What to look for in an Email Marketing System

A wide variety of stand-alone email marketing systems are available in a wide variety of price ranges. Most of these systems do an excellent job of allowing you to upload mailing lists, develop emails, and send them to thousands or millions of people (often with per-mail fees in addition to annual license charges). In order to understand whether a particular system is a good value, there are several key features that are important to understand. This paper will attempt to outline the most important features to look for and help you understand which may be most important to you in evaluating an email platform.

The most important consideration in evaluating an email system is probably how it fits into your organization’s big picture. To realize the true power of the Internet as a primary point of contact, your email system should integrate tightly with your Website, allowing you to leverage content from the Web to email and allowing email recipients to log on to the Website for more information or to manage their contact preferences. It’s essential that you spend the time to find a system that offers this kind of integration so that you do not end up with two separate islands of information (one stored in the email system and the other in the Web user database) that you must manually move data between or pay a systems integrator to bridge.

Beyond integration, there are some key elements of campaign-based email development and tracking features that make email communications much more effective and easier to manage. This paper will outline some of the key kinds of functionality you may want to look for, and it will relate these functions to actual business benefits in order to help you understand whether the function is important to your organization. Key functions that you should consider include:

CAN-SPAM Compliance: The Federal CAN-SPAM legislation actually includes only a few, easy-to-implement requirements for commercial email, yet a majority (66%) of companies with prominent online presence failed a CAN-SPAM compliance audit in 2004. These were not spammers, but reputable companies with no intention to violate the law. Your email marketing system should make compliance foolproof. An unsubscribe link that automatically updates user preferences, for example, should be a part of any email, and its proper functioning should not be dependent on the skill or accuracy of the person developing the email or of a clerical person processing user requests.

Easy email development: A web-based email system should offer features that make it quick and easy for users to develop attractive and effective emails that comply with the company’s standards. Look for, at a minimum, the following: an easy-to-use integrated HTML editor that makes development of an email like using a word processor; template email libraries; a granular security model; versioning and rollback.

User-configurable workflow management. Just because email authoring and campaign development is distributed to multiple users does not mean that you should lose control of the process. Look for a system that supports and automates workflows by routing emails and campaigns to appropriate people for approval. Be careful of systems that offer “workflow automation” but really just automate one simple author -> approver -> live workflow. This may not work in your environment. Instead look for a flexible, user configurable workflow model.

Multilingual capability. The Web is a global medium, and an increasing number of sites are finding that they must present content in at least two languages in order to serve their target market. Your email program should support the ability to develop email campaigns in multiple languages, and to send them to groups based on language preference.

Bounce Handling. Sending repeated emails to bad email addresses is not only a waste of resources, it is a good way to get mistaken for a spammer. Your email program should track bounced emails and automatically purge bad email addresses from your user information.

HTML and Plain Text. If you send an HTML email to a recipient whose email client is configured to not display HTML, the recipient sees an unintelligible jumble that quickly makes your organization look unprofessional. Your email system should support a multi-part mime email format, with a separate text version that will be seen by recipients whose email clients do not display HTML emails.

Recipient-controlled subscribe, and unsubscribe. Your email must contain a working unsubscribe link in order to be CAN_SPAM compliant, but your email system should let you go far beyond a simple “click here to unsubscribe”. Your email authors – without IT assistance – should be able to give recipients the chance to not only unsubscribe, but, for example, to subscribe to additional email types, update user profiles, and enroll for restricted web content areas.

Understandable email metrics. For any sent campaign, you should be able to see at a glance key information like: How accurate are my email addresses? (how many emails bounced); How active are the addressees? (how many emails were opened); How interesting was my message? (how many click-throughs); How negative was my message? (how many unsubscribed).

Sample Email Marketing Implementation

To understand how the software features described above can enable real-world business value, let’s look at a hypothetical organization that has done a good job of integrating web content and email to establish an effective ongoing communication link with its members (the example is not of a real organization, but a composite of many with similar objectives and similar requirements).

The National Conservation Fund is an example of a membership organization with a mission of preserving and restoring wild areas and wildlife in the United States, through influencing legislation and governmental policy, and through fundraising for conservation projects. They have an attractive Website that was developed by an outside web design firm, and is maintained by the staff IT Director. Copy for the Website is developed by various staff personnel in membership, finance, and legislative positions. The Website offers several pages of members-only content where members can download various resource materials. New members are assigned a membership number when they join, which is mailed to them along with their ID card and various other membership material after the membership is processed. They can use the membership number to log on to the members-only section of the Website.

A nationwide network of local chapters complements the efforts of the national organization. Some chapters have Websites, some do not. There is no consistency in the domain names, appearance, or content of local chapter sites. Some are professional-looking and well done; some are amateurish and hosted on a member’s AOL account.

The organization collects email addresses of members at the time of registration, and stores those addresses in the CRM system that serves as the primary member database. It really has no practical way of maintaining those email addresses in real-time, and consequently many are now inaccurate. Similarly, some local chapters publish monthly newsletters, and some of them have attempted to begin emailing the newsletters to save printing and mailing costs. Chapters maintain their own lists of member email addresses.

National Conservation Fund sees a need to implement an email system to enhance the quality of its contact with members. As a side benefit, it sees the potential to greatly reduce its significant mailing and printing budget by relying on email for distribution of newsletters and other member communication, and to help local chapters do the same.

The scenario emphasizes the need for an integrated approach to the maintenance of member information, including email addresses, that is available for use of both National and the chapters, and is updateable by the members themselves. There is already a fractured and disjointed array of sources of member information: the website maintains its own member database for members-only access purposes, National maintains member information in its CRM system, and local chapters attempt to maintain their own mailing lists for emailing of newsletters. Clearly, the last thing the organization needs is another system with its own mailing lists.

Implementation of a good web-based email system that shares its database with the Website will allow the organization to:

  • Immediately grant access to members-only web content when a new member joins online, and to immediately send membership materials by email
  • Provide for “automatic” maintenance of Website addresses by allowing web users to update their own membership profiles and purging invalid addresses from the member profiles. Their profile would also allow them to opt-in or opt-out of various types of communications from National and/or local chapters.
  • Share the web/email customer database and web-based email system among both National and chapters to contact members, ensuring that email sent by either is to valid, current addresses, and that email is CAN_SPAM compliant.
  • Standard templates for recurring emails, separately for those from National and chapters, could be prepared by a graphic artist and kept for reuse in the email system. Newsletter authors could recall the template, add content, and send to members. Security and workflow/approval steps could be established as desired separately for email from each.
  • Use the Website in combination with email as a much more effective communication mechanism than either could be alone. For example, members could receive a “call to action” when important legislation is pending action, which urges members to contact their legislator. The email could have a “click here for more information” link to a special landing page on the Website, a “click here for your senator’s contact information” link, or even a “click here to draft and send an email” link.
  • With proper security, both National staff and Chapter officers could have immediate access, via web browser, to campaign metrics. A click of the mouse on any mailing would show exactly how many emails were sent, how many bounced, how many were opened, how many recipients click a link on the email, and how many unsubscribed. Another click of the mouse would reveal a list of recipients, with the action each took. Future emails could be based on the actions taken on previous emails. For example, a special mailing could be sent to those who typically take action on legislative alerts, or a special mailing could go to those who did not open the last newsletter.