5 ways to pick an Email service provider without an RFP

An ESP may look good on paper and have the right technology, but whether or not you’re going to work harmoniously together is another matter.

The Request for Proposal definitely has its place – it can be really valuable when assessing whether or not an ESP ticks the right boxes for your business. Here are some alternative methods to assess compatibility with any potential ESPs, which can be used during the selection process whether or not it involves an RFP.

Campaign Critique

Asking potential ESPs to carry out a critique of one of your email campaigns can give you insight into the kind of advice and strategic guidance you can expect to receive when you start working with them.

The Email Service Provider should see it as a great opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and how they can help you achieve great results. Some ESPs may charge for this service, but it can be worth it as their Campaign Critique can include:

  • A benchmark of your results – how you compare with their other customers in the same industry.
  • Clear recommendations as to what improvements you could make across design, style, and content including the subject line.
  • Highlights as to where you have met best practice and what you should continue doing (the critique shouldn’t necessarily be all critical!).
  • Testing tips and advice – what you could test to optimise the email and perhaps a brief testing plan.
  • What results you can expect to achieve by working with them and following their recommendations.

A good critique can include input from multiple teams, including email marketing specialists – such as Campaign Managers or Email Consultants – as well as Designers. These are all people you should meet at your ESP before signing on.

A higher level critique could take up to a week, for something more in-depth it may take two weeks or slightly longer – as the consultants who will be doing the work will obviously have customer work to deliver too.

Customer Reference

A customer reference can be very interesting! Bear in mind that the ESP is likely to select a customer who they work very well with and who have seen good results – after all, it’s unlikely that every customer they have will be a possible reference. Still, if one of their customers is happy to speak to potential customers on their behalf it’s an excellent sign, so it’s definitely worthwhile asking for one if they don’t offer you one first.

Ideally, the reference will be in the same industry as you, or will have had similar challenges which they have overcome with the ESP. The best scenario will be where you can speak with the contact directly, be that via telephone, Skype, or in person. You need to be able to ask the right questions during the reference call.

The contact may highlight the service they have received from the whole business including the Account Manager, what kind of ongoing or technical support they receive, a success story or challenge they have overcome working with the ESP, how long they’ve been a customer, and why they chose to work with the ESP in the first place.

If you do get to ask questions, asking where the ESP can improve is a good one.

Email Strategy Review

Not every ESP will be able to provide a strategic review – it’s something only larger ESPs, and those with their own in-house digital team, will be able to provide. Smaller, self-service providers and ESPs who work through agencies may not be able to – though, if you’re looking for a self-service ESP, an email strategy review is probably not right for you anyway.

If an email strategy review is something you’re looking for, it is a good way to test whether your relationship with the ESP will be longer term, as it will contain much more in-depth than a campaign critique. It can be quite a thorough piece of work, so expect to be charged for it, and be aware that you may be asked to provide quite a bit of information, such as:

  • Structure of your digital/email team
  • Objectives of email campaigns
  • Challenges
  • What tracking tools you use & potentially for read-only access
  • Breakdown of customer segments and revenue
  • Where email fits in with wider digital strategy
  • Testing plans
  • Long-term email goals
  • Who your competitors are

This may take longer for the ESP to carry out, so the turnaround will also be longer than a campaign review. The ESP should also want to present their review back to you as well as provide you with a document with a summary.

On-site ‘how-to’ session

An on-site training session is great to get those who will be using the platform as a key part of their role involved and gather their feedback. As they’ll be using it as part of their day to day tasks, their buy-in is key.

The session should be a couple of hours and should involve their Trainer or Implementation Consultant showing your team how to build an email from start to finish including importing data, sending out the email, and how to report on it.

Trial or demo account

A trial isn’t always appropriate, and what a trial looks like can vary. Some ESPs will happily give you access to a demo account where you can have a look around, whereas some may be reluctant to give you access without training. However, the trial can be good if:

  • You have used their system before, perhaps at a previous company, and can show your team how it’s used at a very high level.
  • The team members who’ll be actually using the system tend to pick up new technologies and systems quickly and want to have a look around to ‘get a feel’ for the system.
  • You have already had an on-site how-to session and want to have a play around on your own.
  • Added benefit of experiencing all the features yourself, while in a demo the presenter might skip over things or put emphasis on other features than you are most interested in.

If you choose to have a trial you may be given an empty/dummy account, where you may not be able to send out live campaigns and therefore won’t be able to access any reports (unless there are example reports in there). Some ESPs will only provide a ‘guided’ trial where they hand hold you through the system. These scenarios are all different to a true ‘free trial’ which some self-service ESPs will offer, where you may be able to send out emails, but may not get to see a demo or get as much support. What you choose depends on the service you are looking for.

See which ESP selection method is right for you

Here’s a handy summary which you can refer to and decide a particular method is right for you!

Alternative ESP selection methods
Method Benefits When to use When NOT to use
Campaign Critique A good opportunity to see what kind of advice you’re likely to receive when you work with the ESP, which requires little effort on your behalf and can result in free best practice advice which you can use moving forward, even if you don’t choose the ESP who provided it. When you have 2-4 vendors to choose from. You can see who turns the work around quickest, who provides the best advice, whose advice is in the best format etc. Also good to use if you want to improve your key metrics, or if you are looking to refresh your email design. During the final decision process. The output of the campaign review should be quite high-level and there are likely to be similarities across responses, unless an ESP is particularly innovative with their response.
Customer reference Find out what the ESP is like to work with from someone who has first-hand experience. In my opinion, you can always use a customer reference 🙂 If you already have a lot of experience with the system
Strategic review Scope out if the business will be able to work with you strategically – do they understand your business goals? Due to the time the review could take, and the effort required on your part, do this when you already have a final shortlist – if you’re down to your final 2 ESPs. During the early stages when you have multiple vendors on your shortlist, or if you are simply looking for a vendor to send out emails and not for a partner to help you achieve longer term goals.
‘How-to’ session End-users will be able to get a taster of how easy (or not) the system is to use When you have a large email team who will all need to get used to using the new platform. If there are only 1 or 2 main users, and they are quite techy and naturally pick up new systems quickly, but even then it can still be a good idea to get to know the system better.
Trial -Get to see if the platform is easy to use/intuitive
-Team members can check the system out in their own time – not reliant on the ESP’s availability.
If you’ve already used or had a demo of the system, or if you’ve taken part in a ‘how-to’ session.
Remember, access to a dummy account is different to a free trial with a self-service ESP!
If you’ve never seen the system before – you need at the very least an in-depth demo of how to use it unless it’s a basic self-service system.


When looking for a new ESP, an RFP can be a great place to start but it’s not always necessary. An RFP can be a lengthy process, from putting one together to reviewing responses. Think about the other offers and if they are going to benefit you. If you or your team need to use the system frequently, a trial or ‘how-to’ session could be a great idea, and you may be able to skip the RFP altogether.

If you are looking for a longer term partnership where you can learn from the company and improve your email marketing strategy, a campaign critique or strategic review may be more appropriate after you have already narrowed down your selection to a few ESPs who you already know meet your technological requirements. Think about your end goal and put together the best selection methods based on this, and the selection process should be much easier.

Lindsey Raine

About Lindsey Raine

Lindsey Raine is Customer Success Manager at Communicator, a strategic email service partner focused on helping brands optimise their performance across multiple channels.
As champion of customer of success, Lindsey ensures the teams across Communicator are working efficiently to help clients achieve their email marketing goals and business objectives with ease.

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