How To Evaluate E-Mail Vendors

Every six months I go through a process I call the "Ostrich Effect." I pick a few e-mail partners on whom I feel I can bank my reputation, and then bury my head in the sand for half a year. I typically surround myself with technology partners, service partners, niche partners, list partners and analytics partners that can support my practice. Yet twice a year I pull my head out of the sand and take a fairly close look at the partner landscape, to see if I'm getting what I think I should be getting. Since my practice extends to international markets, I'm lucky enough to see a wider variety of e-mail service providers than many do in the US.

Today I want to share with you my methods of differentiating among all the vendors professing to be experts at e-mail marketing. For the purposes of this article, I'll focus directly on the E-mail Service Providers (ESPs) since that's a hot topic in my world. I've run so many RFPs for clients (and of course those semiannual ones for my own organization) that I've been able to streamline the evaluation and scoring process down to a handful of key areas:



--Technology capabilities
--Service capabilities
--Service/Support capacity
--Deliverability services (Includes monitoring, resolution and reputation services)
--Financial stability
--TCO (Total cost of ownership/operation)
--Business models (are they only focused on me sending out large volume of messages?)

Regardless of your sophistication with the channel, you should take a few things into consideration when building your short list of partners.

--What does an ideal partner mean to my company?
--How can I afford to get the most out of a partner?
--How much am I willing to expend (time/money) in evaluating a partner?
--How will I evaluate the success of a partnership?

There's a lot of consolidation going on in the ESP space right now, and that could be good news. If these consolidations materialize, they could be quite valuable to people who need real-time actionable data that can be integrated into eCRM activities. If not, you'll still be working with the three or four sources you work with today.

I know firsthand the type of service that my clients and our organization get from some of the largest players in this space, and it's far below what 90 percent of the companies on this list would deem valuable. Partly this is due to budgets and partnership models--you get what you pay for, right?

If you're a Fortune 500 company with a significant budget, you are still taxed with the same issues that face small companies. Actually, in many cases it's easier for small to mid-sized companies to make a switch than it is for a mainstream marketer, due to the cost of changing providers.

You can't choose the provider solely based on technology these days, either. Most clients aren't well enough versed in all the aspects of the tools in production environments to really understand the value proposition or differentiation in features.

Net is, the features of the ESP's systems have far outpaced most internal teams' competency to assess their viability over like features.

So how do you choose the best partner? Here are a few techniques you may not be including in your evaluation that I highly recommend.

Speak to a company's deliverability manager and then query client referrals on its understanding of the issues in the space.
Test its tools thoroughly. You should go through the motions with the tool sets and make sure your team can understand the tools and user interface.
Call its call center during this trial period and see how responsive service reps are. Vary your questions to them from simple user to technical API questions.
Check with industry third parties. Many of the reputation services and deliverability service providers have very honest views of the ESPs, and can give you a good overview of their practices.

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