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Your Email Marketing: DIY or Outsource, Free or Paid?

Friday, April 15, 2011

My goal with this final post in the current List Building for Bloggers series is to help you frame the questions you need to answer to find the best fit for you, in terms of going DIY (Do It Yourself) or using a third party email marketing service; and paying or using a free option. In this article I will discuss:
  • Back to Basics
  • Planning
    • Minimizing list management technology changes
    • Understanding the true cost of "free"
    • DIY server restrictions
    • Understanding free service volume limits
    • Features
    • Support
  • When to DIY
  • When to FREE
  • When to PAY
  • Three Real World Examples
  • Your Mileage May Vary
  • And, Finally...
Full disclosure: Obviously, I run a service and I’m skewed to thinking that’s a good idea. Don't say you weren't warned...

[This is the latest article in the List Building for Bloggers series – Click here to read all the recent #LBB posts]

Back To Basics

Throughout the List Building for Bloggers (LBB) series I’ve been emphasizing permission and relevance above all 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.

I’m emphasizing this point – again – because in this post I’m going to offer some tips on choosing between running your mailing yourself, or whether / when you should use an outsourced service. Deliverability is key. If the mail can’t get through, you’ve failed.

For the purposes of this article, 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 (see this earlier LBB post).

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 (see the section on importing in this LBB post); you may experience significant delays if your new technology requires subscribes to resubscribe (FeedBlitz doesn’t), or if your new provider requires your list ot be vetted before mailing can begin (again, FeedBlitz typically won’t make you wait). Changing email servers and technologies might also require white list changes by your subscribers, further complicating inbox deliverability.

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 when I discuss mailing volume limitations.

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 limitations (fairly close to bait and switch, in other words). Deliverability nightmares. Who needs that?

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. 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 being NOT spent on (the “opportunity cost” in accounting-speak). Is spending time self-supporting the best use of your time and resources?

Let's make it really clear how much free really costs you by attaching some dollar numbers to it.

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 a service 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. Total cost of "free"? $310. 

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 at $60 / hour, and if that’s 4 blog posts that could have been written instead, a financial loss of $400 in terms of revenue you didn’t see. That service (free or otherwise) is costing you $640 a month even when it “only” takes an hour a week of your time.

Yowzers.

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 from earlier posts that IP sender reputation is the #1 factor in good deliverability). That number is usually in the 250-1000 emails per day range.

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 and you’ll need to outsource to a dedicated service anyway.

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 server management.

But wait, yours isn’t, is it?

More on free and volume limitations

It’s also worth noting that some “free” solutions are for list sizes under some number, which might seem pretty large and decent to you at first, and also limit you to the number of emails you can send per month for free. At which point of course, comes the switch, and you have to pay.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the limitation is your list must be under 500 subscribers and you can send 5,000 emails for month for free. To keep the math simple, let's further assume that your list size is 400 subscribers, as an enthusiastic / professional blogger / content marketer you post once a day during the week, and your automated mailings are sent on a daily schedule if there's new content.

In this scenario, you hit the volume limit, without any list growth, in the third week. Gotcha!  The larger the list, the sooner you hit that limit. And now you have to pay. It isn’t really going to be free after all...

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, which does). Well, OK, so instead you go to a manual mailing – but now "free" is costing you $640 a month (see the calculation further up) in your time / opportunity costs, plus your relevance just cratered because mailings are reaching everyone days late.  Or 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. Not an option.

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.

Feature Creature

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 here, here and here, and discussing things like autoresponders here.

At a high level, this is checkbox stuff – and remember, even if you’re just starting out in bogging, 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 is this not on your blog anayway?) 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 segmentation, personalization and demographics? Then you’ll need custom fields.

Support

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? (yuck, see here what I think about companies that abandon their product support to user forums).

Now it may be that not having true support is OK with you, especially 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? Access to knowledgeable support is invaluable when you need it.

The devil (or God, depending on your perspective) is in the details of course. But at least 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 (250-1000) 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).
Only go DIY if your needs match all these criteria.

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 of FREE service limits;
  • OR your content marketing will result in many email sends 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.

Three Real-World Examples

Google’s FeedBurner is a free service for bloggers that does the basic email service well and there are no list size restrictions. So it’s not DIY, and it is FREE. But there is no support, limited branding, no schedule flexibility and no features like Facebook integration, autoresponders or manual mailings. There’s no subscriber import and no subscriber management API. So it's very limited from a feature set perspective, and so an increasingly poor choice as your blog becomes a larger part of your income, marketing and branding strategy.

On the other hand, FeedBlitz is a PAY service (fees start at only $1.49 for very small lists) for bloggers with all the bells and whistles. Read more about us here.

Of the more traditional services serving small business and personal markets, Constant Contact is probably the best known. They’re feature rich, lots of service and oodles of support. But the service comes with higher entry costs, and charges extra for features such as archiving that other services bundle. Crucially for bloggers, all mailings have to be built by hand – they automate delivery, but not production. So you need to understand the extra hidden costs to you in terms of time and money building the mailing (there's that $640 a month again), as well as their service fees. If you’re not a blogger or content marketer, they may well be a great fit for you because you can't automate it - but then why are you reading this? Hmm...

[I haven’t any installed software examples because, honestly, anyone with any list of any size should not, in my opinion, be taking on the time burden, deliverability risk and feature limitations of self-installed email list management software. But you should certainly do your own due diligence if your email marketing goals match the DY criteria above.]

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 final post in the current List Building for Bloggers series is to help you frame the questions you need to answer to find the best fit for you.

Good luck!

And, Finally...

I'm wrapping up this series here - it's been both fun and challenging to write, and I hope that you've manage to get something out of it.

I'm not, however, done with the concept! There will be a full recap post (maybe more than one) to come, and I'm using this series as the basis for conference presentations at Blog World Expo in New York this Spring, and at the Savvy Blogging Summit in Colorado in July. If you're at these events, please stop by and say hello.

Not only that, though. I'll be making a special announcement May 1st about the series that I'm pretty excited about! So stay tuned for that too.

About List Building For Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you're a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

P.S. If you think your friends or followers would find this series valuable, please retweet on Twitter or "Like" on Facebook using the buttons below. Don't forget to use the #LBB hashtag when you do. Thank you! And if you have a comment, contribution or something else to say, please comment too. :-)

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Mary @ LookInYourHouse.com said...

Hey, Phil.

Thanks for this article. It really helps to solidify my decision to be a FeedBlitz customer. ;)

One question, though. Could you address FeedBlitz as compared to Aweber, especially for autoresponding? All of the Internet marketing types are huge Aweber fans, but I'm not sure why. Also, I believe their entry price point is much higher than FeedBlitz. I know they have an affiliate program, so maybe that's why they are so highly recommended?

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks!

1:57 PM, April 16, 2011  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

Hi Mary:

Aweber started out with an autoresponder product which appealed to the "internet marketing types." As time has gone by all the significant services have added autoresponder features; the question then becomes one of looking more closely at the details.

Aweber is also better known than FeedBlitz - we're working on that! - but as far as I know there are no significant differences in each service's email and autoresponder features. Both have multi-step autoresponders, rules and triggers, regular email blasts etc.

Where FeedBlitz and AWeber differe are in three significant areas:

1) Pricing. The AWeber entry point is higher as you point out; but worse AWeber charges for unsubscribed subscribers (yes, you read that right!). You have to permanently delete a subscriber from a list for it to stop counting towards your fee. FeeddBlitz only ever charges for subscribers that are active. If we're not trying to mail them for you, we should not be charging you for them.

2) Automatic email generation from feeds and blogs. Aweber has basic functionality here, like FeedBurner and other services, which allows for a single daily update. They don't have AFAIK blog-generated mailings that are faster than that, nor do they have weekly, monthly or manually generated mailings produced automatically from your blog. One of the big points about growing your subscriber base that I've made is having multiple lists to suit different audiences, and schedule differences is one of the key ways to make this happen. You simply can't do that with AWeber and other email services that only have a daily update cycle.

3) No other email marketing service bar FeedBurner has an RSS service, where you can track RSS subscribers, enhance your feed etc. So while this series has focused on list building for bloggers, there is a lot more to some services (like FeedBLitz) than just email. If you want a single service to manage your online subscriber marketing and tracking, well, that's a big difference.

Hope thos helps!

Thanks

Phil

7:29 AM, April 17, 2011  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

BTW, sonewhat cheekliy, sometimes I position FeedBlitz as "If FeedBurner and AWeber got together and had a baby, it would be FeedBlitz" because we combine the best features of both and are the only online email and marketing automation service to do so.

7:31 AM, April 17, 2011  
Anonymous Mary @ LookInYourHouse.com said...

Thanks so much, Phil. Very helpful! I appreciate your taking the time to offer such an in-depth comment.

8:50 PM, April 22, 2011  

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