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Forrester evaluates e-mail providers

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Choosing the right e-mail service provider can be a bit overwhelming, given that there are more than 50 such companies. Add in the fact that many have similar offerings and you see the conundrum, according to a recent Forrester Research ESP evaluation titled "The Forrester Wave: Email Marketing Service Providers, Q4 2005."

"There are subtle differences," said Shar VanBoskirk, consulting analyst and the author of the study. "Marketers should think about what type of company fits their business best. You want to think about the model-self-service, collaborative, hosted partner, agency. How much hands-on help do you need?"

The good news is that the majority of ESPs scored well overall against Forrester's criteria. Still, there were standouts, VanBoskirk said. The company evaluated ESPs based on a number of weighted criteria, including breadth of offering, functionality, technology platform and professional services. Ratings are also based on each ESP's corporate strategy-how strong its management team and vision are-its product roadmap, vertical strategy and cost. Financial viability, internal resources, customer base and partnerships were less important components.

These rankings come with a caveat, VanBoskirk said. Because they are based on various criteria, you should make sure that your company uses the same criteria when rating an ESP. "The reason our leaders percolated to the top was because they were all much better with dynamic content," she said. "Also, corporate strategy was weighted very high. Those on top scored well because they were consistent-they did what they told us they would do last year. These items may not be as important to every marketer."

Here are some highlights of the study:

The leaders

Responsys: This company has a new corporate strategy and platform. Its interface was overhauled, adding simple controls for adding dynamic content and detailed reporting. "You can change dynamic elements and layout so not only does one person get a unique offering but it's also arranged differently," VanBoskirk said. Ideal users would be enterprise or midmarket users looking for an ASP solution, VanBoskirk said.

Epsilon Interactive: The company (formerly BigFoot Interactive) has the most scalable platform and comprehensive feature set, according to Forrester, facilitating high-volume dynamic campaigns. That said, with so much functionality comes complexity, making this offering a good choice for larger companies with experienced marketers.

Second-tier leaders

Digital Impact: The agency offers a combination of platform and professional services, which makes it a good fit for marketers looking to turn over the reins and outsource day-to-day e-mail campaigns. Companies looking for self-service capabilities should keep looking, VanBoskirk said. "Their interface is not strong because that's not what they do," she said. "They are really more of a full-service agency."

Harte-Hanks Postfuture: This offering, which best suits sophisticated marketers, has one of the easiest dynamic content and transactional functionalities available today. However, Postfuture may still go through some growing pains-it was acquired in December 2004 by marketing giant Harte-Hanks-so be prepared for a possible strategy change, VanBoskirk said.

Strong performers

DoubleClick Email Solutions: The company, one of the largest ESPs, was recently acquired by equity fund Hellman & Friedman. Midmarket marketers should benefit from the company's strengths, VanBoskirk said, including one-touch A/B testing and data formatting templates. Among her concerns, however, were the company's limited multichannel capabilities and a need for better strategic consulting offerings.

CheetahMail: The ESP can deliver dynamic, customized e-mails, according to the report, and campaign management is a bright spot. However, it said, this collaborative ASP's automation capabilities aren't as robust as its competitors, so marketers should expect to tap the company's service offerings as well.

RightNow Technologies: VanBoskirk said this self-service ASP is best in class at multichannel campaign setup and reporting. The company, which offers both hosted and installed e-mail marketing software, is a smart fit for those looking for sales force automation and customer service applications as well, since both are included with the e-mail offering.

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