WP Engine to Pantheon: What We Learned About SMTP Providers SendGrid, SparkPost, and Mailgun

Working with a great SMTP provider is something I never thought I would have to care about as website manager.

Until it ruined my entire month.

Today’s blog is an account of the experience we went through when we had difficulty moving to a new SMTP and how it would wreak havoc on our websites.

It’s an unusual topic compared to what we normally talk about, but I felt like it’s an important issue for other small businesses or web designers managing websites that need to send emails.

Before I dive into the story, you’re probably wondering what an SMTP is? I’m glad you asked, it stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, and it’s service that helps send and receive an email for your company, often used with your website forms.

It’s one of those background services a website needs to accomplish essential services, such as having their website email their business lead forms or order submissions.

It’s an important service that goes into making your website work, but it’s something I never thought too much about.

Until it stopped working.

Why our emails started failing

The reason emails sent from our websites failed came with switching hosting providers. We recently moved all our websites from WP Engine to Pantheon.

Unlike WP Engine, Pantheon doesn’t support email sending from websites.

The reason Pantheon can’t support emails being directly sent from its servers comes down to their container-based architecture. A whole host of advantages come from their container architecture, but there are a couple areas like email sending that gets complicated.

If you are to try sending contact form, or order emails through your Pantheon hosted website without an SMTP service like what you are used to with a traditional hosting company it results in services like Outlook and Yahoo blocking emails if it looks like it’s coming from itself.

It’s a good safety measure that helps monitor possible spam, but to counteract that, you have to use an SMTP relay to mask the emails you are sending from your site.

Since Pantheon doesn’t offer this service, they referred us to SendGrid, an SMTP provider they usually refer clients too. At first glance, it looked like the ticket.

Well, I went to SendGrid, it was super complicated. I had a hard time figuring out what to even put into their system to get the software setup. It was clear to me pretty quick that it was not the best fit for us trying to set up SMTP for 70+ websites.

After doing some research I found SparkPost, which is a different SMTP provider.

SparkPost was relatively easy to set up and get started using. So we put it on all of our websites, our BNG owned and client sites. Everything seemed fine for about two weeks, then everything went downhill fast.

We got an email from their compliance team, basically stating that we were not in compliance with how they expect people to use their product. They had shut all of our email sending off, meaning every single website that we host was no longer sending emails. Any form that was filled out on any website managed by BNG was not being sent to its appropriate person.

We had to go through a long process of explaining how we were using their services for SMTP to send emails from websites we were hosting and not utilizing their email marketing software (similar to MailChimp).

That was about a day’s worth of work by the time we got done with their compliance team. They eventually turned our email sending ability back on and I thought everything was okay.

About a week later I got another email, they shut it off again. SparkPost stated that we were not in compliance again because one of the spambots that hit our website filled out our form and sent out a spammy email that looked like it came from us.

The spambot was at fault and caused no damage. However, SparkPost took it as something we had control over and would not reinstate our ability to send emails with their software. We were essentially down on all our websites, as a website that cannot collect leads or sales is a very expensive brochure.

Mailgun to the rescue

While talking with the SparkPost compliance team the second time, I felt that it may be time to look into another option that would not shut our services off and leave us stranded. I did some research, and I found Mailgun. As far as I could tell, Mailgun was specifically built to be just an SMTP provider, and since we already use MailChimp as our email marketing tool, this was exactly the service we were hoping to find!

I quickly created a Mailgun account and began the process of using their platform. It was surprisingly easy and straightforward, and I found a plugin that directly integrates with WordPress. You just enter in your information, and it does most of the work for you.

I feel I can safely say as we have recently hit the 2-month mark, we have had zero issues with Mailgun and their services and they’ve been a joy to work with.

The benefit of using Mailgun over some other SMTP’s services has a lot to do with what the software was created to do. SparkPost is first an email marketing tool and then offers SMTP as an afterthought. Since they are designed more for email marketing, they are less adept to understand how our business uses it strictly as an SMTP for sending emails from our sites.

More often than not, SMTP services are needed with email marketing tools, which is why SparkPost, SendGrid, and MailChimp are the providers that most think of first because they can do both.

In my mind, I never thought this would be such an issue for our company, but it was. Other web companies and developers probably use, or should be using an SMTP service for sending their website submissions and orders from WordPress.

I can’t imagine we’re the only ones that have ever had this issue or that are always being flagged by compliance teams when it comes to using things like SparkPost or SendGrid. Those compliance teams are a lot more strict because they’re using it for email marketing, and they’re not just using it to send transactional emails.

Finding the right SMTP provider matters

It may seem like a minor detail, but working with a complicated SMTP provider can damage your day-to-day business and cost you in the long run.

Worried about your WordPress site and not sure if it’s up to snuff? Contact us here, and we’ll give you a free consultation.