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Glossary term

Email service providers

Quick definition

Email service providers are technology vendors that offer enterprise-level email marketing.

Key takeaways

 

An email service provider allows brands to run email campaigns at scale.

Small and mid-size businesses will generally need different features and functionality than large enterprises, so each company should choose the best email service provider for their needs.

IP warming, or gradually increasing the volume of sent emails to make sure the company is complying with email best practices, is an essential part of implementing an email service.

Companies can run into problems if they buy subscriber lists instead of allowing users to opt-in, or if they send too many emails or send emails too frequently.


Bridgette Darling is a senior product marketing manager for Adobe Campaign, which is Adobe's B2C email marketing and omnichannel campaign management application. She worked as an Adobe Campaign product manager for four years. Prior to coming to Adobe, she worked as a product analyst and product marketing manager for Experian Data Quality.

Q: What is an email service provider?

A: Email service provider refers to both the platform you use to create and launch an email campaign as well as the services the company provides to help a user successfully send an enterprise email marketing campaign. The term comes from the legacy world of this specific technology category, when email enterprise marketing platforms were very services-heavy. Back then, companies needed a full-service agency to use those platforms for managing deliverability, managing their email messages and campaigns, and executing on them.

Even though these early email providers were technology companies, they were focused on providing white-glove services for the enterprise customer. As the technology category has shifted, the market now looks at email services provider as a catchall for email marketing technology platforms. When we talk about email service providers, we’re not talking about personal Yahoo mail accounts or your Gmail inbox. We're talking about the tools marketers use to send their email marketing programs.

Q: How do the various email service providers differ?

A: Most email service providers allow you to upload and personalize content, as well as upload your subscriber list and deliver emails. That's the basic functionality. There are free and low-cost options like Zoho mail, which often include advanced features you can purchase, like upgraded storage space. There are also larger platforms like Outlook.com that you can subscribe to for a fee.

The technology category ranges from email service providers that are geared toward small and mid-size businesses (SMBs), like Constant Contact for the B2C space, or HubSpot for the B2B space, all the way up through enterprise marketers like Adobe Campaign or Salesforce Marketing Cloud. The features and the functionality of the email service provider might vary based on the market that they're serving.

For small businesses, email service providers want to make their platform easy to use, and usually these providers don’t offer a lot of customization options. They’re geared toward being able to support thousands of small customers with a free email account. On the other hand, enterprise providers are looking to support large enterprise customers that have very particular needs. They might have more customizations available and features that let customers with large-scale business models create, send, and manage their data.

Q: How do companies get started using an email service?

A: The process of setting up an email service changes depending on the company’s needs and the type of email service provider they’re working with. A company using Adobe Campaign or another enterprise-focused provider would probably work with an implementation team to understand the email service’s data schema, personalization attributes, programs, and initiative tools, among other features. Then they would set up campaigns around the available options. They would also work with their service provider to do something called “IP warming,” which is what internet service providers like Google, Yahoo, or Verizon use to understand the delivery processes to end customers.

With IP warming, a company will send emails out in batches. This allows the internet service provider to track how the sender is delivering emails and if they're following best practices. That begins the process of gradually increasing the volume of emails sent. IP warming helps prove that your company is a reputable sender and that the IP is legitimate. Warming up your IPs is a big part of the implementation process. You need to make sure that your IPs are in good shape and that they're not red-flagged for any reason. You do that through a slow increase of scale on those IP addresses. Then, eventually you can execute full-scale campaigns.

Getting started with an email service provider could be as easy as setting up a workflow where you have one email, you upload your list, and then deliver the email to those subscribers. But it could also be very broad and a lot more complicated. It really depends on the size of your company and your overall goals.

Q: What are the main benefits of working with an email service provider?

A: If you're in the enterprise market, working with an email service provider lets you engage with your customers via email, which is the number one channel consumers use to maintain contact with the brands they follow and like, particularly because customers can access email through their mobile devices. Email is also one of the top channels that customers use to respond to offers, next to a search engine. So working with an email service provider helps companies maintain subscriber loyalty and nurture their customers.

And from a technology standpoint, using an enterprise-level service provider like Adobe Campaign lets large companies support their communications at scale. When you start talking about millions of emails, and maybe billions of emails at some point, you need the technology level that can support all of that data and help you actually deliver those emails. At that scale, you can’t just upload your subscriber list to your Gmail account and send an email. It's too much data. Gaining the ability to manage that deliverability, that content, and that customer data is why you would use an email marketing platform or email service provider. Working with an email service provider also gives companies more control over features like spam filters and email storage.

Q: How do email service providers help companies connect email to other marketing strategies?

A: Some providers, including Adobe, have platforms for email marketing technology that also let you execute on all of your other outbound channels like mobile push, SMS, web personalization, and direct mail. You can build a campaign and pull the engagement data from all of those other channels into the data that you use for the subscribers in your email program. When using Adobe Campaign, you can take an omnichannel approach and view a customer who is interacting with emails but not clicking through an email link to make a purchase on your website. You can then bring in your point-of-sale data, tie it back to that profile, and see that that person is actually engaging with emails but then going offline and following through by making their purchases in-store.

Q: What mistakes do companies make with email marketing?

A: One of the main problems is that companies buy subscriber lists instead of only reaching out to customers who have opted into receiving emails. Consumers prefer having a say over what emails come to their inbox and receiving emails they didn’t ask for can hurt their opinion of the brand. Companies sometimes also make the mistake of sending too many emails or sending emails too frequently, to the point where the subscriber stops engaging and starts unsubscribing.

Companies can avoid making these mistakes by managing their engagement and only using best practices for adding customers to their email list. Essentially, this means that the user has come to you and opted into your list. That way you’re only sending solicited emails.

Using email as more than just an avenue to send promotional offers and personalizing campaigns is also a way to avoid running into problems with email marketing. Brands connect more successfully with customers by using content that is very specific to that user and that reflects how they’ve engaged with you or how they've browsed on your website in the past. For example, if you’re a retail brand that serves both men and women, and a customer has only ever bought women’s clothes, you want to make sure you’re not sending them offers for men's clothes.

Q: How have email service providers evolved over time?

A: Recently, companies are relying less on the email service provider to provide all of the technology and services from end to end. More companies are combining the technology with external agencies or bringing more of the responsibilities in-house so that they can more quickly execute on campaigns. This also gives them more autonomy over their campaigns, as well as the data, content, and delivery. Because of this, email service providers are also building in more functionality and features that let companies create, personalize, and deliver email marketing programs at scale, like custom domains and unlimited storage. And email service providers are providing features that let them accelerate the campaign’s time to market.

Because of these changes, companies using email services are now spending less time in operations and more time on strategy. In the past, a lot of the features and functionality within these tools were very cumbersome, and with the turnover that you usually see at junior level roles, companies were spending so much time on just tactical strategy, which is one reason why we haven’t seen the medium advance much.

But now, we’re seeing things like Google Amp for email and other providers that allow for more interactive emails, like having deep-linking functionality with an email. This functionality almost makes the email work as a website, letting the consumer engage with your brand without ever actually leaving the email, whether that's making a purchase, watching a video, clicking a link, or taking a survey. Over time, more advanced functionality will continue to improve user interactions with email and the overall customer experience.

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