Boutique ESP Focuses on Special Integrations and Deep Personalization: Interview with Igor Polevoy, President of ExpressPigeon
Who are you as a company, what’s your mission, and what is your value proposition?
On the surface, we are a typical email service provider. We have tools for users to login, create messages, send, and run reports. If you dig deeper, though, we are more of a boutique ESP; our tools allow users to produce high quality work very fast. We also take care and pride in our responsive, compatible messages. This is something that an ESP should do, but very few other providers are actually capable of producing a message that is compatible with different browsers and responsive across different devices.
We also combine marketing email and transactional email capabilities, which very few ESPs do. Think about MailChimp and SendGrid—we’re two mass email communication services under the same roof.
The other differentiator is that we are a custom email solutions provider. Other ESPs won’t work for companies that need special features, a special API, or special reports, etc. We’re good at special integrations. Sometimes we even consult with our customers’ technical teams on how to best implement their email infrastructure. That’s what makes us different.
Who do you see as your main competitors?
Looking at where customers are coming from, I can say MailChimp, Sendgrid, and to some extent, ExactTarget. But we’re kind of floating in a space between—we’re not really competing on the B2C market, for example. However, MailChimp users who switch over to ExpressPigeon often find our speed refreshing. We also have some advanced features that other B2C ESPs do not have, and those are targeted at more sophisticated use cases.
For example, we have the capability for deep personalization. Companies can use personalization with their catalog of hundreds of thousands of products to send recommendations for different products to different people. We match a highly dynamic newsletter between people and products, such that when a marketing manager sends a blast to half a million people, everyone gets a personalized message. This is not like segmenting people into 5-10 different buckets; rather, there is a personalized message to each and every individual. You can’t do this with a typical ESP, and it’s a lot easier to do with ExpressPigeon than with a B2B ESP like ExactTarget.
We also do personalization in terms of time to send. Our competitors provide options to do this, but mostly those options boil down to buckets, like send to X amount of people within a two-hour time limit. Some ESPs do this with zip codes. We take it a lot further. We allow users to configure a send time to each individual: this person will receive it at 5pm, but this other person will receive it at 7am. It helps improve open rates.
Do you have reporting features related to optimal send times?
ExpressPigeon can provide extensive reports on when emails were opened, and marketers can make the decision to follow those times or try a different strategy. The intelligence of when to send an email is external to us. But we give users fine-tuned control to set instructions for send time. We call this feature Progressive Campaign.
There are two different ways we deliver scheduled emails:
1. Fixed campaign—All emails will be delivered before midnight, at the scheduled time. Think of this as same-day delivery.
2. Rolling campaign—This takes a 24-hour view of the campaign. So, if you send at noon and a contact’s time is set to 8am, they will receive the email at 8 am the following day.
You mentioned advanced features like deep personalization. That’s something we often hear about from marketing automation vendors. How do you see ExpressPigeon in relation to marketing automation?
We have some marketing automation built in, although currently it’s not our primary focus. This might change in the next few months. We are seriously considering building a business process workflow into our system. Today we have an Autoresponder/drip campaign feature. This allows users to start and stop drip campaigns at different times, send specific messages, and get easy reports as far as open clicks and which email client was used to open the message.
In addition to that, we have a transactional system that is geared for developers and non-technical people alike. If you use another tool like SendGrid or MailGun, you need to develop your own HTML, write your own CSS, host images, and merge the email with data before giving it to the transactional system. With ExpressPigeon it’s all upside down. A marketing director can log into the system and visually create a template that will be used by developers to send the transactional message. Developers don’t have to make emails or host images, or even care about styling. All they do is send us a trigger to send the email to this person and merge the data into the template. The heavy lifting is done on the ExpressPigeon side, rather than on our customers’ side. Companies use our transactional service as somewhat of a marketing automation system—whenever something happens with data on their websites, send a trigger email to their contacts. An extreme case is a company having 250 different transactional message types. Without our service they would have to invest considerably into their email solution.
Do you integrate with other marketing automation systems, or are you best suited for customers who only need to use your automation features?
They can use our extensive REST-based API to integrate with their marketing automation tool, send messages and get reports.
What are the most common integrations you see ExpressPigeon customers using?
They commonly use our Google Maps integration. Users can open a template and type in an address, and we insert the map. But our YouTube integration is the most popular, because embedding a video into a message is incredibly hard for most ESPs and most non-technical people (except if they use ExpressPigeon). Users just copy and paste the video URL, and we automatically embed the video into their newsletter. We guarantee that video will work with every email client.
So are most of your out-of-the-box integrations related to email content?
Yes. We do have some other types of integrations as well. For example, we integrate with EventBrite, so users can easily select events from within ExpressPigeon. We automatically pull in all of the event information, including a map; we also pull all of the event members into a list. ExpressPigeon has quite a number of integrations—to Facebook, Google Analytics, and Zapier, which opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of additional integrations—but out of the box we are not that integration-heavy. Most customers use our API.
Where are your new customers coming from?
We see two streams of customers coming in. We’re a Chicago-based company, and the word has gotten out. We see a lot of local startups, and quite a few local mid-sized companies are switching to ExpressPigeon. The other stream of new customers are searching for and finding us on the internet. Most of our local Chicago customers use more advanced features than the second group of users. But even those users get a pleasant surprise from our customization features and email database.
Even smaller companies and non-sophisticated customers are using some advanced features. One example is a real estate company who manages newsletter lists for 50 different realtors/lists. They use ExpressPigeon to personalize each realtor’s newsletters with a different profile, credentials, portrait and signature etc.
What is the main difference between your free and paid versions, and what kind of company is a good fit for each of those offerings?
There is no difference in functionality. All ExpressPigeon plans include access to all of our functionality. (If and when we build the automation piece, that might be for premium users.) Our free plan allows users to send up to 1000 emails per month to lists of 500 email addresses. This is a good fit for a company trying ExpressPigeon out, or for a use case with a tiny list, like a homeowner’s association.
Do you have any other marketing features, aside from personalization and auto-responses?
Yes. We have a powerful segmentation tool. A non-technical person can create very complex queries. They can attach queries to contact lists, and extract contacts based on X criteria. These criteria can be based on three factors: standard fields (first/last name, zipcode), custom fields, and engagement (opens or clicks). Users can ask questions using AND, OR, and RANGE functions. For example, “Give me all the people in zipcode A or zipcode B, who are males age 18-24 and who purchased black shoes in the last month and opened or clicked our email in the past two weeks.” Our customers can construct complicated queries using simple point drag click methods. It’s very intuitive. Sometimes users don’t even need to send a message, but they want to understand the segment size.
How do you handle IP addresses and spam flagging (which are often a pain point with ESPs)?
We don’t tend to hear those problems from our users, because we built our own delivery engine. This is another major differentiating factor compared to most ESPs. We build-out custom solutions for our customers. We have thousands of pristine IP addresses at our disposal. We have a pretty streamlined customer onboarding process; we do a detailed review of new customers, including their organization and their content, before we let them send. Everything has to be top-notch.
In addition to that, we built a system to white label those IP addresses for our customers. We have a number of services we offer to our customers to improve trust factor and deliverability. These options range from shared pools of IP addresses to private IPs and IP pools, to whitelabeled IP addresses, whitelabeled domains, image hosting, clicks and open links. Essentially we can make an email appear completely as if it came out of customers’ servers.
How many customers do you have now?
We’re relatively small and young. As opposed to some of our competition, our goal is to work with a fewer number of customers that are higher quality. In the next year or so we will be focused on corporate-grade customers, and moving towards working with more B2B than B2SME customers.
What trends are influencing the decisions you’re making in terms of product development and positioning?
It looks like the clear winner in B2C space is MailChimp; we can’t ignore them. However, many of their customers are using a freemium plan, and some of the bulk email spammers are using MailChimp—at least, until their account gets shut down. A number of other companies are trailing behind, like ConstantContact, GetResponse, iContact and others. On the enterprise side, Eloqua, Responsys, ExactTarget, and Silverpop have been key players in the past, but most have been acquired and stopped existing as a separate entity. Over the past two years there has been a feeding frenzy by the larger companies like SalesForce, IBM, Oracle, GoDaddy, etc.. This has been a strange and interesting shift.
Email marketing technology is moving into automation and personalization. Vendors and users are focusing on getting the right information to the right person at the right time. Tools are becoming more personalized and more targeted, and I believe vendors with these advanced features are going to win. Email marketing is the most precise out of all the marketing channels. Marketers have a lot of information about their customers, and they need tools that make it easy to take advantage of that information—that’s the winning combination.
What is the typical list size for an ExpressPigeon user?
Our customers fall all over the place. But the typical user has in excess of 100K emails on their list.
What’s on your near-term roadmap, in terms of product development?
In the near term, we are working on opening up a Pandora’s box of statistics and a brand new editor. The metrics and visualizations we will roll out include: total open rates, individual open rates, unique open rates, click throughs, CTOR, graphs of open rates over time, mobile vs. desktop open rates, top email clients, distribution of people across the globe visually (in the form of a heatmap), etc. We have been collecting all of this information, as we’re working on how to present it. By making reporting easier to understand, we can also make acting upon the data easier. We’re revamping that entire part of the system. It will be simpler to understand, but users will also be able to dive into more details, depending on their needs.
You were founded in 2011, which is a lot more recently than most of the other email marketing vendors we hear from—what was it like to come into the space at that time?
Well actually we’re even newer than that. The company was officially registered in 2011, but we didn’t go online until 2012-2013. In 2012 we went online with beta. It’s an interesting question, because our original goal was to compete on the B2C market by providing better quality tools.
However, in the time while we were developing, MailChimp became the leader in this space. We’re now working more towards a demanding type of small to medium B2B corporations. That’s the reason we’re developing more advanced features that B2C ESPs do not have. We also have some customers who come from using ExactTarget, and they are really satisfied with our personalization features. With ET, a company needs a development team to use their advanced personalization features. Things are much easier with us.
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