Small Business Guide to Email Marketing Services

by Vangie Beal

From templates to open rates, this email marketing buyer's guide will tell you everything you need to know when shopping for an email marketing service.

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Email marketing is an affordable, effective strategy that small businesses can use to communicate and engage with customers through email-based correspondence.

With an email program and a list of email addresses you can start marketing to your clients and it won't cost you a penny -- but you will spend a lot of time researching industry regulations, designing email templates, managing your growing email list by hand and then try to figure out who in your list actually opened the email and clicked a hyperlink.

Using an experienced and professional email marketing service is a much better way to send professional email marketing messages out to clients and to convert potential customers into paying customers.

Tips for Buying the Right Email Marketing Service

If your small business doesn't have a large marketing-focused team, then you should consider using a hosted provider to offload a lot of the automationand tedious work involved with email marketing.

When choosing an email marketing service, keep in mind there are a variety of vendors to choose from, and most will offer the same or similar features, but at varying prices.

Some of the basics you need to think about as you research and buy your first email marketing service include the following concerns:

  • What email marketing features do I need?
  • How will I brand my company and products when using this service?
  • Is the email marketing service compatible with other systems and software I use?
  • Will this email marketing service grow with my business?
  • Does the email marketing service have a good reputation and offer support?

Email Marketing Basics: Templates, Can-Spam and Tracking Analytics

Most email marketing services provide the basic features you need to get started with email marketing. These are foundational services that allow even the most inexperienced small businesses to upload an email contact list and create a professional-looking HTML (or plain text) email newsletter. Experienced marketers can choose to migratecurrent processes to the new email marketing service.

Email Marketing: The Design and Branding

If you don't have in-house designers look for an email-marketing service that provides customizable templates. You should be able to upload your own creative images and assets into the template so the email messages have a visual connection to your business. Some email marketing services might offer professional design services if you prefer a unique design.

Email Marketing and CAN-SPAM Regulatory Compliance

It's challenging and darn near impossible for small business owners to keep track of email marketing regulations and how to incorporate compliance into email newsletters.

The email marketing service must follow industry standards to ensure that email messages comply with the CAN-SPAM act (CAN-SPAM is an acronym for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 and it is a U.S. law that regulates commercial email).

The CAN-SPAM Act gives recipients of spam the right to opt-out of receiving these messages and have their unsubscribe request acted upon. This is one reason why choosing an email marketing service provider who adheres to industry regulations and best practices is important.

Email Marketing Analytics and Reporting

An email marketing service also gives you details on each marketing campaign you send. This type of reporting is necessary to help you grow and enhance your email marketing strategy.

Each time you send an email, the email marketing service will track things like how many emails bounced, how many were delivered, the open rates (how many subscribers open the message) and click through rates (the percentage of subscribers who clicked hyperlinks in the message).

If you plan to use email marketing strategies as a regular part of your small business marketing plan, it is important to choose an email marketing service that offers advanced tracking and analytics capabilities. The more data about your email marketing campaign you obtain, the easier it will be to create and send targeted and effective campaigns in the future.

Basic Email Marketing Checklist: Look for professional templates that can be edited and customized, CAN-SPAM compliance, automatic handling of subscribe/unsubscribe requests, analytics and tracking reports.

Email Marketing Essentials for Long-Term Campaigns

Email marketing basics may be enough when starting out, but as you become more familiar with this marketing strategy, there are a number of advanced features you will certainly want later. Even if you won't use them immediately, you need to know about them now before you buy.

Email Marketing List Management

A small business may have difficulty managing hundreds to thousands of email subscribers. List management is one of the biggest reasons a business would use an email marketing service. You want options to automate subscribe and unsubscribe requests; and you want the ability to create sub-lists for separate emails -- so, for example, you can send promotional offers based on the subscriber's age, gender or location.

Look for Email Marketing Control Options

When first starting out, it's nice to use a system where everything is set up and all you need to do is customize the content of each email and click send. Over time, however, you'll realize that you need to do more. An email marketing service should offer a user-friendly admin control dashboard that lets you customize all control options for all campaigns. This includes format, sub lists, date and time, automatic responders, thank-you emails and more.

Advanced Email Marketing Reporting

Email marketing services typically offer analytics and reporting features (e.g. built-in analytics), but it is important to use a service that is compatible with your own website analytics program. If you currently use Google Analytics, you might want to choose an email marketing service provider that integrates with it.

Another important feature is the capability to do A/B split testing. This lets you experiment to see which headings and content work best to produce the highest conversion rate. For example, a portion of your subscriber list could receive an email offering a 10 percent discount, while another group receives an offer for buy-one-get-one-free. When the emails have been sent, you can check detailed reporting to see which version had the best response. A/B testing can help you decide which campaign you want to run to a larger portion of your subscriber list.

Integration with Your Ecommerce Software

If you have an ecommerce business, make sure the email marketing service supports your shopping cart and other ecommerce software. When possible you want to use one email service for both marketing and ecommerce tasks (such as ecommerce remarketing). This will create a better profile of your customer as you can follow them from the email marketing message to the site and through the checkout process, or you can initiate the cart abandonment recovery process using fewer systems.

Advanced Email Marketing Checklist: Look for list-management options, a user dashboard that allows you to control specifics of your email marketing messages, advanced analytics and compatibility with your website analytics program or ecommerce software.

Buy an Email Marketing Service that Will Grow with Your Business

It is important to consider your future business growth when buying email marketing services, so look beyond just the options you need today. The last thing you want is to switch email marketing services because you outgrow your current one. A good vendor can handle your business if your list grows -- even a hundredfold -- over the next year.

Know the Support Options

While some services can be had for free or quite cheap, technical supportmay not be included with these accounts. Being able to contact your email marketing service provider is just as important as having access to automation and other functionality when using the system.

Before buying in to a service find out what you can expect from the provider when you need help. See what support channels the provider uses (e.g. phone, email or live chat), what hours support they offer and if support is free with your paid subscription or if they charge an additional fee for support.

Pricing Plans and Considerations

Typically you can expect to pay a per-month (or per-year) subscription fee that offers set features and based on either a maximum number of emails sent or a maximum number of subscribers in your list. Exceeding maximums may carry a "per-instance" fee, or you may be upgraded to the next plan level. Be sure you understand exactly what happens when you exceed maximum numbers.

Some email marketing services have a basic set of features and require you to upgrade to access more advanced email marketing features. Try looking for a plan that offers all options from the get-go and will only require you to upgrade a service plan based on the volume of emails sent.

When trying a new provider, avoid term contracts longer than 30-days. If you decide after two months the service is not meeting your needs you may be stuck with the service or lose prepaid funds. You can avoid this by trying a vendor that offers a 30 or 60-day fully functional trial period.

Most vendors offer a free-trial subscription, so take advantage and try the email marketing service before you buy.

List of Email Marketing Services

Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to Ecommerce-Guide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jun 22nd 2011
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