Now that this technology has gone main stream, there are a lot more vendors to choose among. Too many, in fact. If you do a Google search, pages of different companies offering email solutions are listed. To choose a supplier, there are several criteria to consider. I’ve listed several of the features that I look for below. I also always take advantage of the free trial period offered by most companies to try out the features. In this article I’m only looking at hosted solutions, not software which would allow you to distribute newsletters from your own computer or server. I have assumed that the services all offer standard subscription management, the ability to import and export data, and preview and scheduling capabilities.
- A proven track record and a stable product. You want a company that has already worked out all the bugs in their product. You might also ask about recent and intended upgrades and how the company handles them. I had an account with a company where one day I tried to log into my account only to find out that in the upgrade process, they had changed the log-in procedures so that my password no longer worked. Even worse, so many customers were having problems with the upgrade that it took days for customer service to get back to me!
- Outstanding customer service. Many companies now offer extended – or even 24 hour – support. This is really important for those days when you’re working after hours and come up against a technical problem. Make sure that the customer service reps are available and knowledgeable. You don’t want to wait hours for a call back, find out that the person is not well versed in their product or learn that customer service shuts up shop at 5 p.m. I suggest making a few calls during the trial period to find out how each company handles questions. Some companies also limit how much free support you get, make sure you understand what is included in your standard fee.
- Flexible templates. If you are not a coding wizard, good templates are one of the most important parts of the package. Look for a variety of templates that have interchangeable modules. For example, you should be able to add blocks for new articles, for promotions, Web links, etc. Plus, none of the graphics should be fixed; you should be able to import your own to fully customize the templates. Some companies try to generate income money by selling you their services to customize their templates. With an intuitive interface and range of standard modules, this shouldn’t be necessary.
- Survey capabilities. Not all e-newsletter providers also support the ability to write surveys. This is a real shame because you can learn a lot from your readers by inserting questions into every issue. Many companies offer integrated products.
- Excellent reporting and tracking capabilities. You need to know more than just open rates, you want to be able to track who clicks on which links within your newsletter or how someone answers a specific question.
- Data segmentation capabilities. There are going to be times when you want to send different newsletters to targeted segments, or from separate email addresses. Your supplier needs to have the flexibility to allow advanced distribution while enabling comprehensive and integrated tracking.
- Finally, if you are an agency, you need a supplier that will allow you to maintain multiple accounts with separate identities. This will allow you to collect statistics over time and maintain graphics for each of your clients. Some companies want to charge you separately for this feature which can add up quickly if you are using them for several clients.
So what does all this cost?
HTML marketing companies typically charge a monthly fee based either on the number of contacts in your stored database, or the number of emails you send each month. The range in pricing can be large. For example, maintaining a database of 5,000 contacts can cost anywhere from $300 to $75/month. Some companies charge a set up fee in addition to the monthly fee, some companies charge more for an “agency” account that enables you to maintain separate identities. This is a case where doing some research can result in significant savings.
A Good Investment
In conclusion, with the cost of html email distribution services coming down and the range of services increasing, there is capability that no PR firm need (or should) do without. I find that I use html regularly and for more than just newsletters – it is an ideal way to send out press releases, invitations, surveys and announcements, all tools that benefit from the medium’s measurability, interactivity and reasonable cost.
Here are a few companies that offer these services to get you started.