Self-Hosting Email Options (SMTP Solutions and Hosting Choices)

This article is Part 7 of a 10-part series on Email Marketing: Self-Hosted vs Traditional Cloud-Hosted Options.

In the previous posts we’ve discussed our own personal hosting journey and our decision to switch from an outsourced/cloud to a self-hosted email solution. Now we’re going to explore the different options for SMTP (getting the emails actually sent) and look at the benefits of the different choices when it comes to choosing your preferred hosting account, and migrating across to the new platform.

The Lowdown on SMTP

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is the web standard for sending out mail online. In short, you need to connect your self-hosted email software solution with an SMTP provider to ensure the email actually gets delivered.

Think of the email marketing software (Interspire) as the printing press that can do all the cool stuff, and the SMTP provider as the postman, who then takes what you’ve printed to the recipients mailbox.

SMTP Options

The first thing to check out when you start exploring SMTP options is whether or not it’s the default for your hosting account. Once you know where you’re starting from, you can start to consider your options for optimisation. Some things worth thinking about when you weigh up your need for SMTP services include the volume of mail your business will be sending out, the reputation of the different Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that you can choose from, the associated potential costs of the service and what other customers have to say about the service they receive from the different ISPs.

Depending on your requirements, there is a wide variety of companies out there offering great SMTP relay services. These include Postmark, SMTP.com, and SendGrid. Where not going to waste a lot of time on the geeky why stuff, but we reviewed a few and then, because it provides a free trial that lets you get set up and test the new platform without any initial outlay, we opted for the SendGrid SMTP email delivery cloud service.

We’ve found SendGrid to be really easy to use. You can set it up in minutes and send mail straight away – and their support was AMAZING. It also generates an email reputation score for you so you can see how your messages are being received. After the free trial, you can sign up, and start sending 40,000 emails a month with the service for around $10.

Choosing your Hosting Account

Once you’ve picked the right SMTP relay package, it’s time to look at the different options for hosting your email marketing software. Jumping across to a Web hosting reseller plan lets you combine your websites and save money, get more control over their functionality, and manage them all through a single control panel. It also sets you up for future enterprise because any new sites you set up can come under the same plan.

We looked at a few and settled on HostGator’s “VPS Level 3”. We needed the hosting account to be compatible with SendGrid, and the basic Shared/Reseller package that HostGator offers doesn’t enable access to third party or external SMTP ports. This meant that the VPS option was the only possibility for us to link up to SendGrid’s SMTP with a HostGator account.

We got the VPS Level 3 account with cPanel for $39.95 a month. cPanel is the Unix-based graphical interface for managing the hosting, with integrated automation tools. If you already have an existing compatible hosting account, you could also consider housing it on a subdomain to avoid extra expense. Firms like Rackspace often do offers on SMTP and let you combine dedicated and cloud hardware in a hybrid environment so you can migrate to cloud-based software at your own speed. If you’re already with Rackspace, you can get free access to SendGrid’s Bronze-level email service for up to 40,000 emails monthly.

Making the Jump

There are a couple of key things you want to be aware of if you currently have an autoresponder in place. Firstly, you’ll obviously need to hold off from migrating your subscribers across to the new system until all your clients/prospects have gone through the entire sequence of any autoresponders you’ve got in place.

For example, if you have a 7-part email series that is delivered over a 4-week period, and someone opt-ed in, say 3 weeks ago, and you move them across to your new Interspire solution, they won’t get the final few emails in that series and possible miss the emails with the sales pitch.
This takes a bit of careful planning to make sure your customers aren’t impacted in any way from the jump to the new system. We popped a schedule in place to prevent any hiccups in the migration process:

  • Step 1: Set-up your lists and autoresponder sequences in Interspire
  • Step 2: Change out opt-in boxes across your site(s) to ensure new new subscribers go to Interspire
  • Step 3: Wait until ALL subscribers on you old incumbent service (like Aweber) are through the sequences
  • Step 4: Then move/import all old subscriber lists to the new lists in Interspire (ensuring they don’t get the email sequence again obviously — it’s just a tick box during import.)

This process also meant we could tackle things slowly, giving the IP a chance to warm up to the new service.

Warming Up Your SMTP IP

IP warming is a weird term, but is a necessary evil if you are self-hosting. It’s a gradual process that happens over time, with the goal of establishing a reputation as a legitimate email sender in the eyes of ISPs (Internet Service Providers). When an ISP observes email suddenly coming from a new IP address that your chosen SMTP provider will give you, they will take notice of it and immediately begin evaluating the traffic coming from that IP. Since volume is perhaps the most telling factor in the eyes of ISP SPAM filters, it is best to begin sending low to moderate volume (e.g., up to 1 million emails/month), eventually working your way up to larger volumes (e.g., over 1 million emails/month). This gives the “powers that be” a chance to closely observe your sending habits and the way your customers treat the emails they receive from you.

For more information on this important topic we suggest you check out this blog post by SendGrid: http://blog.sendgrid.com/how-to-warm-up-an-ip/

The Downside

For us, one of the negative aspects of self-hosting is the restrictions on customisation. Because the service doesn’t allow super slick and easy integration with a number of plugins – as soon as you make the decision to move across you may need a developer/coder on hand to optimise the service. This can be an initial inconvenience and can sometimes be a costly way of streamlining your overall service but you can get hold of great developers and establish a positive ongoing relationship with someone you trust to help you get the most out of your solution.

Ongoing Deliverability

As mentioned above, obviously the most important aspect of your new hosting solution is the deliverability function. You need to know that your mail is getting to your customers’ inbox quickly, that it isn’t being marked as spam, or being diverted to the junk folder, or being blocked by their ISP. Once you’ve warmed up your IP, you need ongoing insight into what your online reputation is and you need to know that you haven’t been blacklisted from any of the key ISPs as a result of a high volume of customer complaints.

We used feedback from Sender Score to make sure that our new solution was working well, because not all ISPs don’t provide insight into the reputation of your email profile online. Sender Score and other services provide this kind of data so you can monitor your reputation and prevent potential blacklisting which will lower your send rate. Reputation is usually monitored and updated in thirty-day cycles, so you can use your data from an application like Sender Score to see the results each month and rectify any issues.

This report is also worth a little bedtime reading:

Staying Compliant and Retaining Your Reputation

The best way to make sure your customers don’t respond badly to your communications is to provide them with easy ways to respond to your mail. This includes providing options to unsubscribe from your mailing list with a simple click option. We used Interspire to provide a custom header to our messages with an unsubscribe option. This ensures that our customers can choose to unsubscribe through our option, rather than them turning to the ISP default “mark as spam” option, which will reduce our online reputation.

The easier you make it for your mail recipients to choose whether or not to continue receiving your emails, the smaller the risk of being blacklisted or damaging your reputation. Keep your mailing list clean, update it regularly to make sure that your contacts are still current, provide clear ways for people to unsubscribe and you’ll be in a great position to enhance your reputation and steer clear of complaints.

  • http://www.8successdrivers.com/ Gareth Everson

    Great summary of steps required…

    • http://www.PreneurMarketing.com/ Pete Williams

      Cheers Gareth.

  • http://www.damienelsing.com/ Damien Elsing

    For a small list using Interspire email marketer, is it okay to just use the SMTP on some shared hosting? e.g. my shared/reseller hosting allows 500 emails per hour to be sent, which is enough for small lists. What are the drawbacks to using a server like this?

    • http://www.PreneurMarketing.com/ Pete Williams

      Fair question Damien.

      From a high level, it shouldn’t bee too much of an issue.

      From a detailed perspective:
      1. Some hosts won’t allow certain apps to do the sending. i.e HostGator won’t allow apps like Interspire to connect to their smtp
      2. Also you might have deliverability issues based on sharing the IP address of the host (as alluded to above)

      In instances like this, I would look at SMTP services such as MailChimps ManDrill SMTP services – http://mandrill.com/pricing/ – They have a free account for upto 12,000 emails per month.

      We are debating about moving over to Mandrill ourselves given their pricing model scales really easily.

      • http://www.damienelsing.com/ Damien Elsing

        Nice — didn’t realise there were free options like this. Thanks Pete!

  • http://www.PreneurMarketing.com/ Pete Williams

    Personally I wouldn’t use GoDaddy as a host. I would use HostGator, BlueHost or something similar.

    .. and when it comes to SMTP, check out my response to Damien http://preneurmarketing.com/essays/self-hosting-email-options-smtp-solutions-account-choices/#comment-1327747944

about-pete
Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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