Intelligent Emailing?

Intelligent Emailing?
product review
Becoming a car driver is not the same thing as
learning to drive and passing the tests. It is
something that happens probably months after the
paperwork has been handed down. It happens
unconsciously: it happens the day before you realise
you are on autopilot turning right safely across a
stream of traffic.
Becoming a competent user of a sophisticated
software product fits into a similar mould. One day
Intelligent
Emailing?
you are still clicking through the on-line user manual;
the next day, you are flying the system as though it
were the most natural thing to be doing.
Analogies can be dangerous, however. What
happens if the motor car is clunky and difficult to get
started? How much is that down to the inexperienced
driver, or poor mechanical design on the part of the
car manufacturer?
Putting Infacta’s
GroupMail mailing
system to the test
over six months
Systems for managing a company’s
electronic marketing campaigns are
inevitably going to be complex, and
need careful driving. At the very least,
they have to be able to handle an
email message in all its incarnations
from HTML with graphics down to
simple plain text. How they handle
mailing lists is the next point for
examination. What format must the
data be in before it can be handled
by the system, for example, and how
easy is it to personalise an email
letter through the contact details
stored in the mailing lists? And no
less important, the system has to
keep track of the email copies sent
out and the occasions when an email
is opened by those on the list. How
easy is it to extract that information?
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infacta groupmail
Testing out the Business Edition of the
GroupMail system from the Irish developer
Infacta Ltd was never going to be a five-minute
job. With all of its optional modules and addons, it is a complex solution.
There is a core mailing engine which interacts with systems intended to monitor email
open rates, for example, manage opt-in forms
for subscribers and conduct reader surveys. If
such a product were at first to appear heavy to
‘drive’ to achieve the desired results, how much
of that could be attributed to over-familiarity
with an entirely different system that simply
works in a different way while delivering most
of the functionality?
Before switching to GroupMail, the reviewers had been using the EShip mailing system,
which had delivered a wholly workable solution for two years, but had approached the task
from a different perspective. EShip operates
on the vendor’s host, with web access to any
user authorised to access it. GroupMail, in
contrast, runs on the user’s PC, with only the
tracking mechanisms being hosted by Infacta.
Comparisons between such products are invidious unless one supports much greater functionality or delivers a superior performance. In
today’s parlance of the politically correct, most
mailing systems operate to a similar standard
so far as their core features are concerned, but
are ‘differently advantaged’ in the way that they
handle specific aspects of an email campaign.
Accurate product description
It would be fair to observe from the outset that
GroupMail ‘does exactly what it says on the
tin’ – it manages the delivery of email messages, in a variety of formats, to lists of email
addresses created for that purpose. One hosted
counterpart, GroupMetrics, monitors open
rates and click-throughs, while the Subscriber
add-on module to GroupMail keeps track of
bounce reports and unsubscribe requests, and
can be configured to maintain data lists up to
date. GroupSurveys is the other web-based
service module handling – not unsurprisingly
- surveys sent out to recipients.
It would be fair to observe that GroupMail ‘does exactly what
it says on the tin’: it manages the delivery of email messages,
in a variety of formats, to lists of email addresses created for
that purpose. GroupMetrics monitors open rates and clickthroughs, while Subscriber keeps track of bounce reports and
unsubscribe requests, and can maintain data lists up to date.
The version of the product that The Informed
Executive took on board for review was specifically the GroupMail 5 Business Edition,
the third of four tiers which start with a restricted free version to which many technical
features are added when customers purchase
the Personal edition. (The top tier is the Marketing Pack, which comprises the Business
Edition with a portfolio of email tracking,
statistics and analysis modules.)
The Business Edition (BE) includes all of
the features within the Personal version but
provides a portfolio of features intended for
the corporate environment. It is capable of interfacing, for example, with all of the popular
database systems to speed up the building of
the lists or groups to which the messages will
be sent.
More specifically, it supports the address
book formats of most of the email agents encountered on PCs today – that inevitably includes Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, along
with GroupWise, Notes and other Enterprise
Level email tools.
The same version of GroupMail support
higher throughput rates than the Personal product. It can connect to the Internet through up
to 256 connections simultaneously, though 6
to 12 such connections are likely to prove sufficient for most business applications which
don’t involve mailing to every business in the
Yellow Pages in the space of 24 hours.
Installation and configuration
Installing and configuring the system is relatively straightforward: once the one-off payment has been made online for the GroupMail
5 Business Edition licence, a user name and
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emailing application
How many of the emails are opened;
which addressees click on to links and
whether they choose to unsubscribe,
all fall within GroupMetrics. Using the
GroupMail Marketing Pack involves
a payment based on the volume of
tracking handled by the system.
Core components of system
password are issued to provide access to the
customer area, from which the application is
downloaded.
Whatever the technology involved, every
email campaign consists of two essential steps
– assembling a list of target email addresses
and preparing the email message to be sent out
to each of those addresses. There are other considerations not to be ignored, of course, such as
configuring the email accounts which display
sender details on each email and the servers
through which the traffic will be directed, Those
core activities and the system configurations
are handled by the GroupMail product, which
forms part of the GroupMail Marketing Suite. As
indicated earlier, this is effectively the Business
Edition with many additional statistical features
added on.
How many of the outgoing emails are
opened; which addressees click on to links
and whether they choose to unsubscribe, all
fall within GroupMetrics. Using the GroupMail
Marketing Pack involves a payment based on
the volume of tracking handled by the system.
How these services are priced is considered
later in this assessment.
The core components of GM 5 Business Edition are laid out on the Home page in a way
that any user with even a vague understanding of what might be involved in an email campaign could follow.
The developers were probably relying on
that intuitive process when they conceived
the basic user documentation for the application: it could not be seen as the strongest feature of BE.
The ‘F1 Help’ file is probably less well
fleshed out than for most products of this complexity, though the very elementary Getting
Started help files provide the minimum amount
of detail needed to get the user started.
More comprehensive information on using the
product is available, however, but this is obtained
through a collection of tutorials, of which there
were 61 available at the time of this review. These
do not form a co-ordinated manual, but are
standalone documents addressing a different
question that a user might raise.
They are arranged not in the order of operation or even alphabetically, but simply in the
date order of being added to the site. This means
that the user has to scroll through the entire list
of tutorials to locate what is required. At least
the titles of the tutorials are reasonably selfexplanatory, as in ‘How to Process Opt-Out Requests in GroupMail (Subscriber Add-On).
This has been recognised as confusing by
Infacta: the company is currently reviewing
its documentation and intends to streamline
the material.
Infacta, the GroupMail developer, has produced a more conventional printed manual
but this comes with a £20.95 price tag.
Whatever the technology involved, every email campaign consists of two essential steps – assembling a
list of target email addresses and preparing the email message to be sent out to each of those addresses.
.
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mailing list assembly
Experience has shown that users tend to create broadly
similar types of data list each time: GroupMail assumes that
the previous group to have been created contained broadly
the correct number, type and size of field and uses these as
the default when a new group has to be built. It is relatively
simple to add or remove whatever fields are required to
match the exact structure of the source data.
Creating mailing lists
Intuitive layout of home page
This critical observation about the free versions
of the documentation should not detract from
the intuitive layout of the application on the
home page. The steps needed to create a mailing are immediately obvious, through a user
would have to deduce that the word ‘Group’ is
Infacta’s term for a list of recipients. ‘Messages’
is self explanatory, relating to the email content.
Since no two data lists are likely to contain
the same number and type of data fields, it
might be reasonable to assume that the user
would have to construct the record structure
of a group from first principles for each new
mailing task.
Experience has shown, however, that users
tend to create broadly similar types of data list
each time: GroupMail assumes that the previous group to have been created contained
broadly the correct number, type and size of field
and uses these as the default when a new group
has to be built. It is relatively simple to add or
remove whatever fields are required to match
the exact structure of the source data.
source - an Excel spreadsheet or Access database, for example. Setting up the path to the
database, however, requires careful planning
and confidence in keying in the exact path:
there is no browse facility here as there is with
data importing.
As the field names of the source file do not
have to match those of the data group being
populated, the process of preparing a group
for a mailing is remarkably simple. At the point
when the external file is about to be imported,
the user simply pairs off the relevant input field
for each of the fields in the group.
Populating data groups
Designing the email shuttle is just the first
stage: data has either to be keyed in or - more
likely – drawn in from existing data tables of
some description. Importing data files is
straightforward so long as the source is held
in a compatible format such as Excel or CSV
text. Records can also be imported straight
from the clipboard if necessary,
But GM 5 Business Edition does provide an
extensive range of options for linking (rather
than importing) a group directly to an external
The steps needed to create a mailing are immediately obvious, through a user would have to deduce
that the word ‘Group’ is Infacta’s term for a list of recipients. ‘Messages’ is self explanatory, however.
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preparing the email
Preparing a message for distribution is extremely simple.
A message created in text mode or HTML is imported by
browsing to the source of that file and clicking on the file
name. The text appears in a new message window where it
can be further edited and the modified file updated. Apart
from keying in a subject line, the file is ready to be emailed.
Creating the message
ing a large group to be mailed out in much
smaller batches that will keep the task below
the radar of ISPs which monitor incoming traffic for evidence of bulk email.
On the subject of flow control, GroupMail
provides a useful facility in the sender account
set-up (the process by which the ‘from’ address is determined along with the address of
the SMTP server). For each unique email account, the user can specify the number of
emails to be sent out before taking a pause of
a pre-determined length. A batch of mail messages could therefore be set up to be sent in
short runs of 100 at a time, with an interval of
60 seconds between them. This has the effect
of reducing the visibility of a mailing campaign still further.
Preparing a message for unmonitored distribution is extremely simple. A message created in text mode or HTML is imported by
browsing to the source of that file and clicking on the file name. The text appears in a
new GroupMail message window where it can
be further edited and the modified file updated.
Apart from having a subject line keyed in, the
file is ready to be emailed.
On the grounds that virtually every email
letter needs some small adjustment before it
is sent, the prepared message should be
mailed out under test conditions to a test address – one which the sender can access rapidly, then make corrections. That ensures that
nothing is left to chance when that single email
turns into a batch run of perhaps 30,000.
GroupMail allows the user to select any part
of a data group for a mailing if the whole list is
not required. The criteria can be set by reference either to the characteristics of the data
record (eg Send where [fieldname from list]
[is equal to, greater than etc] [a given value])
or by reference to the record number in the
group. For many applications, this simple numerical selection will prove sufficient, allow-
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Delivery Console
The physical output of emails is controlled
through a feature known as the Delivery Console, an unanchored window which floats over
the main GroupMail page. It shows the state
of play at any time – the number of messages
waiting to be sent, the number that have been
queued, the total sent and the number of failures. These are specifically the failures reported at the transmission stage rather than
any which have left GroupMail but failed to
improving performance
Checking out
addresses
be delivered. And the screen displays an approximate time to completion of the mailing.
The Delivery Console has encountered a
number of irritating inconsistencies in the
past, creating problems for the user when a
list had to be stopped and re-started. It did not
always function exactly as planned, giving
rise to anomalies such as re-starting mailings
at the incorrect point within a group.
The problem, which had been identified by
the GroupMail development team, has now
been rectified. Delivery Console now keeps
track correctly of the addresses in a batch
which had not been despatched (either because they failed for a technical reason or the
queue had not reached them).
GroupMail 5 BE has a particularly
useful facility which can check out a
Group in two different ways. The first
is DNS checking, which establishes
both that the syntax of an email
address is correct and then that the
domain exists. This is a much faster
option than the second, which
involves verifying individual
recipients’ email addresses. This
more detailed scrutiny can be run
overnight if required, and yields a
detailed list of the problem emails.
Checking out email addresses
There can be few things more frustrating in
running a campaign than discovering that a
higher than expected proportion of the emails
sent out are being returned as undeliverable
either because the user is not known at the
domain or the domain itself does not exist. It
is wasteful of mailing time if there are large
Groups to be mailed out to in a limited amount
of time. But high levels of bounces in traffic
can also tell the ISP that a spammer might be
at work.
GroupMail 5 BE has a particularly useful
facility called Email Inspector which can
check out a Group in two different ways. The
first is DNS checking, which establishes both
that the syntax of an email address is correct
and then that the domain exists. This is a much
faster option than the second, which involves
verifying individual recipients’ email addresses. This more detailed scrutiny can be
run overnight if required, and yields a detailed
list of the problem emails.
A second set of tools is provided under the
banner of ‘Tweaker’. It handles the kind of data
manipulation task which is slow to process by hand, and quite complex to
write as a piece of code. The four components of Tweaker are name splitting
(breaking a composite name into separate fields for personal title, the first
name and a surname), capitalisation of text in a field, the ability to update the
contents of fields against a set of user-defined rules, and formatting the data
in each record against a set of rules.
As might be expected of such a product, GroupMail 5 BE allows mailings
to be scheduled. Scheduling is one of the features supported in the Business
Edition but not in the Personal Edition. It is invaluable to a marketing team
that wants to send out emails early in the morning so that they are near the
top of the recipients’ inbox when they switch on for the start of the day.
Building campaigns
Life would be very simple for marketing departments if all they had to do was
write a piece of text and mail it out to everyone on a list. To be used effectively as a marketing tool, the message needs to be turned into a campaign in
which every statistic can be tracked and analysed.
Building a campaign and creating the mechanism for tracking open rates
and click-throughs on HTML links requires that the GroupMetrics package
has been installed.
The first steps in creating a campaign are straightforward; entering a name,
optional information about the number of data records and bounces (which
will be used later to help generate statistics).
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tracking campaigns
Life would be very easy if marketing departments only had to
write a message and mail it out to everyone on a list. To be
effective, the message needs to be turned into a campaign
in which every statistic can be tracked and analysed.
Who opens your email?
Beyond that, building a campaign in Group
Metrics becomes far more complicated. It does
not require programming skills, but an eye for
detail. Failure to create the right link and insert it with additional parameters at the correct place in the mailing letter means that a
mailing will provide very little by way of analytical data, however successful the mailing
itself might have been in generating sales.
Creating tracker links
To set up all of the trackers needed to manage
a campaign letter containing perhaps HTML
links would need a string of coding to be entered in the source file of the message. These
links can be inserted directly into the Message before it is mailed out, but many users
would prefer to work within the familiar domain of their Web development tool.
Each HTML link is converted (online by
GroupMetrics) into a string that replaces it with
a routing that diverts the link through the
GroupMail host where it is counted before
reaching the intended destination. Unlike
some mailing systems which report just on
the total number of ‘opens’, GroupMetric can
assemble a list of opens with an event time
against each one.
Each time the recipient goes back to the
original message or forwards a copy of it
around the organisation, for example, the relevant counter trips and the picture builds up.
That gives the team sending the message a
better idea of when its messages are being
opened so that, for example, the timing of the
mailing can be more finely tuned to recipients’ opening and reading the message.
The tracking tools which GroupMetrics provides greatly increase the effectiveness of
GroupMail as a marketing system. The objective might be to send out a promotional newsletter to perhaps 3,000 customers or prospects.
The message might contain two links into the
sender’s website and two more PDF files to be
downloaded.
If tracking links have been inserted correctly
at each of those points, the campaign manager tool in GroupMetrics would be able to
detect when the email letter was opened by
each recipient, the links which were followed,
and the number of times that this occurred.
Rather than attempt to follow up all 3,000
addresses with a phone call, it would be a
simple task to produce a downloadable file of
the recipients who had opened the email, followed by a list of those who had clicked on
one or more of the links to create a high-priority hit-list to be phoned.
Cross-referencing responses
Failure to create the right link and insert it with additional
parameters at the correct place in the letter means that a
mailing will provide very little analytical data, however
successful the mailing might have been in generating sales.
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Cross-referencing of that information once it
has been re-imported to the original data file
would identify those recipients who had
opened the letter (the first level of interest
which might account for perhaps 750 recipients) but, more importantly, the individuals
who had clicked through one or more of the
HTML links.
final thoughts
GroupMetrics is now being rebuilt
and will include a one-click route to
inserting tracing links. This is a major
step forward in what is already a
very powerful piece of software.
In conclusion
From an original mailing list of 3,000, the task now becomes one of calling
the 300 to 500 people who had shown sufficient interest to secure additional
information. Phone or personalised mailing to (say) 500 people is a less daunting task than picking up the phone to all 3,000.
In itself, the open rate from a mailing is of limited value given that many
modern browsers can prevent the ‘read’ flag being passed back to the sending
host. Whatever information can be obtained from the system about open rates,
however, is still a broad indicator of response and its timing.
Cost of using GroupMail 5
Infacta GroupMail 5 Business Edition is currently priced at £174.95, a figure
which reflects the high level of functionality in the system. This is a one-off
charge, which includes technical support (usually by email to the company’s
base in Sligo, Ireland).
Adding the web-based components of the Marketing Suite brings the oneoff cost up to £349.95; effectively double the price.
Use of the web-based services such as GroupMetrics is charged by the
‘unit’ where an email recipient opening an email clocks up one unit; clicking
on an HTML link takes another unit. Units are pre-paid and added to the user’s
account with Infacta. How those credits are purchased is more complicated:
the user is given four different monthly options. Two are intended for businesses running their own email campaigns; the other two are for emailing
bureaux with much higher throughputs.
The Business tariffs are $24.95 a month (25,000 clicks) and $49.50 a month
(100,000 clicks), with the option to purchase additional clicks for virtually the
same monthly rate on a one-off basis if required to top up capacity. Paying
annually for the two business tariffs would save the user 20%. At the top end,
a bureau could pay $499 each month for an unlimited number of clicks.
Six months of using GroupMail 5 Business
Edition should be long enough for faults and
omissions to have become apparent. The question of the user manual for the core product fades
into insignificance immediately a sound working knowledge of the system has been secured.
To be fair, there are features of GroupMail
which come to light all the time when
mailings are being produced. And there are
some tasks – such as embedding the tracking
links to extract campaign data - which require
the same meticulous attention detail after six
months as they did on Day 1 when the application was unfamiliar.
The reviewers were given access to developments at Infacta, the owners of GroupMail,
during the course of this analysis. Most important, perhaps, is that GroupMetrics is now
being rebuilt and will include a one-click route
to inserting tracing links. Customers with a current licence will be able to upgrade. This facility will represent a major step forward in what
is already a very powerful piece of software.
Summary
GroupMail 5 Business Edition and its associated Marketing Suite taken together create an
incredibly powerful tool for the marketing
manager. Except on a very few counts, using
the system rapidly becomes easier with experience. It really is worth having to proceed
slowly along the learning curve to understand
GroupMail despite its occasional foible.
Would the magazine’s marketing team
switch back to Eship? The answer is most
certainly ‘no’. Not because the hosted Eship
application has major shortcomings – it
doesn’t – but GroupMail seems to reflect more
fully the needs and aspirations of the marketing process. §
www.infacta.com
tel: 00353 71 9156996
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