In my writings over the years, and in my book List Building for Bloggers, I’ve emphasized permission and relevance above all else for success with your email marketing and subscriber growth efforts. The reason for this is that with permission and relevance you get better deliverability “ your email is much more likely to make it to the inbox, and much less likely to be flagged as spam.
Getting the mail through is job #1 for your blog’s email service provider (ESP). So if you’re considering changing your ESP, I’m going to offer some tips on choosing between running your mailing yourself, and / or whether / when you should use an outsourced service. Deliverability is key. If the mail can’t get through, you’ve failed. How you choose to send your mailings directly affects your deliverability.
For the purposes of this chapter, the DIY option includes any software or service that you run on your own servers, since that means that any email you send goes through your mail servers, and that’s a critical for deliverability.
The Difference is Planning
Minimize list management technology changes
One of the things that can really mess up a mailing list and your success with email marketing is changing how you run that mailing. Every time you transfer subscribers from one app or service to another, you risk losing some of them according to the provider’s import policies. You may experience significant delays if your new technology requires subscribes to resubscribe (FeedBlitz doesn’t), or if your new provider requires your list to be vetted before mailing can begin (again, FeedBlitz typically won’t make you wait).
So, in a perfect world, you need to minimize the number of times you change list management systems for the life of your blog. It’s much less hassle all around.
What this implies, then, is that you need to think about where your list is now, how large you expect it to become and how quickly, because list size is a significant limiting factor on DIY implementations. I’ll get to this later.
Understanding the true cost of “free”
Free is a compelling price point, no doubt about that, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have many subscribers (yet). But free usually comes with extensive limitations: No support, limited features and no subscriber import (FeedBurner). No phone support (some services). Volume and subscriber count limitations (fairly close to bait and switch, in other words). Deliverability nightmares from the bargain basement.
For apps that are free and limit your feature choices, you need to think about how much you intend to use your list in the future.
For apps that are free but have no “ or restricted “ support, do you have the time to dig into issues with ISPs, blacklists and logs to resolve deliverability problems? Do you have the time to figure out why an email did or didn’t go out, or why it looked that way?
Because in the real world, time is money.
How much though? Consider: how much do you / would you charge for your time? If you’re spending time self-supporting your mailing list app, what is that time NOT being spent on (the “opportunity cost” in accounting-speak). Is spending time self-supporting your email app the best use of your time and resources?
Guess what? You can find out.
For the sake of argument, and to keep the math simple, say your nominal hourly rate is $60. If you spend just 5 minutes a day managing your mailing list during the work week, that’s 110 minutes per month on average. So your not being able to have someone else do it for you is costing you $110. Put another way, if your ad revenues are such that every post you write makes you $100 ad revenue a month, and you can write two extra posts in that 110 minutes, you just missed out on $200 of real money.
It gets worse if you’re constructing your newsletter by hand instead of using an email marketing automation solution like FeedBlitz. If you spend an hour a week on your weekly newsletter, in addition to anything else, that’s costing you $240 a month in your time alone, and if that’s four blog posts that could have been written instead, a financial loss of $400 in terms of revenue you didn’t gain. That service (free or otherwise) is costing you $640 a month even when it “only” takes an hour a week of your time.
This is why FeedBlitz exists: automating these tasks practically eliminates these chores, saving you time and, hence, money.
But I digress.
DIY server restrictions
For most bloggers, a DIY solution means sending emails via your ISP’s email servers. Most ISPs and hosting services will strictly limit the number of emails that can be sent per day, because they don’t want their systems to be tagged as spammers (remember that IP sender reputation is the #1 factor for good deliverability and inbox placement). Web host service limits are typically in the 250-1000 emails per day range. If you’re on a shared sever, a web site on the same box might poison your server’s reputation well, too. If you are going to go DIY, if you’re not running on a dedicated host it’s really only a matter of time before you’re blacklisted by the hooligan next door. Don’t let that happen to you.
If you think your list has a chance of growing to be in this range, you’re going to exceed your ISP’s limits quickly; you’ll need to outsource to a dedicated email service anyway. Also bear in mind that self-hosted software will not be able to access ISP complaint and feedback loops, which means you’re going to miss out on both valuable subscriber intelligence and have a higher risk of unwittingly irking the ISPs postmaster function and having your emails sent to junk.
Again, if you do end up with deliverability problems, or a subscriber saying “I didn’t get your email” “ then what? You need to access logs (if they exist), interpret them (if you can) and then figure out a solution. Which is part of the deal if your day job is email marketing, ISP relations and mail server management.
But wait, yours isn’t, is it?
Free server email volume limitations
It’s worth noting that some “free” service solutions are for list sizes under some number, which might seem pretty large and decent to you at first, and which also limit you to the number of emails you can send per month for free. At which point of course, comes the bait and switch: you have to pay.
Is this a good deal for you? For the sake of argument, let’s say the limitation is that your list must be under 500 subscribers and you can send 5,000 emails for month for free. To keep the math simple, say your list size is 400 subscribers, and as a blogger / content marketer you post once a day during the working week, and you’re on a daily schedule.
You hit the volume limit, without any list growth, in the third week. Gotcha! The larger the list, the sooner you hit that limit. So it isn’t really going to be free after all. But now you have to pay up, or go through the hassle of switching again. See how that worked?
Well, perhaps then you can scale back to a weekly mailing? Oh, wait, you can’t, because these services don’t have a weekly automated mailing option (unlike FeedBlitz). Well, OK, so instead you go to a manual mailing “ but now that’s costing you $640 a month (see the calculation further up) in your time / opportunity costs. Worse, your relevance just cratered because mailings are reaching everyone days late. Perhaps you can just write less “ only you’re a content marketer, and that’s a quick way to lose your audience to a competing site.
Does that sound like a win to you? Well, not for you, no. For the service, yes, because you pretty much have to upgrade to keep going.
Of course, every email service or app is different. Broadly, though, you can consider categories of capability that you can use or grow into as your subscriber base expands. I’ve discussed these in earlier posts on growing your lists, including autoresponders and custom fields.
At a high level, this is checkbox stuff. Just remember, even if you’re just starting out in blogging, you want to minimize the number of times you change services. So these questions apply to both “now” and “in the next year or two.”
- Do you / will you want to say “thank you” or run time-based drip marketing or email courses? Then you need autoresponders.
- Do you / will you want to automate the email process completely from your blog, or spend time constructing additional editorial content (Why? Seriously, why?) and manually building your mailings? If you want to spend your time in things you’re good at and creating compelling content, a service must have blog-powered automation.
- Do you / will you want automated mailings from your blog (a la FeedBlitz) but want to offer different schedules for different audiences? Then you need a solution with automation AND schedule flexibility.
- Do you / will you have the time and energy to manage and maintain an email app on your own systems, or do you have more valuable things to do with your time? If the latter, run with a service.
- Do you / will you use video in your blogs? Then a solution that automatically handles embedded video is a requirement.
- Do you / will you need customization, personalization and demographics? Then you’ll need custom fields.
Sooner or later, you’re going to need help. Getting set up, changing a setting, or dealing with an issue. Can you fire off an email, pick up the phone? If not, what other resources are there “ user forums? Paid premium support? Third party services?
Now it may be that not having true support (by which I mean vendor-supplied support) is OK with you, if you’re blogging casually for kicks and not for greenbacks. But the more important the blog becomes to you and your income stream then the more important your list and deliverability becomes. A SNAFU at the wrong time can kill a campaign, event or special offer. Who are you going to call if and when that happens?
The devil (or God, depending on your perspective) is in the details of course. But answering questions like these can help you make the best informed choice you can.
When to DIY
- If your list size is going to remain below your ISP’s volume limits (250-2000) for the foreseeable future;
- AND there are no better ways to spend your time (and money) than to install, manage maintain and self-support the app for the foreseeable future;
- AND you can handle deliverability / IP reputation issues from your server(s);
- AND you don’t care about authentication like SPF / DKIM;
- AND you don’t want the kind of features and capabilities ESPs bring beyind basic mailing.
Only go DIY if your current and future needs match all these criteria. And if anything in that list made you go “huh?” then don’t self-host. It’s that simple.
When to FREE
- If your list size is low enough to qualify for the free service for the foreseeable future;
- AND the feature limitations are not important to you for the foreseeable future;
- AND price is the most significant factor;
- AND the lack of prompt available support is not an issue;
- AND you can trust deliverability.
When to PAY
- If your list will outgrow your ISPs free service limits;
- OR your content marketing will result in many emails sent a month;
- OR you want expert support when you need it;
- OR you want features like multiple lists, advanced scheduling, autoresponders, enhanced branding;
- OR you want to NOT worry about deliverability, subscriber management etc.
In other words, you should plan on paying if ANY of the above criteria match your needs or expectations.
Size May Be, in Fact, Everything – Got a Large List?
For most bloggers concerned about picking a provider, I’ve focused on smaller lists. But there are many bloggers with relatively large lists, by which I mean more than 50,000 email subscribers or so.
Guess what? When you get to be really big, and ought to be an ESP’s super favorite client, some providers (not FeedBlitz) start to limit the amount of email you can send! I think that’s just plain perverse; an ESP (heck, any business) should, if anything, treat its best customers better, not worse, than everyone else, right? So if you’ve got a large list and your candidate ESP asks you to “call them” that’s a real flag on the play. That’s why we at FeedBlitz publish our pricing for lists of any size — and any publisher can mail her list as many times as she wants, provided her metrics don’t indicate abuse. One of our best client mails her nearly 300k subscribers every single day, via her blog, powered by FeedBlitz. We’re delighted by that.
Understanding Pricing Models
There are two basic models used for premium (paid) ESP services. These are:
- Flat fee, usually based on subscriber count;
- Per-mail sent.
Flat Fee Pricing Models
Seems simple, right? Be careful though, and read the fine print. Here’s why:
- Some flat-fee models are for “up to X emails per month” “ there may be per-email overages if you go over the capacity you’ve bought.
- How are subscribers counted? Maximum that month? Average?
- If a subscriber is in multiple lists, how does that affect pricing?
- What is a subscriber anyway? Some services count bounced and unsubscribed addresses towards your total, even though they will never email them again (I am NOT kidding – I think that’s outrageous, but YMMV). If you’re not careful and actively pruning your list you can pay a lot extra for these “dead” readers.
For the record, FeedBlitz’s fees are flat (no overages), based on average (not peak) subscriber count, subscribers are only counted once no matter how many lists they’re in (so a subscriber being on multiple lists doesn’t cost you extra), and we only charge for subscribers we’re trying to mail for you (i.e. bounced, deleted and unsubscribed addresses don’t count towards your fees).
If you don’t email often, or typically mail small segments of your lists, then per-send pricing may be the best fit for you. The downside is that these schemes tend to get much more expensive much more quickly as you increase activity, and so for bloggers and content marketers where mailings are more frequent, these schemes may not be a good choice.
What can also happen is that you don’t mail because you’re trying not to go over your budget, even though you have something important to say to your readership. If you find yourself limiting what you do to reduce overage charges, you should switch to a monthly fee instead.
Per-email also can cost you big time if there’s a great marketing program, or an emergency where you need to send lots of updates over a small time. 10c per address per mailing adds up quickly.
Finally, remember, pricing is per email address that your service sends to. It doesn’t matter at all whether the email even gets through, still less whether the recipient actually opens or interacts with it.
Capacity Constrained Free Programs
Finally, say you start on a free service with 5,000 emails a month at no cost. What happens when you try to send email 5,001? Does your mailing stop? If so, how can you restart it at the correct point when you fire up your credit card? How do you know? Do you have a card on file they can bill? Food for thought if you start with the free option and then your activity or list size picks up.
Your Mileage May Vary
Obviously, what works for you depends on your current and expected needs in terms of email marketing, and how that fits into your overall content marketing / blogging / social media efforts. My goal with this chapter is to help you frame the questions you need to answer to find the best fit for you.