Every time I hear such a question the hair on the back of my neck stands up….

There are over 100 ESPs on the market today.  When asking such a broad question you are likely to get a bevy of “I like this” or “I like that” answers without any reference to the level of expertise or experience of the person liking ESP “X” or “Y”, or if they’ve ever used an ESP other than the one that they recommend.  Is the “best” ESP for Betty Crocker the “best” ESP for Paulies Poodle Play Pen@f4

Everybody and their dad’s dog will have an opinion on ESPs.  Point of reference of the person that you’re asking should be important.  You don’t know if the person recommending Email-R-Us has ever used or seen another ESP since their promotion from call center rep to in-house email-guru six short months ago.  Likewise, someone never touching an email tool will have a different opinion of the person who actually uses it.

While I, too, have my personal favorites, I always recommend to my clients that they develop their contact strategy and tactics first, then select an ESP that will exceed their current needs so that it can scale to meet future initiatives.  Are you or do you plan on collecting and leveraging customer and prospect demographic/geographic and life-stage/life-style data?  Behavioral and past purchase data?  Do you plan to leverage this data in your messaging?  Have you thought about how?

As I usually deal with enterprise organizations I tend to lean toward ESPs that support relational data tables.  I also look to commercial MTAs over proprietary.  A relational backend is useless unless you have access to those tables through the UI – otherwise your marketers are standing line waiting for your tech department to do anything else.

Shop ESPs by functionality, ability, and scalability, not by price or the number of reviews written about it – it’s all relative.  An ESP might have a low CPM, but is operationally inefficient.  The money you save on CPM will be more than made up in operational costs and lost opportunities with a clunky-to-use ESP.  The more advanced an ESP the more time that you’ll spend marketing and less time programming the tool.  Productivity impacts ROI.  And let’s face it, the number of reviews written about an ESP has absolutely no bearing on its ability to support your business needs.

From there it all comes down to volume.  If you’re a large volume house, then the ESP market is your oyster and you can get great rates from the most advanced ESPs.  If you’re a low volume house your options are more limited.  Don’t let that scare you.  There are some respectable ESPs that don’t have volume thresholds, that run on commercial MTAs, that are relational with access to data tables, that will accept smaller volume users, and that are scalable both operationally and financially.

Spend some time learning the ins and outs of the different ESPs, and then download my “Email Vendor Feature Comparison Template” and start filling in the blanks.  Mousing over comment fields will give you a deeper look at what the listed function is, does, and how it may be applied.  Since this evaluation grid was developed for enterprise users, not everyone will find all of the functions neccessary for their organization – what you don’t need, don’t use.

After you’ve done all of this – strategic plan, tactical plan, learned about the different ESPs, evaluated your current volume and future growth – then you can start thinking about an RFP.  After all, then you’ll actually have something to base your Request for Proposal on other than “What is the best ESP?” or “How much is your ESP?”