Choosing an ESP; You Get What You Pay for—so Pay for More

I often see businesses choosing email service providers (ESPs) based largely on price. Later, they discover that ESP wasn’t so cheap after all, for various reasons. You don’t want to make that mistake.

On the other hand, I see others choosing an ESP that costs more, but also offers more. Which path will you choose?

Why do email service providers charge such different prices?

ESPs differ in price in part because a lower-end one will offer less functionality and support, and therefore costs less, compared to a higher-end (and higher-priced) ESP that offers much more functionality.

With the lower-end ESP, you’re typically limited to what you can do and usually, you only have one way to do a task. That means you might find out, for example, that the third-party data you wanted to use in your new automation initiative can’t be accessed—because it’s not available in that part of the platform.

Do you always get what you pay for?

Do you always get what you pay for?

On the other end of the scale, an ESP can be pricey because the platform offers all kinds of functionality, enabling you to segment using relational databases, do multivariate testing, use drag-and-drop automation, integrate with third-party data sources, and much, much more. The challenge with these platforms is typically support and the cost of implementing more sophisticated campaigns.

Support and expertise as the middle layer

The reality of “you get what you pay for” applies to support too. While the lower-priced ESP that offers fewer buttons to push will be easier to learn and use, if you need advice, you’re often limited in how much help you get. The higher-priced ESP with the sophisticated platform will take more time to ramp up on—and as you master the various features and functionality, you’ll likely need help with each new one.

You’ll need their assistance at implementation to ensure everything is set up right. Then you’ll need their support as a kind of “middle layer” to make sure you can do more and more with the platform moving forward.

Consider this analogy: You might be able to fly a Cessna, but you’ll be overwhelmed by the cockpit of a 747, so you’ll need a pilot to help you out. It’s the same with the higher-end ESP: You need expertise and guidance, someone who will help you get what you paid for out of the system.

Paying for expertise beyond the platform

Then there’s the expertise you need beyond simply using the platform. Because let’s face it, if email were easy, we wouldn’t have—or need—email marketing services. We would simply do it all in-house. But email is far from easy. It’s complex, ever-changing, and made up of all kinds of little moving parts that can have a big impact on your end results.

In order to get the Outcomes, the combination of in-house and ESP needs to be able to offer the right level of Capacity and Ability.

Maybe that’s why so many businesses switch ESPs because they are unhappy with the customer service they’re getting. The businesses need the assistance in order to fully make use of the ESP platform as well as to optimize their email marketing programs to maximize their ROI. But they often can’t do it alone.

When spending more money upfront can mean more ROI later

This matters more than you might think because, over the long run, the customer who paid more for the ESP initially can come out financially ahead later on. They’re able to make incremental improvements to their email program, thereby improving deliverability, open rates and click throughs. Those incremental improvements that lead to better engagement, deliverability, and eventually sales can more than make up for spending a little more on the ESP at the outset.

Make sure you know what you’re getting with that ESP

Most of the complaints we hear at ClickMail are from companies getting nickeled and dimed for little things that they assume they should be able to do in the platform when they selected it. We also hear from companies that are frustrated because they don’t get a lot of deliverability help when they have issues getting into the inbox. Companies also complain to us that they have to pay in order to get premium customer support—usually because they wrongly assumed that level of service and support would be part of their contractual agreement with the ESP.

Consider just the deliverability issue for a minute: What if you’re having deliverability issues with Gmail? Will the low-cost ESP
1) be willing to help you and
2) have the knowledge to help you?

Can they help a client go from a 2% open rate with Gmail to a 22% open rate? It can take time and effort to fix deliverability issues, but it’s worth it because any email not opened might as well be an email not sent in the first place.

And what if you want to customize?

This is also true when an organization wants to add a new level of customization to their email program, one that has the potential to dramatically improve the communications to their customers and prospects, and increase their ROI. This is where it’s less about the cost and more about the ESP. If a company wants a customized dashboard built, for example, they obviously wouldn’t expect to get that for free. However, choosing the cheapest ESP at the outset means the ESP might not have the expertise or ability to do the project at all.

The three most common requests I see are for additions that have the potential to be game changers for the marketer, yet the cheap ESP might not be able to deliver them. They are:

  • Custom reporting capabilities
  • Adding data and being able to access it in automations, segmentation and content
  • Adding triggers or automation via an intuitive interface

Not every ESP has the capabilities, knowledge, or resources to tackle projects like these, forcing the customer to turn to a third-party vendor or move to another platform – both of which can be a substantial additional cost.

Why cut corners on something that’s already so cheap?

Email has the highest ROI per dollar out of all your marketing options, so I don’t understand why so many marketers want to choose the cheapest ESP when email is already cheap to begin with. In my opinion, it makes a lot more sense to invest in an ESP that offers the best suited capabilities and right level of support to draw on those resources to create an email marketing program that’s constantly improving—and increasing in ROI.

When the cost per send is so low with email marketing and the ROI so high, why cut corners on your ESP? You’re already ahead financially simply by using email. Focus on your results and spend a little more for the expertise.

About Marco Marini

With 25 years in business, Marco is a walking encyclopedia of all things email: best practices, technologies, trends, and more. Marco is currently the COO of iPost, an email platform built for marketers by marketers. iPost an easy, flexible, dynamic marketing automation solution for email and mobile marketing. He has also held key marketing positions with CyberSource, ClickMail, eHealthInsurance, DoveBid and IBM Canada.

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