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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Choosing the Right Email Marketing Service for Your Business

. / Credit: Email Image via Shutterstock

Looking for an email marketing service in 2018? Here's everything you need to know about what an email marketing service is, what it offers, how to choose one and how it differs from an email marketing firm. If you already know what you're looking for, visit our best picks page to see which ones we recommend, as well as a complete list of others that might work for you.

  • Email marketing is an online version of direct mail. Instead of sending fliers and coupons to a customer's home, email marketing sends those same items digitally to a customer's inbox.
  • Businesses can use email marketing in a variety of ways, such as building brand loyalty, finding new customers and encouraging repeat business.
  • Whereas the impact of direct mail can be difficult to track, email marketing lets businesses see exactly who is opening their mail and which messages are leading to sales.
  • Email marketing has the highest return on investment among all popular marketing methods. A recent study from eMarketer revealed that email marketing had a median ROI of 122 percent, compared to just 28 percent for social media marketing and 27 percent for direct mail marketing.
  • With email marketing, you have a choice of an online do-it-yourself service or a full-service agency that does all the work for you. You can read more about the differences between the two below.

What the experts say: "Email marketing is one of the most effective methods of direct communication between a brand and its customers," said Seamas Egan, manager of revenue operations for Campaigner. "It is the leading generator of ROI over any other type of direct marketing and can be used for multiple use cases, including promotions, informational content, social sharing, relationship management and more."

"Email marketing is a marketing tactic that can produce great results by keeping your company or brand in front of your target audience by sending periodic email communications," said Anthony Kirlew, chief marketing officer for Infinion Marketing. "These ongoing digital communications can also grow the 'know, like and trust' factors over time, which can lead to increased customer and sales conversions."

Editor's Note: Looking for information about email marketing services? Use the questionnaire below and our vendor partner will contact you to provide you with the information you need:

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  • Cost is a huge advantage of email marketing over other types of marketing strategies. Unlike direct mail, email marketing doesn't require any printing or postage fees. Using email marketing services typically only costs businesses several pennies to send out an email, as opposed to at least 15 cents per piece of direct mail.
  • With email marketing, businesses can see which emails were received, which ones went to addresses that were no longer active, which ones were opened, which ones were deleted before they were read, and which ones enticed clients to click through to the website and make a purchase.
  • Kirlew said email marketing has an advantage over social media marketing because it has a higher chance of being seen. He said people may check in daily on social media, but they may not scroll back and look at every post that was shared while they were away. On the other side, when you check your email, you see all the messages that were sent while you were away.


  • The main drawback to email marketing is that some consumers may consider the emails to be spam and hold it against a brand's reputation. If customers feel they are being bombarded with unwanted emails from a business, they will be less likely to become new or repeat customers.
  • People receive so much email these days that they may not be inclined to give a brand's email messages much attention.
  • Elizabeth Case, of Yellow Dog Consulting, said one potential negative to email marketing is that it takes time and some creativity to craft engaging messages. She said time and frustration with the technology are the two big reasons she sees client give up on email marketing or hire someone to do it for them.

Businesses can go in a variety of different directions when using email marketing. These are some of the types of messages businesses can send out for email marketing:

  • Newsletters: An easy way to keep customers informed on any business news or upcoming promotions, newsletters are typically sent on a recurring basis, such as every week or month.
  • Promotional campaigns: These emails let customers know about upcoming sales. They can be sent in the days leading up to a sale, as well as during the sale, as a reminder for customers.
  • Invitation emails: This kind of message keeps clients up to date on special events. Invitation emails can be sent weeks or days before an event occurs to encourage a customer to attend.
  • Catalog emails: You can send these to highlight products or services.
  • Lead-nurturing emails: Designed to keep brands at the top of mind for prospective clients, these emails are sent out regularly until a potential customer is converted into a paying customer.
  • Survey emails: You can send these to find out more about customers' needs and wants.
  • Transactional emails: You would send these emails after a purchase is made to confirm the transaction, say thank you and encourage the customer to shop with you again.

Now that you have a better idea of what email marketing entails and how it might benefit your business, the next question you need to answer is if you want to handle the process on your own or hire a dedicated agency to do the work for you.

  • Email marketing is offered as software as a service (SaaS) from a variety of vendors.
  • Email marketing services provide businesses with all the tools to create and execute email marketing campaigns. This includes templates to get started, design tools to develop eye-catching messages, and contact management solutions to collect and store customer email addresses.
  • Once you create a message and decide whom you want it sent to, the service then sends out the emails for you from its own servers.
  • The service features a variety of analytics that monitor what happens with your emails to help determine the success of each campaign and how you can improve your campaigns in the future.

Cost: While some providers have a pay-as-you-go option, the majority offer monthly plans that are typically based on the number of contacts you send emails to. Monthly costs range from $10 to $15 to send emails to 500 contacts to $4,000 to send emails to 1 million contacts. You can see our email marketing services best picks here.

Pros and cons: The largest advantage of these email marketing services is that you can do it all on your own for a relatively low cost. The tools make it easy for those without any HTML or design experience to create and execute a variety of email marketing campaigns. They also give you an assortment of data to determine if the campaign was a success. The downside of these email marketing services is that you are, for the most part, on your own. While most vendors provide technical support options, designing and sending out the campaign in a timely manner falls on your shoulders.

Best for: Small businesses that don't want to spend a ton of money on marketing but have the personnel to complete the work when needed.

  • These are fully staffed marketing agencies that work with you to create an email marketing strategy that best suits your business's needs.
  • The agency's staff then works to create email campaigns that align with your overall strategy. The firm takes care of all the design work and deployment.
  • The agency also handles all contact management needs, which includes building your distribution list and making sure it's always current.

Cost: The cost of these services typically depends on how in-depth your strategy is and how many campaigns you want to run each month. The monthly cost can run anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Pros and cons: The biggest benefit of hiring an email marketing agency is the experience it brings to the table. While email marketing services typically require a trial-by-fire approach to determine what works and what doesn't, email marketing agencies already have that knowledge. They can craft messages with proven records of success. The biggest downside is the cost. These agencies can cost at least 10 times the price of email marketing services.

Best for: Midsized or large businesses that have the money to pay for these firms but don't have the time to take care of it all on their own.

Now that you know the basics, you might be ready to make some decisions. If so, check out our best picks for email marketing services.

Still not sure if email marketing services are right for you? No problem. Here are some questions and answers that may help you come to a decision.

Q. Is it really feasible for someone without any marketing experience to become competent at email marketing?

A. While you might not hit a home run your first time out, email marketing services provide you with everything you need to eventually become successful. The software offers a wide selection of design tools, such as templates and samples, to help you create emails, contact management solutions to help you manage and grow your distribution list, and the analytics to determine if what you're doing is working.

"Most small business owners wear multiple hats within their company, such as founders, marketers, accountants, recruiters and more," Egan said. "Email marketing offers them a way to build brand awareness and foster valuable customer relationships without having to invest significant resources in outside marketing activities."

Q. How do email marketing services help you grow and maintain your contact lists?

A. Email marketing services offer a variety of tools to help you obtain and manage email addresses from your customers. Most software options integrate with your current email address book to get your list started and provide the ability to embed sign-up forms into your website and social media accounts as a way to grow your contacts.

Once you run a campaign, most software solutions have automatic tools that keep your list up to date by removing inactive addresses, as well as those customers who chose to unsubscribe from your emails.

Q. What types of analytics do email marketing services provide?

A. One of the biggest reasons email marketing is so popular with businesses is that you can track its success. The details that are typically provided include which emails are opened, which are immediately deleted, which are forwarded to others and which lead to actual sales.

You can also drill down into the data even more by looking at the days and times emails are being opened, and the types of customers – male, female, old, young, etc. – who engage with your emails most. All of this information helps increase the success of future campaigns.

Q. Can you use email marketing in conjunction with social media?

A. Yes, almost all email marketing services let you take advantage of the social media following you've built. Most of the providers give you the ability to connect your campaigns with your social networks so that your emails automatically post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms. In addition, the services let you collect email addresses for your contact list with pre-built social media sign-up pages.

Kirlew believes social media integration should be a key component of all email marketing strategies.

"The best way is to integrate lead-capture pages within a social media campaign," he said. "This allows marketers to obtain a name and email address to market to parties that showed interest via social media."

You can also get data on whether your email campaigns are resonating on social media by checking which messages are being liked and shared on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter.

Q. What other features does email marketing software offer?

A. Email marketing software provides a wide variety of valuable tools and features, including the following:

  • Segmentation tools: This gives you the ability to send out different emails to different types of customers. For example, a retailer might create a campaign to highlight its new men's and women's clothing line. However, instead of sending the same message to everyone, the retailer can send women emails that feature dresses, blouses and skirts, and men emails that highlight slacks, polo shirts and socks.
  • A/B testing: This tool allows you to test out alternate emails to see which ones are more popular with your customers. Whether it's due to different subject lines, photos or messages, this feature helps you create campaigns that have the best chance to succeed.
  • Inbox preview: Many services let you see exactly how an email looks within various emails clients, such as Outlook or Gmail, as well as on different mobile devices. This allows you to make sure your designs look the same regardless of where they're being viewed.
  • Spam filters: This helps ensure your emails actually make it into your customer's inbox and don't get stuck in a spam folder. This tool examines each email's subject line, links, images, etc. If a certain aspect of an email is causing it to go to spam folders, you will know ahead of time and be able to change it before launching your campaign.
  • Mobility: Most providers offer mobile apps that allow you to create and monitor campaigns all from your smartphone. Some apps also give you the ability to keep tabs on your distribution list.

Q. Does the software integrate with any programs I am already using, such as Salesforce?

A. Yes, most email marketing services integrate with at least some popular business applications. The most common integrations are with Salesforce, WordPress, Shopify and Magento. These integrations save you time and resources by automatically transferring content between your programs and email marketing platform.

In addition, some providers let you tap into their application programming interface (API) to build your own custom integrations.

Q. What if I'm having trouble with the service? What kind of help is available?

A. Whether it happens when you're designing an email, managing your contact list or deciphering the analytics, inevitably there will come a time when you'll need some help, since you're basically handling everything on your own. When those times arise, most service providers give you the ability to speak to or chat online with an expert directly. Rather than sending an email and waiting hours or days to get your questions answered, you can call the service provider or use an online live chat tool to immediately talk through the problems you're experiencing.

Additionally, most providers have an extensive knowledge base of user guides, videos and white papers that provide the ins and outs of the service and how to use each feature.

Q. What should I be looking for in an email marketing service provider?

A. Making sure the software will actually deliver your email is one of the most critical aspects of any service. It's important to take note of a provider's deliverability rate and its process to avoid spam traps, said Jess Knight, a senior communications manager for iContact.

"Sending the best-looking email in the world doesn't matter if it never reaches the inbox," Knight said.

Segmentation and automation are also critical features small businesses should be looking for.

"Based on their specific needs, most small businesses should seek a platform that delivers an easy interface for personalized, one-to-one customer communications, including advanced personalization and segmentation features like A/B split testing, engagement scoring, dynamic content and triggered messaging," Egan said.

Q. What is the difference between traditional email marketing messages and transactional messages?

A. Traditional email marketing is used to communicate with many people at one time. These can be emails that share information about your business, such as news, promotions and special events. You can send these to your entire subscriber list or only segments of your list.

Transactional emails are sent to individual customers after they take certain actions.

"A transactional email is an email that is sent based on a user action such as subscribing to a newsletter or making a purchase where the business uses email to acknowledge that action," Kirlew said.

For example, when a customer makes an online purchase from a business, the confirmation email they receive is considered a transactional email.

Q. What are automation tools and how do they make the email marketing process easier?

A. Automation tools allow businesses to set up recurring emails that automatically send to subscribers based on certain actions they take.

"Marketing automation is 'smart' email marketing," Kirlew said. It allows you to send targeted messages to people based on actions they take, like when a shopper takes a closer look at an item but doesn't buy it, or actions they don't take, like not opening a previous email, Kirlew explained

In these instances, emails are automatically sent to encourage shoppers to take another look at the item they were considering buying or to remind them that they didn't open the previous message you sent.

Case said marketing automation is like putting your email marketing service on autopilot.

"Marketing automation was created so your business is running while you enjoy happy hour, or sleeping, or reading a book or whatever else in life you enjoy doing," Case said.

Q. What advice would you give a small business owner who is just getting started with email marketing?

A. Case said her biggest piece of advice is to just focus on getting started, not being perfect.

"The hardest part is sending that first email," she said.

She added not to worry about having a typo or messing up the font size, because just getting something out there is more important than creating a perfect email campaign.

"Done is better than perfect, and your newsletter is a great way to get your name in your target market’s inbox," Case said. "It can only help you grow your business."

As for specific tips, Kirlew advises small businesses just getting started with email marketing to do the following:

  • Start with a free service. This allows you to get comfortable using email marketing without putting a dent in your budget.
  • Don't use your personal email account to send marketing emails. You don't want to risk breaking any email marketing laws even as a small company, and using an email service will help you comply with anti-spam laws.
  • Don't automatically add everyone you meet to your list. This is a pet peeve for many, and not a great way to endear people to you. Always ask for permission to add people to your email list if they have not subscribed themselves.
  • Create separate email lists for prospects, current customers and former customers. This allows you to send emails that speak to each of these groups uniquely.

Now that you know more about email marketing services, you want to determine which provider is best for you. To narrow down your choices, we encourage you to check out our best picks for various types of businesses, as well as our complete vendor list if those suggestions don't fit your needs. You can find a roundup of our best picks, our reasoning for picking each and our thorough email marketing services provider list on our best picks page.

Want to learn more about email marketing services? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

Editor's Note: Looking for information about email marketing services? Use the questionnaire below and our vendor partner will contact you to provide you with the information you need:

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.