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“Let’s find a better ESP” – the flaw in the grass is always greener thinking in email marketing

“Isn’t it about time we moved from Mailchimp to an enterprise platform like <insert name>? It’s holding us back”

Think your email marketing sucks? Well many do and they will find the easiest person in the room to blame, the ESP. This is especially the case if they are considered an entry level system (or where the person that appointed them is no longer in the business!).

Conventional wisdom in email marketing is that you can’t achieve a fully personalised, automated email programme or even anything half decent without paying a considerable amount of money for a new ESP or Marketing Automation provider.

It makes sense – the more you pay, the better the emails will be right?

Yes and no. Firstly it’s true it becomes more difficult to achieve certain capabilities for certain ESP’s. Typically, something like Mailchimp reaches a point where you struggle to segment or personalise emails to the level you need without additional services on top.

But now the no.

One of our most sophisticated clients has over 100 triggered emails running and runs personalised content to the individual, along with a fairly sophisticated level of segmentation on BAU sends. They actually get people complain when they accidentally have unsubscribed that they are not getting the emails anymore.

The ESP? Mailchimp.

Another client we have worked with invested a significant sum in the hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum for a provider at the top of the tree. It’s true they needed to move because the service levels from the incumbent were awful. Even so they had the beginnings of some sophisticated email campaigns that were delivering amazing benefits to the business.

The outcome? Much of the business was tied down to implementing the new system including several whole development sprints that could have been better placed to spend on their website. In addition, team members struggled to realise any real benefits because they have neither the time or capabilities to take advantage of the platform. They are now running the exact same email programme more than 2 years on from implementation but with added cost.

Should you move platform?

Many marketers which pursue this line of thinking are taking the lazy option of blaming the provider. Unless you have a firm detailed strategy, with a full plan for improving your emails, what often ends up happening is the company spends several months implementing a new provider, spends a lot of additional money on licence and CPM fees and then promptly continues to send out the same stuff as they did before.

The decision to stick or twist, and if twist who to move to should be made up of these key factors

Data & Format

Segmentation & personalisation relies on not just having access to good quality data but being in a useful format for use. Often data is buried in databases or systems requiring development resources to push into the ESP.

But even then, just sending raw transactional data into an ESP doesn’t solve the issue. The segmentation engines of even the largest providers need data transforming to make it easier to segment upon.

Let’s take a really simple example – you have a list of orders against a customer but you want to be able to say ‘send to all who have not ordered in the last 6 months’. Transforming the data to create a ‘last order date’ field would make this easy to segment upon. But it would then be easy in Mailchimp as well as an enterprise grade platform. At enterprise level it’s still possible but the query becomes much more complex and then requires someone with the knowledge and capability of writing that rule, which usually doesn’t exist in the marketing team. And to be clear this is just a basic example, more complicated requirements are possible but still usually need something more involved in highed-end platforms.

So actually, rather than a more advanced segmentation tool the company needs better data transformation so should look either at building those capabilities in house, or adding onto their email platform with a ‘Single Customer View’ or similar solution.

Team skills and resources

As we touch upon in the above point more advanced platforms usually require more advanced capabilities within the marketing team to make use of them.

When plotting out what is needed from a provider the existing skills and available resources within a team are overlooked.

There are some instances where we have actively encouraged clients to remain with Mailchimp simply because they are so comfortable with building emails in their drag and drop editor that moving would make them less productive. They would struggle with getting their emails built and out of the door.

Also are you really sure that the fresh graduate who you have dumped the email marketing with has the knowledge and experience for shaping a one-to-one focussed email programme with layers of automation and personalisation? It’s not just a hands-on capability but the intellectual capacity and level of experience that is required to reach the required standard.

Lack of strategy

Often, we see desired eCRM strategy limited to “We really want to make the emails more targeted and personalised”. That is a vision more than a strategy.

Strategy should be right down to what are the emails we want to send, to who and when, and what specifically is the personalised content.

It’s only when you reach the granularity of deciding what data is used to trigger campaigns and the depth of personalisation you can work out the capabilities for the next ESP (or even if you need a new one).

We always try to work backwards – we start with designing the wireframes of emails we wish to implement, showing exactly what is in the emails, and what data is used to power any personalisation, and what rules are used in segmentation. This really helps get into the detail so when looking at other platforms you can see if their capabilities and processes will work, or will still require workarounds.

Now you can work out the how to achieve that, and evaluate different providers for being able to achieve it, what additional skills within the team you are going to require? And do you need additional services like a single customer view or live email content to support this?

Those which start the other way around find their strategy compromised by future technical constraints because they did not do the deep thinking around their problems first and find they have to make compromises with their strategy to fit the technology limits they have just bought.

Untested strategy

Even then before you go choosing an ESP based upon this strategy have you evaluated that this strategy will work? To do this you might need to run some fairly manual tests of this strategy to see what results you get and find those unknown problems you haven’t realised would exist.

Typically, most CRM strategy will be to get more personalised or targeted. And if this is the case then it could well be a worthwhile exercise to manually create emails for key segments and test their performance. The build of these will throw up problems you haven’t thought of which again all goes towards the specification. The results though give you confidence that your strategy is on track and enable you to quantify its worth.

But it could also highlight ways you have not thought of to implement with your existing platform, saving you the hassle of searching for and implementing the new ESP.


There are hundreds of email platforms to choose from, and each has their own merits. It’s probably fair to say that most marketers are not on the optimum platform for them – but the cost and risk of moving platforms is high and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Before taking the decision to move make sure you have considered:

  • What is the proven strategy we are trying to implement in CRM? Why can our current platform do this?
  • Do we have the internal skills and resources to make use of other platforms?
  • What data model best suits our business?
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