Switching email service providers (ESPs) can be expensive, time-consuming and stressful. It’s not something you want to do any more often than you have to. That means doing your homework is critical to ensure you’re choosing an email service provider that will be a good fit for years to come.

With that in mind, we publish an annual ESP guide, with up-to-date information to help marketers like you navigate the vendor landscape and find the best ESP for your organization. Today I want to dig into that ESP guide a little bit, in case you haven’t yet downloaded it…

Evaluating the ESP platform
The first part of our annual ESP guide covers tips for evaluating an ESP’s platform. When doing an email service providers comparison, the platform is a key component to consider because it will drive much of what you will or won’t accomplish with that ESP, and that can have a significant impact on your email marketing program’s effectiveness.

When evaluating the platform, consider usability, of course, but also competitive differentiators, reliability, scalability and even the ESP’s plans for the future.

Consider the usability
An ESP platform’s power is directly related to its usability: If it’s not readily usable, it’s not very powerful. If your staff finds the interface clunky or the platform difficult to navigate, they’ll only tap into the most basic of features, ignoring the ones that are meant to give you an edge. On the other hand, if they find the ESP easy to use, they will want to use it to its fullest extent to produce the best results possible.

When evaluating an ESP’s usability, consider the interface. Is it intuitive and well-organized? Is it usable by a wide range of people, not just the email experts on your team? Does it allow for a workflow or approval process that fits with your organization? These are only a few of the questions to consider. You’ll find many more in the ESP guide.

Do the differentiators matter?
ESP features tend to follow a version of the 80/20 rule: They all do the same 80% (although the various ESPs accomplish it using varying technology). While you want to make sure your new ESP does that 80% well, the 20% differentiation is where you look to pick the platform that will grow with you.

Before you start looking at that 20%, however, and get caught up in the bells and whistles of extra features, be crystal clear on the capabilities you absolutely have to have, those that would be nice to have, and those that you would like to have but can live without. Then stick to that list. Avoid getting sucked in by “cool” functionality that you don’t need now or won’t realistically use in the next 18 months. If you’re still drawn to a “cool” feature, ask yourself: “Will this increase our conversion rate?” If not, you probably don’t need it.

Review the reliability
Reliability is critical. When your ESP’s platform is down, so is your email. You lose the ability to send not only manual but automated emails too. Any time-sensitive or revenue-generating initiatives are essentially rendered inoperable. You may also lose valuable email tracking data.

So just what is reliability? That time you can count on your ESP being up and running: the uptime. Pay close attention to this number. An uptime of 99.5% sounds great but in reality equates to a downtime of two days per year! If one of those two days falls on Thanksgiving—the new mobile shopping day—or another day when your email campaigns are critical, you lose more than ROI—you could lose customers to a competitor who was able to get into those inboxes when you couldn’t.

When evaluating an ESP’s platform, look for an uptime with as many 9s after the point as possible (99.9999%). Also find out the ESP’s definition of uptime. You might be surprised to find it differs from yours.

Will the platform scale with your growth?
As your company and/or your email marketing grows and evolves, you will need a platform that grows with you because switching ESPs is not something you want to have to go through when you’re in a period of rapid growth. Therefore I suggest you find the ESP that fits your needs now and will also scale as your needs grow. When thinking about the potential impact of growth, consider obvious things such as send volume and segmentation needs, but also customer service. Will that keep pace with your growth?

Also make sure you’re shopping in the right category to begin with because ESPs come in different sizes. Do your homework to know who their customers are by checking an ESP’s website. Are these businesses comparable to yours? Also consider which ESPs your competitors use. That should put you in the right ballpark as far as type of ESP. Yet also keep growth in mind. Perhaps you don’t need a top-tier ESP right now, but you likely will in the next 6 to 18 months, for example. That might mean you should be shopping the top-tier category now.

Product roadmap
Speaking of growth, knowing the ESP’s future plans can help you to make a better choice, because you’ll know if that vendor can grow along with your email marketing program and what you can expect from them in the near future. Ask about their technology roadmap for the next six months to two years.

I’ve only touched briefly on each of these to get you thinking. For more about each of these considerations, download the 2016 ESP Guide. In it, you’ll find detailed information about the topics only briefly covered here with questions to ask for each, plus dozens of other criteria for evaluating potential email service providers.

About the Author: Sharon

Sharon Ernst from BetterFasterWriter.com 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 www.betterfasterwriter.com/intermediate-email-copywriting-class. 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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