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.]