Are all ESPs equal? 4 must-know ways to lift the RFP curtain

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The price component of the decision is going away as a real differentiator. And while that may be bad news to some, the death of email CPM will ultimately be good news to your email marketing program, because ESPs will need to find more meaningful ways to stand out from the pack when they are pitching your business. So let me get into what’s important and what’s not so important in regards to how ESPs try to differentiate themselves.

1. The Email Platform

We like to get this out of the way as early as possible. Everyone’s platform will send your email and provide reporting back to you. If you’re an enterprise email marketing client there are 10-12 options for you (despite what Forrester told to you in the last Wave report about email marketing vendors). And if you plan to go with a full-service option, you can skip the demo. What do you care what the tool looks like? You won’t be using it, and besides, demos are boring. Trust me.

More email platform options for SMB
If you’re a Small to Medium Business you have even more options. This makes this part of the Request For proposal (RFP) harder than if you are enterprise sized. Every platform has its strengths and weaknesses, so your evaluation needs to focus in on those that meet your specific business needs. There will always be more than one option.

For both enterprise and SMB email marketers the information you really want is the ongoing investment being made in the tool, and the product roadmap. The last thing you want to do is pick a vendor whom that you will outgrow before you’re ready to make another move. And if the ESP is experiencing capacity problems (they won’t tell you that, but their clients will), run the other direction.

2. The Referral client

I have never understood the value that marketers place on this part of the process. Even the worst ESP on the planet has a few clients who will speak kindly of it, if for no other reason than they are nice people. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a number of clients who were more than willing to speak on my company’s behalf to help us land new business (I hope you know who you are—I owe you a lot). I also had clients at the very same time who—for any number of reasons—cursed the day I was born. When I was asked to provide a prospect with references guess which clients I provided?

Every ESP has fans and detractors
This is important for you to recognize: At any given time every single ESP you are considering has its fans and its detractors within its client base. Because none of them are perfect 100% of the time (yes, that pains me to admit). Your best bet is to try and speak with both so you get a more balanced assessment.

There’s no reason you or your search consultant can’t reach out to other clients of each ESP that you’re considering. Ones not provided directly by the ESP. And while I tend to weigh the positive reviews more heavily than the negative, I like to hear both sides.

3. The People at your ESP

Everything really important in your relationship with your ESP spring from the people who work there. The quality of their ideas, their service and ultimately the success of your program is dependent upon the people assigned to your business. And this is only magnified when you are in a full-service relationship.

The email platform is secondary to the email people
The success of email agencies like Brightwave Marketing and Alchemy Worx demonstrate that marketers are recognizing that the platform is secondary to the people. Neither of these shops is tied to a single proprietary platform. You bring the platform, they bring the people. That’s not to say that you won’t find some excellent people on the services teams at the ESPs. You definitely will.

Whether you go agency or ESP, the point is that you want their best people working with you. You should insist on meeting the team proposed for your business as part of the pitch process. Falling in love with the head of strategy—someone you won’t see again for at least 6 months—doesn’t really do you or your business any good.

Engaging in some dialog lets you begin to see how they think about your business and your industry. Get a verbal commitment on the “who”, and get a contractual commitment (in a SLA) on the “how much” to ensure that the people who sold you are also the people who service you.

4. The “Man Behind the Curtain”

One thing the be on the alert for is when an ESP offers you something and is hesitant to go into great detail about it. As in, “don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.”

A prime example of that is “the bundle”. This is where an ESP offers you and all-in price for sending and servicing. Rather than give you a CPM for the send and then an hourly rate and hours required to service your business, this methodology makes everything “all in” in the CPM. You might hear the term “fully baked costs”.

Problems with “All in” costs
There are several problems with this. It makes and apples to apples comparison of the email marketing CPM impossible. It doesn’t guarantee you any level of service by the team assigned to your business. And it incentivizes the ESP to “send more email” to maximize their margin, which may not be what’s best for your brand. So ask to see a detailed breakdown of the bundle so you are clear as to what you are getting.

Another example of the man behind the curtain is when an ESP tells you that they have a lot of experience in migrating triggered and automated campaigns, but are reluctant to go into specifics. So make sure no man (or woman) gets left “behind the curtain”!

A “win now, figure it out later strategy”?

You need to remember that in the heat of new business battle even the most professional ESP can fall back on a “win now, figure it out later strategy”. In fact, that attitude is in no way unique to the world of email marketing. By focusing on the right things and asking the right questions up front, you and your company can minimize the challenges any organization faces during the migration to a new vendor. Because there will always be unexpected challenges…

About Chris Marriott


Chris has been in the email marketing space since 2004 and is an experienced digital marketing executive with a focus on creating data-driven experiences for customers of leading Brands. He is the Vice-President of Service & Principal Consultant at The Relevancy Group. The Relevancy Group provides market research and consulting services to both vendors and buyers in the data-driven marketing technology space. The Relevancy Group also measures consumer and marketer behaviors to discover new trends and prove the return on marketing investments. Chris also sits on the on the Board of Directors for eDataSource, a marketing services company that collects, analyzes, organizes and archives millions of marketing messages, providing competitive intelligence and analytics to the email marketing community. He remains a consultant to a variety of fast-growing companies, including AuthorBee, a patent-pending social writing platform.

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