Last week, I had the privilege of appearing on Genesis Office Hours, hosted by the incomparable Carrie Dils. At some point we started discussing some current projects, and I mentioned emails and RSS feeds, since it was one of the approximately 27,000 things on my plate last week. There were a few followup questions on that, so I thought I’d write up a tutorial on how to set up an RSS email campaign using MailChimp. I’ll also be following this up with a post about a plugin I’ve been working on to tackle another issue with RSS and emails and images, which can be pretty finicky.
What is an RSS based email? Basically, you harness the power of an email marketing system and use it to watch your website’s RSS feed, which is automatically created and updated any time you publish a post. The email harvests your content from your post and spits it out as something pretty for your subscribers. The RSS feed itself is not a thing of beauty–go ahead, look at my RSS feed for a minute. What we do with our emails (and other feed readers such as feedly) is convert that mess into something that you and I can read.
In the course of some followup on the RSS / email / MailChimp topic, I discovered that I have failed my own husband because I’ve never set him up with a fancypants email delivery system–poor man was still cranking away with Feedburner, which is fine, but kind of limited, and too easy to forget, as we did. And I don’t even remember how we were collecting addresses, but we certainly haven’t been doing that for quite a while. So even though he didn’t know it, he was more than ready for an update, and I figured it was a great opportunity to walk any of you who are interested through the wonderful world of setting up this kind of campaign.
I’m doing this all with MailChimp, because that’s the company I adore, use, and recommend. I am not sure if Constant Contact supports RSS to email campaigns–last time I checked, they did not.
Set up WordPress to Talk to MailChimp
I’m assuming you’ve already set up your MailChimp account and have your information more or less in place. If you want a sign up form for your site, and if you’re using the Genesis Framework, there is an easy to use little plugin called Genesis eNews Extended. Another good alternative is to use Gravity Forms with their MailChimp addon (you have to have a developer license for Gravity).
Set up MailChimp to Talk to WordPress
To get started with an RSS email, go to your campaigns in MailChimp. Even though this is going to send out many emails, it only counts as one actual campaign. Click on the button in the upper right to create a new campaign and select RSS based campaign, which is going to give you the options you need.
The first step is to enter your feed address–make sure it’s a valid feed. If you’re using WordPress then it’s usually just your site’s URL followed by /feed/. Depending on your setup and site, you may have multiple feeds–you can actually view a feed for each category on your site, or if you have a date based custom post type, it will have its own feed as well. You’ll also decide how often you want to send emails. Do you want the email to go out every day, basically anytime you create a post, or maybe less often, such as once per week? Most RSS based emails probably will be daily, but please note that this doesn’t mean you’ll be sending an email every day! MailChimp will only send an email when you publish a post. If you choose weekly, it will send all of your posts from that week in one email.
The next screen is where you get to start making some choices–what’s your subject line going to be, from what email address are your emails coming, and tracking the performance of your emails. If you use Google Analytics, go ahead and check the appropriate box here for that–we want all the data we can get, remember?
Design your RSS Email Template
The next choice is to select your email template. Scroll to the end of the template choices for the ones which are already preconfigured for RSS, although if you’re good with the code, you can probably use any template. It’s easier to start with a preconfigured one.
Now you’re on the design screen, where you’ll spend most of your time. Here you can prettify your email with a header which matches your site. If you selected the RSS template, the next block has been preset for you, but I usually change this just a bit–for a one man site, I don’t need the author’s name in the email, and I usually drop the date as well, since the email is dated. Here’s an example of the RSS code I use:
One cool thing about using MailChimp for this is that you can add a block of more static content to the end of your email–for example, I have a client who self published an ebook, and his emails have an image of it, along with access instructions, since it’s for email subscribers.
You can also include sharing buttons and links to your website and social media accounts too.
One thing which is easy to miss in your emails is the preheader–the little tiny area at the top. The first part of it shows in many email clients as the preview of the email. You could use the RSS merge tags to show the title of the post, or you could put something more generic, such as “the latest post from Robin!” The other half of the preheader is for people who are having trouble with your email, if something’s wonky and the images aren’t showing, for example: click the link and your reader will go to the copy of the email which MailChimp keeps for you on their servers.
Test, and Test Again
That’s the hard part all done–now you absolutely want to preview your email. This opens an overlay window and shows you what your most recent post would look like as an email, both on a desktop client and on a phone. If everything looks great, then you’re almost done!
If something looks wacky, you need to decide if the whack is happening on your site, or in the email, so that you know where to go to fix it. MailChimp is going to copy over your site’s HTML, so any headings will still be headings, and bold and italicized text will still be bold and italicized. If you have bad formatting form on your site (spans full of font-family and font-size and empty lines and things which really shouldn’t be there anyway), MailChimp will copy that over as well.
Once your email looks good in the preview (you can preview this as many times as you want), you absolutely must send yourself at least one test email. Better yet, send yourself a few, using different email addresses and email clients (so, Yahoo and Gmail for example), because different clients behave differently–and they’re much less flexible and forgiving than any browser. Outlook, for example, is notoriously awful with how it handles images, and there is very little you can do about that, although I’m working on that for my next post. MailChimp does limit the number of test emails you can send per campaign, so if you think you’ll be editing a lot of things, trickle the test emails.
Once your email looks good to you (don’t forget to click links and make sure they’re correct, too!), you can confirm and activate your new campaign. If you pick daily emails, MailChimp will only send the first email if you have a post which is less than twenty four hours old. Weekly emails will look at the last seven days. After the first email goes out, subsequent emails will be sent daily/weekly, and MailChimp is smart enough not to send out the same post twice.
Even after your campaign is up and running, you can pause it and edit it–if you need to change the header image, or colors, for instance, or if you opted for a block of static content which isn’t coming from the feed, that may need to changed periodically. Otherwise, this is a fire and forget campaign, and you are off to the races!
There are more issues to consider, especially regarding images, which we touched on during Genesis Office Hours, but it’s worth its own post, and I have more testing to do. So check back in next time!