sophisticated. And so those ESPs will ki help you make that connection, make that handshake between your readers and your content.

Key functions

Here are the key functions of email service providers:

  • List management: They provide the data. They’re keeping it for you. They’ll probably allow you to export it as a comma delimited CSV file, but they’re the place where your list is managed, where it sits, from MailChimp, FeedBurner, Constant Contact, and so on.
  • Unsubscribe management: They also manage the unsubscribe aspect. And, of course, when you’re the email marketer, you want to make sure that that unsubscribe management function is working well.
  • Segmentation: Your email service providers also will help you with segmentation. They will help you with your data and say, “Okay. This is our audience. This is sort of where we want to segment them or how we want to segment them out.”
  • Template editor: They’ll also provide you with templates. It’s really important to consider the wide array of devices and screens in which your audience will be accessing your information. The template editor makes all the difference in the world because if you have an old school, old-looking, badly designed template, it’s not going to be as appealing visually. The user experience isn’t going to be as good. So you want to make sure that you’ve got the back-end list management, subscription management, segmentation, all going well and joined up. However, the template editor also must work well because, again, it’s about design and user experience.
  • Report production: Everybody wants reports, and everybody wants to see how their email is working, how their campaign is coming along, what their readership is like. And, various companies have different reports in terms of how they structure it, how they make it look and feel. And so, when you’re evaluating an email service provider, look at their reports. Look at how they create them, and generate them, and what’s available to you.

Spam watchdogs

Email service providers use spam watchdogs to monitor outgoing email. They want to make sure that it’s your message, not somebody else’s or that it’s not spammy. And, this basically helps them to manage the reputation of their email servers. A lot of this has to do with reputation. It’s on the ESP if you send information that is spammy or spam-worthy, and so they want to make sure that you’re not sending out stuff that could go in the junk mail or should go in the junk mail folder.

It’s their reputation on the line, as well as yours. And so you want to keep a really good relationship with your email service providers.

Key considerations

Here are some key considerations when you’re thinking about your email service providers:

  • Ease of use: You don’t want to have to deal with a lot of technical issues when you’re the creator and you’re the email marketer. You want it to be really easy.
  • Deliverability: Just as you want it to be easy for your reader, you want it to be easy for you to deliver content to your reader.
  • Segmentation: You want it to be sophisticated. It’s a balance. You want it to be easy and have a high level of deliverability, but, at the same time, you want it to be sophisticated enough to give you really detailed, granular segmentation.
  • Scheduling: Is scheduling available? Can you actually time when content’s going to go out? It’s similar to how social media marketers will use things like Hootsuite or Buffer to send out their content on a scheduled basis. You don’t want to have to manually hit go all the time on your content on your emails. You want to be able to schedule this stuff in advance and say this month, this week, this day this is going to go out at this time, and you don’t have to be anywhere near your desk or your phone to make it happen.
  • Reporting functionality: You want to have solid reporting functionality, analytics, metrics, and visuals that help you in determining whether or not you’re being successful and that help you when you’re talking to various partners and stakeholders to see whether this email campaign is working, this newsletter is getting a lot of readers, and they’re actually clicking through, and the calls to action are working.
  • Auto-responders: You also want to consider the auto-responders. Do they have that functionality? Does they work really well? Can you customize them? Customization’s really important as well in terms of autoresponders, so you can put messages in there that are tailored to audience.
  • Email templates: Email templates really do matter. Look at the templates used by MailChimp, Constant Contact, iContact, GetResponse, and AWeber. Look at their templates, and look at the design. Is it flexible? Can you redo it? Is there modern-day code in the design, too? Remember, code changes. It has to look good on mobile. It has to look good on a big screen.
  • Social elements: Consider the incorporation of social media, and social media analytics, and tracking into your template. Consider when a reader looks at your content and they think, “Wow, I want to share this with my Twitter audience!” Is there a tweet button in there that you can customize maybe to say we want to tweet out just this snippet of text with a link back to a freestanding URL? Can you track that in terms of your data so that you know that someone tweeted out that particular link and content because they saw it on your email? It’s all about connecting the dots, and you don’t want to sort of have this thing be disparate. You want it to be the case where your email led to a tweet, led to a call to action, led to this or that, led to an actual transaction taking place. And you can track that.

Advantages of hosted ESPs

What are the advantages to having a hosted email service provider?

  • No server hardware purchase: There is no server, hardware, or gadgets, or IT staff. You don’t have to make these massive purchases of infrastructure. Hosted ESPs, by the way, are for when you have a lot of your setup of the things I was talking about previously. It’s on behalf of another company. They’re running that for you. They’re managing that for you.
  • No worries about blacklisting: The ESP is handling that for you. They’re handling the whitelists. They’re handling suppression lists. They’re handling all that for you. And so, in theory, you have no worries at all about blacklisting.
  • Low cost of entry: Servers are expensive. Hardware is expensive. Getting people to manage these things is expensive. With that low cost of entry, you can get your email marketing campaign off the ground by way of an ESP far faster than if you try to do it all on your own.
  • High level of functionality and reporting: You get access to reports and functionality that you haven’t had to build out yourself. You haven’t had to code this. You haven’t had to ask the questions of whether you should do this or that. Email service providers have already done this for you. They’ve done the heavy lifting.

You get all these benefits if you have a hosted ESP.

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Eric Stoller

Eric Stoller is a Higher Education Strategic Communications Consultant and Blogger at Inside Higher Ed. With a background in student affairs, academic advising, wellness, technology, and communications, Eric educates clients and audiences on digital identity development. As a blogger, he generates conversations, answers questions, and provides insight about a variety of tech topics, including Social Media Strategies and Email Marketing.

By the end of this topic, you should be able to:

  • Evaluate inbound and outbound email marketing techniques and how they are used in marketing campaigns
  • Critically reflect on practices for managing email data and building an email subscriber base
  • Critically appraise how to optimise email delivery and email open rates for marketing campaigns

    Data protection regulations affect almost all aspects of digital marketing. Therefore, DMI has produced a short course on GDPR for all of our students. If you wish to learn more about GDPR, you can do so here:

    DMI Short Course: GDPR

    The following pieces of content from the Digital Marketing Institute's Membership Library have been chosen to offer additional material that you might find interesting or insightful.

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    You will not be assessed on this content in your final exam.


      Email Marketing Strategy
      Eric Stoller
      Skills Expert

      The Email Marketing Strategy module will introduce the key concepts of email marketing and enable you to develop the knowledge and skills to build highly effective email campaigns. You will learn how to think like an email marketer and recognize that your subscriber list growth and quality is a key metric for the success of your campaign. Finally, you will recognize the role of various email delivery techniques as well as the importance of balancing frequency and volume of email sends.