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What to Look for in an Email Services Provider (Part 1 of 2)

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I recently saw an ad for a self-service email marketing solution that went something like this:

Q. Can anyone tell me what I get for email campaign setup fees?

A. We couldn't begin to tell you because we don't charge any.

The underlying message of the ad is that all campaign setup fees are a waste of money. But this is just not true. Many organizations struggle with time and resource issues, and others just want to ensure that their campaigns are professionally executed from day one.

Having said that, it's important to ensure that you get your money's worth when hiring an email services provider (ESP). In this first part of a two-part article, I'll discuss some of the more important services that you should receive.


Quality Control of List

  • Unsubscribes. If you submit a list for use in the mailing, your ESP should run that list against the unsubscribe file. Apart from being a good business practice, it's important in terms of CAN-SPAM compliance.

  • Soft bounces. Similarly, your ESP should ensure that you don't attempt to send mail to addresses for which you've received a number of soft bounces. (Soft bounces occur for a number of reasons. Some of the most common are these: the domain exists, but the email address is invalid; the mailbox is full; or the receiving server was down or busy.)

    A high bounce rate often indicates a list in need of maintenance. Also, and perhaps more importantly, if major ISPs and Web-based email services see that you're repeatedly attempting to send email to bad addresses, you might end up getting blacklisted altogether.

  • Seed list. This is easy to overlook. But the ESP should ask if there are any people at your company (who might not already be on the list) who need to see the campaign when it goes "live." The ESP should then add these email addresses to the seed list.

Quality Control of Outbound Content

  • Review grammar, spelling. Even if your ESP does not generate your content, a second set of eyes is always nice. Your service provider should be genuinely concerned with helping you put your best foot forward.

  • Review content for filters, CAN-SPAM. Your ESP should run your creative files through a content checker to ensure that they are unlikely to trip common spam filters. When problems arise, suggestions for copy changes should be offered. Also, a quick review ensuring that you have a functional unsubscribe option and a complete snail-mail address should be part of this process.

  • Weight, size, other specs. Among other things, your ESP should ensure that your HTML file does not "weigh" more than about 25K to 30K, and that the file is not wider than practical, usually about 600 pixels. In addition, the HTML file should be a combination of images and text as opposed to one giant image (which, incredibly, I have often seen used).

  • Image weight, location. Your service provider should either host images for you or ensure that your images are hosted correctly on your server (and that the HTML code is accurate). In addition, the ESP should check to see whether the images have been optimized for fast loading.

  • TEXT version. Despite the availability of tools that claim to automate this process, you or your ESP should manually prepare the TEXT version of your message. The TEXT version should have no more than 60 to 65 fixed-width characters on each line, followed by a hard return.

    There should also be a decent amount of white space to increase readability, and all hyperlinks should exist on unique lines with hard returns before and after the links.

  • Creation, hosting of Web version. Your ESP should generate a Web-based version of your email communication, then include a link to that version in both the HTML and TEXT versions. Either you or your service provider can host this version—whichever is easier for you.

  • Link tracking, testing. In addition to setting up link tracking, your ESP should assign "friendly" names to each link so that reporting will be easier to interpret. Also, each link should be checked prior to testing to ensure that it is functional and that the target is correct.

  • Internal test. Given the concerns that email marketers have with deliverability, filters and spam issues, the internal testing process is more important than ever. Your ESP should have a protocol established to send tests to major ISPs and Web-based email services to ensure not only that the mail is delivered but also that it is not routed to a junk-mail folder.

    Your ESP should also include test email addresses using different software (such as Eudora, Lotus Notes, Outlook, and Outlook Express) to ensure that the message renders correctly and is not routed to a spam folder.

  • External test. The time that your ESP actually deploys your message should not be the first time that you see it "live." Rather, there should be an external test cycle with appropriate seed names from your organization so that approval can be given to deploy the mailing as instructed.

And with that, your email campaign should be ready to deploy.

Next week, in the second part, we'll actually hit the send button.


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Paul Broni is EVP/client services director of Inbox Interactive (www.inboxinteractive.com), a full-service email marketing company. Reach him at paul@inboxinteractive.com.

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