Build vs. Buy: The real cost of building an email solution

The trend for several years now has been away from building and toward outsourcing, yet some organizations still think building an in-house email marketing solution is the way to go. The market offers numerous ways to build your own in-house solution. But what’s the real cost?

Some organizations have so much IT talent that they think they can build their own email marketing system. A perceived cost savings typically drives this decision. Would they consider building their own print shop? Probably not. It’s a matter of sticking with your core business vs. being your own vendor.
There are so many possibilities for email platforms these days. ESPs have been around for over a decade. They are a tried-and-true way to go as the "buy" option for companies preferring to outsource the infrastructure. If an ESP isn’t for you and your organization plans to build, I offer some factors to consider to help you determine the real cost.
There’s a real cost to building that must be considered. It’s a capital expense vs. an operations expense. But building comes with operational expenses too…and the cost of not having certain competitive capabilities.

"Building" can mean a variety of approaches to your email marketing system. It might mean you’re buying a server from StrongMail or using an online solution like Amazon Cloud. It can also mean you’re building from scratch. There are sending solutions where sending is hosted but you still have to do the front end. No matter the route you go, if you build, you will have to manage the hosting, maintenance, firewall, integration and more. Much more. When you “buy,” you’re outsourcing the infrastructure and getting invaluable additional benefits as well, including deliverability, currency and relevance-enabling tools.
Deliverability is critical. It directly impacts your email marketing ROI. If an email isn’t delivered, you have zero potential for an impression or sale. In fact, you don’t even get to work a little brand awareness in there. An undelivered email might as well not exist. When you buy—meaning outsource—your email solution, you get a team of postmasters who will keep your email deliverability rate up. When you’re doing this in-house and you run into an email delivery problem, you’ll either have to  hire a consultant to help or be willing to dedicate your IT team’s time to figuring out the problem – which is not easy to say the least.

Plus there’s staying current. ESPs are constantly evolving, continually adding new features to keep up with email deliverability requirements and consumer expectations. If you build your own, you are essentially freezing yourself in time. For some organizations, the incremental cost for email goes away. But you still have IT costs. It’s a business decision and there are tax implications as you consider capital vs. operating expenses.
To compete in the inbox in 2011, you must have relevance-enabled tools. Those tools used to cost thousands of dollars. Today they cost hundreds…when you outsource. Relevance-enabled technologies include trigger-based and event-driven emails, lifecycle and drip campaigns, and dynamic content. You can build out these capabilities, but the undertaking is massive. And massive means pricey because you’re talking payroll costs and lost opportunities while you wait for your solution to be built and deployed.
Top-tier ESPs have this relevance-enabling technology built in to their platforms. That means "buying" instead of "building" lets you take advantage of these competitive advantages from day one.
Relevance also requires website analytics resulting from a recipient interacting with an email. Many web analytics platforms can track this at a macro-level, but the real value comes when the data is tied to a specific email address. If you don’t have the tight integration required to give you insight from web analytics, or integration with your CRM system, you won’t be able to do truly relevant, targeted email marketing.
How long will it take to build and deploy?
If your IT department says it will take six months to build, plan on 12 to 18 months before you’re fully functional with all the features you want. Can you wait a year and a half for a good email marketing system? While your competition is emailing your target market, you won’t be…or at least you won’t be at the level of effectiveness you want, meaning your competition will likely win out.
Don’t forget the payroll costs
Consider the staff time and associated payroll costs. If you’re going to build and maintain in-house, you’ll need at least two staff people trained so you’ll always have someone on hand if problems arise. In addition to the IT aspects of building and maintaining an email solution, at least one of your employees must have expertise in email areas like privacy, working with ISPs, deliverability issues, protecting your online sending reputation, being CAN-SPAM compliant and more. If you plan to design your own emails or use rich media email, you’ll also need someone who is an expert and who will take into account rendering issues in different email clients and on handheld devices too. That’s three staff people. What does that add up to when you add in all the benefits, taxes and other costs of adding a body to your payroll?
Unless you are sending hundreds of millions of emails monthly, outsourcing is cheaper…and safer. Building might look cheaper at the outset, but the cost is going to be higher than you anticipate. If email isn’t core to your business, outsource. If it is core to your business, absolutely critical, maybe build. Maybe. But consider every single cost.

– Marco Marini
ClickMail Marketing