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  Enewsletters - Christopher Heath Potpourri

Canadian FundRaiserThe final step: choosing the distribution system

This is it. The final step. You’re ready to send out your brand-new eNewsletter to your subscribers. But how will you do this? There are many options to choose from, depending on the size of your list, your budget and time, and what your computer and software setup is like.

You will need to be able to send mail to a group of users, and be able to track responses, bounces, subscription requests, removal requests, and changing eMail addresses and contact information. Depending on how many people you will be trying to reach, you will need a more or less elaborate system to do this work.

In its simplest form, your distribution system can be you and your eMail program. Just copy and paste your eNewsletter into the body of a new message, and copy and paste the list of eMail addresses into the bcc: field of the message, hit send, and get ready to deal with what may come.

Remember, always put your recipients in the bcc: (blind carbon copy) field. Otherwise, each recipient will see every other eMail address to which the message is being sent in the form of a huge list at the top of your eNewsletter message. Not only is this a faux pas, but it reveals your complete mailing list to the entire world, which raises substantial privacy issues. You may also need to put your own eMail address in the to: field, as many eMail programs need to have at least one address in this field.

Soon enough after you hit the send button, you will start to receive out-of-office auto reply messages, bounce messages, unsubscribe requests, comments from your readers, and so on. You will need to deal with these as promptly as you can, especially requests from people who want to be removed from your list, and address changes.

You will also want to remove eMail addresses that bounce more than a few times from your list, to speed up send times, and to get a better idea of how many subscribers you really have.

Separate account

Some eMail programs let you write in a different eMail address in the From: field, so that the messages generated by your mail-out don’t clutter up your own inbox. Alternatively, you can create a new, separate eMail account for your eNewsletter (newsdesk@yourorganization.org, for example) from which you can do your mail-outs. Just remember to check the account for the messages that your mail-out will generate.

Also keep in mind that many eMail programs and Internet service providers will limit the number of recipients per message, as a measure to control spam, or junk eMail. If you encounter this limit, you will need to split your list into smaller groups of addresses, and send out your eNewsletter in batches.

As your list grows, all of this can quickly turn into a lot of work. When you are sending to more than a thousand eMail addresses, the workload can become unbearable.

When the workload generated by manually maintaining your list becomes too great, there are many tools you can turn to that will help automate a lot of the drudgery of running a large eNewsletter. These tools fall into three broad categories: online list services, dedicated contact management software, and local eMail distribution systems.

List services

There are many companies, both commercial and not-for-profit, that offer eMail list management services. The most sophisticated ones (and the most costly) are full-blown contact management systems with sophisticated eMail capabilities, where you can store all your contact information in one place.

With these services, you can track your subscribers, donors, supporters, clients, (or any combination of the above) in one single database. The downsides of these services are a relatively high monthly cost, a somewhat steep learning curve, and the fact that your data resides on somebody else’s server, and not in your office.

In exchange, the service you get rivals what some of the most advanced contact management systems can offer, at a fraction of the cost and complexity of purchasing and installing the software yourself. Backups are taken care of, and you have access to your data from any computer with an Internet connection. Commercial services include Whatcounts.com and salesforce.com.

Your own contact management system

You can also purchase and install your own contact management software. If you use a contact manager like Act! or Maximizer, there are also add-ons that can run a list based on your own contact database. This is a powerful option, since you are basing your distribution list on your contact data, without having to maintain a separate list or database for your eNewsletter.

However, these contact managers and add-ons usually lack a means for readers to manage their own subscriptions or to sign up automatically (although there are some that will do these tasks). This means that you will still have to do some manual updating and managing of your records. You may also need to export your list to your eMail program for mail-outs, although this is less and less often the case.

You also need to keep in mind the cost of the software, and the upgrades that will inevitably become necessary, and you will also be responsible for backing up and maintaining the data. And finally, depending on the connection your Internet service provider (ISP) gives you and your eMail setup, you may still be restricted in the amount of mail you can send out at once.

Your mail may also run a higher risk of being labelled as spam or junk eMail, because many junk mail filters look at the software that is used to send the mail to help determine what is junk mail or not. Make sure you have checked with your ISP before going this route.

Your own eMail distribution system

If you’re savvy enough, you can run your own software – there are many good free packages, and even more commercial ones. Phplist, majordomo, sympa are some of the big names out there in the free software area. You can also buy commercial software, which will run under Windows or OS X. Products include e-Campaign, Gammadyne, M5 Mailer, and Infacta Group Mail.

Some of these products offer several licensing options based on how many subscribers you have, so they can range in cost from very reasonable to several hundred dollars, depending on the size of your list. OS X users take note: much of the foundation of OS X is based on open source applications, and you can thus take advantage of many of the LAMP options listed below.

To run the free software, you will need a computer running what is known the LAMP suite: Linux (operating system), Apache (web server software), MySQL (database server), and PHP (web scripting language). The bad news is that this can be a little daunting the first time around, particularly when it comes to getting the computer and your network set up to receive eMail.

The good news is that all of this software is completely free to use (both in terms of cost and in terms of usage and licensing), and many Linux packages do almost all of the work for you. There is also a wealth of documentation online, and there is a large and mostly helpful community of users and developers online who are able to help. You can also hire expert help: look for your local Linux users group (also known as a LUG) and ask them.

Once you have a LAMP system set up and configured, you can download and install any of the free mail distribution packages. The biggest strength of this setup is the amount of control you have over how your mail-outs take place. You can compose your messages and manage your lists through a web interface from any computer with a web browser, you can subscribe or unsubscribe users, and you can create as many lists as you want (hint: you can use the software to run a media notification list, broken down by geographic area, or expertise). And beyond the setup costs and your time, the software is free.

A big advantage of the free/Linux approach is its expandability: once set up, you can run a huge range of applications, such as online survey software, time tracking, and content management systems, among others, and all free, of course. Some commercial services even base their products on customized open source software.

The commercial software works well, but usually with fewer options. Also, several of these applications have been flagged by many junk eMail filters as known sources of spam, so do some research before you decide to settle on a product.

Your own mail server

Finally, when your list gets to be big enough, you may want to consider running your own mail server, or a mail gateway that can talk to other mail servers without going through your ISP. Many commercial mailer software packages do this in a sense, by running their own small mail server for the duration of the eNewsletter mail-out.

Running your own mail server is beyond the scope of this series, but if you have an Exchange server, or have chosen the open-source LAMP route, you already have access to a mail server where you can create any number of eMail accounts to handle the flow of mail that running an eNewsletter entails.

Whatever means you choose to manage your eNewsletter, the basic principles remain: while the distribution and listbuilding method you choose will affect your workload, strong content and a good, simple design will do more for the success of your eNewsletter than which tools you use.


For further information: Christopher Heald, Technology Manager, IMPACS, chrish@impacs.org.

 
Canadian FundRaiser
Canadian FundRaiserSince 1991, the Canadian FundRaiser™ newsletter has been updating nonprofit managers twice-monthly on news, trends, tips and analysis of developments in the fields of fundraising and nonprofit management.

Our service, originally simply a twice-monthly newsletter, has expanded over the years to include workshops, books, back-issue search and Special Advisories for our member/subscribers. And the complete package is now the Canadian FundRaiser™ Nonprofit Sector Management Information Service.

Current Members can search back issues here, renew their Membership, or correct their address information in our secure files.

Through the generous support of a number of Supporting Sponsors, at the head of them our Lead Sponsor, UNxVision Internet Fundraising Solutions, we have avoided price increases for many years, and been able to provide some services at no cost.

Please take a look at the current issue of Canadian FundRaiser™ eNews, and if you haven’t done so already, sign up ­ at no cost ­ to receive future issues. Visit our Key-To-The-Sector Workshop Centre. Ask about Advertising & Sponsorship opportunities. Or send us an article suggestion. We’re waiting to hear from you.

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