red tulip stands out among white like a top-tier ESP stands out from mid-tierIf your email marketing program is evolving in complexity, you’re possibly on the path to discovery–determining not only what’s possible and how to do it, but what’s not possible with your current platform. And that might lead you to making an email service providers comparison, ultimately discovering that there are price differences between types of ESPs, and wondering, “What can an enterprise-level ESP do that another one can’t?”

The answer to that question is “Plenty.” And that is why the enterprise-level ESP tends to be the costlier investment. But let’s get a handle on the differences in capabilities rather than focus on the differences in cost. Let’s break it down into a few of the significant differences. We’ll only cover four of the ESP differences here–deliverability, relational databases, robust APIs and speed—but there are plenty of others to consider.

Four capabilities that set enterprise-level ESPs apart
If an SMB or mid-market ESP will suit your needs now and in the future, by all means, go that route. However, if there is even the slightest chance that you will need more advanced features, consider the top-tier choices. Sometimes marketers need an enterprise-level ESP but choose one that is less robust due to pricing, not realizing the long-term costs they’ll incur when it turns out their email service provider can’t meet their needs. Then they have to make a costly migration to a top-tier ESP after all. However, even beyond the cost of a migration later down the road, it’s ultimately about ROI from the very start. You might save a little money on the front end by going with a mid-tier email service provider, but you’ll lose out on the capabilities offered by a top-tier one, capabilities that can lead to generating more revenue.

In order to help you avoid that fate, let’s go over four of the many capabilities that really set a top ESPs apart so that when you choose your new ESP, you can be confident in your understanding of the differences between them.

Difference #1: Email deliverability
Mid-tier email service providers might have some email deliverability services, but it’s the top-tier ones that will have entire teams devoted to deliverability. These are teams of people maintaining good lines of communication with the ISPs, staying on top of standards and compliance regulations, and working with you as the client to resolve deliverability issues. There are simply more resources allocated to deliverability by a top-tier ESP.

And there’s another part of the deliverability equation: authentication. You know you’ll need to take the time to ramp up your new IP address if you switch ESPs, slowly proving you have a good sending reputation in order to get your email deliverability rate high once again. But you’ll need to authenticate too. Authentication (i.e. proving your identity) is every bit as important as reputation when it comes to email deliverability. Yet not all mid-tier ESPs support authentication protocols such as DKIM and DMARC. Enterprise-level ESPs typically do.

Difference #2: Relational databases
Do you have big plans for the email program? Advanced segmentation and dynamic content can require a relational database because trying to do technically sophisticated email marketing with a flat file database would be cumbersome beyond measure…not impossible, mind you, but really, really hard. You need to be able to track information about a particular customer without having to continually add irrelevant fields for every other customer at the same time, which is how it would work with a flat file database. A relational database format lets you keep different data in different tables and then relate them to one customer or group. Then and only then can you extract the kind of data you need to do targeted and timely messaging.

Enterprise-level ESPs such as ExactTarget tend to support relational databases. Less robust email service providers do not.

Difference #3: Robust APIs
And speaking of robust… Enterprise-level ESPs have much more robust APIs, meaning they can do much more. With a top-tier ESP, you can manage drip campaigns, import files and export data with ease. The more integrated the API, the more powerful it will be. If email customization is the goal, and you’d like to integrate your email with other business systems, you’ll need a powerful API.

Typically you’ll find that the more robust the ESP, the more robust the API. Hence, the enterprise-level email service provider is the one with the API you need.

Difference #4: Speed
Speed is a differentiator that comes into play across the board. For every capability we’ve addressed here, speed matters. It has a role in all of this. It boils down to the horsepower under the hood, if you will, and the more horsepower, the faster everything goes, including deliverability, database queries and API calls.

  • Speed to deliver: What’s the difference between 1 million emails being sent in one half hour vs. taking 24 hours? It could be the difference between company ROI and customer ire. If you have a limited offer, say a time limited one like a three-hour window or an offer limited one such as “be among the first 1,000,” you can’t wait for all of your emails to trickle out over a day. They all need to be sent together, as quickly as possible. Also, what if you’ve used analytics to discover your optimal email delivery time is 5:00 on Tuesday nights, yet only some of your emails are arriving at that time, while others arrive at 2 a.m., 5 a.m., etc.? Only the enterprise-level email service providers are robust enough to manage that kind of delivery that fast. So if speed to deliver is a concern, a top ESP needs to be on your short list.
  • Speed of API and database queries: The API touches everything you do in the tool, meaning its speed (or lack of) affects everything you do. A robust API is a fast API, capable handling thousands of requests per minute. With a powerful API, you can log into a relational database of millions of records and segment data in seconds. That is real-time data, and an extraordinary capability you’re not likely to find with a mid-tier ESP.

These four differentiators are not the only capabilities that separate an enterprise-level ESP from a mid-tier one, but they are significant and must be considered when doing an email service providers comparison.

And always remember: You’re not alone in your search. If you think an enterprise-level ESP is the best email service provider choice for where you want to go, we can help you find the best fit for your organization and goals.

Published On: September 9th, 2013Categories: Email service providersTags:

About the Author: Sharon

Sharon Ernst from is on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes. Her newest class on intermediate email copywriting covers 19 tips and techniques non-copywriters can put to use right away for better results. The class has real-life examples and before/after comparisons to make the lessons stick. Find her class at When she’s not busy helping employees, managers and marketers master their writing skills, she and her husband are busy raising pigs, cows, chickens and vegetables on their 20-acre farm.

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