4 ghastly secrets no ESP ever wants you to know

Virtually all ESPs look like cool shiny new things when you first meet them. Until you peer behind the curtain to stare in the face of unthinkable, bloodcurdling horror!

Join me in finding some of the skeletons in the cupboard of your favourite email vendor. Here are 4 ghastly secrets no ESP ever wants you to know.

ESPs steal from each other all the time

“Blimey, this sure looks nice”. No, that’s not you marvelling at an ESP’s brilliantly designed home page. It’s the entire sales staff of a competing vendor all huddled round the monitor. “We must do even better than them!” says Jack the CEO. “Let’s go for it!” goads Jill the Manager. All eyes bear down on Jimmy the Designer in the back. “Wait, how I am supposed to…”

“Don’t worry, just use their site as reference.”
“You mean, as a starting point? For something new, I guess.”
“No, make it look the same – but nicer.”
“The same?”
“Yeah, but nicer.”
“Better-looking, you mean?”
“No, just the same, but different.”
“How different?”
“Just the same.”
“The same?”
“But nicer.”

Should you be horrified?

Unless you’re a designer, not really. Companies have been looking to others for inspiration since the dawn of entrepreneurship, and with upwards of 400 email vendors in the market, most of their websites are bound to be pretty similar.

They all claim “superior”, “best”, “world-class” or “industry-leading” deliverability. You’ll see the same kind of “detailed reporting analytics” in each and every one of them. Their sites look and feel virtually the same, down to main sections, pricing schemes, feature sets and plus-sized pictures of computer monitors showcasing lovely newsletters and drag-and-drop editors – with maybe a dash of animation thrown in the mix (remember, “same, but nicer”).

You see, all ESPs keep tabs on each other. Each vendor has their own roster of nemesis vendors which they ruthlessly stalk around the web. They’ll subscribe to their newsletters, tail them on social media, ask for quotes posing as prospects, scour the net for mentions. Any time a nemesis gets something new out the door, the stalkers will look at it in wonder, tinker with it and try to do the same. But nicer.

So is this some kind of Donald Duck vs Neighbour Jones pettiness war? Far from it (mostly). It usually boils down to business. Anytime an ESP announces a super-cool feature, other ESPs will have their own users asking “Can you give us the same too? Pretty please? Do it now or we’ll jump ship!”. Developers then tend to fast-track it with little planning time, meaning it’ll often come out as the long-lost twin of the original ESP’s feature.

This may not actually be a bad thing after all. Besides making it easier for users to migrate between vendors (they won’t need to relearn how things work), it keeps ESPs elbowing for the bleeding edge. And anything that brings you the bleeding edge at an affordable price can only be a good thing.

So no need to be horror-struck yet. Except when…

ESPs crash hard – and more often than you think

Server crashes are the worst. Just the worst. If you hate them as a user, email vendors straight up abhor them. Their whole business, their whole reason for existing in the first place, it all goes down the “Page not available” drain. But if you think this is something that only happens once in a blue moon (if ever), think again.

All ESPs had at least one catastrophic crash in their lifetime – and most will have several. This is not a guess. It’s inevitable. Email marketing servers push hard drives to the limit. Any drive grinding data away 24/7 all year round will fail. If the vendor’s system admins are lucky, the HD will give them a tiny bit of advance warning by spewing out scan errors. More often than not though, it’ll just suddenly die. Right inside the RAID which has trouble switching between redundancy drives. Right when there’s hundreds of thousands of users logged in. Right when you have that really important campaign to send out.

Should you be horrified?

By all means, if and when it happens to you. Which wholly depends on how often you’ll be using your ESP.

Keep in mind many vendors boast 99% uptime in their service level agreement . This translates into more than 3 days per year on which the vendor admits there’s a chance their entire service may be down. If you just log in weekly to design and send your newsletter, you may hardly ever notice something is amiss. But if that ESP powers a complex sales funnel underpinning your whole business, you’ll be sure to notice even the quickest outage. While screaming like a howler monkey.

The really spine-chilling thing? If disaster strikes, the folks at the ESP usually won’t have the faintest idea when the system will be back online. They must first assess what happened. Was it disk failure? Connection loss at the data centre? DDoS attack? A critter chewing through the line? A really nasty critter hell-bent on making your life miserable?

Whatever the reason, it’ll take time to fix. While you’re on the phone raining down a verbal hellfire on the ESP’s support staff, their sys admins will be either phoning up just about everyone like mad at the impacted data centre or holed up inside the data centre itself, 30 meters deep beneath the earth, digging through a tangled mess of cables with no mobile signal and hardly any way to contact someone outside.

So, you see, it’ll take time.

Denial-of-service attacks are worse still. You won’t believe how easy it is for a couple of kids (or probably that same nasty critter) to whip up a script which knocks a website offline for days on end. As recently as a couple of years ago, a DDoS barrage plunged some of the major ESPs into the dark ages for a full two weeks.

Two. Holy-Freaking-Crap. Weeks.

Hey, but at least your data is safe, right?

ESPs won’t guarantee any backups or refunds

“LOL, didn’t read”. This is you, right? Yeah, you there, the nice chap who just signed up for an account at your favourite email vendor. Did you read their Terms of Use? Not even a quick skim through? Well, you’ve just happily agreed to being left to fend for yourself if something bad happens. Like losing all your data – yep, subscribers, campaigns, reports, the whole lot.

If you take a gander at any ESP’s terms of service, you should quickly find something labelled “limitation of liability” (often in uppercase, bold or both; ill news usually come in black). This is where the vendor, like a father telling his unsuspecting son there’s no iPhone for Xmas, will officially give you a breakdown of how your life sucks and you’re on your own.

If they crash while you were in the middle of something, tough luck.
If they can’t recover what you lost, tough luck.
If they provide you with wrong analytics, tough luck.
If they screwed up anything at all, tough luck.
Indemnity? Even worse luck.

Should you be horrified?

You don’t even know the half of it. Hidden deep in the Byzantine labyrinth of an email vendor’s Terms and Conditions, you might find such ungodly abominations as service termination at the vendor’s discretion (no explanations given) and pricing changes with no prior warning.

In some cases, payment terms for monthly plans can get downright draconian. Did your credit card expire without you noticing it? You’ll still be charged (with interest). Want to pay with the updated card? You’ll be charged a late payment fee. Would you just rather cancel the plan and forget about the whole thing? You must do it in writing.

Fortunately, these money-mongering terms are not par for the course. Most ESPs are actually quite reasonable and will do everything in their power to help you out if they muck it up. It just happens they can’t afford an extremely costly compensation in case their service fails to perform (which it inevitably will, even if only for a little while).

Oh, and speaking of their service…

ESPs know virtually nothing about their one job

Picture yourself with a letter in your hand. Would you send it by mail or rather put it in a bottle and let it drift across the ocean?

When using an ESP, you choose the bottle every time.

Should you be horrified?

If you’re new to email marketing, this may come as a shock, but there’s a reason you won’t see any reputable vendor boasting guaranteed delivery. They simply can’t ensure it. Oh yes, they’ll gladly string your message along and push it off into the drifting waves near its destination. That’s the last you’ll see of it though. From then on, the bottle is in the hands of the local Coast Guard (aka inbox providers, such as Gmail), who will salvage it and do with it as they see fit. Including not delivering it.

All the while, your ESP will know nothing about any of this.

Inbox delivery? They’re in the dark.
Spam folder delivery? Same.
Trashed email? Same, same.
Bounces and spam complaints? Only if the inbox providers report those back.
Opens? Depends on subscribers loading the email’s pics or clicking through.

So you see, the very thing an ESP is supposed to do – deliver emails – is the one thing it can never be sure has actually been done.

That’s how email works though, and it’ll probably never change. Which is why a growing number of ESPs is going multichannel (SMS, push, social, etc.) so they can have greater control on the whole messaging gamut: sending AND delivery AND reporting.

Does this mean email is dead in the water? Not at all. It remains the marketing channel with the best bang for your buck. And as long as you follow the best practices, there’s a really good chance your emails will make it into the inbox, whatever ESP you pick.

And this very site is here to help you do just that (don’t forget to check out EmailVendorSelection’s all-new guide!).

You’re still buying the ultimate message in a bottle though 🙂

Ruben Alvim

About Ruben Alvim

Rúben Alvim is Content and Development Manager at E-goi. He’s also part of the Deliverability Team, breaking down thousands campaign samples a day to gauge email delivery trends and pinpoint what actually takes to make it through the inbox.

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