Review of Email Newsletter Providers for Travel Marketing

Email NewsletterEmail marketing is one of the oldest forms of Internet marketing. And it is still one of the most effective despite the popularity of sharing on social media networks. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are great ways to push out travel content and encourage sharing but does it really increase booking rates?  Sending an email newsletter is the optimal way to remind past visitors to come back to your site to resume trip planning activities.

So you are already convinced that publishing an email newsletter is an essential part of your travel marketing strategy.  Now it is time to review a few of the top email service providers with an eye toward getting more bookings.  You will learn what are the most important features to consider, how to try before you buy, and think about usability and security.  Let’s get started so you can compare features and decide which email marketing service will work best for your B&B, small hotel, tour company, travel agency, or tourist attraction.

Email Service Providers

With so many email marketing companies to choose from where do you start? All the providers mentioned in this article are good for any type of business, not just travel and tourism operators. That means you have to evaluate the options against the needs of your travel business and target leisure or business traveler (customer).

To get you started, here is a list of the email vendors that BookingCounts evaluated for this study.  Many others can be found by searching online, asking your industry peers for referrals, talking to your travel marketing or web hosting firm, and checking to see if your hotel/tour operator association has a preferred vendor.

  • ConstantContact – The 100lb gorilla of the bunch, they are one of the oldest and most widely-known in the small business email marketing category. Their content management tools are mature plus their capable support staff offers timely service and multiple training options. In addition their SafeUnsubscribe™ brand is well recognized to comply with email marketing unsubscribe rules. While it is easy to get started, they may lack the cutting edge features and coolness factor of some of the more recent upstarts.
  • GetResponse – A solid choice with a clear commitment to educating and sharing email marketing best practices with its customers. They offer both phone and chat support in addition to a useful inbox (compatibility) preview feature and an emailing marketing app for Android and mobile devices. Their subscribe html form builder took a bit getting used to on first try and there were several areas of customization that were not supported.
  • AWeber – With a strong following among bloggers, their time-zone scheduling, geo-tracking, and reporting tools offer a wide range of international email marketing flexibility. With trust being so important, it is disappointing to see their lack of a TRUSTe Seal or US-EU Safe Harbor compliance.
  • MailChimp – Who doesn’t like their playful monkey themed user interface (if you don’t you can turn it off)? They have gained a huge number of customers across all industries due to their free entry-level pricing tier (up to 500 subscribers) and commitment to a customer focused development cycle. A lack of phone support might be a showstopper for some clients while luxury travel businesses might not choose to engage with an all too playful brand.
  • Campaign Monitor – Since a major focus is on white-labeling of email marketing technology, tourism businesses that work with an outside marketing firm may in fact be a customer of one of their reseller firms. Built with graphic designers in mind, their email template design tools are excellent and support many integration, analytics, and management tools. While any business can sign up on their own, their pricing model is higher than most, does not include telephone or chat support, and it is unclear how this Australia-based company complies with U.S. data privacy laws.

Most Important Travel Email Marketing Features

Email Newsletter Evaluation for Travel - Ring the BellWhen comparing email service providers for travel email marketing, first decide which features are a must have and check all the boxes. The following is the BookingCounts travel conversion order of importance, but your ordered list will vary.

Your priorities are likely based upon whether you market locally or internationally, target luxury or price-sensitive travelers, and employ basic travel marketing strategies or run sophisticated cross-channel campaigns.

  1. Price – While price comes first, it is only used to narrow down the list of email marketing vendors to consider. If your budget is almost non-existent and you expect it to stay that way, only consider free or the lowest cost options. Have a bit more flexibility? Review the rest of this list and add up the full cost of your ideal travel email marketing program and compare it with your desired budget.
  2. Reputation – since you cannot make your choice of email marketing firm invisible to your recipients, it is essential to choose one with a solid reputation among your customers. This includes their country of residency, email device preferences, and level of internet savvy.
  3. Email Newsletter Editor – the ability to design, write, edit, and send out email newsletters is the most important management feature to compare. Make sure the vendor you choose offers the kind of pre-made templates, editing tools, and style customization that your staff can learn to use with minimal training.
  4. Automation Tools – every tourism operator is busy running their business so efficiency is key. The more functions you can automate, the less time you’ll spend managing your email marketing campaign.  That time is better spent handling bookings and delivering travel services.
  5. Customization Options – The ability to control every aspect of your email newsletter with your name, image, and style is critical since it is an extension of your travel brand. Some of the areas that demand customization include the subscribe form or widget, the email message header, the subscribe confirmation page and email, and the message content layout and style options.
  6. Customer Support – Chances are that you will need to contact support for help with getting started as well as the advanced automation, reporting, integration, and customization later on. Do you prefer phone, email, or chat options? Make sure your preference is included in the base price and during your hours of operation.
  7. Export Subscriber List – There is no guarantee that you’ll stay with the same email marketing firm forever, so check how easy it is to download and backup all your data and reuse it with a different vendor. It should be simple to get a spreadsheet or similar file of your subscribers on demand and with all data fields included.
  8. Google Analytics Integration – You are already optimizing booking conversions and performing search engine optimization (SEO) for your website.  The next step is to optimize your email outreach campaign with the goal to improve booking rates.  How easy will it be to track clicks from email to website to booking engine and report on the results over time?
  9. Time-Zone Scheduling – Travel businesses are located across the globe, so your email marketer should be able to take in account the time zone of your subscribers. Widely publicized statistics demonstrate that time of day makes a difference for both open and click-through rates.  Being able to automatically adjust the sending of your emails to match wherever your customers are in the world may be worth the price.
  10. Integration with Third Party Tools – This feature is entirely dependent on what other technology you are using for content, customer, and booking management.  Do you need to integrate with a blogging or content management platform, landing page technology, or online booking systems and electronic reservation software? Find out what you may want to integrate with in the future and be sure to ask the right questions up front.

Free Versus Monthly Subscription

Every email provider listed has monthly subscription pricing, but which ones offer a completely free option? Free is a hard to resist choice for many types of tourism businesses such as:

  • Bed & Breakfast inns, guest houses, and specialty lodging with a limited online marketing budget
  • Independent tour guides and small tour operators, especially ones that are not well established
  • Niche travel businesses that expect their subscriber list size to be small for a long time
  • Home based travel agencies that need an effective way to communicate deals to their customer list

Why Free Travel Email Marketing

At this time MailChimp is the only vendor listed that offers a truly free and usable option which is not limited by time. You can start using MailChimp right away and until your subscriber list grows above 2,000 people or you require advanced features, it won’t cost a penny.  The other options covered only offer a free time-based trial, so you need to supply a credit card up front or at the time the trial ends or when you want to email your newsletter to subscribers.

Newsletter Templates for Travel Sellers

Once you acquire subscribers, your main activity is to craft newsletters with destination advice, travel promotions, and reminders to plan that next trip.  It is up to you and the expectations of your target market how often to send email newsletters.  Every month or once per season may be plenty so as not to overwhelm and lose subscribers (tell them so in the about newsletter description).

The first step is to select a newsletter template that most closely matches the look and feel of your website and brand.  Even if your email provider offers travel agency or hotel themed email templates, it is highly unlikely they will be perfect without at least some customization.  If you sign up for a free trial take the opportunity to test the template editor.  How easy can you modify a template’s header, colors, fonts, logos, and overall layout.  Once your template is complete your only task should be to add travel promotional and destination content.  For each newsletter you will craft promotional text including dates, prices, photos, and a “Book Now” button.

For the ultimate in template customization consider contracting with your web design or marketing firm to edit the HTML and CSS stylesheet directly.  Be aware that many email providers do not allow you go beyond the visual editor nor allow you to insert third party scripts and widgets.

Usability and Privacy with Tourism Email Marketing

Privacy Email MarketingWhat do your visitors want from an email newsletter?  First the sign-up process must be familiar and simple.  Second is the newsletter itself which must reach them as often as expected, not be treated as spam, and be readable on their computer or mobile device.

All the email vendors offer a “subscribe to newsletter” script that gets inserted onto your website template, added as a widget, or pasted into a content section.  It could appear as an embedded form on your site, whereby it is filled and submitted.  Or it may be a link to the newsletter sign-up page and form hosted by your email vendor.  Either way the goal is to encourage and allow visitors to subscribe in as few clicks as possible.  Including too many information fields and asking too many questions (whether required or optional) turns away busy but interested people. The optimal solution is to only ask for an email address and optionally one or two additional “must-have” pieces of data.

Double opt-in is still the industry standard best practice for ensuring that someone who signs up intended to do so and entered the correct email address. After a sign up form is submitted the email service provider will send an automated message for confirmation. It should be optional whether you want to send a thank you email after the subscriber is double opt-in confirmed, but it can be an effective way to communicate a special offer right away.

To promote privacy and security you must have a way to communicate that subscribing is a safe process. Tell visitors that you will never share their email address and always honor an unsubscribe request promptly. This puts their mind at ease, promotes your travel business as trustworthy, and encourages more instant sign-ups.

Try Travel Email Marketing Apps Before You Buy

Depending on your situation you may decide to take the plunge and sign-up for your chosen email vendor right away. If you have the time it is always better to try your top 2 choices before you decide which fits best with your tourism company and marketing goals. Making a decision solely by reading a comparison matrix and flashy marketing materials can sometimes lead to a suboptimal solution.

You need to feel confident the features work as described at a high level of usability, reliability, and customizability. Plus trying gives you an opportunity to find out about customer support options and response times.  It is also smart to scan the internal help forums to learn what problems other customers are experiencing (and the turn around time to address those issues).

Summary

It is a wonderful time to be a seller of hospitality, tour, and vacation products and services.  There are so many easy and low cost ways to grow your business and market travel online. Publishing a travel promotions newsletter is the preferred way to get in touch with so many of your past customers and future prospects.  You only must decide what percentage of your travel marketing time and budget to spend on email versus social media, online advertising, and direct marketing efforts.

This article focused on the importance of email marketing for travel sellers and how to evaluate and select the best vendor for your business.  There is no one email vendor to recommend above all others, and it would be a disservice to BookingCounts readers to suggest otherwise. The opinions expressed here are only of this website and its owners. So be sure to review several vendor offerings, document the features that you must have, consult your available budget, and try 2 or 3 before you buy and go live.

Post your experience in the comments section below so other tourism businesses can benefit from your insight.  As with all online software services, features and pricing change regularly so this article covered what is available today.

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Disclaimer: The email marketing companies and brands mentioned are all trademark of their respective owners.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments
Dan Biewener - January 14, 2013

Thanks for this great and complete advice for travel businesses. In addition to the ESPs you evaluated here, another easy way for businesses to narrow down their search for the best email service provider is to take the quick online self-test at http://espinator.com. This free tool automatically compares your answers to the offerings of 27 ESPs and suggests the top three that best fit your needs. Depending on the number and detail of the questions you choose to answer, it can take from 5 – 40 minutes to complete. Check it out.

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