Choosing a vendor for Email Marketing Campaigns – How to

I recently provided a friend with some details about what to look for when starting out with setting up Email Marketing Campaigns. Here’s a reproduction of the email I sent him with some minor changes to make it suitable to a global audience.

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Email marketing is a huge beast in itself if you try to trudge too far deep into it’s murky entrails. Here’s what I would normally look for before I choose a vendor:

  1. Cost – Obviously a big factor. It’s usually charged per 1000 emails sent. In ecommerce sites, it’s common to a huge number of registered users (~1M), but only a few of them active (~100K). So, keep a close tab on this depending on whether you’ll be sending mails frequently to all registered users or just active users. Mind you, EVERY EMAIL SENT IS CHARGED. This includes invalid emails, fake emails, dead emails, bounced emails, CC’d & BCC’d emails. So it’s usually a good idea to keep your email lists (explained in #5) updated
  2. Marketing vs Transactional – I’m presuming that you might at some point consider using the service for transactional emails as well i.e. “Your order has been shipped …” type of mails that you send after you complete a transaction. These will be significantly less than your marketing mails, but make sure you send them through a different IP address (continued in next point)
  3. Whitelisting – To ensure your mail reaches the intended recipient, it’s required to appear as non-spammy as possible. Whitelisting is something that’s done by most of the providers these days. By taking a paid account, you also get a dedicated IP address from which the emails get sent. This prevents ISPs from marking the email as spam. Make sure your marketing and transactional emails are sent from different IP addresses, if required pay for one. Because it’s highly likely that some of your customers will mark your marketing IP as spam and if you keep them separate, it keeps transactional mails safe.
  4. Reporting – Lets you analyse the effectiveness of your email campaign. There’s a lot of information available through reporting and if that’s something you require, make sure the service gives you all the info that you need. Data points that are commonly provided by most services are – Number of emails opened, number opened, number clicked, number delivered, number marked as spam, number “blocked” by ISP etc. Usually reporting is the reason why email marketing is so expensive. If you don’t see any need for it at the moment or don’t see yourself actively making use of it at the moment, I would suggest skip it altogether. Amazon SES offers dirt cheap email prices without providing any reporting to you (more on this at the end)
  5. Email lists – When you send marketing mails, make sure your able to create email lists of intended recipients. You would normally have at least 2 lists viz active and inactive and target them separately with different campaigns. It’s possible to have more lists like “Registered”, “Active before August” etc.
  6. Easy to integrate API– The API needs to integrate with your own system (website, shopping cart etc) and there are 2 parts to it:
    1. API for sending emails – This is provided by all service providers. A simple PHP or Java call which can be used to dispatch emails speedily.
    2. API for setting up email lists – I’ve seen less of this, but some of them do provide it. If it’s provided, you can set up lists dynamically and programmatically. Without the API, the marketing person will need to set up lists manually using a web interface for every single campaign. It’s quite painful.
  7. UI to design emails – Not a hardcore requirement but a nice to have if you want marketing folks to create the emails without knowing HTML+CSS and without depending on the IT guys everytime an email has to be sent. (On an unrelated note, make sure your marketing people learn HTML+CSS! ๐Ÿ™‚ )
  8. Some services– Make sure you reach out to the sales folks for whichever email service your opting for. You can always negotiate with them into giving you a coupon/deal. We got a 25% off coupon from our vendor for 3 months and we just had to ask ๐Ÿ™‚
    1. Amazon SES – Very good service, tied in with their AWS offering, but not necessary. Also gives the lowest prices on the block. Don’t have exact numbers, but with their brand, deliverability is close to 99%. Don’t have any reporting at all, so you cannot do any analysis on the effectiveness of your campaign etc.
    2. Sendgrid – Another very good service, used by many people and is funded. UI is a bit confusing, but fairly decent and the price is reasonable. But price still is ~10 times that of Amazon
    3. iCubes – More expensive of the lot, but they give you everything. The UI is very detailed and confusing, but it’s like a swiss army knife. Has extensive reporting, email design, API for lists and mails, scheduling etc. But the price for high volume usage is twice that of sendgrid.
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