Email marketing software: The good, the bad and the downright ugly

Back when I worked in email marketing, I kept meaning to write about what it’s like to work in that field and what applications have blown my mind, or been the bane of my life. In March, I wrote an article for the Digital Web magazine about the Seven Deadly Sins of Email Marketing, but it focussed more on list management and attitude.

Spam is bad!Today, I received an email from an old colleague asking for tips on the best email marketing software to use in her new role. Instead of responding via email, I thought I’d turn it into a post, since it isn’t the first time the question comes up.

The first step in deciding what type of email marketing application to use is whether you’re looking for a one-off-cost downloadable application or an online service-based application. At first glance, the downloaded app will appear to be the best option, and by far the cheapest. That’s the one big pro about it – it’s a one-off purchase. Now, I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’ve never used one of those apps, so the only recommendation I can make on that level is to look for reviews before you buy.

However, I can explain the cons of using a downloadable app.

One of the greatest challenges in email marketing is deliverability. By this I mean the percentage of total email addresses on your mailing list who receive your newsletter to their inbox.

Think of the process as a funnel:

  1. Total number addresses in your list
  2. Delivered emails
  3. Opened emails
  4. Clickthroughs to your site
  5. Your reader taking action on your site

On that second level of the funnel, if you’ve chosen to use a downloadable app, you have to count on your ISP and your domain name, cross your fingers and close your eyes very hard when you hit the send button. Why am I saying this? It’s because you don’t have the online service’s great ISP relations squad behind you. You get no help whatsoever from your app to ensure your email is delivered, rather than wiped by the server or treated as spam.

If too many users flag you as spam or the ISP recognises your IP address as being troublesome (not necessarily by your fault, could be due to a previous owner of the address or because you’re sharing it on a network), you might find your whole domain blacklisted. This includes your entire sales team’s email addresses – and that can’t be good for business! Establishing relationships with masses of ISPs worldwide and ensuring nothing goes wrong is a full time job and a very difficult process, which small businesses can’t really manage on their own.

So there, that’s one of the many reasons I support online email marketing apps. They’re the guardian angels of deliverability.

No matter what, online email marketing services also vary wildly in quality. I’ve used a few of them, ranging from the extremely user-friendly Campaign Monitor (my preferred choice) to the awfully antiquated and highly aggravating Epsilon DreamMail and Axciom Digital’s Impact dinosaurs. [It should already raise a big red flag when the service is only usable in IE 6 on Windows…]

Services like Campaign Monitor suit the vast majority of small/medium businesses with to their simple and slick user interface, and are still priced very reasonably. The team does everything in its power to offer great email templates, and gives some of the best email marketing tips I’ve ever read on its blog.

Quite at the other end of the scale, services like DreamMail and Digital Impact give me a rash. They’re from a completely different school of thought, offering far too many radio buttons and tick boxes*, resulting in some very costly mistakes over my time doing email marketing. The service is slow, unreliable – often down “for maintenance” at peak times, unbeknownst to our assigned (and unreachable) account manager. Sure, the cost per email sent is lower when sending very large mailouts (to the tune of 3-4 million emails a month) but the service is dire and the time spent fighting with the system is disproportionate to the benefits gained from the cost-saving exercise for a business any smaller than that.

You might think I’m drawing a grim, black and white picture of the older and more traditional services, but speaking on behalf of those who’ve used it before and after me, we’ve gained a full head of grey hair between us from using them. Go for small, human services who are in tune with their users’ needs. Aren’t they the ones we want to see flourish anyways?

[* I once asked my account manager what some of the tick boxes did and what mysterious options were for. His answer? “Oh they’re deprecated, don’t use those. We should remove them but nobody’s done it yet. We’ll have a new product for Europe at some point but this is the US service, minus a few features.” Yeah, mate. That makes me feel like we’re very important customers… And we’re not talking about 2-3 small tick boxes, but nearly half the interface not being functional for us.]

9 thoughts on “Email marketing software: The good, the bad and the downright ugly

  1. Tom O'Leary

    Hi Canadian girl! I just moved from Ireland to Bellingham, Washington – just below Vancouver. Maybe we crossed paths over the Atlantic somewhere?!

    Our desktop email marketing app, GroupMail, was recently ranked at the top of a comparative review.

    Email Marketing Software Comparative Review (Blog)

    If you want to get your feet wet with a desktop approach, feel free to download GroupMail Free Edition at

    There is more and more competition in the ISP marketplace and while deliverability is becoming more difficult for everyone (including ESPs), it’s getting easier to find ISPs that support larger list sizes. Key elements that impact delivery rates are the same whichever route you choose (list management, message content, HTML formatting, permission, etc.)

    It is certainly possible to be successful either way.

    All the best


  2. Sue

    Good info Vero. I’m speaking to online email providers at the moment. What surprises me is how our current provider, who think they are the market leader in their field, seem to have no concept of customer care/service. I’ll let you know what I choose when I make the decision.

  3. Vero

    Tom – I’m afraid the few businesses I know who have used GroupMail have found the experience dire, mostly due to the fact that it uses the in-house SMTP server, resulting in rubbish deliverability.

    My hat goes off to you for being in tune with blogs and having spotted this discussion, but unfortunately, I’m still not sold on desktop apps like GroupMail.

    Sue – Good luck in making that choice and I hope you have a better experience than we did with Epsilon and Axciom. (As an aside, I have to say that Rob Demirtges at Axciom was always willing to go out of his way to help even if the rest of his organisation was a lot less keen. Even in the worst organisations, you still get gems like that!)

    Riki – Absolutely agree with you!

  4. pa

    allo….J,ai lu en diagonal…tu connais bien ton monde techno…
    Le Citizen salut le succès de avec Martineau..Est-ce que tu connais??

  5. John Stewart

    About deliverability:
    p1: chance of addressing the right person
    p2: chance of bringing the appropriate message
    p3: chance of sending at the right moment

    Thus the total chance = p1 times p2 times p3

    Something like: 0.3 x 0.1 x 0.05 = 0.0015 or 667 emails for one click on your website.
    Hence the need for massive amounts of emails.

    On the other hand, people do find your website by natural search. This requires content and links. Content you can write, obtaining links depends from others.

    In case of B2B, a website visitor identification solution, which reveals company names of your website visitors is a completely different approach.

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