How to Change ESP's, Part 2
Email is central to many companies, so transitioning to a new email service provider (ESP) is a large project that will touch many departments at the company. This is Part II of a guide of how to change ESPs, from beginning to end, from the perspective of a brand-side marketer who was heavily involved in managing one ESP change and lightly involved in another.
This guide will be published in two parts. Part I will cover the processes and tasks around deciding to leave your ESP and choosing a new one, and Part II will cover what to do once you’ve chosen your new ESP.
A note on vocabulary – many companies that facilitate sending mass email are now known as marketing automation companies rather than ESPs. I refer to them as ESPs throughout this article because the primary focus is on the email sending capabilities of these companies.
Starting a New Relationship
Congratulations! You’ve now selected your new ESP. Next begins the contract negotiation stage, and it’s also the time when you should tell your current ESP that you’re moving. Negotiating the contract was the part of the transition process that I was involved in least, so I’ll speak to the parts I observed. Make sure you choose a duration for the contract that makes sense for your business. Vendors will give you a break on pricing for the longer duration, but you also don’t want to get locked into a contract for more time than necessary.
I recommend that you purchase onboarding consulting hours and training as well. We had an internal department of five people ready to manage the transition, and even with so much internal bandwidth dedicated to the transition, the onboarding consulting hours were well worth the price. This is also the time when the new ESP will be most responsive to your questions, so it’s helpful to have a team of their people available for questions.
The training is beneficial because even though most of the employees who will be using the new ESP got access to it during the sandbox, it will be helpful to give a refresher, and the information may stick better now that they know this is the final solution. We took a “train the trainers” approach, where senior members of each department attended the official trainings and then led internal training with other departments, rather than having the new ESP train all departments that would be touching the product.
As I mentioned earlier, we included our current ESP in the RFP process, so they knew we were looking at other ESPs as well. They were not one of the final two vendors we sandboxed, but we waited to initiate the break-up until after we were certain one of those finalists was going to work for us. Before you tell your current ESP that you’re moving your business elsewhere, you need to have a rough sketch of what the transition is going to look like – this will help you determine when the contract with your new ESP should start.
Transitioning to Your New ESP
Now that your old ESP knows you’re leaving and you have a signed contract with your new ESP, it’s time to flesh out the details of your transition plan. You will obviously need to have your subscribers in your new ESP before you can send emails to them, so a good place to start for your transition plan is determining the database structure you’ll need to support your subscribers and their data.
Part of this decision is identifying what data you want to move over from your old ESP. You’ll most likely want to bring over all business card demographics and at least some of the behavioral data you have on each subscriber. For behavioral data, at minimum you should bring over some piece(s) of activity data to preserve a historical record of activity, whether it be actual data or just an overarching designation of previous activity level. Remember that you can always export your full activity data from the old ESP and store it for any in-depth one-off access needs.
In addition to database structure, you also need to decide whether you want a shared or dedicated IP address. This could be the subject of another entire blog post, so suffice it to say that if you’re sending a large volume of emails, you should consider your own dedicated IP address. This is also an excellent time to engage your new ESP’s onboarding team to ask for guidance.
With our volume of emails, we decided on two dedicated IP addresses. We send out newsletters in eight different B2B industries, and with the guidance of our ESP onboarding team, we assigned a mix of our more responsive and less responsive industries on each IP address.
Once you’ve decided the type of IP address and how many you’ll need, it’s time to create your IP warming plan. Gradually warming up an IP rather than immediately switching 100% of your email volume to the new ESP is important so you don’t look like a spammer to ISPs.
Your new ESP can help advise you on your particular transition plan, but a good rule of thumb is to send 100,000 emails the first week, and then double that every other week. Make sure you build your transition plan on the volume of email you’ll be sending, not the number of email addresses you’re moving over. You should create a Plan A for IP warming and also a more conservative Plan B that you can switch to if you run into deliverability problems. Having Plan B already set up will be invaluable in the chaos you’ll be dealing with if you do run into deliverability issues. Remember that as you move email addresses from the old ESP to the new ESP, you’ll need to keep track of your unsubscribes in both platforms.
We spread our transition over six weeks and moved 50,000 email records for a send volume of about 100,000 emails a day the first week, added another 65,000 emails the second week, 35,000 the third week, and the remaining 90,000 the fourth week. After that, all of our email subscribers were in the new database, and we started sending our marketing emails through the new ESP in the fifth and sixth weeks.
Ideally, you should move your most engaged people to the new ESP first – having a high engagement rate on your first few emails is a good start to building a positive reputation for your IP addresses. The first batch of people we moved over had opened or clicked at least one of our emails in the previous three months.
I recommend sending an email to your subscribers as you move them into the new ESP to give them a head’s up that you’ll be making some changes behind the scenes. Between sending from a new IP address and potentially a new from name, any whitelisting your subscribers may have done will need to be redone. We told our subscribers to let us know if they stopped receiving their emails, and they definitely did.
We also sent another email to our subscribers after we had been sending from the new ESP for about a month asking if they had been receiving our emails. We got more than 500 responses to this email, and the issues our subscribers were seeing helped us clear up several blocks.
Sending From Your New ESP
Any time a new system is introduced, there’s a chance that human mistakes will happen as each team learns the ins and outs of it, and a new ESP is no exception. People will make mistakes, so plan ahead for them as best you can. Have the shell of an apology email created so you can fill in details and send quickly if you end up needing it.
Expect to see lower engagement levels on your emails once you’re fully transitioned. Remember that your subscribers will need to whitelist your new IP and/or sending domains, so your first emails to them may end up in their spam folders or promotion tabs. Set expectations for your internal stakeholders that this will happen – it will save you from having to explain again and again that the dip in performance should be temporary and the new ESP is just as good – better, even – than the old ESP.
Inbox monitoring tools like 250ok or Return Path can also help you diagnose any lingering problems. You can use the information you glean from these tools to have your ESP help you in whitelisting efforts anywhere you may be blocked.
Finally, it’s important to remember the amount of work the teams responsible for the transition will be putting into the project. It will be stressful but ultimately rewarding, and your entire company should see the payoff. Treat the team immediately involved with the transition to something nice, whether it be a nice dinner, Amazon gift card, sporting event, etc. It both gives the team a tangible reward to focus on when the going gets rough, and it will make all of their hard work visibly valuable.
Changing ESPs is never easy, but following these steps and having a defined plan will make it easier and help the transition be as smooth as possible.