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Choosing Bulk Email Software

By Sue Fidler

Rather than send bulk emails from Outlook or other desktop email systems, charities should be using specialist tools. This article outlines the options available, features to look for, and gives an overview of the most commonly used tools in the sector.

Bulk email tools are now in use by many charities for sending email newsletters and marketing communications. The ‘email sending’ part of the technology is simple and easily created, which means almost any technology company can do it. What comes before and after the sending – i.e. the tools to create, manage and report on the email, differ widely and these are the areas which differentiate the systems on the market.

Types of bulk email software

There are two key types of bulk email software:

  • ASP (Application Service Provider) systems where the software sits on the provider's server and is sent from their system. You need no software or technical knowledge to start using the system. Upgrades are managed by the vendor. These tools are provided by Email Service Providers (ESPs).        
  • Email delivery management systems which you download onto either your web server or an internet enabled server, install and run in-house and the emails are sent from your IP address. System upgrades will need to be downloaded and installed.

To choose which of these types of system to use you should consider the following:

Email Service Providers Vs Email Delivery Management Services
Email Service Provider (ESP)Email Delivery Management
Set Up Costs

£50-£500

None (installation if required)

Ongoing Costs

.01p-10p per email by volume

None other than bandwidth

Hardware

None

Web server

Software

None

Compatible server software

Technical Skills

None

Installation / configuration / upgrade

Data Held On

ESP Server

Your server

Security

ESP

You

Sent From *

ESP's IP Address

Your IP address

Spam * Black Listing

ESP

You

*Spam.  Email systems such as Outlook, Hotmail, Gmail (etc.) recognise the source of the email by the IP address of the broadcasting server. With an email management system on your server you will be responsible for ensuring you are not blacklisted as a spammer. With ASP systems the service provider is responsible.

Choosing the software

Whether you choose ASP or in-house email management software there are a series of basic tools which can be compared, and should be considered when choosing a system:

  • Address Book Management: Bulk email systems should offer multiple address books so that you can segment your audiences – or a way of easily selecting the attributes you want for each mailing. It should be easy to import and export both the contact details and history of each name. Many systems also allow you to hold additional data fields (although the number may be limited) which can be useful for capturing information such as organisation name or for holding a database reference number.
  • Sign up form: The system should provide you with a sign up form for your website and if it allows multiple address books then it should allow a sign up form for each one. You should be able to personalise the sign up form to include as little or as much data capture as you want (subject to the number of data fields available). Some systems allow you to have a drop down list in the sign up which makes data management easier.
  • Sign Up response: The system should allow you to write a reply email which is sent when somebody subscribes on the website form. You should be able to set a sign up response for each address book.
  • Personalisation: You should be able to capture the name and details of sign ups (with separate fist and last name fields) and then use those details to personalize the email with both Dear ‘firstname’ and with fields in the body of the email. Good systems also allow you to set a default alternative for each field so that if the data is missing the field isn’t left blank, for example rather than Dear (blank) the system would send to “Dear Supporter” where Supporter has been set as a default.
  • Template management: HTML emails can be complex and should be well designed. The system should allow you to build a template for each email you plan to send and hold the template for reuse.  If you are having an email designed for you can you import it?
  • Email editor: Systems should either come with, or allow you to integrate, an email editor known as a WYSIWYG editor. These should contain basic standard editing options for formatting and controlling the content of your email as well as options for managing images and links. In some systems the email is built using an external tool such as Dreamweaver and imported into the email system. You need to consider the skills and training requirements of the users before taking this option.
  • Actions: Many systems have pre-built actions for you to insert into your email. These include “unsubscribe”, “forward”, “can’t read”, and “add to safe list”.
  • HTML and Text emails: Although more than 80% of users in the UK can now receive HTML emails that still leaves 20% of your audience who can’t and a few who chose not to. Bulk emails should always be offered in HTML and text formats. Systems should offer 2-part send, where the system works out what the recipients email client/application can read and only delivers this.
  • Test sending/previewing: Systems should offer a simple preview pane and the option to test send the email to multiple addresses.
  • Sending: When the email is ready the system should allow you to easy chose which segment or address book to send to. Some systems allow you to present a delivery time.
  • Reporting: Good reporting tools allow you to see how many emails were sent, who opened it, who clicked on what, how many forwards, bounces and unsubscribes happened.
  • Bounce Management: Hard bounces (emails which failed to find the recipient) and soft bounces (received but not delivered – i.e. recipients inbox full) should be recognised and listed. Good systems allow you to set a number of delivery tries for each which prevents you being seen as a spammer.
  • Unsubscribe management: This is critical. The system should prompt you to add an “unsubscribe” to every email and may offer an “unsubscribe/change you details” form for your website. Best practice is for the system to automatically block any user who unsubscribes so that they cannot accidentally be sent another email. Check whether the system blocks unsubscribes against newly imported lists.
  • Usability: Although this isn’t a technical specification it is essential that you chose a system that you find easy to use. Bear in mind that you may want to devolve emails to other departments and need to consider their skill and technical ability.

In addition to these basic tools, which should be standard, some more advanced systems offer advanced tools:

  • Segmentation: Allowing you to sort and segment emails by their actions i.e. those who opened or clicked on the email, those who forwarded it or took other online actions.
  • Personalisation: Allowing you to set criteria for swapping in sentences and paragraphs as is done on direct mail.
  • Database integration: Very few of the standard email systems offer database integration, although a few are beginning to offer API’s which can write to your database. This is more because of the proliferation of database systems than any technical issue. If you have a web-capable database, the ESP can write a sign up form which sends to both email and database systems, and may be able to post reports to the database. Some advanced systems give access to coding which can be used for integration if you have the skills. Many ESPs can create an integration package but at a cost which may outweigh the benefit.

The final issue to consider is of course the proprietary software Vs open source software issue. There are good and bad systems in both. Part of the decision may depend on compatibility with your existing hardware and software systems and familiarity (with the language/software).

Costs, upgrades, training and support

Email management systems

For proprietary systems, there is usually a cost to acquire the software and there may also be support costs.

Open Source email management systems which are downloaded onto your web server are free to acquire, although you may need to pay somebody to set up and install the software for you.

These systems send emails from your server so there is no direct ‘per send’ cost although sending bulk emails may increase your hosting and bandwidth costs. Upgrades will need to be downloaded and installed on the server. Training may be available via a demo or documentation. For open source products, support is normally offered by the open source community who use the tool.

ASP Systems

ASP systems are provided by an ESP vendor who provides the hosting, upgrades, support and who broadcasts the emails. They normally charge a set up fee and a cost per email. The set up fee may also include creating templates, training and importing data for you. Most commercial ESPs offer a pay per send cost structure, many charity vendors offer a banded cost structure to minimise admin and enable charities to plan their budget.

As with most Internet based tools the price decreases as the volume increases. The sliding scale ranges from 10p per email for very small quantities sent per month (i.e. less than 100) up to a fraction of 1p for mass sends. While 10p per email may seem expensive it is low compared to print and postage, and as your email list increases you cost per email will decrease.

Checking out a ESP Vendor

It is worth establishing how long the vendor has been in operation, the size of the company, the level of support available, and number of clients. Many of the systems available are being resold by agencies rather than the original development company. There is nothing wrong with this – the agency may have specialist charity knowledge and a charity pricing policy, but make sure that you can swap to the original company if the reseller stops trading.

Perhaps the most important questions for the vendor are their commitment to the Data Protection Act (DPA) and to Best Practice. Ask if the vendor is registered with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) as a Registered Data Controller – this is a legal requirement. Check whether they are a member of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) which is the leading body on self regulation and whose Email Marketing Council produces the best practice guidelines in Email Marketing. While the latter isn’t a legal necessity it shows a commitment to best practice and if they aren’t a member, check they at least aware of the best practice guidelines.

Also worth considering is whether the software is hosted in the UK or US. While some companies argue that this makes no difference, there are 3 issues which need to be considered.

  • Non EU companies do not need to become Registered Data Controllers or conform to the DPA. Can you ascertain whether their data management practices will put you in breach?
  • If you use a US (or other non EU) company their email servers are likely to be hosted outside the EU. It is illegal to transfer or hold EU data outside of the EU unless there is a specific national agreement in place. Are the vendor registered as part of the Safe Harbour Agreement?
  • Most spam is generated from IP addresses in the US. Many people in the industry believe that US hosting is more likely to cause your emails to be seen as spam. Of course US vendors disagree and there is no definitive answer, but it should be taken into account.

Bulk Email Software Survey

In a (unscientific) survey of charities during June 2021, several ESP systems and two email management systems were in use. This is not a comprehensive listing but anecdotal dependant on the response of users. Survey results are briefly summarised below and a more detailed comparison chart also available (PDF document, requires Adobe Reader.  If you don't already have this, download it free from Adobe).

ASP systems:

The most used ASP system is dotMailer, provided to charities by CharityeMail and Charities Technology Trust. This system received consistently excellent rating, easy to use, requiring little technical skills and cheap price band costing. All tools are available and it has excellent reporting.

Email Management Tools:

The two email management tools in use were phplist and Mailman:

Phplist

phplist, available from Tincan is a one-way email announcement delivery system. Reportedly easy to use, requiring little technical skill, and a low fixed cost. Of the replies received there was wide disagreement over which actions and tools were available which suggests a training issue. However, research on the system shows that most tools are available. Reporting was rated OK.

Mailman

Mailman, available from Greennet provides email discussion and e-newsletter list management. Reportedly easy to use, requiring little technical skills and low fixed cost. Does not have template manager or allow personalisation. Otherwise most tools are available and reporting rated OK.

Which bulk email software do you use?

If you use one of the above systems or another not mentioned please let us know. Please use the comments feature below to add a comment to the article so that we can keep it up to date. If you would like to add a system to the comparison charts please complete the questionnaire at www.suefidler.com/email_questionnaire so that we will have comparable information.


About the author

Sue Fidler
Consultant, Sue Fidler Ltd www.suefidler.com

Glossary

Adobe Reader, API, Database, Email Client, Email List, Hardware, Hosting, HTML, Internet, IP Address, Open Source Software, PDF, Proprietary software, Software, Spam, UPS, Web Server, Website, WWW, WYSIWYG

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Published: 9th August 2021

Copyright © 2021 Sue Fidler

User comments and discussion

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Paul_Allen_ICT
21st August 2021Some web hosts provide a bulk mail facility as part of hosting packages.

For example 1 and 1 have a bulk utility built into their hosting packages. It is very cheap, offered on their ‘Home’ package at under £5 a month, http://1and1.co.uk

I have worked with six small groups to use this easily and cheaply.

Paul Allen
LASA

PaulEvans
13th May 2021A list of possible providers of ASP email tools would be very useful here?

MightyMike
18th May 2021I have recently used a A bulk emailer called MPZ Mail http://www.mpzmail.com/ for my email campaigns and it seems to do everything I need it to. The only thing I wonder is that it costs about £1 for every 1000 emails sent, are there any cheaper alternatives?

abamaison
19th May 2021Paul there's a list of some providers in the comparison chart pdf in this article http://www.ictknowledgebase.org.uk/fileadmin/ICT/
pdf/Bulk_email_software_comparison_chart.pdf

JasonKing
5th June 2021My preference is for MailChimp, which is relatively inexpenisve and has not for profit discounts. It's a great online application and I've used it to run several nonprofit email campaigns, very happy with it.