marketing emails

Chris Marriott, Marketing Democracy: “There Isn’t A Single Best Email Service Provider”

If you’re looking for the right email service provider (ESP), Chris Marriott and his team at Marketing Democracy are just the right people to help you out.

Choosing a good email service provider

A digital marketing veteran with an ongoing passion for email, Mr. Marriott is a specialist when it comes to the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. We invited him to share his knowledge on the topic, and picked his brain about email marketing best practices. This is an interview you don’t want to miss.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the marketing industry in the last 20 years?

There have been two waves of email service provider acquisition, and both times it had a great impact on the email industry.

The first wave came about around 2004-2005. At that time the big database players followed one another in acquiring an ESP. Epsilon bought Bigfoot Interactive, Experian bought Cheetahmail, InfoUSA bought Yesmail, and Acxiom bought the ESP I worked for-Digital Impact.

Overnight the industry changed from a numerous small, independent ESPs with millions in revenue to one dominated by a few large database companies with hundreds of millions in revenue.

Fast forward to 2012-2013 and the industry experienced another wave of acquisitions. The first wave resulted in several new, independent ESPs gaining momentum, including Responsys and ExactTarget.

The second wave saw large technology companies making the acquisition as they competed with one another to build out “marketing clouds.” Oracle bought Responsys, Salesforce bought ExactTarget, and IBM bought Silverpop. 

Once again, the acquisition of the largest independent ESPs saw the emergence of a new wave of independent ESPs, many with entirely new approaches to providing email marketing services to their clients. As an industry, there is always a lot of M&A going on, as well as VC-backed start-ups being launched. Never a dull moment.

How did you decide that the email marketing industry needed a company like yours? When did the RFP process become a necessity?

RFPs (Request for Proposal) have been a part of the email pitch process since the very beginning of email marketing.

I ran the global email team when I worked at Acxiom, so I participated in a lot of RFPs from the vendor side. If you go back 10-15 years, the platforms were much less sophisticated than they are today. Much of the time, the lowest priced vendor would win the RFP.

Two things changed around 10 years ago.

First, the revenue generated by email marketing had become a major contributor to a lot of companies’ bottom line. So the importance of picking the right vendor increased dramatically. 

Second, the complexity of the platforms had advanced to a point that there were (and are) significant differences between them. Trying to sort through those differences had become increasingly difficult. It’s at that point that I realized there was a real need for a consultancy that could help email marketers through the RFP process. 

We don’t see our job as making the decision for our clients. We focus on helping them make the right decision for themselves. 

What are the biggest mistakes organizations make when choosing an email service provider?

I could write a book on this topic alone – though I doubt anyone would want to read it! 

RFPs are hard work if done correctly. Marketers really need to take the time to determine what their specific requirements are, and then understanding which ESP best meets those requirements. 

Outsourcing your RFP to your procurement team means you’ll get the cheapest vendor, not the best one for you. Asking other marketers which platform they like means you’ll get the vendor best suited for the person you asked, not necessarily for you.

There are no shortcuts to making the right decision. If you think there are, don’t be surprised to discover down the road that you made a mistake.

marketing democracy

Brands have so many choices now when it comes to ESPs. What would be the top 5 aspects to keep in mind when picking one?

We work predominantly with email marketers sending 500 million+ emails a year. Most of our clients send over a billion. For email marketers of these volumes, the first thing to ensure is that any vendor you invite to your RFP can handle that volume of email.  And there aren’t that many that can; something like 8-10. 

Once you have checked that box, you should use the RFP process to determine which vendor:

  • best matches your unique requirements
  • offers competitive pricing (which doesn’t mean is the least expensive)
  • and has the resources to keep innovating and growing with your needs over time. 

But there is another aspect that too often gets overlooked in the process. Which platform does your internal email team prefer to use?

You asked earlier about the biggest mistakes? Another huge mistake we’ve seen is when management dictates the choice of vendor and doesn’t solicit input from the people who will actually be using the tool. Our RFP process ensures that we get that input early and often, so that the vendor selected has the support of the team that will be using the platform.

With nearly 40% of marketers thinking all ESPs are the same, what can ESPs do to stand out?

This isn’t a much a problem with the vendors as it is with the email marketers. Email marketers who believe ESPs are all the same haven’t taken the time to ask the right questions of the vendors and make the tough comparisons. 

A first is to take yes/no questions out of your RFP. Vendors have a tendency to say “YES” to every requirement. So we also ask how they address each requirement. That is the way your email marketing RFP can beat the yes men. If you combine this approach with also asking for the right questions based on your companies needs and wants, you are on your way to a better outcome.

There are significant differences between the 8-10 enterprise-level ESPs. That makes some a better fit for a particular brand than others. There isn’t a single “best” email service provider (despite what analyst firms like Forrester would have us believe). You have to dig deep to fully understand those differences and how they will impact your success or failure with each one.

Chris Marriott rom marketing

Do you think email validation has the awareness it deserves in the email marketing space?

Email validation is extremely important for any email marketer who wants to grow his or her list without jeopardizing inbox placement. I don’t care how you have acquired a new email address – lightbox on site, at POS, via co-reg – if you don’t check that email address before adding it to your database, you are just asking for trouble. 

If you are mailing to bad addresses, the major ISPs are going to start sending your email to the spam folder, or even block you completely.

Mailing to inactive email addresses on your list can also cause you inbox problems.  Paying attention to your list’s health on an ongoing basis is just common sense.  Re-activating inactives, or deleting them from your database, should be something you do regularly.

Remember this: your subscriber database is an extremely valuable asset and you don’t want to do anything to reduce its value.

How do you see email marketing evolving?

Marketers have long understood the idea that the key to real success is to give consumers the opportunity to buy something that up to that point, they didn’t even know they needed/wanted it. Think Sony Walkman.

As predictive engines become more sophisticated, I see email marketing becoming an even bigger source of revenue to brands and retailers than it is now. The increased ability to get you to make a spontaneous purchase will make email marketing even more effective as a marketing tool.

email service provider

“Never waste a person’s time”

A brand email you always open: CVS Extracare

Most powerful tactic to grow your email list: Give people a good reason why they should want to receive email from you. Two examples – I like coupons from CVS, and I like knowing about upcoming shows at my local venue.

No. 1 email deliverability tip you can give us: Never add someone to your email database that you aren’t certain wants to be there.

Best way to boost your open rates: Never waste a person’s time. If your previous email was a waste of time, why would someone open your next one?

An email marketing practice to stay away from: Acquiring new email subscribers using co-registration.

What you most love about email marketing: The people I meet in the industry.  Smart, creative and fun.


You can learn more about Chris Marriott by visiting Marketing Democracy and connecting with him on LinkedIn.