There are many reasons why SparkPost has become the world’s fastest-growing email delivery service. And we’re certainly proud of the technical and business benefits we deliver for developers and enterprises.

But we know you have options when you’re integrating email into your app or web site. In fact, the number and variety of choices sometimes can seem a little overwhelming. That’s why our team has put together a list of questions you should be asking us—or any email delivery service—to see which is the right fit for your business.

  • Does the service have a robust email API? This one should be a no-brainer, but you might surprised at how limiting some APIs can be, especially when they’ve been bolted onto an older platform. A modern technology stack should be built API-first, which is a key requirement for real-time, data-driven transactional email delivery.
  • Does it supply real-time data and analytics? Savvy senders understand that email metrics go way beyond “sent,” “opened,” and “clicked.” And in today’s world, an email service provider needs to supply that data in real-time. It should also give you access to detailed event history for each message, with the ability to access data via API. And if you’re really looking for data-driven insights, ask about the ability to stream activity with webhooks to as many webhook endpoints as you need.
  • Do they really understand email deliverability? A lot of ESPs consider an email “delivered” even if it ends up in a spam trap. The reality is that a provider with deep expertise, strong technology, and great relationships with global ISPs can help ensure as many emails as possible get to where they count— the inbox. A good email delivery service should be able to tell you their inbox placement rate, how they use technology to automate processing of deliverability signals from ISPs, and what they expect from you as a sender to ensure great email deliverability.
  • Is the service you’re considering a true cloud platform? Implementing an on-premises solution made sense a decade (or longer) ago, but it sure doesn’t today. And even a lot of service providers rely on a traditional data center model that’s become less viable every day. When you’re talking with prospective email delivery services, ask them directly about their platform. Are they built on a cloud native platform like Amazon Web Services (AWS)? Can they tell you about cloud auto-scaling and how it delivers radically better scalability, elasticity, and latency?
  • Does it incorporate security by design in every aspect of its platform? A strong perimeter defense should be a given (but ask anyway). Still, every wall can be breached somehow, somewhere. A modern cloud-based platform can defend the “squishy middle” inside its perimeter defense by incorporating security by design throughout its service, and when a provider compartmentalizes its service, it limits runaway vulnerabilities. Ask for certifications. And really do ask about that squishy middle.
  • Does it provide a meaningful service level agreement (SLA)? If email drives revenue for your business, you should ensure that your email delivery service has your back. That includes SLAs with teeth, burst rate guarantees, publicly available uptime history. Ask any service provider you’re considering to explain if they offer an SLA that covers just a narrow piece of their infrastructure—or if they cover the things that really matter, like end-to-end service and business continuity.
  • Does it offer the level of support you need? Whether you’re looking for great API docs and developer-friendly communities like Slack or dedicated account management by a team you know and trust, the right support can make all the difference to your success. So ask a prospective ESP whether they’ll give you support on your terms. And if a problem arises, will you know who you’re talking to, and will they understand your business?
  • Does it have happy customers? Don’t overlook intangibles like business growth. A track record of success backed by happy customers who are willing to publicly sing its praises is better than any marketing claim. And when you speak to references, be sure to ask what other email delivery services they’ve left in the past. You might notice a pattern that should tell you something.

I hope you’ve found these questions to be a helpful starting point when you’re looking at your options to integrate email delivery into your own app or business process. What do you look for when you’re evaluating options for email delivery? I’d love to hear what qualities matter to you—just leave a comment below.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

P.S. Want to learn more? We’ve made a downloadable guide that builds on these questions to help you choose the right email delivery service. (Pro tip: it’s great for sharing with your colleagues.)

Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of a professor who was lecturing about astronomy and the nature of the universe. While describing how the Earth is a sphere that revolves around the sun, a student interjected, “That’s ridiculous. Everyone knows the earth is a flat plate that sits on the back of a tortoise.” The lecturer asked, “Oh, really? And what is that tortoise standing on?” The student smiled and replied, “It’s turtles all the way down!” (See also: xkcd 1416, “Pixels.”)

Now, look at the technology that supports how we develop and consume nearly every sort of information today. It’s the cloud. The app on your phone? Chances are the bulk of the code and data that supports it live in the cloud, not on your device. The systems your company uses to share information and manage business processes? Probably in the cloud. This very blog post? Yes, it was written using one cloud service and published using another.

So it’s clear why service providers are the backbone of today’s cloud economy. You might even say that it’s services all the way down.

It’s Services All the Way Down

Perhaps that sounds glib, but I mean it quite literally—building a service or app that itself leverages other cloud services is what distinguishes the fastest growing businesses from operations that happen to run their systems in a data center somewhere. Building a true cloud business means leveraging the flexibility, performance, and efficiency that cloud infrastructure provides.

Consider our own business, SparkPost, as an example. We’re a cloud service for email delivery and analytics. In turn, we’ve built our technology on the shoulders of many other pieces of cloud infrastructure, notably Amazon Web Services (AWS), but many other infrastructure and business services as well. That strategic decision has given us a tremendous leg up in terms of scalability, reliability, and costs that allow us to do things our competitors who rely on older data center architectures simply cannot.

Email Is Important to Service Providers. But In-House Email Infrastructure Isn’t

These same economics apply to service providers who build value for their customers on top of core infrastructure like email. Shifting email delivery from in-house infrastructure to the cloud offers compelling benefits to ESPs and other service providers.

To be sure, email is integral to the value service providers deliver. It’s what drives customer engagement and growth, and it’s key to functional capabilities like notifications and workflow. But retaining internal responsibility for email infrastructure and delivery offers service providers little strategic advantage. Instead, operating end-to-end email delivery remains a resource-intensive function, with demanding human and infrastructural costs.

In fact, research from email marketing industry analysts The Relevancy Group shows sending email from on-premises infrastructure costs service providers 25% more than cloud email delivery. In absolute terms, they find that cloud email delivery will save a service provider $100,000 annually for every 1 billion messages sent. That’s meaningful savings. But even better, their research shows that service providers and their customers together realize $3 million in upside annually for every billion messages moved to the cloud, thanks to improved deliverability and performance.

SparkPost Is a Service Provider’s Best Friend

Helping service providers realize benefits like these is why we built SparkPost for Service Providers, a solution specifically designed to meet the demanding requirements of this market. Leading service providers already are achieving growth and strategic benefit from the cloud and SparkPost’s email delivery service. And they’re delivering more for their customers.

We’re pretty proud of our technology, but there’s another reason we’re really excited by the work we do with our service provider customers. Email delivery is what we do. We’re pretty nerdy about it, but happy to say that loud and proud. And we have zero interest in trying to build half-baked marketing applications in the hope of competing with our friends.

I’m impressed by the ways our service provider customers have built on email to do some pretty amazing things for their own customers. They do things for marketers and other professionals that demonstrate precisely why the cloud economy is growing so quickly and with such agility. I can’t wait to see what other service providers will do as well.

Are you a new (or evolving) service provider? I’d love to hear how you think about cloud infrastructure and the role of email in your business. Send me a note or leave a comment below!

Brent

P.S. Want to learn more about why moving email delivery to the cloud is such a big win for service providers? You can download a copy of the Relevancy Group’s research, “The Value of Cloud Email Delivery for Service Providers” for free. And if you’re a cloud service provider who relies on email, you definitely should learn more about our SparkPost for Service Providers solution.

Are you plagued by the paper version of SPAM like I am? Don’t you wish you could hit the “JUNK” button on that stuff as easily as you can with your email? I know I’m not alone in this, because an awesome comic hit my inbox this week:

A Comic by The Oatmeal
This comic was created by The Oatmeal, a talented illustrator and humorist that everyone on the internet should know by now.

Some Other Things I Wish Were More Like Email:

phone-scarysubjectline

Phone Calls

I wish I could see a Subject Line of every phone call I ever got before picking up the phone. That way if I saw something undesirable, I could just ignore the call.

email-filters-wish

Long Meetings At Work

It would be awesome if we could set up filters the same way we can with many modern email programs for our ears! Whenever we get stuck in a long meeting that we only need a small tidbit of information from, we could filter out all the fluff and have the important stuff dropped right in front of us. It would save me tons of time, but I’d miss out on a few power naps.

block-sender-baby

Everyday Social Situations

I would probably go out way more often if I could block sender on obnoxious people at bars, clubs, movie theaters, and anywhere else fun is often spoiled. The world would be a much better place if we could mute all of the people that bring us down.

Email’s Not So Bad

It’s easy to be annoyed with the emails we receive, the programs we use for it, or the barrage we sometimes get when we mistakenly get put on the wrong list. But when I look at other communication methods like these, it reminds that email’s not so bad. And I bet a lot of that is because of great technological strides like DMARC.

So thank you DMARC. Keep up the good work. And please go see what you can do for other moments in my life when I need to communicate with other human beings.

To learn more about DMARC, check out our Webinar:

Don't Deprioritize DMARC webinar

One of the important things I’ve learned in my nine years at Message Systems is that many of the people who work for ESPs and MSPs are very savvy technologists. We’ve been lucky to work with many of the smartest email industry veterans out there, and some have even come to work with us here. When I get a chance to chat with these technologists, I often ask them for a reality check: How much time did they spend in their previous companies developing technology that they now know Message Systems already has in place, and deploys with its core platform?

The answer is typically prefaced by the remark, “We thought Message Systems was too expensive and too complicated,” followed by: “Without the programmable policy engine included in the Momentum platform, everything else we did required development, which meant diverting precious resources away from our ESP core competency.” Indeed, without a programmable policy engine, activities like bounce/FBL processing need to be handled by routing messages to another application server, and it’s up to the operator to develop and maintain the processing systems. This typically means the operator has several developers dedicated to these external applications.

The Ongoing Value of Programmable Policy Engine

When it comes to managing deliverability, competing MTAs have, at best 20%, of the solution provided by Momentum’s Adaptive Delivery® modules.  Some solutions will stop traffic when certain temp fail messages are received, but have no concept of bounce or FBL rates. Without these capabilities, the operator is missing key indicators of potential trouble.  When an elevated FBL complaint rate eventually triggers a block from the receiver, the damage to the sender’s reputation is already done. The operator will spend excessive time and expense resolving the block.

While some solutions stop traffic based on temp fail messages, they do not restart traffic automatically. The operator must do this manually or develop yet another external application to manage traffic.  When you are managing traffic for hundreds or even thousands of senders, this kind of work can become a full-time job for one or more administrators. Message Systems, conversely, provides all the required logic developed by deliverability professionals based on the collective experience of our customer base. As such, our solutions free up resources in two areas: 1) cutting down on core application development, and 2) relieving deliverability specialists of many of the manual tasks required to maintain steady operation on commodity email servers. Taken together, these attributes within Momentum enable operations teams and deliverability teams to now focus on areas like message contentment, engagement strategies and sending best practices.

IP Warm-up is also very challenging: other solutions may provide a limit setting for traffic from a new IP. This single limit is enforced on each domain, and the setting must be adjusted manually for each IP address on a regular basis to ramp up volume. It’s up to the ESP to decide whether to develop yet another app to automate the process and then determine the ramp-up strategy.

Many of the technology decision-makers we work with in the ESP space look to pure performance metrics to guide buying decisions when it comes to messaging infrastructure. Yet simple performance tests are barely adequate to really drive understanding of what can be achieved using a messaging application server solution with programmable policy engine. Lower-priced MTA offerings might be able to provide performance approaching that of the most advanced commercial offerings like Momentum, but ongoing development and operational costs are where you’re going to see value from lower costs year over year into the future. And on that basis, a programmable policy engine is very valuable indeed.

About The Author: Kim Matz is VP of enterprise sales, US East at Message Systems. An experienced technology industry executive, Kim heads up Message Systems’ email services provider practice, working with many of the largest ESPs in North America. Kim writes frequently on issues and trends in the ESP space. 

In this whitepaper, email expert Len Shneyder introduces Message Systems Adaptive Delivery – The first solution of its kind specifically designed to automate the monitoring of bounces and complaints, and adjust connection rates and throughput accordingly. 

Adaptive Delivery Whitepaper

[UPDATE: We’ve had a lot of interest in the on-premise vs outsource debate so we’re updating this post with more information to provide some context on the pros and cons of both camps.]

Whether or not a business decides to go with on-premise infrastructure or outsource to email service providers for managing email streams is a critical long-term choice, and one to which there is no singular answer.  That choice depends on a number of factors, including the size of the business, the volume and frequency of sending, the need for data integration, data privacy, and the need for scalability. While you’ll hear voices on both sides advocate for one solution or another, the reality is that different solutions fit different requirements, and the choice comes down to balancing potential upside with cost and risk.

When looking at the upside comparisons, one might take a look at the findings of a survey published by David Daniels, CEO of The Relevancy Group and former VP / Principal Analyst of Forrester in September 2012. The survey explores the impact of technology deployment on marketing effectiveness.

While results of the survey favor the on-premise camp, there are some instances where outsourcing might work for your business.

The Argument For Outsourcing

Volume

Most businesses really begin enjoying significant cost savings with on-prem when they send 10 million messages a month or more. The 10 million mark isn’t a sharp line, but a decent ballpark figure. If you’re a start-up that is still growing a fledgling database of subscribers with a small email list, then chances are you’ll be pretty far off from the ten million messages a month benchmark. With a small team that is focused on the development of a core business product, start-ups or smaller enterprises might not have the technical resources in-house to really focus, fine-tune and reap the benefits of the on-premise marketing juggernaut of an email infrastructure.  When you move into high-value messaging, transactional messaging, or have complex data integration or stringent delivery SLA requirements, this guideline may well come down.

Creative Services

Running a tight ship and your marketing department is small? You might want to outsource to an email service provider that offers creative services: a one-stop shop for all your needs. Consolidating all production rather than relying on disparate contractors to first design, then code email is a time-saver and definitely a value-add that email service providers can deliver. With email service providers, a core value is not only the technological capability, but the array of creative services that comes in the packaged deal such as consultancy and production.

Business Model

Greater control and insight into the email process through on-prem can provide a boost in terms of deliverability, but perhaps that is not a core concern of your business. There could be a number of reasons why this is the case. Messaging your customer might not be business critical to your revenue stream. You might not have complex data integration needs for crafting your campaigns. Your sending volumes are manageable.

It all boils down to the issue of your business model. If you are heavily dependent on significant volumes of email to keep your business in the black, you should take another careful look at the on-prem option. However, if the upside potential from managing your own messaging in terms of the factors identified in the Daniel’s research does not justify the investment in building a center of excellence, then that is the clearest indicator that an outsource provider is right for you.

The Argument for On-Prem

The scalability, greater control and better deliverability that on-prem provides are critical factors for businesses that send huge volumes of emails, such as a daily deals site or e-retailers, where service offerings are presented to customers primarily through online channels such as emails. When email becomes a major source of revenue for a business and increasing deliverability just slightly can result in significant financial gains to the company, then it’s time to look at an on-premise infrastructure.

The argument for on-prem hedges mainly on:

  • The pure cost savings that sending in high volumes can present.
  • The control that it provides over data, which you would not be able to obtain immediately, and with ease through an outsource provider.
  • The factors outlined in David Daniels study. The question each business must ask here is if these factors are important enough to justify that spend on messaging infrastructure.

Cost

While outsourcing may be a quick-fix to resolving your issues with email in a start-up, when an organization grows to a certain size and begins pumping out email campaigns at high volume, costs, when working with an email service provider, can quickly escalate. In many businesses, a critical part of the workflow includes event-based mails and transactional notifications that ramp up the messaging volume, and corresponding prices too. In the process of evaluating whether on-prem is right for your business, there is simple math you can do to evaluate whether moving from a CPM-driven model to an owned-infrastructure model has a lower TCO (total cost of ownership). Making the switch to on-prem could lead to significant cost savings in the long run.

Control, Visibility & Integration

The story of on-prem is closely tied to that of the greater control it affords users. If your marketing department is large enough that you have in-house designers and in-house web developers, you’re probably comfortable with producing your own branded look and feel of an email. In fact, you probably want that flexibility to make your own tweaks to the template to better customize and personalize it for recipients. Access to such creative resources in-house severely diminishes a critical part of the value that many ESPs bring to the table.

When weighing your options from a cost perspective, it’s easy to say that on-prem is the way to go, if you flat out have a lower TCO when sending significant volumes. Visibility and integration aspects however, are more subtle, and may add value that makes sense to switch to on-prem, even if it is not a direct cost saving. If you are sending in high volumes, and deliverability is critical to the success of your organization as a whole, you will want immediate visibility into sending data that can help to optimize your campaigns. Additionally, visibility into recipient data will allow you to better understand the value of your customers, and help you improve the targeting and relevance of campaigns to increase the revenue gained per customer. From a technological perspective, it also facilitates the integration into other disparate systems.

It’s not that ESPs can’t provide visibility into your email stream and data – they can. But with an on-prem solution you’re going to have greater control over your email data, and you’ll have immediate access to it. Moreover, the Relevancy Group study we reference in our infographic shows clearly that on-premise marketers are able to leverage and integrate more disparate data than marketers using out-sourced email infrastructure. In other words, they are better able to use information such as customer purchase/transaction histories, web behavior and mobile marketing data to shape and optimize their email programs.

And the answer is…

Each business has differing needs when it comes to email. A general categorization is for businesses to look for an email service provider when sending in smaller volumes or seeking one-stop creative services, and to look towards on-premise when they need more sophisticated features to address the gaps in terms of deliverability and visibility.

If you are interested in finding more about on-premise and whether it is right for your business, we’re happy to do a thorough evaluation and address any questions you might have.

And for those that may not have the luxury of time to drill down to the nitty gritty details of David Daniels white paper, we’ve distilled the salient points into an infographic that summarizes the study results. Just remember that the benefits outlined are mostly experienced once a sender crosses a certain threshold in volume. Enjoy!

OnPrem-v-Outsource_040313

 

There’s been a lot of ink spilled recently regarding data breaches among the email service provider community. Some comments I’ve found to be well-reasoned and constructive while others to be alarmist (even borderline irresponsible) or drilldowns on side issues that don’t really matter much at this point. But what concerns me most are the voices that minimize what’s happening. (more…)