How "the cloud" can boost your email strategy

Marketing isn’t always measured in absolutes, but marketers and their clients strive to hit key targets with their campaigns. They all know that email – while not the most media rich or active engagement option with consumers – is one of the most effective ways to reach the people that matter most to their brands.

The cloud has quickly become one platform that email marketers can harness to boost the opportunity that email messaging presents.

Say “software as a service” in a room full of marketers and you’re bound to see many eyes veer to their phones or whatever else might be nearby. Shift the conversation to “email marketing from the cloud,” and you might get a little more attention, but not much.

iMedia found that while there are many proponents of cloud-based email marketing, there are just as many that find the concept overhyped and too confusing to sell or show value.

What is the cloud?
So what exactly is all this hype about the cloud? After all, if you want marketers to jump on board and pitch the idea of cloud computing to others, they better understand what they’re talking about and where the value is.

According to Jeff Mills, VP of products at eROI, the cloud is a “cluster of servers that exist for the purpose of exponential computing power and storage.” The greatest benefit provided by the cloud for email marketing centers around its ability to work faster and more reliably than traditional email service providers, he says.

There are two major solutions that email marketers can use. One is the cloud such as Amazon’s S3, and the other is a content delivery network like BitGravity and Akamai.

The cloud is much more capable of performing processes that sag on servers. If your email campaigns involve processing rather than just sending email, the cloud might be right for you. Processing power can be used to either compile data or serve up assets, and if your content delivery network is coming up short on either of those fronts, the cloud can help.

“When it comes to application hosting, Amazon’s EC2 is the equivalent of a server at a hosting facility,” Mills tells iMedia. “However, with spikes of traffic, you can add new servers with the click of a button, massively increasing your traffic threshold nearly instantly. When you don’t need the servers, they can be taken offline, and you only pay for the computing hours used. In addition, Amazon’s Elastic MapReduce allows large mailers with massive amounts of data to offload the resource-intensive log processing, such as statistics crunching.”

Mills continued by saying that overall, there are benefits to using the cloud for elements of email marketing, but not offloading 100 percent of your email marketing computing needs. It is best to evaluate where your application bottlenecks are and adjust accordingly by looking at all of the offerings out there.

Benefits of the cloud
The cloud has helped email marketers introduce new features that weren’t available before, and it affords them all the benefits of a perpetual license ownership deal in an environment that can expand and contract as needed.

“Email has become more critical. We understand that service providers are out there, but we think we need to own it,” says Ryan Deutsch, Strongmail’s VP of strategic services and market deployment. “We can now give them a perpetual license for that same software but let them deploy it in the cloud.”

Strongmail is one of only a few companies that offers email marketing applications hosted entirely from the cloud.

Why the need for ownership? It mostly comes down to cost and customization, Deutsch says.

Email, for all its lacking appeal on many fronts, is still the most watched and effective marketing channel for brands to communicate with consumers, executives, and other businesses.

Cloud-based email services are a good option for mid-sized businesses since they typically don’t have huge data centers and IT teams of their own. Large enterprises typically don’t apply because they staff to manage an email campaign of any size, yet there are some standout companies that rely exclusively on the cloud for their email outreach.

Businesses that are utilizing cloud-based services for email are benefiting from a range of customization options that allow them to deploy new features and expand their outreach quickly and easily.

“They don’t have the administrative burden and technology management challenges” that larger businesses encounter when going it alone, Deutsch says.

Ownership enables a variety of customization features ranging from how the platform interacts with call center software to ecommerce solutions. Scale can also ebb and flow as needed, depending on each client’s needs.

Throughput, frequency, and list size can all change with relative ease since cloud-based services only charge for usage on an ongoing basis.

“It’s a much more dynamic deployment for the marketer,” Deutsch adds.

Where the cloud falls short
The cloud is not the panacea that some marketers wish it would be – not yet, at least. Here are four areas highlighted by Mills that point to some major issues with application hosting from the cloud:

1. IP reputation: This can help determine whether a certain IP address is responsible for sending spam, and when used effectively, it can stop at least 80 percent of inbound connections at internet service providers. With the cloud, you can’t always pull a dedicated block of IP addresses, and you might get stuck sending email from the same IP address as a spammer.

2. Security of the application: By sharing server space with other clients, there’s always the potential for foul play or unintended consequences.

3. Lack of disaster recovery: If Amazon’s cloud was to go down, for example, there’s no guarantee when that service would be up and running again. Worse yet, there’s no guarantee all of your data would be secured and saved.

4. Support and on-site expertise: By putting an entire application up in the cloud, you don’t have physical access to the server and can’t keep it under the watchful eye of an IT professional.

Mills prefers a content delivery network because it relies on servers dispersed throughout the U.S., which means data can be retrieved from nearby servers rather than pulling content from across the country. For good measure, Amazon’s S3 has a content delivery network component that will provide a similar experience, but it can get very costly, Mills adds.

“I don’t necessarily at this point… see a major benefit in the cloud” unless there are significant processing delays, says Mills. Only where a marketer has a massive upscale of clients does he see benefits from the cloud.

“Email marketing technology continues to improve and offer more sophisticated options, but the marketers, managers, and agencies planning and executing campaigns have yet to even scratch the surface of leveraging existing technology and email marketing possibilities,” Simms Jenkins, CEO of BrightWave Marketing, tells iMedia.

“While I think cloud computing is an interesting approach for some companies to consider, for most it would be like buying a car with a cutting edge multimedia interface” that they’re unlikely to make use of regularly, he adds

Sometimes simplicity works best, but for those who want to take things to the next level and potentially increase ROI from their email marketing strategy, they might want to reach for the cloud(s) and at least take a look around.

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