When to upgrade your email service provider

Battleship vs. Fleet: When to Upgrade Your Email Platform

A friend recently called asking for some advice about her client’s current email marketing platform. She felt that the current toolset does an adequate job, but the need to upgrade may be fast approaching.
The question: At what point do you know it’s time to transfer email marketing operations to a more advanced, robust email service provider (ESP)?
My answer: Maybe never.

Before we get into the particulars of why or why not to move on up to an advanced email marketing suite, let’s first distinguish a CRM from an ESP.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Tools – These platforms provide a foundation for contact or customer records management. Information about customers are stored, segmented, and updated based on ongoing interactions with individual customers. CRM tools typically include email marketing capabilities among other content, marketing, sales, and measurement operations.
Examples include Salesforce, Hubspot, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, ZOHO, several variations of Oracle CRM, and so on.

Email Service Providers (ESP) – Simply put, email marketing tools enable users to create, deliver, and measure email marketing campaigns. While contacts can be stored and segmented within email lists, ESPs do not offer the same kinds of data manipulation functionality as your typical CRM. However, several ESPs offer integrations to connect data about customer email behaviors with other tools related to content management, analytics, marketing surveys, ecommerce, social media, etc.
Examples include MailChimp, AWeber, Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact, Emma, Vertical Response, and so on.

When we talk about “upgrading”, we most often refer to migrating from an ESP solution to a full-fledged CRM platform. Given the definitions above and your company’s objectives and unique processes not withstanding, transitioning from a tool like MailChimp to Campaign Monitor might be considered a lateral move. More on that later.

Note: This post really is not about what CRM tool or ESP to choose/use. They all have merit and some are better than others for your unique situation and marketing communications requirements. Here I plan to explore whether moving from an ESP to a CRM is really worth all the effort. Considerations are discussed. Pros and cons are offered.

Does (List) Size Really Matter?

One of the first considerations many give to making the “ESP or CRM” decision revolves around the size of the customer list. Typically smaller lists in the hundreds or thousands only warrant a simple ESP solution. Customer records numbered in the hundreds of thousands might require something more robust. List size is one component to the decision process for sure, but it’s really not all that important when deciding to upgrade.

The key issue when deciding to migrate to an all-in-one CRM solution is not the sheer volume of data, but rather how that data needs to be utilized and manipulated. If your customer record volume is over 100,000 and you simply need a method to deliver marketing communications, an ESP will do the job. If you are seeking to develop a program that delivers customized messages based on website behavior, phone conversations with your sales team, and in-store visits, your requirements likely call for a tool with more heft. Before moving away from your ESP, take a realistic look at what you can do with your data if given the features and functionality CRM tools afford.

Integrations Almost Make “Upgrading” Moot

Over the past few years, the creation and development email marketing software has become a commoditized business. Comparing ESPs is almost like choosing between midsize sedans – at first glance, they all look the same. Most every respectable email delivery system includes the following features:

  • Contact Capture Forms – the ability to create forms that live on your website and feed your list
  • WYSIWYG Editors & Pre-Fabricated Templates – email design tools that enable almost anyone to create a pretty email
  • Transactional Email / Automation – often called “nurture series” or “drip campaigns” that feed relevant information to select group of subscribers according to a set of conditions
  • Testing – methods to A/B split an audience to improve email performance over time
  • Personalization – deliver emails that are modified based on an individual subscribers contact information, interests and preferences
  • Integration API – a means to connect data from the ESP with other reputable tools

It’s that last feature that makes the migration process to a CRM tool nearly pointless. Just take a look at the integration libraries from MailChimp and Campaign Monitor. Try and find a legitimate digital marketing operation that cannot synchronize customer data with one of these ESPs. Nearly everything is covered: analytics tools, content management platforms, SMS services, CRM and contact management tools, ecommerce providers, event management systems, customer service tracking tools, social media venues, and on and on. Plus, tools like Zapier make non-existent or unestablished connections between two tools a reality.

With the volume and variety of possible connections available, small to medium-sized businesses can choose to spend time rather than money to make all their disparate marketing processes play nice together.

The Real Question: Battleship vs. Fleet?

Without analyzing cost implications of the various CRM and ESP options in great depth, the most important factor to determining how to accomplish your digital marketing objectives with the tools available on the market is your company’s tolerance for juggling.

Would you prefer to rely on one singular toolset for the vast majority of your customer communications and record keeping needs (aka The Battleship), or can you manage a Fleet of tools and platforms all designed to complete a specific tactic (e.g. email, contact management, ecommerce, customer service, content publishing, etc.)? The CRM option provides a single source with which your team can familiarize itself. Using an ESP and several integrations to accomplish myriad marketing tasks is more of a juggling act. A list of advantages to each approach follows.

Advantages to Upgrading to a CRM

  • Consolidate all contact records and electronic communications within a single suite
  • Less concern about faulty integrations or losing connections between two services
  • Ability to hire resources solely dedicated to a single toolset, as opposed to one or more people managing several platforms

Advantages to Standing Pat with Your ESP

  • Keep familiar systems in play, and accomplish all required customer data transfer operations with integrations
  • Avoid training and onboarding time associated with migrating to a larger CRM system
  • Diversify communications and contact management platforms to hedge against failure of a single system to operate or simply survive

One last note on cost implications:
The CRM approach is typically more costly with one-time program setup costs, training/onboarding expenses, and multi-seat licenses.The ESP+Integrations approach likely will not impact the budget as much as it will require precious resources on the time clock.

Above all, know that no marketing communications program can flourish without care and effort to customize the solution to your specific needs. CRM and ESP configurations are as unique as the companies that produce them. Set aside time and resources to enable the tools to work for you, and not the other way around.