Expert Advice: Email Service Providers

As our last post before the holiday season, we wanted to showcase another post about emails with some expert advice from  Anna Donnella at Wonderful Machine and was originally posted on aPhotoEditor.com here.

As Wonderful Machine founder Bill Cramer says, “In a world where everyone can send an email, everyone does.” It’s true, and not only is everyone sending emails, but email service providers specializing in email marketing are popping up to make it easier for people to send lots of emails at once.

As a photographer, sending out a mass emailer is a great way to introduce yourself to potential new clients, and keep current contacts abreast of your latest work. If you’re wondering about the philosophies of email marketing, check out our Expert Advice on email marketing. If you’re looking for the specifics of choosing an email service provider to help you with mass emailing, you’re in the right place!

Let’s start at the beginning. What is an email service provider?

An email service provider, or an ESP, is a web-based application that allows people to send bulk email. Most ESPs allow you to complete three basic components of email marketing: create email subscriber lists; send emails to those lists; and review the data from those sent campaigns.

Good ESPs will also provide you with a way to have people sign up for your emailers so that you can continue to grow your subscriber network steadily and organically.

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How do you decide which provider to use?

The email marketing scene is crowded. Very crowded. As such, there are a lot of ESPs competing to get your attention. That’s good because it means there are a lot of options for you, but the truth is that most of the options are very similar. As we said before, they’ll all have a way to create subscriber lists, send campaigns, and review the stats on the campaigns you’ve sent. So don’t lose sleep over which ESP is exactly perfect for you. Here’s a list of some of the main providers:

MailChimpEmmaSendinBlueBenchmarkConstant ContactCampaign Monitor

We generally recommend MailChimp to photographers because it has a Forever Free Plan that lets you send 12,000 emails a month to a list of up to 2000 subscribers, which is a really nice amount for photographers. (If you’re sending to more than 2000 clients a month, you may be sending a little excessively, and you should check out our expert advice on Prospect List Services for guidance.) There are just a few features the Forever Free plan doesn’t offer—like automated feeds for blogs and special delivery by time zone—so you can check those out and see how much those matter to you.

At Wonderful Machine, we also use MailChimp, and although we have way too many subscribers for the Forever Free plan, we find that it is a great provider for several reasons. First off, our experience is that it’s the most preferred ESP among designers. This is because it allows for a lot of different design options, and it is incredibly user-friendly for designers dropping in files. We actually find that it is user-friendly in all its areas, as it has a simple layout and straightforward instructions throughout the site. It also has clear and thorough documentation on every aspect of email marketing. MailChimp actually stands out significantly from the competition because it’s one of the best places to learn about email marketing, and why not practice where you learn. Constant Contact also provides some helpful literature on email marketing.

When deciding which email subscriber is right for you, keep in mind that if you’re sending to fewer than 2000 subscribers a month, it makes sense to stay on a free plan. MailChimp isn’t the only one who provides a free plan. Benchmark and SendinBlue also have free plans, again with certain limitations whose importance you can assess for yourself. SendinBlue’s free plan is a little bit different because it doesn’t care about the number of subscribers you have; it only limits you in terms of how many emails you’re sending.

To learn more about top competitors to MailChimp, Merchant Maverick has a greatcomparison guide. PC Mag also just released a list of the 10 best email marketing software companies of 2016.

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Creating Subscriber Lists

The first step of your email marketing plan, and the first thing you’ll probably set up within your ESP, will be your campaign subscriber lists. As we, and most of our photographers are most familiar with MailChimp, we’ll use their terms and definitions.

Subscribers refers to the people who will be receiving your emails. ESPs, and especially MailChimp, will ask you to verify that anyone you are listing as a subscriber is someone who asked to be on your email list. This is where we get into some of the gray area with sending mass emails. You can read more about the ethics and policies of this in the section below, “What’s the deal with spam?”

You can upload subscribers one at a time, but the easier way is probably to upload them from a spreadsheet. When you upload a spreadsheet into MailChimp, you will have to select which columns from the original spreadsheet you want to include in your MailChimp list. For example, your original spreadsheet may include columns for first name, last name, email address, company, and date added to your database. You may want to keep all of these columns in your MailChimp list, or you may decide that the date someone was added to your database is irrelevant for your new list, in which case you can skip that column.

MailChimp and other ESPs will also provide you with a signup form you can put on your website or Facebook page so that people can add themselves to your lists. Giving people the opportunity to sign up for your lists themselves is one of the best ways of expanding your network.

You can create as many different lists of subscribers as you want, but it may be better to create one or a couple main lists and create groups within those lists. If one person is on two different lists, that counts as two subscribers when MailChimp is tracking your total subscriber count. One person in multiple groups, however, will not count as more than one subscriber as long as the groups are within the same list. You can segment your lists into groups based on any characteristic.

Mailchimp explains everything about subscribers, lists, and groups, including the technical process for creating them on their site.

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What’s the deal with SPAM?

With mass emailing comes the question of spam. The definition of spam is simple: unsolicited bulk email, or UBE. An email is only spam if it is unsolicited AND bulk at the same time. Okay, this simple definition has a lot more complexity than meets the eye.Spamhaus, the authority on spam, gives a thorough explanation of spam and how it can apply to you, but we’ll break down the most important points here.

Unsolicited email. Unsolicited email is common. We email people even if they haven’t asked to be emailed and we receive emails when we haven’t asked for them. This happens all the time. Some examples are job enquiries and sales enquiries. Chances are as a photographer, many of your emails fall into this category. (Again, something is only spam if it is both unsolicited and bulk.)

Mailchimp and other ESPs will ask that everyone on your list got there by way of opting in, meaning that they asked to be there explicitly. This is because they want to make sure that you are not at risk of sending spam. The best practice on opting in is called a double opt-in, or a confirmed opt-in, which you can read about here.

Spamhaus does provide an email marketing best practice document, however, that also lists implied consent as a form of email consent. This happens if someone gives you reason to believe they would be interested in your information even if they have not explicitly signed up for an emailer. The MAAWG (Messaging, Malware, and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group) lists this as type of consent but not a best practice.

Bulk email. According to Spamhaus, email is bulk if it is being sent to so many people that the recipient’s personal identity and context are irrelevant because the message is equally applicable to many other potential recipients. For this, and other reasons, we advise our photographers to be intentional about whom they are emailing. Spamhaus specifies that if you are buying a list of names to email, this is inherently spam, as that list is nonspecific (therefore bulk) and the emails were unsolicited. That is why at Wonderful Machine, we never sell our photographers pre-made lists, but instead we allow them to pay for list-builds, where we organically create lists that are specialized and specific for that individual photographer. With these lists, the recipients’ personal identities and context are absolutely relevant, keeping them free of the label, “bulk.”

In short, as long as you are sending relevant emails to targeted, appropriate lists, you should be fine. Just make sure you’re familiar with the policies and that you feel comfortable with your practices.

Create a Campaign!

Each round of emails you send is called a campaign. You can control a lot of things about a campaign, but probably the most important is the design. Again, you can refer to our expert advice on email marketing to learn about the importance of a great design when sending out your emails. You can get in touch with our designers if you’d like help putting together the perfect look for your emailers.

You’ll be able to control other details of your campaign as well, such as the subject line, the sender (who it will say the email is from), and whether you’d like a personalized first name. You will also be able to check off which tracking options the email will have, and we suggest you always choose to see who opens and clicks on your email.

Each campaign can only be sent to one list. If you’d like to send a campaign to more than one list, you’ll have to duplicate the campaign for the second list.

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Reviewing your Campaign

At the end of the day, it’s time to review the campaign you sent. Mailchimp will provide you with a campaign report that will tell you many things:

The number and percentage of successful deliveries. Pretty self-explanatory. If an email was not successfully delivered, it means it bounced.

Bounced emails. There are two types of email bounces: hard and soft. A hard bounce means the email address you attempted to send to cannot be sent to. This could be because the email address does not exist or the recipient email server has blocked all delivery. If an email address on your list yields a hard bounce, that subscriber will automatically be removed from your list. A soft bounce is less severe than a hard bounce, and could happen for a number of reasons, including if the recipient’s mailbox is too full or if the email message is too large to get through. If an email address on your list yields a soft bounce, that subscriber will not immediately be removed from your list. Mailchimp will actually continue to attempt to deliver the email over the course of the three days.

Open rate. This is the percentage of people on your list who opened your email. Don’t worry if this appears low to you. A 20% open rate is perfectly strong.

Total opens. This number will be much higher than your open rate, because it counts every single time your email is opened. So if 20 subscribers each open your email twice, your total opens will be 40.

Click rate. This is the percentage of people on your list who clicked your email. Again, don’t be alarmed if the number seems low. Anywhere from .8 to 3% is normal. Mailchimp will also let you see a list of who exactly has opened and clicked the email. It will show you how many times someone opened your email, which links they clicked on, and at what time they opened or clicked anything.

Member rating. You’ll see a set of stars next to your subscribers with the label “member rating.” Mailchimp rates your subscribers for you based on their engagement with your campaigns. How many times have they opened your emails? How many times have they clicked? Be aware of what your subscribers are doing, because this can be a great way to track who you should follow up with.

Unsubscribed. You’ll get a list of people who unsubscribed from your email. They will automatically be removed from this particular list, but they will not automatically be removed from any other lists they are on. Be aware of who has unsubscribed so you can be sensitive to what they want.

There’s lots more to read on email marketing and email service providers, so help yourself to the links below, and if you have any other questions, reach out!

Helpful Resources:

Spamhaus’s Frequently Asked Questions on Spam

Mailchimp’s Best Practices for Lists

HubSpot’s 25 Simple Ways to Grow Your List

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