Jan 30, 2009

RSS to Email Tutorial

rss-to-email-icon

You know you should be sending email newsletters to your clients and customers on a regular basis. But you never find the time to write them, do you?

The truth is, you’ll probably never find the time to sit down and write an email newsletter. That’s exactly why we created MailChimp’s RSS-to-Email tool. It takes content from your blog (or any RSS feed), and sends it as an email newsletter to your subscribers. Automagically.

If you’re a heavy blogger, you’re probably wondering if it’s anything like Feedburner or Feedblitz or the other bajillions of RSS-to-email tools out there. No. Mainly because with MailChimp, you can use your own highly-customized HTML email templates, and we provide open and click tracking, bounce management, list cleaning, spam filter check, and more.

But here’s the part that’ll make you really poop your pants. RSS feeds don’t just come from blogs. Your e-commerce cart probably publishes an inventory RSS feed (think email alerts when products are back in stock). Most event calendar services publish RSS feeds (think event alerts). Social networking sites like Facebook and Ning have RSS feeds. Airfare alerts are often in RSS format. They can all be turned into automated, trackable email campaigns with MailChimp.

Sound interesting? Here’s how to get started…

What is RSS?

This is where I should give you an introduction to RSS. But I’m too lazy. Go learn about RSS on Wikipedia if you don’t know what it is.

Anatomy of a blog post

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of our RSS-to-email tool, it’s important to have a very basic understanding of how RSS works. Don’t worry, this’ll be fast.

In this tutorial, I’m going to use an article on the MailChimp Blog: New MailChimp Logo by Jon Hicks

It’s our most popular article, and it’s a good example because it contains LOTs of text in the body, and lots of little images.

When you create a blog post (such as in WordPress or TypePad or Blogger), the interface usually asks you to categorize your article, give it some keywords, and write a short summary about the content. Here’s that example blog post from above, being entered into the WordPress interface:

blog-anatomy3

and here’s what all those pieces look like when it’s published on our blog (click here to see it live):

blog-anatomy-21

Notice all the various parts of the post that were pulled from the WordPress interface?

  • Title (which is a clickable link, using the permalink URL)
  • Permalink
  • Publish Date
  • Author
  • Body / Content

We’re going to be discussing these "parts" of the RSS feed later, so make sure you review them.

Permalink is a very important one.

Creating an RSS-To-Email Campaign in MailChimp

Let’s put together a super quick RSS email campaign in MailChimp. First I’ll show you how it looks by default, then I’ll show you how to customize it and make it fancy-schmancy.

1. Log in to MailChimp, and select "RSS Campaign" from the big orange "Create" button:

create-bttn1

2. Enter the address for your RSS feed.

rss-url

Note that you don’t have to jump through hoops to find the EXACT URL of your RSS feed. You can just give us the address of your company’s blog (like in my screenshot), and we’ll search your site for an RSS feed. Most of the time, we can find it ourselves. Otherwise, you can look for the standard RSS icon RSS icon somewhere on your blog. Click it to get its URL.

RSS Validation Error?

If you enter an RSS URL and MailChimp gives you an error, it could be because your RSS feed is invalid. People always get offended when we say that. Don’t take it personally. It just means something is not really formatted correctly in your feed. MailChimp’s not even that picky about properly formatted RSS, so if it fails here, something must be pretty bad. Here’s a handy RSS validator if you’re having problems: http://validator.w3.org/

I’ve run into most problems with RSS feeds that have been customized in some way by the author. Don’t kill the messenger.

RSS Email Delivery Schedule

You can set a delivery schedule for your RSS email campaigns. This is where a lot of people go "huh?" because we don’t let you select any minute of any day for your delivery. Not yet, anyway. So let’s go over your choices:

  • By default, we’ll check your blog every day for new updates. If we detect that updates were made to your blog, we’ll send your email. If there are NO updates to your blog content, no email will go out. When we say, "every day" we mean "3am ET." So basically, if you add 5 articles to your blog today, then tomorrow, at 3am, MailChimp will find them, put them into your HTML email template, and send the campaign to your list.
  • Or, you can have MailChimp send weekly emails. Every Monday at 3am ET, we’ll check for updates to your blog. If we see updates, we’ll send an email to your subscribers. This is like a "weekly digest."
  • Finally, you can send monthly. Every 1st of the month, we’ll check at 3am ET for updates.

Which schedule you select depends on the type of content you publish. In general, most people think "daily" is way too often, but personally, the whole reason I sign up for any RSS-to-email alert from any content provider is so that I can get very frequent updates. So daily is really not that bad. In fact, when we first launched this feature, daily was our only choice. We were flooded with so many "weekly/monthly" requests, we eventually added that in.

RSS Publication Dates
Note that if you update a really, really old post (like from 5 years ago), that might count as a "new update" and MailChimp will send it. It depends on your blog platform. Some of them will update the original "published date" and others will use an "updated date." If your blog platform actually modifies the "published date" whenever you make edits, then it’ll be sent. Again, don’t kill the messenger. That’s just how RSS works.

3. Pick a list to send the RSS campaigns to.

Oh yeah. This probably should have been step one. But then nobody would read the rest of the article, because this is the most boring step. Anyway, one of the first things you have to do whenever you setup a MailChimp account is create a list (here’s a demo video for setting up a MailChimp list). That in turn will give you a signup form that you can add to your website, so you can collect opt-in subscribers (then we’ll manage opt-outs, bounce-cleaning, etc moving forward).

In fact, if you’re using our RSS-to-email functionality for your blog, you should check out our WordPress or MovableType or TypePad plugins to drop a convenient little signup box onto your blog.

Whenever you’re setting up your list, and you know it’s going to be linked to an RSS campaign, give the list a good name, like "Updates from the Acme Blog" or "Acme Event Updates" or "Weekly Inventory Alerts from Acme" or "Daily News Alerts."

Where were we?

Oh yeah.

Select the list you want to send the RSS campaign to. 9 times out of 10, you’ll want to send to your entire list. But notice that you can also send this campaign to a "segment" of this list:

segment-of-list

I mention "segments" in case you want to let users select the category of content they receive updates about from your blog. Then, you can create several different RSS-to-email campaigns that pull from your category-specific RSS feeds, and send them to the appropriate segment.

Anyway, let’s keep it simple and "send to entire list."

4. Setup Email Campaign Basics

On the next screen, you’ll enter a title for your campaign, a subject line, and set your tracking options. I’ve setup a lot of RSS-to-email campaigns, and I can tell you the most important thing here is to give your campaign a very, very descriptive title. Trust me.

Subject Lines

Take a look at the default subject line that MailChimp gives you:

subject-line

Depending on your particular blog, you might want to change that. The reason I say that is *|RSSFEED:TITLE|* is usually the name of your blog. Do you remember setting up the name of your blog? That was probably years ago. And I bet you’ve changed it since then. Mine used to be called "Monkeybrains." These days, I just go by "MailChimp Blog." But I’ve never gone back into my WordPress settings to change the name. So in the subject line, you may want tojust hard code the name of your blog.

5. Design HTML Email Template

Now the fun part. This is where MailChimp differs from a lot of other RSS-to-email tools, because we can actually design the HTML email "wrap" around our RSS content. If you already have email templates setup and saved in MailChimp, you can simply re-use one of those templates. Or, you can create a new template from scratch, using our built-in layouts (if you’re an advanced coder, you can upload your own design as a ZIP file).

I’m going to build a new template from scratch.

Select the "New Email" tab, then choose the "Basic" layout:

select-template

If you want to insert advertising into your RSS-to-email campaigns, you might choose one of the side-column layouts. If you’re sending mostly-text "news alerts" but you’d like to send it in HTML format so that you can have tracking enabled, choose the "Rich Text" layout.

I’m going to pick the "basic" layout.

Note: Whenever you create a fresh new email template from scratch like this, MailChimp’s Automatic Email Designer will actually visit your website, analyze your CSS stylesheets, and look for company logos. Then, we’ll try to put those into your email to save you some time. It’s almost never perfect, but it can save you a few minutes. It comes in really handy, because after we’ve analyzed your website’s CSS stylesheets, your official company colors will appear in all of MailChimp’s color palettes. Makes customizing your designs really easy.

design-template

So here’s my basic template, with no customization whatsoever. Yep, that’s pretty ugly. But don’t worry, it’s totally customizable (like virutally everything in MailChimp). We’ll spruce it up a little, but first, I want you to notice the little tag that’s in the content area:

default-rss-tag

That’s the default RSS formatting tag that we include in your RSS campaigns.

That little tag determines the format of my RSS feeds when they get "sucked in" to MailChimp.

By default, that tag will ONLY include these elements from your RSS feed:

  1. Title
  2. Summary/Excerpt (mostly the text, with no images, links, etc)
  3. The Permalink to go and view the full article on your blog
  4. Link to view comments
  5. Publish date
  6. Author

If you’d like to see that in action, click the "Pop up preview" button in MailChimp, and a window will open, and MailChimp will suck in your latest blog updates from the RSS feed. You’ll see exactly how your content will look in the email.

Here’s a screenshot of mine:

preview-default-tag1

In that screenshot, disregard how ugly the template is. I already told you we’d spruce that up later. Focus on the content.

Notice that for each blog post, it’s only including my summary/excerpts. You have to click the "read more" links (permalinks) to go and read the full articles, over at my official blog.

Links not clickable?
And in the very top article, notice that there’s a link to a funny website (caniuseapurchasedlist.com). On the published version at our blog, that URL is clickable. But in this RSS email campaign, it’s not.  That’s because MailChimp is only pulling in the "content" of your RSS feed, not its full code. If you want MailChimp to include the full code  from your blog post, then you’ll need to use a different tag (*|RSSITEM:CONTENT_FULL|*).

We’ll go over that tag, plus a bunch of other cool ones, next.

Advanced RSS Merge Tag Customization

Close the pop-up preview, and let’s click on that default RSS merge tag in order to open up the WYSIWYG text editor in MailChimp:

default-rss-tag

When the text editor opens, look in the top right corner for a link called "RSS merge tag reference:"

rss-merge-tag-reference

If you click on that, you’ll get a pop-up window with lots of RSS merge tags that you can use instead of the default one:

rss-mergetag-cheatsheet

I don’t want to get into explaining each and every merge tag. There are handy descriptions next to each one. Also, there’s a "quick examples" tab at the top of that pop-up with ready-made code that you can copy-paste into the text editor.

I do want to go over the concept of "RSS ITEMS" though. It’s important if you want to do nice customization to your campaigns.

You know what an RSS "FEED" is. Well, your "FEED" is composed of individual "ITEMS" (aka "articles," since we’re using blogs as our example). Each ITEM (article) is composed of a title, author, date, permalink, etc.

Okay, so in that pop-up window, if you scroll down to the "Info from Individual Items" section, you’ll see these tags:

*|RSSITEM:TITLE|*

*|RSSITEM:URL|*

*|RSSITEM:DATE|*

*|RSSITEM:AUTHOR|*

etc.

Those are the individual elements within each one of your RSS ITEMS.

So this is where, instead of using our default RSS tag: *|RSS:POSTS_HTML|*

we can pick and choose which elements from our items that we want, then add our own styles and formatting to those items.

For example, you might add styles around each one of your ITEM’s elements:

<span class="title">*|RSSITEM:TITLE|*</span><br>
<span class="date">*|RSSITEM:DATE|*</span><br>
*|RSSITEM:CONTENT_FULL|*<br>

and so on.

Oops, I almost forgot to wrap that code with my START and END tags (in red):

*|RSSITEMS:|*
<span class="title">*|RSSITEM:TITLE|*</span><br>
<span class="date">*|RSSITEM:DATE|*</span><br>
*|RSSITEM:CONTENT_FULL|*<br>
*|END:RSSITEMS|*

If you forget to put those START and END tags in, MailChimp won’t "loop" all your updated items into the campaign. We’ll just stick your one most recent item.

So play around with the RSS merge tags and get the feed to look the way you want. You’ll be hitting the "pop-up preview" button a bunch while you work. That’s what it’s there for.

Whenever you’re satisfied, and you’re ready to begin sending, hit the button at the bottom of MailChimp’s pre-delivery checklist to "Start RSS Campaign:"

start-rss-campaign

After your RSS email campaign has begun, you’ll see it under your Campaigns Tab.

Pause To Edit RSS Email Campaigns

Once the RSS email campaign has been set, it’ll be on autopilot, and you can just sit back and blog. MailChimp will be delivering everything for you automatically. But if you ever want to go back and edit the campaign, you’ll need to hit the "Pause" link before you can tweak it

pause-to-edit

After you’ve made your edits, hit the "Start" button again, and your schedule will start again.

Spam Filters and RSS-driven Content

Okay, so one thing you need to be aware of is that when you’re writing your blog, you’re probably not thinking about "avoiding content that could trigger spam filters." Nor should you. But it can be an issue, depending on the content in your RSS feed. If you notice that your RSS campaigns are getting junked, it might have nothing to do with your RSS feed (or MailChimp). It could be the content of your blog. That’s what happened to me with this seemingly innocent blog post.

Other Merge Tags to Play With

*|RSS:RECENT|* will insert your most recent articles from your RSS feed into your email. It’s a neat way to showcase other blog posts your readers may have missed. You can tweak it to:

*|RSS:RECENT10|* , and it’ll display your most recent 10 blog posts. Use any number you like.

*|MC:SHARE|* will add a row of "sharing" icons to your campaign, so that subscribers can share your campaign with others on Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, etc.

*|TRANSLATE:EMAIL_LANG|* is a nifty tag that’ll insert "Google Translate" links into your email campaign. So a subscriber can click to translate your email from Spanish to French, for example.

*|LIST:SUBSCRIBERS|* will display how many active subscribers are on the list.

RSSITEM:CONCLUSION

Whew, that was a long tutorial. RSS-to-email can take a little bit of effort to get setup, but when you’re done, everything is on autopilot. All you have to do is blog, and we’ll deliver your emails. This puts you in more frequent contact with your customers, and keeps your list more updated. What are you going to do with all your extra time? More email marketing!