Think you are prepared for an Email Vendor Selection Process? Think Again

When was the last time your company sought an RFP (request for proposal) for an ESP (Email Service Provider)?

3 years ago? 5 years ago? Longer? Even if it’s only been 3 years since you took a look around at your options, you are likely to be woefully unprepared for you next RFP. Why do I write that? Simply put, the last 2 years have seen more changes to the vendor landscape than the previous 8 years combined. Assumptions you might have made 3 (or more) years ago as to which ESPs you should include in your RFP are very likely out-of-date. Don’t take my word for it, ask our clients. In the last 3 RFPs we managed, the winning ESP was one that hadn’t even been on the radar of the client when we were brought on board. And these were major brands with incredibly talented email teams who were engaged with others in the email marketing community. And even they couldn’t keep up with the email marketing vendor landscape.

What’s driving all of this change in the landscape (again)? I say “again” because we’ve been here before. Back in 2003 and 2004, companies known as marketing services providers (MSPs) went on an acquisition tear, with all of the major players buying, what were at the time, the leading ESPs. MSPs provide database marketing solutions. Because email marketing was becoming more and more data-driven, it seemed like a good fit for all these companies to add ESPs and have more things to sell to their data clients. Epsilon acquired Bigfoot Interactive, Acxiom purchased Digital Impact, Experian bought CheetahMail, and InfoUSA acquired Yesmail. There were other acquisitions at the time, but these were the big four. Generally speaking, all of these acquisitions proved successful. And they opened the door for a new group of independent ESPS to emerge, three of whom would be key players in the next big wave of changes.

The next big acquisition event occurred over 2013 and 2014. The leading independent ESPs, who had grown substantially in the wake of the first round of acquisitions, now found themselves the targets. Except this time it wasn’t MSPs doing the buying, rather it was self-styled “marketing clouds”, which were companies that offered a horizontal alignment of a suite of sales, service, and marketing tools. Email deployment seemed to be a natural extension of that vision. During this phase, Adobe acquired Neolane, Salesforce acquired ExactTarget, IBM acquired Silverpop, and Oracle acquired Responsys (and Eloqua).

And thus began the fracturing of the ESP landscape. The MSPs considered themselves service-oriented marketing providers, but the “marketing clouds” thought of themselves as technology companies. Why does that matter? Because tech companies don’t typically provide services to their clients, instead relying on a number of partners to do so. Suddenly there were two distinct categories of ESP—those that offered services and platform, and those that offered platform only (there were some services available, grudgingly offered).

Fast forward to 2020. Email marketing remains the cornerstone of the digital marketing landscape. Marketers are spending more and more money on it, driving investment, innovation and acquisitions, which ends up driving more of all three. And the reason for that is simple—email continues to work better than any other tactic a marketer may use. And with the impending implosion of adtech due to the elimination of third-party cookies, martech, and email in particular, is looking better and better to both marketers and investors. But I digress. Back to topic.

Every other day there’s more news about M&A activity in the email ecosystem. For email marketers, all of this means that those in the market for a new email services provider face far more difficult questions than they did in the past. Questions like who’s got the best platform, or the best services, or the lowest CPM are being replaced by questions like who is going to be distracted by a merger or how is a particular vendor’s business model potentially going to change over time. Understanding the tectonic shifts that have been occurring in the enterprise ESP space over the last couple of years, and continuing through today, is essential before beginning any RFP process. Within the last year alone we’ve seen IBM sell off Silverpop. InfoGroup (formerly InfoUSA) decided to shut down the Yesmail platform and migrate its clients to Adobe (I could write a whole post about how that’s going!). And Epsilon was purchased by a global advertising holding company.

That’s why attending my session at the upcoming 2020 Inbox Expo will be so critical for email marketers. Because sooner or later you will all conduct an RFP. We’ll be looking beyond the individual ESPs to dig deeper into how the marketplace has organized itself into distinct categories of ESPs. Categories so different that picking an ESP from the wrong category can be disastrous for your program. Consider the implications of that—you run a thorough RFP process that includes only ESPs from the wrong category and it won’t matter who wins. You lose. An RFP that doesn’t start with the right list of vendors is an RFP that isn’t ever going to end well. My session will give you essential information to get you off to a good start with any RFP you begin in the next 12 months.

Looking forward to seeing you in London!


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