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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Choosing the Right Email Marketing Service for Your Business

Email marketing service buying guide
Credit: Unuchko Veronika/Shutterstock

Email marketing services are designed to help businesses grow their customer bases and market their services and products. The best email marketing services make it easy to create professional-looking emails, seamless workflows and up-to-date contact lists.

If you're looking for an email marketing service, this guide has everything you need to know, including what email marketing services offer, how to choose one and how they differ from email marketing firms. If you already know what you're looking for, our best picks page to see which ones we recommend and a complete list of vendors.

Editor's note: Looking for an email marketing service? Fill out the questionnaire below to be connected with vendors that can help.

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  • Email marketing is an online version of direct mail. However, instead of sending fliers and coupons to a customer's home, an email marketing program sends those same items digitally to a customer's inbox.
  • Businesses can use email marketing in a variety of ways, such as to build brand loyalty, find new customers and encourage 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.
  • With email marketing, you have a choice of an online DIY service or a full-service agency that does all the work for you. You can read more about the differences between the two below.
  • Cost is a huge advantage of email marketing versus 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 pennies to send an email, as opposed to at least 15 cents per piece for direct mail.
  • With email marketing, business owners can see which email was received, which ones went to disabled email addresses, which were opened, which were deleted right away, and which ones enticed clients to click through to the website.
  • Email marketing also has an advantage over social media because it's more likely to be seen. Emails go directly to someone's inbox, while users have to scroll through timelines to see social posts.
  • E-commerce websites greatly benefit from email campaigns. These campaigns can encourage users to return to their shopping carts, recommend products and offer discounts.
  • The main drawback to email marketing is that some consumers consider the emails to be spam and may form a negative opinion of your brand. 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 many emails that they may not be inclined to give a brand's email messages attention.
  • It can take a lot of time to create email marketing campaigns and deal with the technology.

There are many ways brands and businesses can use email marketing services. Here are some messages you can send consumers.

  • Newsletters: Newsletters are typically sent on a recurring basis, such as every week or month, and are an easy way to keep customers informed about your business.
  • Promotional emails: 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.
  • Invitation emails: This type of message keeps clients up to date on special events. You can send invitation emails weeks or days before an event to encourage customers to attend.
  • Catalog emails: You can send these to highlight your products or services.
  • Lead-nurturing emails: Designed to spark consumers' interest, these emails are sent out regularly until a potential customer is converted into a paying customer.
  • Survey emails: You can send questionnaires to learn more about customers' needs and wants. These are also great for gathering customer feedback.
  • Transactional emails: You would send these emails after a customer makes a purchase 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 available as software as a service (SaaS) from a variety of vendors.
  • These 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 sends out the emails for you from its own servers.
  • The services feature 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.

While some providers have a pay-as-you-go option, most offer monthly plans that are typically based on the number of contacts you send emails to. Monthly costs typically start at $10-$15 to send emails to 500 contacts, going up to $4,000 to send emails to 1 million contacts. You can see our email marketing services best picks, including the best free and low-cost options, here.

The biggest advantage of using an email marketing service 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 is that you are, for the most part, on your own. While most vendors provide technical support options and blogs, 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 lot 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 creates email campaigns that align with your overall strategy. The firm takes care of all the design work and deployment.
  • The email marketing agency's staff is also trained in email marketing and can help with tasks such as A/B split testing, determining which of two subject lines performs better with a sample audience. 
  • The agency handles all contact management tasks, including building and segmenting your contact list.

The cost of using an agency 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.

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 DIY email marketing services.

Best for: Midsize or large businesses that have the money to pay for these firms but don't have the time to manage 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: How do I know if my email marketing campaigns are working?

A: The best email marketing services have extensive reporting and analytics. To determine if your email marketing campaigns are successful, check these features once an email is sent. The reports should indicate how many people received your email, the click-thru rate, bounces, etc.

Q: What is an email marketing strategy?

A: Like all marketing strategies, no two email marketing strategies are the same. An email marketing strategy is designed to help you reach your marketing goals, whether that be improving your brand recognition, increasing sales or keeping your customers up to date.

Once you identify your email marketing goals, you can create a series of emails and workflows with tools such as automation, email templates and list segmentation.

Q: Why is an effective email marketing strategy so important?

A: Email marketing is one of the most cost-effective ways to market your products and reach your customers. If done correctly, email marketing campaigns can help you build trust with your customers, encourage users to visit your website, and ultimately result in more sales and satisfied customers.

Q: How much does email marketing cost?

A: Some email marketing services offer a pay-as-you-go option, which means you pay for a bulk number of emails.

Most providers offer monthly plans based on the number of contacts you have. Monthly costs vary greatly. Costs may range from $10-$15 for 500 contacts to $4,000 to send emails to more than 1 million contacts. Some companies offer a free version or free trial.

Q: Is it really feasible for someone without marketing experience to master email marketing?

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

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 start your list. In addition, many provide the ability to embed sign-up forms into your website and social media accounts 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 and customers who 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. Services typically provide details such as who opened your email, who immediately deleted it, who forwarded the email to others, and who bought your product or service.

You can 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 you increase the success of future campaigns.

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

A: Yes, most email marketing services let you take advantage of the social media following you've built. Many providers let you connect your campaigns with your social networks so 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 prebuilt social media sign-up pages.

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 many valuable tools and features, including the following:

  • Segmentation tools: These tools give 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 lines. Instead of sending the same message to everyone, the retailer can send women emails that feature the line's new dresses, blouses and skirts, while men receive an email highlighting new slacks, polo shirts and socks.
  • A/B split testing: This tool allows you to test alternate versions of your email to see which one resonates with customers, whether it's due to different subject lines, photos or messages. This feature helps you create campaigns with the best chance of success.
  • Inbox preview: Many services let you see exactly how an email looks within various email 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 which email client customers are using.
  • Spam filters: This helps your emails actually make it into customers' inboxes instead of getting stuck in spam folders. This tool examines each email's subject line, links, images, etc. If a certain aspect of an email is causing it to go to the spam folder, 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 from your smartphone. Some apps let you monitor your distribution list.

Q: Does the software integrate with any programs I already use, 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 have trouble with the service? What help is available?

A: Whether a problem occurs when you're designing an email, managing your contact list or deciphering the analytics, most service providers offer customer support, either through live chat or a toll-free number. Rather than sending an email and waiting hours or days for an answer, you can reach the service and get help for the problems you're experiencing.

Additionally, most providers have an extensive knowledgebase of user guides, videos, and whitepapers that explain the ins and outs of the service and how to use each feature.

Q: What should I look for in an email marketing service provider?

A: Ensuring that the software actually delivers your email is one of the most critical aspects of any service. You want a service that delivers your emails to your customers' inboxes – not their spam folders. Segmentation and automation are also critical features small businesses should look for.

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 emails can 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. 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, which automatically go out to certain subscribers based on specific actions they take. For example, if you set up a welcome series, a contact will receive a welcome email once they subscribe to your list.

Now that you know more about email marketing services, which provider is right for you? To narrow down your choices, check out our best picks page, which includes the services we chose as the best for different business needs and why we selected them. If those suggestions don't fit your needs, you can browse our complete vendor list.

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

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks.

Editor's note: Looking for an email marketing service? Fill out the questionnaire below to be connected with vendors that can help.

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Saige Driver

Saige received her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Telecommunications from Ball State University. She is the social media strategist for Business.com and Business News Daily. She also writes reviews and articles about social media. She loves reading and her beagle mix, Millie. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.