Sunday, March 14, 2010

Email Marketing - Small Business Style

Small businesses out there I thought I would help you out with a quick list of my favorite ESP's (eMail Service Providers). I've either used or tried out every service on this list (and many more). Feel free to ask any questions later on. After you've used one tool/software it's kind of like riding a bicycle. Sure some things (layout wise) differ from site to site. But all should have a tab for Create, Send, Track, Lists/Segmentation (creating defined list of customers for certain campaigns) at a minimum. Going a little bit above the basics.... A/B Testing capabilities, Deliverability reports (hard/soft bounce).

Please note that all the options below have a FREE test drive (no credit card required). I highly recommend browsing around at least 3 eMail service provider options before you settle on your solution.

Oh iContact. I'll cut straight to the point. I don't like these guys. On the range of small business solutions I would say iContact and Constant Contact are on the bottom. In eMail Marketing I've found the saying " You get what you pay for" to be very true. The only reason I would really use these guys is if I were a retail only business (or something similar) where I could not easily track my eMail conversion (define). iContact offers a monthly plan for $9.95 for 1k subscribers (6K max. monthly messaging). But if you are really just starting off MailChimp lets you use their tool for FREE as long as you have 500 subscribers or less.

Pros -
*designed for small business owners. Interface is very basic and easy to use.
*switching from double opt-in to single opt-in is a click away
* can reach support by phone, chat or eMail (eMail response wait is bad)
Cons -
*Use live to chat to contact support. Email response rates are very bad if they respond at all.
*Their definitions of terms like campaign and bounces are not consistent with industry standards. For them
Campaigns = List Name
Released = Sent
* Bounced # is not broken down into hard bounces vs. soft bounces (email addresses that don't exist/ typed wrong vs. correct email addresses where the mailbox was busy/full). In the reporting the # for bounces is not reflected in the Released (aka sent #). But in order for those messages to bounce they had to be attempted.
*Not all of their buttons/icons work. This is especially true for their icons for editing your eMail. Which are supposed to be useful for non-code people. If anything I find these "helpful" icons make it more difficult to produce a good looking eMail.
* Low customization for your opt-in form. Also to track opt-ins for different forms you need to keep a separate eMail list for each form.
* Pixelated images in reports (see your pie graph for message reports). Never a good sign.

For the most part I like Vertical Response. These guys are definitely a step above iContact and Constant Contact in my humble opinion. Vertical Response was the 1st ESP that I ever used for a client. That client used VR for about 1 year and 3-6 months. In the end they outgrew VR due to the length it took for updates to the tool. Since the last time I used VR there have been alot of updates issued.

Pricing - sorry if the image below is too small to be useful. In the past my clients have gone with Pay-As-You-Go with these guys. They advertise unlimited sending for a list of 500 subscriber per month. But you could be paying nothing for a list that size at through MailChimp's Forever Free Plan

Pros -
*Homepage Dashboard - Drag 'n' Drop customizable
*Lists have "mapping". So say you upload a list with a field name. After you upload the list you can choose the field in VR (ex- zipcode, retailstore) that you want the info to be used for. So your field names headers don't have to be identical to the headers in VR.
* Customizable sign-up form - add fields like zip code, state or any custom field (ex- retail store, birthday). You can also add your logo to your form, choose your redirect for a thank you page (after sign up is complete) and customize your doubt opt-in (aka email confirming you really did sign up for email from sender)
* Option to integrate your reports with your FREE Google Analytics account (do this!).
Account> Analytics Settings> Google Analytics
* Social sharing - add your Twitter and Facebook account info to automatically share your eMail campaigns on these networks.
Account> Social Sharing
Cons -
* A little slower on updating the tool.
* Based on the east coast. So get you campaigns in order early in the day in case you need help.

Yay! Now for the fun stuff. My recommendation for small business owners would be MailChimp! Especially since they have the Forever Free plan (unlimited sending to list size of 500 subscribers). Once you get out of the Free zone it does go up but in comparison with the other options MailChimp is only $2-$5 more per month. For most of my clients monthly pricing makes the most sense.

Pros -
*Simply put the UI rocks! It's pretty but more importantly it makes sense. You basically have 5 tabs (dashboard, campaigns, lists, reports, autoresponders).
* Templates are worlds ahead of templates offered by other ESP's.
* They have a how-to video for virtually anything that you will ever need to do. Check out their YouTube channel here.
* On-going free webinars and daily/weekly technical updates from various staff members.
* Follow them on Twitter (they respond to every @mention)
* Most customizable sign up form. You can even add your own header image (for branding purposes). You can also create "hidden fields" that your subscribers can't see on the sign up form but you can use for segmenting in the backend. Example would be creating a "source" field of where you got a list of email addresses (ex- partnered eMail sweepstakes).
* Reporting integration with Google Analytics through SiteAnalytics 360
* You can synch your customer database (through your shopping cart) with your eMail database through MailChimp. Once you do this your list will automatically be updated and you can start getting into behavioral eMail targeting (ex- segmenting by purchase history). This is huge!
* For your lists you will want to create 1 list and with either groups (dynamically defined segments/preferences that are then on your sign-up form) or you'll define your segment criteria (based on zip code, etc.) with each send. If you do it the 2nd way then those options do not have to be on your sign up form.

Cons -
* Based in Atlanta. I'm west coast based so I wasn't able to get a hold of them if I was trying to contact anytime after 1-2pm.
*The biggest complaint I have for MailChimp is that there is NO PHONE NUMBER for service. Reaching support through email or live chat are your only options. Even if you beg for a number you are really out of luck. They just don't have one. Probably the reason why they have so may help docs for everything.
* In their segmentation tool they do not have a "not" statement ability. So say I want to mail to all my customers whose country field is "not" Canada. I would create the segment using criteria that the customers I want to include "do have". Having a "not" or "does not" statement ability would be alot faster. You basically have to create a work around for these cases.
*Pain in the butt to get rid of double opt-in (they don't recommend it). Solution for Single Opt-in here.
*API documentation is written strictly for developers (aka in greek so good luck understanding it). Frankly I got the feeling they didn't want any Marketers getting involved in the process. I just wanted to be able to understand what I needed from my developer before I had to ask him for it.
If you need to integrate your customer database with your email marketing database then I would join the MailChimp jungle round table and their Google API Discussion Group.

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