How to Choose an Email Service Provider: Key Findings

Although email is one of the oldest forms of digital communication, even highly technical users (looking at you, NTEN community!) continue to discuss the best tools for mass distribution and database integration. Marketing automation, CRM integration, and social listening are all common features of email service providers now, and it can be challenging to weigh the benefits of different solutions.

At Idealist Consulting, we recently released our 2014 Email Service Providers Comparison Report, reviewing thirteen of the most common email platforms used by nonprofits and socially responsible businesses today. Here were some of our key findings:

1. Database integration has become almost totally ubiquitous.

2. Email is increasingly viewed on mobile devices over traditional laptop or desktop machines. Some providers offer advice on designing for mobile while others explicitly offer tools for better reaching this segment of the market.

3. Price varies wildly, and it is challenging to compare apples to apples (although we gave this a shot by using 20,000 emails per month as a baseline for our report).

4. The best solution for a small organization is probably not the best for an enterprise-level organization. Your organization’s business process and staff capacity will have a lot of influence over which solution you choose. Not everyone is ready for drip campaigns, and many of the smaller providers have smart ways of thinking about mass communication, too.

5. Ease of use is an important factor for consideration. Some assume a certain level of technical expertise and comfort with email broadcasting, while others strive to serve non-technical users. You will want to carefully consider the technical ability of your staff and the amount of time you have allotted for email communication.

You can generally assume that most email service providers will come with these features, although the way the user works with them varies wildly:

  • A template creation system, for creating layouts for your emails. You usually get the option to create custom ones or choose from a library of pre-created ones
  • A content editor, for editing the actual content of your email
  • List management, for uploading new subscribers, changing their attributes, unsubscribing them, and other tasks
  • List signup forms, for placing on your website to allow people to join your mailing lists
  • Reporting tools, for keeping track of how your email campaigns are performing

So, how is an organization to go about evaluating email service providers? Here’s a hint: don’t try to make a features comparison chart. After a bit of wrestling with this, we opted not to include a features chart in our report because there were many variables, and your organization’s use case and technical aptitude will effect which provider is best for you. Therefore, to help you make a decision, below is a list of questions to consider. This list isn’t exhaustive, but these are things you should consider when performing your evaluation:

  • What volume of email are you going to send?
  • What is the sum total of all of the subscribers on your lists?
  • Does the email vendor integrate with your database?
  • Do you want to track your email stats in your database, or within the email service provider?
  • How are you going to capture new subscribers?
  • Do you need profile management?
  • Do you need automation, dynamic content, or drip campaign functionality?
  • Who will manage your email communications?
  • Does your database have the correct fields and data tables to model the segments you want to include in your communications?

Once you have answers to these questions and a rough sense of your budget, you will be able to evaluate different email service providers. Remember, too, that all of these solutions are intended to be used in concert with more personalized text-based emails sent either through your CRM or your general email platform like Gmail or Outlook. Email Service Providers are for the strategic communications that you want to track, follow up with, and improve upon.

Ready to go? We covered thirteen different solutions in our report, from Soapbox Mailer to Exact Target. Download Idealist Consulting’s free 2014 Email Service Providers Comparison Report here.

Kirsten Kippen
Marketing Coordinator
Idealist Consulting
Interested in CRM/Salesforce, Marketing, Writing, Alaska, Running. Not necessarily in that order.