How to choose an email marketing platform

Email marketing is a channel that has stood the test of time and is one of the most effective ways for small businesses to communicate directly with their customers and prospects. This guide will help you choose the right platform for your business.

Guide

13 min read

1. Different types of customer emails

The term ‘email marketing” is generally used to describe all business email communications with customers. This covers both traditional ‘marketing’ emails and ‘transactional’ emails.

Marketing emails

Sending special offers, announcements, newsletters, useful content, and event invites via email are great ways to help market your business, to promote customer loyalty and raise awareness. These are often referred to as ‘bulk emails’ where the same email, or variations on it, is sent to a large list of people. To comply with GDPR legislation, customers must have opted-in to receive your emails and all of these emails must contain an “unsubscribe” link. (To find out more about GDPR, watch our GDPR video tutorial.

Transactional emails

Many small businesses also need to use email to support customer transactions, such as order confirmations, order notifications (such as delivery dispatch), checking satisfaction after delivery, or individual account activity (e.g. password reset requests). As these emails are a core part of providing the service that customers have purchased, you do not need to have specific permission to send these emails, provided you do not include any marketing or promotional content.

(These transactional emails also do not need to contain an “unsubscribe” link as, in effect, the customer has not subscribed to receive anything more than the minimum number of emails required to effectively fulfill their purchase.)

Even if the templates for these emails are standard, they are sent individually, triggered by an action taken by the customer or prospect. Email marketing platforms often have “automation” functionality so you can set up these emails to send automatically when the action of the customer triggers them.

2. Why do you need an email marketing platform?

When sending both marketing and transactional emails, it’s generally best to use a specific email marketing tool or platform, and not your standard business Outlook or G Suite service. This is because:

  • These platforms are not designed for sending bulk emails and providers may suspend your account - never a good thing!
  • Recipients of unwanted marketing emails may block your email address, meaning you can’t then send them operational business emails.
  • Sending from a single user profile can make it harder for more than one person to support your email marketing efforts.
  • You will not receive analytics on the likes of open-rates and click-throughs to help you improve future marketing emails.
  • If you want to design your emails and ensure they look good whether the recipient reads them on a mobile or laptop, then it’s much easier to do this through a proper email marketing platform.
  • As your sales grow, you will likely need to automate your transactional emails as it will be impossible to manage them individually.

If that isn’t convincing enough, you must also ensure you comply with GDPR legislation. This includes managing your database properly by ensuring you only market to people who have opted-in to receive marketing emails, and always giving people the option to unsubscribe. If you do this manually it is easy to make errors.

Furthermore, cost needn’t be a barrier for businesses starting out with email marketing. Some platform providers have free-trials and free or lower cost packages especially for smaller organisations.

3. Where to start

A quick search will bring up dozens of options and a lot of technical language so the first hurdle is comparing several systems and shortlisting a few to look at in more depth.

Here we suggest taking four steps to define what your business needs from an email marketing platform to make that decision easier.

  • Step 1: Define the key requirements for your email marketing platform for your business (whether you need transactional as well as marketing emails) and map out how you can link it with your other sources of customer data.
  • Step 2: Work out the volumes of emails you are likely to send.
  • Step 3: Consider the technical features and benefits the system will need to meet your objectives so you can shortlist platforms that might be suitable.
  • Step 4: Review how easy it will be to use those platforms day-to-day so you have a full understanding of costs and resource required before making a final decision.

4. Step 1: Define the key requirements for your email marketing platform

Do you need to send transactional emails as well as marketing emails?

If you accept online sales then you will likely need to send transactional emails. Customers will expect email order confirmations, as well as notifications such as delivery dispatch.

You may also want the option to send these communications as text messages direct to customers’ phones via SMS (Short Message Service).

If you do need to send these transactional emails, check the following when reviewing email platforms:

  • How the email platform will integrate with your website. In some cases, email platforms give you the functionality to build simple eCommerce sites, and if you do this, then integration will not be necessary. However assuming you already have an eCommerce site, then the email platform will give access to an API (“Application Programming Interface” - which allows the email platform and your website to talk to each other) and SMTP (“Simple Mail Transfer Protocol” - which enables email transmission). You need these to be able to integrate these transactional emails with your website. You will have to check with your website provider whether these will be technically compatible with your website. For example if your site is built on a platform such as Squarespace, Shopify or Wix, check on which email platforms they integrate with. If your website was built for you by a web developer, then they will be able to point you in the right direction.
  • Will it support both transactional and marketing emails? If you are also doing email marketing (bulk email sending) will it be easier or lower cost to use the same platform for both transactional emails and marketing emails? In this case, you’ll review the features and benefits the platform offers for both types of emails. Some providers e.g. Mailchimp offer basic transactional email options within their marketing email platform, which might be sufficient, or they offer more sophisticated transactional options as an additional service.
  • Does it support both email and SMS? Consider if you need to be able to send just emails, or both email and SMS (text messages). If it’s the latter, you will need to look out for a platform that includes SMS options.

How will you link email marketing with your other customer data?

For email marketing to be successful, it must be relevant to the recipient, and effective use of data helps ensure it will be. There are two key elements to this:

  • Data accuracy. Customer and prospect data must be up to date and accurate, so you are sending to the right address and using the correct name, etc.
  • Cross-linking insights. The content that you send should ideally be informed by insights you’ve gathered across all touchpoints you have with your customers and prospects e.g. on which topics the recipient is interested in, which products they have viewed or bought, which offers they interact with, etc.

You’re likely to have more success with accuracy and relevancy if the platform that you use integrates with data from other areas of your business.

There’s two ways of joining up this information:

  1. You use the email platform itself as your central system for everything (or almost everything). Many platforms do much more than just send emails and can become the central software for all your marketing.
  2. Or, the email platform integrates with separate system/s or app/s that gathers that data. When you’re shortlisting email marketing systems, you’ll see the word “integration” a lot, with long lists of other software the platform will integrate with.

Here are some examples of where it can be useful to link up data sources to get the best results.

Customer database or CRM (customer relationship management)

Many businesses need to collate, manage and analyse information about their customers and prospects so they can effectively manage the relationships. By understanding all the touchpoints an individual has with your business, you can send communications designed to be as relevant as possible to them and improve your customer service for example:

  • Their response to previous emails and other marketing campaigns
  • Their requests for information or complaints
  • What they have purchased

With so much data available, manually updating email lists, incorporating insights from different data sources and sending emails would be too time-consuming.

For small businesses with simple requirements, look out for an email marketing platform that can provide this service for you.

If you already use more sophisticated CRM systems like Salesforce, or you already manage customer data in an existing eCommerce system, then check that your shortlisted email platforms will integrate with that.

List building across different channels

It is possible to gain new email subscribers through various marketing channels, including via your:

  • Website through conventional sign-ups
  • Behaviourally-triggered pop ups facilitated by software like Optinmonster or Optimonk that capturing subscribers at the point when users are leaving your website
  • Social media activity and ads
  • Live chat and chat bots

Therefore it will be much easier if your email marketing platform is able to integrate with all of these, to ensure that all subscribers are stored in one central database. If you use or plan to use any of these channels, check that your shortlisted email platforms can integrate with them.

Some platforms also have a smart “lookalike audience finder”, to help you reach new prospects to grow your subscriber list. This works because they understand the profile of your existing contacts, so they can help you reach similar people on the likes of Facebook or Instagram who may be more likely to convert to be subscribers or customers.

Surveys and polls

Gathering customer feedback is one of the best ways to help your business deepen relationships and trouble-shoot any issues.

Some email platforms offer the option of designing surveys within the platform itself, and others offer integration with survey tools such as SurveyMonkey or Typeform. Either way will help you segment audiences on the back of their responses to improve future personalisation.

Analytics

Your chosen email platform will automatically give you data on how your emails perform. But you can build greater understanding of campaign effectiveness if you know how people behave when they arrive at your website from an email. Most platforms can integrate with Google Analytics so you can build a holistic view of campaign performance.

5. Step 2: How many emails will you be sending?

Before going any further, it’s worth estimating how many emails you expect to send as this is the basis for many pricing packages.

Break it down

  • Transactional emails
    ○ How many emails would you send each customer on the back of each individual purchase (from order confirmation right through to delivery).
    ○ How many sales are you projecting each day and month, for the next year, and the next couple of years?
    ○ Then use those numbers to give a rough estimate of the number of emails you need to send each month right now, and in the future.
  • Bulk marketing emails
    ○ Look at your current database to understand the minimum and maximum number of people you will send a bulk marketing email to. (Some emails may go to your whole database, others may only go to a segment, e.g. based on location or what they have opted in to receive).
    ○ Consider if you have any targets for increasing your database of subscribers over the next year or two and factor that in.
    ○ Then consider how many marketing emails you are likely to send each month including promotions, announcements, added value content etc. (Remember, you must have sufficient resource to plan every email properly, and most customers and prospects probably won’t welcome any more than one or two emails a week on average).
    ○ This exercise will give you a rough idea of how many emails you expect to send.

Look at pricing

Now you know roughly how many emails you currently send and predict you will send in the next couple of years, it’s useful to take a quick look at pricing options of the different email platforms now.

  • Free option: Some providers offer a free option giving you the ability to send a few thousand emails in your first month, although often this then drops to a few hundred after that. However for some small businesses and early start-ups, this might be sufficient to get started with email marketing.
  • Pay as you go option: Some providers have “pay-as-you-go” options where you only pay for what you use, rather than having a monthly subscription and this can be very useful for smaller businesses while they become established.
  • Monthly fee option: However, most providers offer a sliding scale of costs with a fixed monthly fee up to a certain number of emails. If you choose this, you will want to ensure the bracket you fall into won’t mean you end up paying for email send capacity you won’t use, or that you will reach your limit very quickly.
  • Combination pricing: For businesses that might occasionally nudge over their monthly limit, but can’t justify the extra cost to go to the next level, look out for providers that offer combination charging with an option for a cost-per-thousand on a “pay-as-you-go” basis for any over your limit, without you having to commit to the next level.
  • Extra services: Always double check what services are included within the pricing package and if there’s any extra charges for more sophisticated software or integrations.

Now you should have a few comparisons in a spreadsheet so you know the budget range you are looking at.

Of course, price isn’t everything and the cheapest is not always the best.

Reviewing the features and benefits of your shortlisted platforms will help you work out if you need specialist expertise to be able to use it effectively (which might increase costs elsewhere) or whether it is easy enough for you to use yourself with your existing staff day-to-day.

6. Step 3: Technical features and benefits

Most email marketing platforms offer the following technical features as standard, and you will want to understand that they provide what you need for your business, but ensure you’re not paying for sophisticated elements that you don’t need.

Segmentation and personalisation

Segmenting your customers is the basis of effective personalisation of emails (here we are talking about much more than simply using your subscribers’ names in the email).

Segmentation means the email content can be targeted by reflecting their interests, browsing history, or items they’ve added to their basket but then abandoned.

Look at what options a platform gives you to segment customers by their location, interests, previous purchases or even stage in the purchase cycle, particularly if your product is a consumable, as you may want to prompt them at the point they will be ready to make a repeat purchase. Also segmenting customers by how active or engaged they are can help you get the tone right in your content - avoiding being overly familiar with someone who only opens an email from you every few months.

Applying this insight gives you the best chance of designing emails with high open and click through rates which creates a virtuous circle improving deliverability over the longer term too.

A/B testing

If you have a large enough database, then A/B testing can really improve your chances of success in every email campaign.

This is when you have two or more variations of the same email. You send each variation to a different subset of people and see how well each performs. The one that performs best is then sent to the rest of your database. There’s no limits on what you could test, but as an example, A/B testing is a great way to discover which subject lines achieve the best open rates, or which email template boosts click-throughs.

Look for a platform that will handle the test and then send the “winning” email automatically once you set it up.

Automation

Even for small businesses, there are many ways automation can save you a lot of time and effort, and appear responsive and relevant to your customers and prospects. For example:

  • Automatically resend an email to people who didn’t open it - perhaps with a different subject line
  • Automated series of welcome emails after someone has subscribed
  • Automated offers triggered by key dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries of subscribing
  • Send reminders to people who have abandoned their shopping carts to recover the sale (provided they are subscribers)
  • Recommend products based on previous purchases

After listing out the automations you need for marketing and transactional emails, the best thing is to look at different platforms to see how easy it is to set up and update the automation journeys. Many platforms offer sample automation journeys that you can copy to get started.

7. Step 4: How easy is the platform to use day-to-day?

Templates and customisation

Many small businesses will need to be able to create and manage their own email campaigns rather than outsourcing the work.

Therefore, a key feature to look out for is a suite of templates to save you effort and cost in design, and a “drag and drop” interface to create your own layouts. A range of stock images is also useful if you’re limited in the images you can create or source yourself in the early days.

What works for one person might not work for another, so the only way to decide if the interface will work for you is to try it yourself with a free trial or demo.

If you use design packages like Canva, check if you can integrate your images with your email platform.

Creating landing pages and social media ads

Emails on their own usually can’t convert customers - they need to link to a landing page to facilitate a sign up or sale, or provide more information. If done well, custom landing pages designed to tie in properly with an email can boost conversions. There are now many options for dedicated landing page creation software to make this easier. Some email platforms also offer this as part of their service and/or integrate with other software. In some cases you can even build your whole website or eCommerce functionality through an email platform, although this may not be the best option for everyone.

It may also be possible to integrate your social media account with your chosen email platform. Some platforms have content creators so all your content can be accessed from one place and you can adapt social posts for emails and vice versa. This can be a useful tool if social media is a key part of your marketing strategy.

Analytics and reporting

You can only improve the effectiveness of your email campaigns if you understand what works and what doesn’t.

The two things you are looking for are:

  • Availability of key metrics, such bounce rate (level of emails that didn’t reach the recipients inbox); number of unsubscribes; open rate; level of click-throughs from links in your emails; conversion rate (recipients who went on to complete a goal, e.g. a purchase or sign up); level of sharing/forwarding, list growth and overall return on investment from the campaign
  • Ease of accessing and working with that data because if it’s too much hassle, you’ll never find time to properly analyse your activity which will reduce performance.

As with template design, the only real way to see if it works for you is to see for yourself on a free trial or demo.

GDPR compliance

Never forget the importance of compliance with GDPR legislation, and look at how different email platforms can help you stay the right side of the regulations, especially if you are using their software to capture subscribers and as a CRM system.

  • Is there scope to design opt-in forms that reflect your brand tone?
  • Can you offer different levels of opt-in?
  • Is it easy to prove when someone opted in?
  • Is it easy to delete a customer who requests it?
  • Is it easy to export data if a customer requests you to provide the data you hold on them?
  • Once you delete a subscriber, can the platform anonymise their data in your insights reports?

Support

If you and your staff will be using the email platform yourself, rather than outsourcing to an agency to manage it on your behalf, then the levels of customer service support provided by the platform will be important for you.

Bear in mind that transactional emails in particular will be critical to your business. For example if you suddenly can’t send out order confirmations, that would be a real problem.

It could also seriously impact your sales if you faced a problem sending out emails for a time-based promotion during your peak season.

When you’re reviewing a shortlist of platforms, look for:

  • Resources to get you started (often called “onboarding”)
  • Online hub or knowledge base
  • Availability of real people via phone, email or chat to answer specific questions you have, or even a dedicated account manager if you will be sending many thousands of emails
  • User community where you can learn from the experiences of similar businesses

8. Example email marketing platforms

When making your shortlist, consider asking friends and family at other businesses what platforms they use and what they like (or don’t like) about them. If you’re not on many mailing lists already, subscribe to a few small businesses you admire and see if it’s obvious which platform they’re using. Sometimes if the business is on a lower-cost option, the platform brand will appear in the email footers or elsewhere.

To get you started, there’s a list of a few of the most popular email marketing platforms below.

Good all-rounders

Niche platforms

  • Constant Contact - Focused on small businesses and not for profits
  • SendinBlue - Good functionality for managing both SMS and email
  • Drip - Specialises in eCommerce sites
  • ConvertKit - Tailored for content creators and bloggers

Support from DigitalBoost to help you do all of this!

For further advice and support on all aspects of your digital marketing, processes & platforms check out our DigitalBoost programme. Offering free 1:1 consultancy, online resources, training and webinars to help businesses in Scotland develop their digital skills.

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