How to Choose an Email Service Provider

Updated December 2017

With so many enterprise email service providers (ESPs) available, choosing an ESP may seem like an overwhelming task. There are so many ESPs with a wide range of services and numerous pricing options. What is the best email service provider for your organization? Here is an overview of what you need to consider when determining which ESP is right for you.

What Is an Email Service Provider and Why Do Organizations Need One?

Email Service Provider Definition:

Email service provider (ESP)—Meaning a company that manages and distributes software-based services and solutions to customers across a wide area network from a central data center. A major part of an ESP’s role is to host email campaign services and email broadcasting software on their own servers.

Essentially the “mail house” for their clients, ESPs send out regular email campaigns and newsletters from their servers. The servers at a bulk email service provider are optimized for that very purpose. If an organization tried to send out bulk emails through an Internet service provider (ISP) — such as AOL, Gmail, or Yahoo! — its email campaigns would likely be blocked. ISPs are not set up for sending bulk emails and may even prohibit it.

What Can an ESP Do for Your Organization?

Besides sending out your email campaigns and newsletters to your database, there are other important services provided by an ESP. Providers also:

  • Help to ensure your emails are legally compliant with CAN-SPAM Act regulations
  • Authenticate your emails as being from your organization, while taking into consideration the latest anti-phishing systems
  • Manage your email database by updating it based on unsubscribes, bounces, and spam complaints
  • Make sure your server’s internet protocol (IP) address isn’t added to blacklists (or resolving any issues if it is — and getting you off such a list)
  • Offer the functionality to manage and segment your email list for targeted campaigns
  • Ensure your email lists are secure from stealing or hacking
  • Offer detailed metrics reports of your email campaign results that can be used to set up tests to optimize your response rates
  • Offer marketing strategy and creative consulting services.

ESP Email Marketing Benefits

There are many reasons why choosing the right ESP is so important. The email vendor you choose will have a major impact on so many parts of your email-marketing program. Here are just a few of the top considerations today:

  • Deliverability — Increased deliverability equals increased revenue and return on investment (ROI). Even a small improvement in deliverability can add up to big bucks. While most deliverability issues stem from your email marketing list, an ESP can help you get set up for success, help you through any deliverability issues, and provide you with a well-monitored shared IP address.
  • Engagement — To drive engagement today, organizations need to consider the ability to provide dynamic content and automated trigger emails; the right ESP will provide you with the necessary functionality to do this cost-effectively.
  • Reporting — Reporting is critical to ongoing improvement; ESPs provide the key reports you need to monitor and manage the effectiveness of your email marketing campaigns.
  • List management — ESPs provide the important role of hosting and securing your email list; some ESPs, such as Salesforce Marketing Cloud, also provide the capability to store other relevant relational data (e.g., ecommerce transactional data) alongside your list.
  • Cross-channel marketing — Because mobile and social media are so hot today, organizations must consider the ability to conduct cross-channel marketing programs; some ESP marketing supports more than email and allows you to manage and monitor more sophisticated multi-channel digital campaigns.

What Are the Criteria You Should Consider When Choosing an ESP?

Whether it’s the first time you’re in the market for an ESP or if you’re thinking about upgrading your current ESP, there are a few things you initially need to think about.

  1. What are your needs and how is email marketing defined by your organization?
    • How many email addresses are in your current database?
    • How frequently do you email?
    • Do you incorporate personalization and dynamic content?
    • Do you use triggered/transactional emails (e.g., cart abandonment, order confirmation)?
    • What types of segmentation do you use?
  2. What are your organization’s plans for future growth? Besides meeting your current email-marketing needs, an ESP email marketing plan/campaign can help you determine what more you can be doing and how to make it happen in the future. If you anticipate significant growth in the future, you may need to be considering enterprise email service providers now. Although they tend to be more costly, enterprise-level ESPs offer a wider selection of advanced features.

Once you’ve answered these questions, take a look at and compare various ESPs based on the following top email providers’ criteria and primary considerations for each:

  1. Deliverability and authentication—You want to ensure that your emails get to your recipients’ inboxes. If your emails are blocked by Internet service providers or spam filters, you’re not only losing conversions, but you’re also hurting your organization’s email reputation. The quality of your email marketing list is most important to deliverability, but the deliverability support and authentication an ESP provides or helps you set up can be key. You want to ensure that your emails get to your recipients’ inboxes. If your emails are blocked by ISPs or spam filters, you’re not only losing conversions, but also hurting your organization’s email reputation.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • The size of the ESP’s deliverability team
    • The ESP’s reputation for deliverability
    • Whether there’s real-time monitoring and alerts for domain blocking and blacklisting
    • Whether the ESP uses a shared versus dedicated IP address
    • In cases of a shared IP address, the reputation of that IP
    • The support for and cost of such types of authentication as Sender Policy Framework (SPF), DomainKeys, and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM).

    For more information on email deliverability, check out the following FulcrumTech feature articles:

  2. Usability—Your ESP could have a very powerful platform, but it won’t be used effectively unless your staff finds the features easy to use.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • Platform support, in terms of both the operating system and browser
    • How easy creating both emails and templates is
    • How much training is required to get up and running on the platform
    • Ease of navigation and reporting
    • The flexibility of email-creation editors.
  3. Strength of application programming interface (API) capabilities—ESPs vary in terms of their platform’s API. Take a close look at the ESP team’s knowledge and hands-on experience with both the platform and your organization’s back-end systems. Plus, ensure that your organization can easily and effectively use the platform.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • How easy it is to integrate with back-end systems, including customer relationship management (CRM), purchase systems, and shopping carts
    • How easy it is to export email performance data for dashboards that are external to your organization’s email system
    • Whether integration for your specific internal systems and technologies — such as Salesforce.com and Microsoft CRM — are readily available.
  4. Email automation—Having the ability to develop automated emails that are generated based on the actions of your prospects and customers is essential for developing efficient and relevant one-to-one messaging. And this, in turn, will generate higher open, click-through, and conversion rates for your email-marketing efforts.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • How easy it is to create both simple and complex nurturing programs, such as for welcome email and shopping-cart–abandonment programs
    • The automation of editorial processes to enable dynamic content, such as personalized email messages.
  5. List management—Because targeting your email messages to smaller subsets of your list results in more successful email-marketing campaigns, your ESP should enable you to segment your email list by various criteria.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • The flexibility to segment your email list based on such criteria as behavioral and demographic data
    • Both the ESP’s architecture for list management (e.g., flat, relational) and logistics of segmentation (e.g., SQL, Boolean).
  6. Integration with mobile and social media channels—With the increasing popularity of tablets, smartphones, and social media sites, email is becoming more and more closely tied with other marketing channels. Your ESP should be able to help you manage your organization’s presence on social sites and collect useful data. Plus, it should ensure that your subscribers have an optimal viewing experience, regardless of what device they are using at the time.
    Important considerations about ESPs:

    • The social media platforms that are integrated with the ESP platform (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube)
    • Whether emails can be shared with social networks using the ESP’s platform
    • Whether the ESP enables responsive design HTML that automatically optimizes the email version based on the device opening the email
    • Tools available for testing email rendering on various mobile devices.
  7. Reporting—Reporting tools are essential for measuring the effectiveness of your email-marketing campaigns and to help maximize ROI. You want to be sure the reporting offered by an ESP is easy to use and understand — and insightful.
    Important considerations:

    • The format of data exports
    • Whether the ESP provides inactive user reporting
    • The ability to export data for offline analysis
    • The availability of multi-campaign analysis
    • The ability to mask email addresses upon output
    • Whether there’s integration with website analytics for full clickstream analysis
    • The availability of usage reporting to organize internal billing.
  8. ESPs’ technical infrastructure—As you evaluate ESPs’ technical infrastructure, ensure that it fits your organization’s needs now and is also scalable — that is, will meet your needs as they grow in the future.
    Important considerations:

    • Degree of operational redundancy, such as in the component, server, geography, and grid
    • The ESP’s system reliability (e.g., uptime and unplanned downtime experienced in the last 2 years)
    • Infrastructure for sending email, such as the outside limits of the quantity of emails that can be sent per day or per hour.
  9. Customer support—What kind of support can you expect from your ESP if your organization has a problem? This should be a major factor in choosing an ESP. One way to help you answer the question is by asking for references from current clients.
    Important considerations:

    • The hours of availability of live support
    • The depth of knowledge of the ESP’s technical support team
    • Access to a knowledge base system that’s easily searchable
    • The availability of support specific to your setup
    • The timeliness of response to support requests
    • How you can submit tickets, such as via email and/or phone.
  10. Training—Ensuring your staff is proficient on the new ESP platform as soon as possible is the best way to maximize your ROI. Plus, easy access to resources and ongoing education are also key factors.
    Important considerations:

    • Be sure to budget for training of both users and developers
    • Whether there are costs for both initial and follow-up training
    • Whether training is available both live and online.
  11. Security—An ESP’s ability to provide data security to prevent such issues as online theft of information contained in customer databases should be a high priority in your ESP selection.
    Important considerations:

    • Determine the level of security you require, such as financial or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), etc.
    • The use of firewalls
    • The physical security in place
    • Password policies and encryption safeguards.
  12. Implementation support—The faster you’re up and running on the new ESP’s platform, the faster you’ll be reaping its benefits. Be sure you find out how long the implementation process will take, what tasks need to be completed, and who will be responsible for completing those tasks — your organization’s team or the ESP’s.
    Important considerations:

    • Amount of support for migrating from your current ESP (of course, an agency such as FulcrumTech can assist with migration)
    • Available support and timing for API implementation
    • The quality of the ESP’s technical resources.
  13. Pricing—Although you don’t want to choose an ESP based only on cost, you want to be sure you know exactly what you’re getting for the investment.
    Important considerations:

    • What features and services are included for the price
    • Price of sending emails via cost per thousand or subscription
    • The features that are typically added on and associated costs (e.g., dedicated IP addresses, data storage, surveys, dynamic content).

How Do You Make the Final ESP Selection?

Once you’ve assessed the attributes of several of the best email service providers, what are the next steps to make that final selection?

  1. Consider hiring a consultant to help. Many organizations find that a consultant makes the process faster, easier, and ultimately, delivers better results.
  2. Narrow your list down to two or three ESPs and request a trial from each; you need to be comfortable with the user experience and functionality of the ESP.
  3. Ask for recommendations from companies similar to yours.
  4. Ask the ESPs for testimonials from current clients.

Selecting an ESP is one of the most important decisions that a marketer makes. Having used many of the top email service providers with our clients and having helped numerous organizations make this decision over the last 12+ years, FulcrumTech has established a very systematic and thorough process to help you make a confident decision about your ESP and supporting technologies. And as a reseller of multiple ESPs and other tech tools, we likely can even save you some money!

Email us or give us a call at 215-489-9336 and get started today.


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