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Questions For Assessing Email Solutions Vendors

Selecting a vendor or solution for email services can sometimes be a daunting task. If you are exploring email marketing for the first time, you may encounter elements of technology or processes that are new to you. The questions and advice in this appendix were compiled to accelerate the learning curve and help you avoid common pitfalls. They can serve as a checklist for comparing the products and services of various vendors. It was composed by Sharon Tucci, President and CEO of Sling Shot Media, LLC, a list hosting company. The questions are organized into four parts:

part one: policies


1. How long a term is the standard contract?

2. Is a trial period offered before entering into a long-term agreement?

3. If a long-term agreement (i.e. 6 months or more) is requested, what are the cancellation provisions?

Most businesses donít feel comfortable locked into a long-term contract without a trial period or solid cancellation provisions, especially when working with a new vendor. It may not be advisable to sign long-term agreements if there is a possibility that a more robust solution will be needed down the road.

What to look for: The need for any type of customization will almost always mandate longer-term agreements. Most vendors also require a 30-day cancellation notice. This is not unreasonable since vendors need to predict volume and capacity requirements. The major issue is to ensure that there is a way to end the service should it turn out to be problematic in some way.

Some vendors provide more than one level of service for clients. If additional services are a consideration for the future, be sure that the vendor allows for service upgrades or transfers without beginning a new contract.

pricing schedule

1. What is the pricing method? Is it fixed? (A flat fee based on a message cap) Scaled? (Based on the number of messages actually sent) Per individual mailing? Per campaign?

2. What is the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) for overage?

3. Are there differences in rates for the time of day your mailing is sent?

4. Are reduced rates available for signing a longer-term contract or upgrading to a longer-term contract after the trial period?

It is important to fully understand what the total costs will be for the delivery of messages. This becomes more important if normal publishing schedules deviate. Flat-fee services can be beneficial if publishing on a regular schedule, while per campaign or CPM based rates might be more beneficial with an irregular schedule.

If saving money is a consideration, term discounts can be important to consider. Some vendors offer as much as one quarter of service free with a one-year agreement. There is also the benefit of locking in at current rates.

What to look for: Rates change on a monthly basis at many vendors. Sometimes they increase, but sometimes they decrease as well. Many vendors may be willing to give a lock-in on current pricing for a specific period of time, but that may cause higher pricing overall if the rates decline. Most publishers do not fully consider the implications of CPM overage rates. Sometimes these can be at 5-10 times the regular CPM.

ownership of data

1. If there is a written agreement, does it specifically spell out who owns the data?

Be sure that there is no question about this. The data should be owned outright by the client who created the material, not the email vendor.

What to look for: More and more vendors are including provisions in their agreements that the data becomes the vendorís property should, for example, the client default in payment. However, most vendors do not specifically spell out in their agreements that the client owns the data.

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part two: customer services

fees for support

1. What additional fees are there for support?

2. What type of support services are included free of charge?

With some vendors, customer service fees can easily end up costing more than hosting charges. It is important to know what is and is not included. Preferably, there should be a written agreement that spells out all of the details.

What to look for: Some vendors have support fees built into their hosting fees, some have support plans, and still others charge per instance for support. With most solutions, customer support requirements diminish over time, so weigh the cost/benefit of having it included in regular fees versus having it as a separate charge. At the same time, keep in mind that if the person primarily responsible for list management changes, increased support will likely be needed for a while. Be sure to determine which support fees are billable and which are not.

other support issues

1. How committed is the vendor to customer service?

Different vendors provide support in many different ways. It is important to consider individual needs and the personality of the list manager when considering options.

What to look for: Obviously, the ideal situation would be to never need support in the first place. The reality is that very few vendors provide 24x7 support by email and phone. Even fewer vendors provide guarantees on response times. Since the sales and customer service functions at most vendors are separated, don't equate the ongoing service from a salesperson with what will be provided by customer support. Find out whether live support and/or email support are offered. Determine whether or not support requests and responses are tracked, and ask about the average response time for support requests.


1. What administrative reports are available?

From one vendor to the next, there will be a wide range in the number of reports available.

What to look for: Reports relating to the number of new subscribers, removal requests, and bounce counts now tend to be standard with most vendors. More advanced reporting includes the tracking of:

  • click-throughs on URLs at an aggregate and/or per-subscriber level

  • open-rate

  • demographic statistics

  • source of new subscribers

and there are more, of course. Ideally every possible type of report would be available, but there is usually a price associated with this. Carefully weigh what types of reports are most important and what value they bring. Also, consider whether or not these reports will actually be used. If report information is a high priority, ask whether reports are generated in real-time, on a daily basis, or at some other time interval.

2. What privacy and security policies are in place?

3. Are customerís lists opt-in?

Make certain that: 1) subscriber data will be safe, and 2) that all emails are delivered to subscribers.

What to look for: Even if the list is fully opt-in and permission based, make certain that the vendor is very firm about hosting opt-in only lists. If they agree to host any questionable lists, this might result in their servers getting blocked by individual ISPs and listed on SPAM blacklists. Find out what the vendor does to ensure that lists are opt-in both before and after they are hosted. Along the same lines, it is important that the vendor has an established privacy policy and, preferably, that hosted clients are required to have privacy policies posted on-site.

4. What is the process for bounced messages?

On a monthly basis, expect to see anywhere from 1% to 6% of email addresses being returned as undeliverable. Although most vendors today offer automated bounce management, there are no established standards in the industry. Some vendors remove addresses from a list too quickly (leading to an unnecessary loss of subscribers) and others take too long (so clients are paying more than necessary).

What to look for: Ideally, undeliverable addresses should be removed from the list once it can be ascertained that they are permanently non-deliverable. Generally speaking, soft bounces (i.e. a full mailbox) should remain on the list for at least 30 days; and hard bounces (i.e. the email address does not exist) should be removed within two mailings.

Make certain that there is some way to access the addresses that are removed from the list and that a reason is given for the addresses listed as undeliverable, if that is considered important. It often happens that vendorsí servers are blocked from certain ISPs or hosting companies resulting in a false bounce. For lists that are very large or are mailed on an irregular basis, at least one vendor offers a service to ďcleanĒ a list before a mailing. This can dramatically reduce the number of bounces.

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part three: technical issues

backup procedures

1. How often are lists backed up?

2. What is the backup procedure?

For lists that expect a great number of subscribe and unsubscribe requests, this question will be important. Lists and databases must be backed up more frequently than websites. Monthly, or even weekly, backups are not sufficient in most cases.

What to look for: The best option is a company that uses multiple backup procedures and does backups at least once a day. It is also important that the company uses more than one method for backups in case there is a failure of the primary method. For those vendors which only use one method, ask whether the previous backup is overwritten when a new one is done.

  3. Can list owners backup subscriber information at will?

Even if the first two questions are of little concern to you, it is still a good idea to take precautions. Being able to backup data at will is helpful because it allows a safeguard should the email vendor have a temporary lapse in service. Even more important, it ensures that subscriber information is available if the vendor goes out of business without warning.

What to look for: Choose vendors that provide a way to backup subscriber lists at will or that have a method of sending backup information to list owners on a regular basis.

off-site storage

1. Are copies of the data stored in another facility?

What happens if a natural disaster occurs at the vendorís data center and all of your backups are stored? All information would be lost, of course. For safetyís sake, it is important to look for a vendor that stores backups off-site, unless the list owner also plans to perform regular backups of the entire list.

What to look for: Verify that backups are stored off-site and that the vendor has a secondary network located elsewhere.

preventive measures

1. What system does the vendor have in place in case of a minor or major outage?

The more frequently messages are delivered and the higher the number of subscribe and unsubscribe requests received daily, the more important this question becomes.

What to look for: For lists that have heavy traffic (multiple messages, high numbers of subscribe requests, etc.) it is advisable to ask about the vendorís preparation for minor or major power outages.

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part four: features & benefits

advanced features

1. Does the vendor offer detailed click-through tracking?

2. Does the vendor offer personalization?

3. What types of data can the vendor collect about subscribers?

Advanced features can provide a significant increase in return on investment (ROI). However, as with the advanced reports previously described, consider the trade-off for the additional cost that will likely be incurred.

What to look for: In an ideal world, emails would be delivered based on certain criteria or rules that the client has laid out, such as where the subscribers come from or which subscribers have purchased as a result of the email marketing efforts. This would allow for the targeting of future mailings based on the historical behavior and demographics of subscribers.

Only features that will actually be used should be sought. It doesnít make sense to use a system that offers advanced personalization or rules-based filtering if capturing the email address of subscribers is the only priority. Consider the services of an email marketing consultant if there is indecision about which advanced features would be beneficial. Some vendors will provide this service, but keep in mind that they are likely to steer prospects towards their own premium services.

database integration

1. Can the vendor integrate their system and link to already existing data?

This is an important consideration for in-house databases that are continually updated if you want to make use of real-time data.

What to look for: Integration charges can be quite steep, especially if using a non-standard database. Many companies find that it is better to do an export of data from their in-house list before mailings. Aside from the cost of integration, determine how data is ported back to the in-house database. (i.e. removal requests, click through tracking, and other information.)

value-added marketing services

1. What is the vendorís ability to assist, consult or make recommendations on the integration of email campaigns with offline campaigns?

2. What is the vendorís ability to design in-house creative and gather copy and assets?

For people who are not using an agency or who are novices to email marketing, the expertise and value-added services that many vendors offer will be a definite benefit. Value-added services such as response management, campaign analysis, and marketing strategy will come at a premium price, but can be well worth the extra cost.

What to look for: Vendors that offer value-added services will usually do so at a high premium. Before committing to a vendor for value-added services, make certain to ask for performance reports on services they have provided other clients. Look at samples of creative work, and find out the credentials of the people who will be working on the campaign. Do they have specific experience in email marketing? Experience in another area of marketing or advertising is not a substitute. Some vendors tend to specialize in business-to-business, while others specialize in consumer markets. Marketing strategy, campaign integration, and creative work all vary tremendously between the two.

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