Copyright 2008-2009, Paul Jackson, all rights reserved
No, I haven’t turned SPAMmer.
But the company I work for has a need to send emails communications to its customers and the system we threw together in Java almost a decade ago just isn’t up to the current task. It wasn’t even part of the original requirements for our website, we just decided it would be cool if we could send them emails so we built it in with a couple days’ effort.
Over time, it’s become a critical communication tool and the slapped-together nature of the system is showing its age and limitations – so we started looking at options and came up with three basic possibilities: enhance the current system, use a hosted service or buy desktop software.
The basic requirements of the system are that we have around 26,000 customer email addresses and a half dozen opt-in news topics. In addition, we send mandatory “alerts” to all customers, regardless of their opt-in decision – this is disclosed to them and is part of their membership agreement for using the website and the reason is that there are statutory and legal announcements that they have to receive in our business, so for these, they don’t get to say no.
There are also some things that the current system doesn’t support which the business has requested over the years, or that would just be smart to do, so we also need a solution that will:
- Support HTML emails. The original system is text only and our communications are pretty dated at this point, being all text. In fact, their appearance has more in common with Viagra ads than an email from a professional company.
- We’d like a solution that doesn’t lock up midway through a send. The current solution is written in Java running under IBM’s WebSphere and uses Enterprise JavaBeans – I’ll wait while those of you with experience in that realm shudder a bit – so it has some memory and performance issues. One symptom of which is that it sometimes locks up and stops sending, but it doesn’t have a way to resume from where it stopped, so we wind up sending duplicates. Like I said, we slapped this thing together ten years ago on a whim.
- Better filtering. Over time the business has asked to be able to send alerts to subsets of our customers, mostly based on geography. The current system can’t do this, it’s only by type of customers and subscriptions – it doesn’t know which customers are in Florida or which are in particular counties. I know this sounds trivial, but the nature of our data doesn’t make it easy – the web data actually doesn’t know about the customer data (where the address is), because they’re two different systems.
And, finally, in case you hadn’t noticed, the economy sucks right now and we’re in the real-estate sector, so cost is a big deal – we want something very, very inexpensive.
There are pros and cons to each option – build it ourselves, use a hosted solution or buy desktop software.
Being a developer, I like the idea of writing my own solution. That way, it does exactly what I want it to do the way I want it to do it. (Okay, fine, in reality it does exactly what I tell it to do in exactly the way I coded it to do it, which isn’t always what I “want”, but that’s a different post.) But is this really the best use of the company’s resources if their are commercial products that will do the job? That depends on the capabilities and cost, of course, which is why we do the build vs. buy evaluation.
The online solutions look good, things like Constant Contact – they meet all of the requirements except that they require opt-out from the list, something one type of mailing we have doesn’t allow. Also, we’d fall in their $150 / month pricing bracket, so it might be more economical, in the long run, to just write it ourselves.
That brought us to desktop solutions in our evaluation and we found SendBlaster.
SendBlaster definitely met our cost requirement – there’s a free version that sends 100 emails at a time or the purchased version that sends an unlimited number and the cost is a flat 75eu or about $100.
It supports HTML emails and hasn’t locked up at all during testing – and if it ever does, it can resume a mailing from where it left off.
SendBlaster has some nice import/export features that will let us run queries to or even create a web page to get customers into/out-of the lists and supports an unlimited number of lists, so we can have one list for each of the news topics we allow our customers to subscribe to and one that includes all of them for the mandatory emails.
SendBlaster satisfies most of what the business wants for geographic filtering, too. We can import our customers’ state, zipcode and county and filter the list based on these. This will allow us to stop sending Florida emails to customers in other states.
For $100, we really can’t go wrong with this software – if it turns out not to work well for us, we’ve spent less than one month of an online service charge or less than it would cost to put four people in a room for an hour to talk about writing our own.