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5 Steps to Finding the Right Email Service Provider

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Getting Attention Blog

Have you ever felt trapped by your email provider—Dissatisfied with the features and/or service, but daunted by figuring out how and where to move?

That was our situation 18 months ago and I was completely flummoxed by it. But before I get to that, let me start at the beginning.

Why You Need an Email Service Provider

For most nonprofit organizations, bulk email—email newsletters, action alerts or fundraising outreach—is one of the most productive communications approaches there is.

There’s no better way (yet) for a nonprofit to hit the communications trifecta—reach, engagement and action. And, despite the constant focus on social media, research shows time and time again that email remains a potent communications tool for those audiences who use it (e.g. not 20-somethings and younger, not 80-somethings and older).

But here’s the challenge—despite the centrality of bulk email outreach in nonprofit communications strategies, most organizations don’t do the required due diligence to find the right email service provider (ESP) to send out their emails, or use the selected tool—when they do find it—for all it’s worth.

Understanding the operation and range of features incorporated by most ESPs can be daunting before and after you sign up. Here’s how to find the right ESP for your organization and to manage them to get the most from your bulk email campaigns.

NOTE: If you’re still sending bulk emails from your own email, stop immediately. This is the best way I know to have your organization’s domain (such as redcross.org) nailed as a spammer which will make it impossible for your one-to-one emails to get through, much less your bulk emails.

But First, Back to Our Situation

Our organization (GettingAttention.org) relies heavily on bulk email to our e-news readers. Our community of readers is our lifeline; sharing back with us their nonprofit marketing wants and needs plus advice for us to share with their peers.

But our ESP, which we’d used since 2005, just wasn’t up to the job. Despite the fact that we had invested a lot of time and sweat in learning the tool and making it work for us, we felt that we couldn’t rely on it.

There were two main problems: We thought the most significant gap was that the customer service team was impossible to reach. When we had started working with this ESP, we got a human on the help line about 50% of the time. But four years later we were lucky to get a call back within three or four days. That, in addition to the lack of some of the features we wanted, seemed like good enough reason to look elsewhere.

But when the ESP lost our email lists (which we backed up weekly, thank goodness), we knew we had to change.

There are probably 5,000 ESPs out there, many of which market their services with the exact same language. Here’s the process we used to select our current ESP, Network for Good’s EmailNow.

Disclosure: Please note that Network for Good allowed us to use the service at no charge for one year. But nothing, including price, was more important than finding a reliable, flexible ESP. Now, one year later, we are using the service on a fee basis.

The 5-Step Path to Finding the Best Email Service Provider (ESP) for Your Nonprofit

1. Define Your Email Service Provider (ESP) Needs

It’s human nature to look elsewhere for an answer. But in the case of selecting an ESP, as in so many other challenges, you need to start with your organization’s needs.

Here are the primary factors to consider:

  • Where do you want to be, three years from now, with your email functionality? With your list size?
  • Do you need to integrate the ESP with third-party databases such as your fundraising or CRM systems? And/or with Google analytics, form creation, registration or other tools?
  • Will you need opt-in (completing a form to be added to your list) versus double opt-in (completing a form then clicking an emailed confirmation link to be added to your list)?
  • Do you plan to send a series of timed emails (a.k.a. auto-responders) or emails triggered by a specific action (such as registering for an event)?
  • What usage stats do you need to track to measure results?
  • What is your budget? There are all types of services, at all price points. This is important so I urge you to be as ambitious as you can with funding the ESP. Some organizations slave over creating just the right email, but their ESPs let them down in getting the right email to the right person in the right format. That’s a real waste.
  • What is your skill and comfort level with online tools such as ESPs? If it’s on the low side, is there any available help on staff (e.g. a colleague skilled in online tool usage) or will you be taking it on yourself, with the help of the ESP support team?

2. Get trusted recommendations from organizations like yours

When it was time for us to find a new ESP, I didn’t make a move before querying my most trusted colleagues in the field for their recommendations. I focused on those with bulk email needs similar to ours and harvested seven strong recommendations.

I moved on to cross-reference those recommendations against trusted online sources from NTEN and Idealware. That helped me cut the list to four firms.

After a quick scan of each ESP’s website to get a sense of the features and pricing structure of each (pricing is generally by number of contacts or by number of emails sent per month), I called the colleagues to dig into their referrals. The questions I asked were:

  • What is working well for you?
  • What isn’t?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you contracted with this ESP?

3. Dig Into the nitty-gritty with online research

Based on what I had learned to date, our manager dug into the websites of the four ESPs still standing. She reviewed these selection criteria for each and entered each element in a spreadsheet for easy scanning:

Focus on these Critical Factors

  • Reliability: Multiple, high-speed connections to the Internets, nearly 100% up time. The last thing you want is for the ESP to be down when you have an email that needs to be sent.
  • Flexibility: As detailed as your needs may be now, there will be changes you want to make in the future. You may want to change from all-HTML all the time to some HTML emails and some text or to segment your lists in a completely different way (e.g. by zip instead of by date of registration). Also, you’ll want flexibility in formatting your emails, whether you riff off a provided template or use your own custom HTML template.
  • Good reporting: One of the greatest benefits ESPs provide is the capture of quantifiable results. Make sure your e-newsletter provider tracks how many people (and who) get it, open it and/or click through to your website.
  • Value (but reliability is more important): Look at the pricing structure and the hidden costs. Are surveys included or available at an extra fee? Estimate your costs over one and two years.
  • Ease of use: In general, the simpler the features provided, the easier the ESP is to use. But some ESPs provide amazing functionality that is fairly easy to use. And others provide limited functionality that’s a real headache to figure out.
  • Customer-oriented with good support via email, chat and phone.
  • Knows the email delivery world. None of these factors matter a bit if the ESP doesn’t do whatever it can to ensure the highest probability of email receipt. Ideally, this includes a strict anti-spam policy, automatic SPAM cleaners, ISP-specific controls and white-list approvals
  • Provides a free trial for a period of at least two weeks: DO NOT sign on before you put an ESP to the test.
  • No-term contract—Despite the pain of it all, you want to be able to switch if the service isn’t working out for you.

This process is likely to help you winnow down your list. At this point, just three ESPs remained on our list of options.

4. Probe more deeply in phone conversations with semi-finalist ESPs, including some open-ended questions

There’s nothing like a conversation to show one’s true self. And the same goes with ESPs. I knew that phone conversations with reps at each ESP would give me a sense of the customer service experience as well as immediate answers on features.

I took these conversations on personally, as I knew customer support was a vital element in my selection process. As a small organization, it has to be. That’s bound to be true for most small- to medium-sized nonprofits as well.

Instead of pummeling the rep right up front with all of my detailed questions, I shared a bit about our needs then asked these open-ended questions that ensured the rep showed his stuff (or lack thereof):

  • What services do you offer?
    • I knew the broad answer in most cases but wanted to hear what each rep defined as the ESP’s target customers (organizations like mine or behemoths) and their needs.
  • What happens when I run into a problem?
    • I wanted to know who I’d talk to, how they’d be available to me (via phone, email and/or chat) and when. Also, the nature of their expertise and the back up plan if they can’t help me solve my problem.
  • Why should we work with your ESP rather than one of the others out there?
    • I’m always interested in hearing what a rep emphasizes as unique strengths.
  • What do you do to ensure the highest probability of delivery?
    • This is the key question. None of the other elements matter if the emails don’t get to their destinations.
  • How much does it cost to start up? On an ongoing basis? Run your numbers now and what you project in another year by the rep.
  • Who is your typical user on your clients’ staffs; their focus and skills?
    • You want to hear that this person is like you and your colleagues in terms of technological skill level and job focus. That will tell you that the support team will be able to pick up quickly in helping you solve problems that arise.
  • What else should I know?

These calls helped me cut my list to two finalist ESPs.

5. Test, test, test your finalists to make your selection

Once you’ve reduced your list of prospective ESPs to a couple of finalists, it’s time to try them out.

I advise you to test the services with all of the email configurations you have, and a few that are still on the front burner. Look for ease of use and functionality that matches your needs. Ask colleagues likely to join you in using the ESP to test it out as well.

There’s no way you’ll figure out everything that might not work, but you want to surface as many gaps and glitches as possible.

In most cases, the trial will lead you to your ESP. But in all cases, if there are still two decent contenders, I urge you to reach back out to the original referral source and discuss any remaining questions and concerns. There’s no such thing as being too diligent in selecting your ESP.

Our trials left us with only one strong contender. We reached out to the colleague who had referred the tool to us to inquire on most recent experiences and confirm we were going in the right direction. So we signed on.

Reporting Back One Year Later: Did We Make the Right Choice?

I credit our success in finding the ESP that is right for us to the five-step path outlined above. In particular, this process clarified that EmailNow was focused on small to medium organizations like us. That was a strong indication that the customer support would be strong and the service easy to use.

But what comes as an unanticipated bonus is the service’s customer-driven flexibility and drive to satisfy. If we want a feature or function that isn’t built into the service, the customer service team will always dive into the challenge to try to find a solution. The EmailNow team is a true partner.

If you’ve been delaying your search for a new or first-time email service provider, follow these five steps to ESP selection success. When you do, I guarantee you’ll end up with an ESP that’s a true partner in advancing your communications impact.

Go to it!

P.S. Do you have dos and/or don’ts on email service provider selection or management to share? Please share your ESP experiences below.

E-Newsletter Guidance from the Getting Attention Blog

Nancy Schwartz in Email and Enewsletters | 18 comments


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  • Dee

    Wonderful article, Nancy! We did not go through quite as extensive a process to find our ESP, although I will keep this reference for the future if we decide to make a change. We went with MailChimp and have been very happy. Although they don’t have phone-based customer service, that works really well for me. We had a challenge getting one issue to view properly and they fixed it very quickly after we sent an email outlining the problem.

  • Terrific article on an oftentimes under-addressed topic Nancy! Small nonprofit organizations, in particular, tend to select their ESP strictly on the basis of cost (usually opting for free) when the truth of the matter is that the monthly cost of a quality ESP is (like web-hosting) fairly minimal. I like your focus on customer service – when I first launched my own email newsletter a year or so ago I had no assistant and used my ESP’s excellent customer service OFTEN. Another factor in selecting my own ESP was the company’s outstanding deliverability rate. Oh, and I polled quite a few people – no, not nonprofits but successful Internet marketers to find out what they were using.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks, Pam. Willing to share the name of your ESP?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Dee, I’ve heard great things about MailChimp too. So you find email support just as useful as phone support?

    Honestly, we’ve run into issues from time to time that are so hard to communicate that phone has been the best way.

  • We use Convio for our ESP and integrated CRM at JoinTogether.org for our large scale messaging, which is of course a more high-powered (though quite reliable and robust) solution than most small nonprofits need. However, I wanted to chime in about Constant Contact, which I use for a small nonprofit that I do pro bono web marketing for. Although Constant Contact has significantly improved its editor UI, list management, reporting, and social sharing tools, the way it formats the text-only versions of emails with link tracking enabled remains truly horrendous — the redirect URLs take up 4 or 5 lines of text and frequently don’t wrap correctly in email clients. Subscribers who see the text version routinely complain about unusable messages. Although I used to think of text version readers as a fading segment of little concern, they’ve been surging back a bit thanks to mobile email access. For me, a legible text version is essential, and I cannot currently recommend CC because of this issue.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    You make a vital point about the increasing importance of text versions due to mobile email access, Eric. Thank you.

    Thanks too for your input on Constant Contact’s limitations in terms of text. How do you find CC’s deliverability? I had heard that deliverability rates are low since they don’t do too much to cultivate good relationships with the ISPs. Would appreciate any insight.

  • But whatever vendor you select, make sure you use someone. Too many nonprofits still end up using Outlook which is a TERRIBLE way to do any type of email marketing to groups.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Agreed, Norman. Using your organization’s email server to send bulk emails is the fastest way ever to have your domain (for example, myorganization.org) slammed as a spammer. That means your email correspondence doesn’t get through either.

    Definitely to be avoided.

  • Argh! Using Outlook for bulk email is like using Excel for a database. To be avoided at all costs.

    I use iContact, which has both online chat support (which is primarily what I’ve used) and phone support. Over 99% deliverability.

  • @ Nancy: Yes, I have not been terribly happy with Constant Contact’s deliverability. The absolute bounce rates don’t tell me a lot because the list size for this small nonprofit is small, but you are correct that they don’t appear to do a lot with ISP relations and certainly not with individualized assistance for chasing this stuff down on a per-case basis. I have persistent deliverability problems with one or two major cable-based ISPs. In fact, I very recently just established a free nonprofit account with VerticalResponse to migrate my pro bono client away from Constant Contact — they are reputable and I’ve just about had it with CC.

    BTW, deliverability on Convio is outstanding, both in terms of bounce rates across time and ISP relations/feedback loops, etc. They really shine at this, as well they should given their tier of service.

    By the way, this was a great blog post, and THANK YOU for telling people to stop using their local email client for bulk mail. That is one of my pet peeves — along with sending the content of an “email newsletter” as a PDF or Word attachment!

  • Also… very important. All email services that are used by nonprofits should have ways to place text behind images and offer full text conversions of the same email for blind and low vision recipients.

  • Thank you Nancy for this very timely blog. At the Montana Nonprofit Association, we are in the middle of changing over to a new provider and have used your steps to help us decide. We are now down to two choices – EmailNow and Verticle Response. I like the ease of use, built-in surveys, and customer support of EmailNow but since we use SalesForce for our member management, we really like the interface Verticle Response has with SalesForce. If anyone has any input on Verticle Response, I would definitely appreciate it. Thanks again!

  • James Wattson

    Great tips Nancy! I use Smartemail24 email service for sending bulk email. Any one can try it for free by just clicking there demo account.

  • Peter

    Lets face it. Business Email is the most important communication tool in business today. It is more important then your telephone service. Therefore it requires that you find the best system that will work for your business now and in the future. There are many choices out there that can be deployed fast as a Cloud Service .

    Business Email systems vary in capabilities but a safe bet would be Microsoft Exchange Server as this article is pointing out. Because Microsoft Exchange Server has been in the industry for 30 years, it is used by 65% of all business around the world and as a cloud solution is a stable and has been used for 10 years by various size businesses already.

    For small and medium size business the best choice is to slowly implement a cloud based exchange email solution with their domain and possibly choose a provider that is specialized in data communications.

  • anthony william
  • helengreen

    even years later this article was very useful helping a nonprofit client assess her situation, do the “nitty gritty” web research (I used PC magazine review of EMSP as a base) now we are in the testing phase. Thank you!

  • Mark Domington

    I’d suggest to use some online bulk email software because ease of use and possible premium functions.

  • dejamedia

    Check out http://senderspark.com their cheapest plan allows you to send 25,000 emails daily (that’s 750,000 emails per month). I don’t know of any other ESP that allows this much volume.

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