Sending Feeds from Your Site

by Tim Isbell, Jan 2011. Major revision Nov 2012

I regularly add new content to my site. When I do I send feeds to notify my subscribers and to tell them something about the new material. The feed also provides a link to take them directly to the new content. These sorts of feeds are similar to blogs. 

RSS feeds are a nifty way to do this, and they also are the enabling technology for other channels of communication with readers. For example, you can turn an RSS feed into an email feed. Then comes various social media sites such as Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on.

To see how all this works, go to my Home page and look at the box in the upper right-hand part of the page. It's labeled: "Recent Posts of IsbellOnline News." Near the top of the box you'll notice a sentence pointing viewers to a subscription link page: IsbellOnline News page. That page is built with the Google "Announcements template." On any page in the site I can simply add a link to this IsbellOnline News page so that the viewer of that page can subscribe.

One more piece of background: email feeds are more personal than RSS feeds.

I don't know much about the person who subscribes to my RSS feed. Google Analytics tells me how many of visitors come in response to my RSS feed. But I can't determine how many total RSS subscribers my site actually sent feeds to. Worse yet, if my RSS feed vendor disappears, I have no way to recover those subscriptions!

But when a person subscribes to my email feed, I have their name and email address - for as long as I keep it. So I can treat email subscribers as something of an "inside group" and offer them more access and ways to interact with me and my site. My post showing up in their email inbox is simply more personal than my post showing up in their Reader.

Okay, here's how to implement feeds from your site.


Preparing your site for feeds

On your site there are 3 pages of interest: 

  • New Content page (Located anywhere in your site map, for example: Advent Readings.)
  • Announcements page (Mine is titled IsbellOnline News; I put it just below my Home page.) To help you get started creating an Announcements page, take a look at this video from Kirksville Web Design.
  • New Posts Gadget (I inserted mine in a prominent place on my Home page. It's the box in the upper right hand area titled: Recent Posts of IsbellOnline News.) 

Every time I add significant New Content anywhere on my site I go to my Announcements page, click on New Post, and write a short summary of that the new content that I've placed anywhere in my site. The short summary must include a link to the new content page. The Announcements page accumulates all these New Post summaries, starting from the most recent.

I programmed the New Posts Gadget (on my Home page) to automatically pull up the title, a graphic (if there is one on the New Posts page), and a snippet of the latest summary from my Announcements page. Now any viewer who comes to my Home page can quickly scan the New Posts Gadget to see what's new. To learn more, they click on the snippet's link, which takes them to the summary. Finally, they can click on the link in the summary to go to the full New Content page. 

So, if viewers take the initiative to get to my Home page... great. They will easily find out what's new and can go deeper from there. But very few viewers will take the initiative to repeatedly visit my Home page just to see if there's anything new. So I want to offer a subscription service so that every time I add a summary of New Content to the Announcements page, my website pushes some sort of notification out to my subscribers. These notifications, or feeds, generally begin with an RSS feed.

Now we know enough to look at how to build feeds into the site.




RSS feeds 

The most elegant way to offer subscriptions is to provide an RSS feed. It also serves as the enabler for other feeds.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it's the way to send feeds to anyone who uses a "news reader" (such as Feedly). It's identified by the orange chicklet you see on so many websites. If you are new to feed readers, check out this 3-minute video at  Commoncraft Plain English RSS feed description.

RSS feeds do not publish instantaneously. It takes a few hours after you Save a New Post before it arrives in subscribers' news readers.

To add an rss feed to your site, first make sure your site is Public. Go to the pull-down menu on the upper right hand section of any page and click on Share. Then select "Public on the web - Anyone on the Internet can find and view." 

Create a page somewhere in your sitemap; mine is just below Home. Just go to your Home page and click on Create page, then use the Announcements Page template and click the button for where you want to place it. 

The top of your Google Announcements page includes a "Subscribe to posts" link (it's next to an orange chicklet). At least for now there's no way to eliminate it, or to get a replica of it to put elsewhere in your site, so from any page where you want to offer a subscription link just put a link to this Announcements page. Okay, back to the Announcements Page and the link at the top: Clicking on this link takes a viewer to a subscription form. When they subscribe, your new posts start appearing in their news reader right alongside their favorite blogs and news sources (such as the New York Times and so on. (Pretty fancy company, huh?).

Google sites allow multiple Announcements Pages, each one with its own RSS feed. So you can tailor feeds for different segments of your content to optimize for different segments of your viewer demographic.

Viewers can easily unsubscribe from your RSS feed by just going to their news reader, whichever one is installed in their browser.

Feel free to subscribe to my feed to get a feel for how all this works. I post a few times each month. These are free, and you can cancel at any time. 

In addition to this automatic feed subscription system, I also post summaries of New Content through a few other channels:

  • Google Group of Northern California Nazarene Pastors and Christian Leaders. (I manually repost to this group)
  • My Facebook Wall. (Automatic. Initially I used twitterfeed but now I use MailChimp. See below). 
  • My Google+ account. (I manually post this to my relevant circles, depending on the nature of the content being posted.).
  • Some of my subscribers repost my material to their readers.
  • Email subscribers list (Automatic, using MailChimp).



Email feeds

Many people prefer to receive feeds through email. Subscribers can choose html, plain text, or mobile formatting for their email feed. The html version should look pretty much like it looks on the website. I'm finding that my Google Apps websites automatically adjust to mobile and tablets quite nicely, so there's little reason to separately offer Mobile. But some folks (usually the most techy folks) prefer their emails in plain text.

It takes 2 steps to get an email feed working:

  1. Run the Google Announcements page feed through an RSS Aggregator. ( I use RSS Mix, recommended to me by MailChimp.)
  2. Then put the mixed feed from RSS mix into the MailChimp rss-to-email feed campaign.

You may wonder why we need to run the Google feed through RSS mix, which is a tool intended to combine multiple feeds into one feed. But in our case we're just using RSS Mix to modify the Google feed so that MailChimp (and I suspect many other feed processors) will accept it. 

The core problem is that Google's Announcements Page RSS feed is not compatible with any rss-to-email feed processor that I have found. Finally I ran into someone's post recommending MailChimp as a good rss-to-email processor. Since I had previous good experience with MailChimp for an electronic newsletter application, I decided to give this idea a try. Without much difficulty I got it to partially function, but the html version only produced concatenated text. Fortunately, MailChimp's technical support came to the rescue with this 2 step solution. 

Here are the details of the Google Announcements page to RSS Mix to MailChimp details: 

Step 1. Here's how to get the right feed from the Google Announcements page. Open a browser as a viewer (ie. leave your domain and site editing environment so you can view your site as a viewer sees your site). Now go to your Announcements page (in my case: IsbellOnline News). Near the top of the page click on the RSS Subscribe link. 

If you are using a Chrome browser, clicking the RSS Subscribe link opens a page that lists the posts you are already subscribed to. In the upper right corner of this page is a little link labeled [Feed]. Clicking on it opens a screen full of html which you can ignore. Just copy the url of that page. It should look something like this: https://sites.google.com/a/isbellonline.org/tim-isbell-online/home/in-the-news/posts.xml. 

Next, go to RSS Mix, click on the Home tab and paste the url you got in the previous paragraph into RSS Mix. Finally, click Create to receive a new url from the RSS Mix. Copy this url; it is the one you'll put into MailChimp.

If you are using Firefox or most other browsers, you'll find this same feed url near the top left of the screen. In my case, using Firefox, it is under "Posts from IsbellOnline News." Process it the same way through RSS Mix and copy the resulting RSS Mix url.


Step 2. Log into MailChimp and a create a List. Then start designing a Campaign by using the rss-to-email option. When the Create Campaign wizard asks you for the feed url of your feed, use the url that you got from RSS Mix. 

Now, when you test your MailChimp campaign you will see the graphics and text formatting in your email. Eureka!

Now that you have your Google Announcements page connected to MailChimp it's time to design the details of your campaign. MailChimp offers several videos and lots of help info so that you can generate a very classy email that automatically ships a few hours after you post the RSS feed from your Google Announcements page.


MailChimp

I am not an affiliate of MailChimp; but I am a grateful user. They helped me several years ago when I was learning how to build electronic newsletters for New Life Church. And they again helped me develop this rss-to-email function. So I do what I can to point users their way by listing what MailChimp offers:

  • Very professional email newsletters, including an RSS-to-email feed service.
  • Excellent subscriber list management.
  • Lots of customization options.
  • Extensive analytics.
  • A wide range of helpful marketing tools to build your readership.
  • It is free for under 2000 emails a month for anyone, and way beyond 2000 for registered non-profits.
  • Extraordinary technical support, including chat.

These guys are good.


Google +1 and Google+ Share

You can easily insert a Google +1 button on any page. Just go to the edit mode, put your cursor where you want the +1, and Insert the +1 link.

Also, you can easily insert a Google+ Share Button on any page. It's just like inserting a photo. Go into the edit mode of any page and put the cursor in the location you want the Google+ Share button. Then Insert > More Gadgets > browse to a Google+ Share Button gadget. The one I use is built by Mori79

Paste the URL of the page you are on into the setup box; also set up the other parameters the gadget asks for and insert it in your page. You'll probably need to widen the box to fit your space (I use 200 pixels for the one at the bottom of this page). Now you, or any viewer, can click on the gadget and post it to their Google+ Circle(s) along with their comment about your page.

If you are a Google+ user yourself, if you put the Google+ share button on the page you can simply click on it yourself and it will open up a Google+ post for you. Write what you want, select which Google Circles to send it to, and your Google+ post will go right out.


Facebook feed (twitterfeed)

You can use a "feed publisher" to automatically post your RSS feeds on your Facebook Wall (or to your Twitter or LinkedIn accounts, if you want).  I am familiar with 2 ways to do this:

MailChimp. Once I discovered that MailChimp not only solved my email feed difficulties but also offers feed publishing for Facebook (and Twitter), I moved my FaceBook link to MailChimp. There's a very simple level you can use to get started. And if you want to increase your sophistication level you can do that, too. Just look through the training videos and instructions at MailChimp.

Twitterfeed. This is the tool that I originally used to get my feeds to automatically post to Facebook: twitterfeed. While I got this one to post a simple version of my RSS feed on Facebook, the MailChimp solution is more robust.


That should do it for feeds, but what about real electronic newsletters?


Electronic newsletters (MailChimp)

The above feed technologies do not fully replace electronic newsletters, although they come pretty close. To implement a polished email newsletter, check out MailChimp. Is a very professional product, free to non-profits! It's pretty easy to use, and after you've done one or two issues you'll find it is actually fun to put our a newsletter!


Tim



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