18th April 2021
Over recent years, email marketing has had a turbulent journey, with several organisations prioritising other platforms such as social media as a more valuable mode of communication. The fact is that it isn’t email marketing itself that fails to achieve results but the content that is being sent and who is seeing it.
It is no surprise to us that organisations that invested in the blanket, send-all approach failed to gain the return on investment that they expected, or were promised. In my opinion, a one-size-fits-all approach has no place in today’s intelligent communication strategy, and I maintain that, when used well, email marketing has been and continues to be a fundamental channel for any business looking to optimise relationships with existing and potential customers.
Thanks to the technical advances in automation and the capacity to segment audiences based on numerous factors, now more than ever, email marketing has the potential to maintain customer engagement, build relationships, track customer journeys, and generate sales. A far cry from generic emails languishing unread in inboxes, you can control who sees what and when, before measuring how different groups of people interacted with each piece of content and tailoring future content accordingly. However, in order to achieve this, your organisation needs two critical elements: the right email tool, and a strong email communication strategy designed to fully utilise the platform and facilitate your business goals. It is also important that you measure and report email marketing activity; take a look at our article on misunderstood email metrics which will help you to identify some of the reporting needs to consider when choosing a new provider and build a clearer picture of your channel's performance and ability to prove real business value.
When used to its full potential, an email isn’t just information in an inbox, it is a valuable customer relationship management tool. The biggest challenge is for marketing departments who are accustomed to the convenience of send-all email marketing to adjust their mindset and processes and, possible, invest in a new email platform to meet those changes. Only then will they be able to establish a customer-centric approach that provides valuable and relevant content to the right people at the right time.
If you have lost faith in email marketing thanks to a reliance on low ROI, quick-fire emails, all is not lost. By re-evaluating your assets and working out how you can use them to their full potential, you have the capacity to re-engage with your customers at every stage of their journey. In this article, we will talk you through the considerations that both large and small organisations need to make in order to ensure that they make a wise investment.
The communication strategy
You will often hear us saying that all processes begin with discovery. And finding the right email platform is no different. Before you make any choices about what to invest in, it is essential that you know what you want today as well as where you expect to be in one, two or even five years’ time.
Whether you are looking at using email marketing for the first time or considering migrating from your existing email marketing platform, there are several factors that you need to consider. With a broad choice of providers available, each possessing various features and capabilities to suit different sectors and business needs, it is critical that you first outline your email communications strategy so that you can fine-tune your search before you start engaging with potential providers.
The discovery phase will allow you to understand where you are, where you want to be, and your current limitations. From here, you will be able to create your communications strategy based on who you want to reach, when and how. Once this is in place, you will know what questions to ask and what features are essential, preferable or unimportant in order to help you get where you want to be.
The review process
The email platform that you choose will have a significant impact on your future email capabilities and marketing performance. The review process entails referencing the needs and limitations as highlighted by the communications strategy to analyse the choices available, shortlisting the best platforms and carefully considering the options before implementing roll-out. Depending on the size of your organisation, this process could take hours, days or weeks. Global organisations may require in-depth analysis, while for smaller businesses, the review process could be completed within a couple of relatively short sprints.
Whether you are a global corporation or a family-run company, I would always recommend that the review of email platforms is led by a technically strong CRM expert working alongside key stakeholders who will have ongoing involvement with marketing communications. The chosen lead will act as the ‘super user’ of the platform and will review all aspects of the system from a technical perspective, as well as looking at how the platform meets the day-to-day email marketing requirements (including sending emails, gathering insights etc.).
The review process is relatively straightforward and while its format will vary according to the organisation’s size and status, it will usually include the following key steps:
- Identify all limitations and pain points of the current platform (where applicable)
- Identify current and future needs of the business
- Engage with shortlisted platforms for the first round of discussions
- Produce review matrix
- Set up demos - to be reviewed by lead and stakeholders
- Final evaluations
- Contract discussions
Identifying your business needs
Before you commit to a platform, you need to know what you want it to do, which is why it is important that you have a communications strategy in place before you start reviewing platforms. Before focussing on your specific needs, it is a good idea to look at more general, overarching questions surrounding use and functionality, such as:
- Will this be a standalone platform managing all customer relationships or will it integrate to a wider CRM/data warehouse?
- What are the overall purposes of the channel e.g., send notifications/invoices, send timely promotional newsletters, send important updates/news etc.?
- Will it be restricted to email sends only or expand to SMS, app notifications etc.?
- How will GDPR be managed?
- Who will need access to the platform and what level of access would they require?
- How will content be created from ideation through to development, and how will this be communicated to the recipient?
- What reporting metrics will be required to prove value?
- Which technical features do you foresee you will require in the short and long term?
Another key consideration should be on the technical elements of the platform – not only where the servers are located for GDPR purposes, but how maintenance and updates are handled. We have seen examples where a UK business was affected by maintenance and updates as the platform they were using was US-based and ran major updates at less popular local times. As they were based in the US, their least popular times were the most popular times for businesses in the UK, who, as a result, would suffer from slow platform speeds.
Once you know your top-level requirements, you will be in a position to look at your business’s needs. As part of your communications strategy, you will have identified primary goals and set targets for the first year. It is likely that your goals and targets may change over time, but once you have got started, you can review them and adjust your requirements accordingly.
For businesses starting from scratch without an existing contact base, the process of identifying short and long-term business goals and your requirements for the new platform can seem daunting. After all, it can be hard to predict the number of contacts you may need, or the technical features that you may require at a later stage of your organisation’s development. It is important to focus on the goals defined in your strategy and not to get too bogged down by the “what ifs”. Most email platforms are versatile and offer the flexibility to customise your package to suit your needs at every stage. On the flip side of being over-cautious, it pays to exercise some caution; while add-ons are a useful back-up resource for evolving organisations, it is not always the most financially viable. When used as add-ons, features are usually far more expensive than when they are included in fixed-term, negotiated packages, so you may find yourself spending far more than you originally budgeted. By setting realistic goals and anticipating what you need in order to support those goals, you will be better able to choose a platform and negotiate a package that will deliver on your needs now and in the future.
Those looking to migrate from their incumbent platform will have a much better idea about their business’s key requirements based on the strengths and weaknesses of what they are currently using. However, for these organisations, the challenge is in identifying the needs in a way that will justify making the move from what they know, limitations and all, to a more effective but unknown platform. We frequently work with organisations that persevere with platforms that have been used for several years, set up to cater for the business requirements at the time, but which no longer represent the full needs of the business today. Alongside an analysis of your current limitations, it can help to compare your new communications strategy with the most recent outdated one to identify your current business needs without being distracted by legacy issues.
Whilst evaluating the email platform used by one of the UK’s biggest retail businesses, a number of key issues were identified and raised with the account managers over a 12-month period. Despite the email platform in question being well respected in the industry, the issues identified largely related to platform stability and speed along with concerns around account management and support.
- The team consistently experienced speed issues with the platform failing to load when attempting to navigate through different areas of the platform and when attempting to build queries to segment the database
- There were concerns over the level of support that the team received when raising tickets through the support team e.g., receiving template responses generated to keep to the agreed support SLA rather than answering the query
- They continued to experience issues caused by the general account structure and feature limitations
- Their requirements for email marketing had grown substantially and as a result, the current setup and functionality was causing issues with data management/segmentation and day to day deliverability of email marketing initiatives
- The lack of asset sharing capabilities slowed down the production and execution of campaign emails
- The limited review process functionality meant proofing emails was a time-consuming task
The above issues are all too common within organisations that have outgrown their email platform, package or initial set up. Fortunately, this is a situation that we are familiar with and, although rectifying it requires investment, the long-term benefits far exceed the short-term pain required to move or change existing provisions.
The list of needs to consider can be extensive depending on the marketing strategy, current activities and size of your organisation. Based on our experience creating and leading communications strategies for businesses across sectors, here are some of the high-level business needs that we recommend considering when choosing an email platform.
- Suitable allowance on number of sends – for current and projected send volume
- Support and account management
- Dedicated account manager (for larger businesses)
- Multiple contact options for support (e.g., online chat, ticketing system, phone etc.)
- Quick turnaround on high priority requirements/issues
- Best practice knowledge sharing
- Training options on current and new features
- Technical guides and help videos
- Suitable account structure
- Controlled user privileges
- Asset sharing (for businesses with multiple users or sub-accounts)
- Comprehensive reporting
- Tracking and reporting including custom reports and dashboards
- Reporting across multiple accounts
- Usage allowance reporting
- Technical features
- Drag and drop email builder
- Journey builder/automation
- Integrations preferably via API (for larger businesses and those where the platform will integrate with a wider tech stack for customer data management)
- Data management (import/export capabilities via SFTP/API/EMAIL)
- Scalable platform, both in terms of technical features and services
- Location of servers with regards to data processing and storage - these can vary for providers
- First year cost (including setup & training)
- Pricing structure, specifically looking at any overage charges for contacts and email sends, feature add-ons and required services e.g., building bespoke preference centres, building email templates, building custom integrations, training etc.
Once you have outlined your communications strategy and identified your main requirements as above, you should have a good idea of what you are looking for. We have already mentioned there are numerous providers at your disposal. To help you shortlist providers, we recommend going through the usual search options:
- Google search - great for finding platforms meeting your needs and identifying content aimed to provide honest reviews
- Asking for recommendations on social media
- Review sites – while genuine reviews can be useful, be cautious when using these sites and ensure the reviews seem authentic
There are a number of review sites such as G2, Capterra and Trustradius that provide a good starting point by helping you to understand which platforms might be suitable. Once you know which platforms may suit your needs, you can do some more detailed research on other review sites such as Google Reviews, Trustpilot and Reviews.io, where you can gain valuable insights from existing and previous customers.
We recommend that you use a tiered approach to shortlist providers. The tier a provider may fall into will be based on the size and capacity of their organisation in relation to its ability to meet your needs, the features they include within the platform, their reputation, and services they provide (account management, training etc). By evaluating different tier suppliers, you can accurately evaluate all options and choose the most suitable partner for your current and future needs. It also makes it a fairer comparison between providers.
Through a process of elimination, you will find yourself with a handful of platforms that have different strengths and weaknesses; some may even appear to be too similar to separate. This is your shortlist; any one of these platforms should be able to offer you what you need. If you are a small organisation, it is possible that you have completed the process thus far in one conference. It will, however, be necessary to break here to initiate preliminary discussions and set up demos.
The review matrix
A review matrix helps you to compare your shortlisted platforms like for like to enable you to assess which one best meets your needs on paper. From cost per email to GDPR implications, annual estimated costs to sending domains, a simple spreadsheet, when input with your list of criteria, can help you to make an informed choice. Every process we undertake is tailored to meet our clients’ needs; when creating your matrix, consider the elements that are most important to you.
Setting up demos
You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, and the same goes for your email marketing platform. As good as your shortlisted products look on screen, it will not be possible for you to make an informed decision without setting up a demo. Only by gaining direct access to the platform can you ensure that the functionality and features meet your requirements. Before your demos, come up with a set of specific questions and functionalities important to you based on areas and goals highlighted in your communication strategy and needs analysis. These can include (but are not limited to):
- Account structure and general settings (business units/profiles)
- User management
- Creating segments
- Creating email templates
- Sharing of assets
- Creating campaigns
- Creating and executing emails
- Dynamic content
- Automated emails / Journey builder
- Global and local reporting (for larger businesses with multiple locations/business units)
We all have our own preferences even when it comes to the overall look and feel of the platform being tested. As such, it is important that the entire review team is involved in the demo in order to gauge a range of opinions. Encourage user stakeholders to take their time reviewing platforms and make sure they are comfortable with the platform as they will be spending a great deal of time using it! Analyse each area and as well as trialling features you need now, ask to review features that you may look at incorporating at a later stage so that you can understand how they work and ensure that they are efficient.
The account management team should be a key consideration and part of your review process. Try the live support functionality and look through the help guides to see which offers the maximum support. I recall being in a meeting with one provider who asked me to message their live support team. They were confident I would get an answer within seconds and we weren’t disappointed. Within a short time, our query was answered by a friendly member of the support team, demonstrating the speed and quality of the service that we could expect in the future.
Armed with first-hand knowledge of the look, feel and functionality of your shortlisted platforms, alongside your detailed matrix showing each platform’s strengths and potential weaknesses, you are in a strong position to make your final evaluations. This is where you get to be extra picky; don’t be afraid to ask questions and consider contingency elements that will allow for future growth.
As part of your matrix, it is likely that you will have considered the length of time for the roll-out of each platform. Whether you are migrating from one platform to another or starting afresh, careful planning and adequate time to roll over to the new platform will be required. Don’t just go by the timeframe given by the provider, assess your capacity and limitations to come up with a reasonable timeframe as a considerable level of commitment will be needed from you in order to get everything in place and to train team members.
Naturally, for those migrating from existing providers, there is a lot more to consider and these elements should be discussed with the account teams as part of your review and negotiations. It is essential to minimise disruptions; based on our experience working with large businesses, we advise a 2-3 month overlap between old and new platform is sufficient to allow you to:
- Set up the new platform
- Migrate data
- Set up training with all users/super-users
- Test run email campaigns
- Report bugs/issues
It is not possible to predict the future, but I always advise clients to plan ahead and be mindful of current contracts’ expiry dates to give them ample time to get the review process done and the migration/setup complete in time.
Regardless of your current situation, industry or size, there is no doubt that investing in a new email platform is a mammoth task. However, if done properly, you will have a robust platform that meets your current business needs while promising to answer to your future needs. By using the targeted process outlined in this article, you will be able to make bold, informed decisions designed to support your marketing strategy now and in the future.
While the task of finding, testing and implementing a new email marketing platform can seem daunting to organisations of all sizes, our experts are adept at managing the entire process. We offer end-to-end solutions for businesses of all sizes across industries; if you would like to ensure that you make the most of your investment, speak to the team today and see how we can transform your channel into something spectacular.