How many Email Software Companies (ESPs) should be on your short list?

How many Email Service Providers (ESPs) should we put on our short list? If a marketer is selecting a new email marketing company sooner or later this question will pop up.

No matter if you are looking for an Email service provider or the best Marketing Automation software you don’t want the selection to take unnecessarily long, at the same time you want to be able to compare and evaluate multiple options.

Every additional ESP costs you something

Every additional vendor takes up time and effort. Especially down the road, where you are looking at each of them in more detail. A small business owner, who has need to send a few newsletters often will take a different route and not do a structured selection, but rather look at several (cheap) email tools, see what if a self-service trial is enough.

So where to draw the line? How many Email service providers should you go through an in-depth evaluation with, and at the end invite to pitch or present their solution? Read on to find out…

Service providers love it when you know what you are looking for

On the side of the Email service provider, the number of competitors is an issue too. An email marketing pitch with many competitors diminishes the chance of them winning. They don’t want to put in (too much) effort in those cases. And it can be very valuable to have an enthusiastic ESP during the selection, that is willing to go the extra mile. Every ESP prefers to be in a selection with only a small number of others.

Smart business developers (aka salespeople) who work at ESPs would try and probe a bit for that nugget of “who else is in there” information. But if they don’t, how about you make sure to positively manage expectations and speak out that you want them to make the effort.

So the benefits of being selective upfront is that it saves you time and brings you extra value. But how to do that and how selective should you be?

The four vendor selection stages for email service providers

First off, it is important to see what we would call a shortlist/pitch. I am referring to the final stage(s) of the selection process. Marketers come to have high expectations, maybe sometimes too high of email marketing service providers when it comes to pitches. It takes quite some effort from both sides to go through an an Request for Proposal (RFP), demos and presentations.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t browse around and search first. Maybe you are not experienced at all, or it has been a while since you looking into the market for new MarTech. It is good to get a feel for the market and all the players.

So it starts with your bulk list (all in the category, very limited filtering) and then your long list (first filtering, strike out on knock-out criteria). The trick is to filter it down as fast as possible.


How long should your ESP long list be?

The total number of email service providers is over 450. So just only looking through the complete list of ESPs is already a big task, but there is a solution.

When a company approaches me to guide their selection, they sometimes already started on their own “awkward” short list, that don’t make a lot of sense. Often enough because they group together candidates that are in very different categories. That indicates that there maybe is no real sense of the requirements or they don’t yet know what type of ESP or Marketing Automation provider they are looking for.

You can already narrow it down a lot by starting your long list based on the type of email marketing solution that is best for you.

Alternatively, it also happens that vendors are misjudged and got on the shortlist – for instance, because of features they list on their site (but don’t really have).

Getting some help in selections can greatly speed up that process. As an experienced consultant can shorten your list using proper knock-out criteria (the criteria that lead to immediate elimination).

But let’s start with a rule of the thumb:
If your long list has more than 20 Email Service providers, it isn’t a long list. It’s a bulk list and you haven’t been selective enough. Keep your long list to a maximum of 12.

Narrowing the view, when the email selection gets more serious

how many email vendors selected

Going from a long to a short list of email marketing vendors requires a better and clearer definition of what you want. Note that we aren’t up to the pitching yet, the short list should only contain candidates that are real candidates to invite. Now that is the difference.

Your short list should contain a maximum of anywhere from 3 to 5 esps. That is the maximum, having less is perfectly alright. If you can restrict it further before really getting into a ‘selection mode’, narrow it down.

Hitting a number of 4-5 potentials and you are done. But possibly you still have a few that don’t seem to perfectly fit, but possibly could be a fit…. hmmmm…. What to do with those?

This is also where the expertise comes in, as an experienced consultant or agency that does this selection more often has less to investigate (they already know from experience or can quickly find out).

But if you are going at it alone, decide to either investigate further or put them on an “on hold to investigate” part of the list. Those reserves can be activated if there is no satisfactory solution found from the short list you had made.

Be sure to write down your arguments when NOT selecting an Email service provider at this point, general good plus bad points you came across. You might find that your requirements could change over time. In that case, it is good to know why you eliminated certain vendors.

This also helps to share and get more of your colleagues to add their 2 cents. They can comment on “opinions” by making them explicit. So you don’t get any colleagues going for the “let’s take a step back” or (unintentionally) sabotage the process.

The email marketing pitching begins, sort of

Based on the complexity, scope, and size of the project you would like to investigate further and talk to some of the email service providers. You might want to go out and see online demo’s and their website to be able to do a sanity check if vendors really can fulfill the requirements and supply the service you were looking for. Some might not cut it, and can safely be removed from the shortlist.

A high-quality group of Email service providers selected

Now with the shortlist in your hand, do you have any favorites? Think about how confident you are, this also depends on the experience with both email marketing and the selection process. Ask 2 to 4 email vendors to present their case and pitch.

Less confident, looking for a more creative solution or have a more complex or high stake situation? In that case, you might want to look into 3-6 email suppliers to pitch on your project. If you want to deviate from the numbers given in this article, trust me, it isn’t necessary to invite more.

Make sure that the vetting part is done right and you have a high-quality selection of ESPs in your pitch that will match the profile you were looking for.

In the end, always follow this simple truth when inviting ESPs to your pitch:
Invite as little as you can and as many as you need.

What do the Experts say?

After posting this article on Linkedin, an interesting conversation where multiple online marketing specialists shared their views:

Chris Marriott President & Founder at Email Connect
Great article, Jordie. I agree that your initial list should not be too limited.

For the RFPs we manage with our clients we usually start with 8 ESPs. We cut that down to 4 after scoring the RFP responses, and those 4 get to present their solutions to the use cases we’ve developed. Then it’s down to 2 for the sand boxes.

Panos Ladas, Online Marketing & E-commerce Expert at ON.Marketing:
Probably 5. It is not easy but it makes a lot of sense. If you go for only 3 then 2 of the 3 are very similar in capabilities, experience, price and you won’t benefit from the extensive experience out there.

Talk to 5 vendors and you will find 2 vendors that are big and similar, 2 that are very creative and interesting and 1 that is probably trying to disrupt the market. In every case, this will bring out a better outcome than a more narrow approach to it (although it does take more effort)

Peter van der Schaar, Founder of Marketing Makers and Basedriver:
From a vendor point of view. We don’t engage in pitches all that often, especially the ‘smaller’ clients do not follow a structured vendor selection process.

If there is such a process, we mostly see two or three competitors.

I think a potential client should also acknowledge that a pitch costs both the vendor and the client a lot of time, so a smaller number of vendors will probably lead to a higher quality of the pitches.

James Lamb, senior Program Manager, Email and Lifecycle:
If it’s more than 3, you haven’t collected enough information. If necessary, give them a use case they can walk through on a conference call.

That will get you some interaction with someone not on the sales team and help you see how deep they are in the industry and how they think creatively and if they’ve worked with customers with similar needs.

About Jordie van Rijn

Jordie van Rijn is an independent email marketing consultant and analyst. He is the founder of Email Vendor Selection and specializes in smart email marketing, online marketing strategy, software selection, campaign management, optimisation and RFP / vendor selection. He tested, reviewed, and wrote about 100+ business software including email marketing services, CRMs, ecommerce platforms, and online course creators. Published in-depth email marketing guides for financial service, ecommerce, travel, restaurant, and fashion industries.
Named one of "50 Online Marketing Influencers to Watch" by Entrepreneur magazine. Companies like Scania, KLM, Unilever, AEGON, CZ, FNV, NRC Media have asked me for advice.

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