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Getting Your E-mail in Their Inboxes

Using e-mail service providers for improved deliverability of messages to external audiences
University Business, Nov 2010

Have you heard the news? E-mail might not be dead yet, but it is going away. That's what Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, announced on June 24, 2010, in a keynote at the Nielsen Consumer 360 conference. This assertion was based on a data point from the Pew Internet and American Life Project's April 2010 "Teens and Mobile Phones" report. Sandberg noted that only 11 percent of teenagers use e-mail daily - while an overwhelming majority don't stop text-ing and "Facebooking" all day long.

Contrary to Sandberg's statement, even though there's no doubt that Facebook has become a fact of life for millions, e-mail is still breathing and very much alive, even for young people. According to the "2010 E-Expectations Report" from Noel-Levitz, based on a survey of 1,005 college-bound high school students, 79 percent reported using e-mail to learn more about schools.

Still, e-mail faces challenging times.

While Facebook, SMS, Twitter, and the likes have absorbed the bulk of exchanges among friends and family members, strained marketing and communication budgets have led to a major increase in commercial and institutional e-mail messages for the past couple of years. My survey of 198 higher ed professionals on the state of print and electronic publications in higher ed, conducted in January 2009, found that 64 percent of institutions had started moving toward replacing print publications with their electronic counterparts (including e-newsletters) for campus news; for newsletters, 55 percent had started doing so. Meanwhile, on the receiving end, more and more suffer from e-mail overload as confirmed by the recent release of Gmail Priority InBox, a filtering technology trying to automatically sift through important e-mail messages.

E-mail is still breathing and alive, even for teens and young adults.

Getting your target audiences to open and read e-mail newsletters might be tougher, but you won't even be able to fight for their attention if your e-mail fails to be delivered to their inboxes.

Spammers have done their job so well, e-mail deliverability has become a nightmare for everybody, including legit publishers. There are plenty of barriers today preventing messages from getting to recipients. In the war against spam, many casualties are permission-based messages such as e-mail updates and newsletters your subscribers really want to get but which end up in spam filters.

It takes time and effort to handle spam complaints and ensure your e-mail server is whitelisted by major ISPs. Outsourcing e-mail delivery looks like the only practical route for reaching external audiences.

When she started working at Dartmouth as a web producer, Karlyn Morissette noticed how much time was spent trying to improve the deliverability ratio of e-mail marketing campaigns. The institution's e-mail servers had been blacklisted by a few major ISPs, so messages weren't reaching recipient inboxes. Morissette's first recommendation was to outsource the delivery process. That action became the first commandment of e-mail marketing she shared in - conference presentations - long before becoming the director of marketing communications at Fire Engine RED, a higher ed software and student search company specializing in e-mail marketing.

Last year, Karen Buck, VP at Zehno Communications, a New Orleans-based communication and marketing firm, helped clients search for an e-mail service provider. Her short list of three different vendors (Campaign Monitor, Fire Engine RED, and Emma) was based on several criteria, including whitelisting and good reputation for deliverability.

For Paul Prewitt, electronic communications coordinator at the Arkansas Alumni Association, deliverability guarantee was an important requirement in the search for an e-mail service provider. The shortlisted e-mail service providers invited to bid on this 2008 contract were asked to prove they were whitelisted. They had to be recognized by major ISPs for not sending spam through their participation to programs (such as what's now known as ReturnPath) and Sender Score certifications. The association's RFP also inquired about the use of unique sending IP addresses. "We ended up selecting eROI," recalls Prewitt. Phone support being included made a big difference.

The association was looking for more than a provider and chose a partner willing to invest time in the business relationship. While the partnership has worked well, Prewitt has kept an eye on the new players in this market (such as MailChimp and Emma) to evaluate their offering against his current e-mail service partner. "It's a partnership, not a marriage, and I want to make sure we get the best out of our e-mail marketing budget," he explains.

At Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the evaluation process was more informal. Dee Boling, director of communications, evaluated MailChimp, Vertical Response, Emma, and Constant Contact against her list of required features before selecting the self-service provider MailChimp.

In this case, again, support was what made the difference. Boling liked that customer service was e-mail-based; she didn't want to deal with having to call for service. "While this doesn't seem to qualify as a 'relationship' [since it takes place online] at first glance, what you are looking for is someplace that feels like home and that seems to think like you do. MailChimp offered that," she adds.

Working at an institution where outsourcing mass e-mail distribution isn't an optionac Whether it's dictated by internal policies, legal considerations or total costs, hybrid solutions do exist.

Up north in Montreal, Concordia University rolled out a new mass e-mail distribution solution in September 2010. All the usual e-mail marketing tools

offered by e-mail service providers were on Concordia's list of requirements, but the key factor was of a totally different nature. The servers had to be in Canada; the university could not upload personal information to U.S.-based servers at the risk of these records being subject to the Patriot Act. That requirement eliminated many well-known players and led the institution to choose an appliance-based option from StrongMail. It includes a server hosted locally but provides the monitoring and support services necessary to maintain a high deliverability ratio.

E-mail deliverability is the most important point to address when selecting an e-mail service provider for your marketing messages or newsletters, but it's obviously not the only one.

At Hamilton College (N.Y.), list control and management was the second most important point. "Our previous product made this very difficult, and we ran into several issues with mailing lists being duplicated, or messages being sent to the wrong constituent list," recalls J.D. Ross, director of new media. Required features were compiled by prioritizing the needs of campus users of the previous bulk e-mail system. Metrics, total customization of the e-mail templates, control over the opt-out process and all branding elements (including removal of any vendor branding) were also on the college's list. The evaluation was performed through web demos with ListServMaestro, Hobsons, BrightWave, and MagnetMail. MagnetMail was finally chosen to distribute monthly newsletters and event notices to alumni, parent, and past parent audiences; fundraising appeals and updates from the Annual Fund; and recruitment messages from admissions.

After shortlisting the e-mail service providers that can guarantee high deliverability and meet requirements in terms of features and support, the final decision might all come down to price structure.

Except for appliance-based solutions, most vendors charge either by the number of e-mail addresses in a database or the number of e-mail messages sent over a certain time period. During the evaluation process, you should also run a few scenarios to find out how many e-mails will be sent and how much you expect your database to grow over time.

Don't forget to consider unexpected added benefits. "We found the cost-per- sent-message to be the best model for us as it also gave us the opportunity to show that e-mail marketing is not free," says Prewitt. At the Arkansas Alumni Association, this has helped better plan communications efforts. It has also led to better budget and quality control by putting an end to the "let's send it via e-mail because it won't cost us anything" mentality.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community at