Tips for Selecting an Email Service Provider

As the worldwide leader in email intelligence, Return Path is well positioned between global brands, the email service providers (ESPs) and on-premise messaging solutions that they work with, and the ISPs, mailbox providers and various filtering agencies.  We partner with most of the major ESPs and messaging solutions out there, and because of this, we have a lot of knowledge about what each offers and the types of clients they work with.  So it makes sense that one of the most common questions that client-facing employees at Return Path get is, “who should I use as my email service provider?”  


While seemingly an easy question to answer, it is actually one that requires quite a bit of research.  Each ESP has their own niche and specializes in different aspects of email data and marketing.  Before researching ESPs and messaging solutions, it’s imperative to know what’s most important to you.  For example, is it absolutely necessary to be able to integrate with a specific CRM tool?  Do you need the ability to send surveys and transactional mail?  Do you require a dedicated support and deliverability team to be assigned to your account?

To help you in your research, I’ve compiled a list of things you will need to consider when considering a new email service provider, listed below in no particular order.

Email Sending and Scheduling

  • What will your monthly email volume be?
  • What types of emails will you be sending (promotional, transactional, surveys, confirmations, etc.)?
  • Do you need to be able to send triggered emails based on activity (or non-activity)?
  • Is the ability to send A/B split tests important to you?
  • Will you be using dynamic content within your emails?
  • Do you want to be able to schedule email sends for a future date/time?

Creatives and Testing

  • Do you want to be able to send test emails to a small test group prior to live deployment?
  • Is having a tool available to test your creatives in various email clients and browsers important to you?
  • Do you need the ability to send emails through spam filters pre-deployment?
  • Is having free, customizable templates something that’s important to you?
  • Do you need to be able to create and edit email creatives directly in the user interface?
  • Do you expect your email content to be reviewed for CAN-SPAM compliance prior to deployment?

Subscriber Management

  • Do you require access to subscriber management and list segmentation tools?
  • Is it important to you to be able to manage and customize your opt-in page?
  • Is having flexibility in terms of a single opt-in versus double (confirmed) opt-in a requirement?
  • Do you want to be able to customize your subscriber opt-out experience?
  • Is it important to have a user profile page where subscribers can update their preferences and email frequency?

Reporting Capabilities

  • Is it important to you to have access to reporting and analysis tools?
  • Do you require real-time data reporting?
  • Do you expect to have access to bounce reporting?
  • Will you need click-through and website conversion tracking?
  • Do you expect to be able to see the number of emails sent, delivered, and not delivered?
  • Is seeing deliverability (inbox versus spam folder) data important to you?
  • Will you want to see metrics surrounding forward to a friend and opens (unique and total)?
  • Do you want to allow for social sharing, and then have access to the related reporting?
  • Is having visibility into unsubscribes and complaints important to you?
  • Is it a requirement to be integrated with a specific CRM system?

Your Team and Support

  • How many users will need access to the ESP interface?
  • Do you require a user-friendly, intuitive graphical user interface (GUI)?
  • Are you most comfortable with a self- or full-service model of support?
  • Is having a dedicated deliverability team important to you?
  • Do you expect your ESP to make regular releases and updates available to clients?

Email Infrastructure

  • Do you require a dedicated IP address or are you comfortable sharing an IP with other senders?
  • Is using your own sending domain a requirement?
  • Is it important to you for the ESP to manage your feedback loops and authentication (DKIM, SPF, DMARC)?
  • Do you want to receive alerts if there’s an issue with a certain feedback loop or authentication?
  • Do you require your emails to be throttled or is there a time requirement in terms of your email sends?
  • Is it important to you to have a SLA set up with your new ESP?
  • Is having a redundant data center important?

Budget Considerations

  • How much are you willing to pay for an email service provider?
  • Do you require a free trial?
  • Are you more comfortable with a monthly or annual fee, or do you want to pay only for what you use?
  • Are you willing to commit to an annual agreement?
  • Is having a pre-pay discount available to you important?

As you research the right ESP for your company, there are several excellent tools that can help you.  The first is the ESPinator by ClickMail Marketing.  This free online survey tool takes you through an assortment of questions that will determine the top three ESPs that best meet your needs.  Also by ClickMail Marketing is their free “2013 ESP Selection Guide,” available to download here.  This guide gives you the nine essential questions you need to ask a potential new ESP.  Finally, Red Pill Email offers their very thorough (199 pages!) “2013 Email Vendor Features & Functions Guide.”  This extensive and extremely valuable guide is available to download on their site, and there’s also a SME version available for small market senders.