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Comprehensive Mailing List Tutorial for Webmasters & the Curious

 Copyright 2004, Bill Platt

THE BASICS OF A MAILING LIST STRUCTURE

The short and sweet of it is that a mailing list is nothing more than a plain text file that contains email addresses. Sometimes these *flat files* also contain first and last names, as well as other additional and optional information.

A *flat file* is a term used to describe a storage file that is not a database. Generally, the flat file is a plain text document without the .txt or other file extension attached to it.

If a flat file contains more than one piece of data, then each additional item is separated from the next by commas or other delimiters. The pipe key (shift - back slash) or the tab key serve as the next most popular delimiters used in flat files.

Each new record will appear on a new line. The new line is signaled by the carriage return in the file.

EXAMPLES SHOWING THE USE OF DELIMITERS AND THE REASONS FOR CONSIDERING DELIMITED FILES

Note: These examples show two leading spaces in front of each record. In real life data files, your records should not contain the leading spaces.

Mailing List Example A:

tom@domain.com

dick@other-domain.com

harry@third-domain.com

Example A permits the mailing list owner to only send an email to a defined address.

Mailing List Example B:

tom@domain.com,Tom Jefferson

dick@other-domain.com,Dick Nixon

harry@third-domain.com,Harry Truman

Example B permits the mailing list owner to send an email to Tom Jefferson at tom@domain.com . Addressing the mail directly to Tom Jefferson encourages Tom to pay close attention to your email, since he knows that you have acquired his real name in addition to your email address. Most personalized emails will never be thought to be a s/p/a/m message by the person who receives it.

Mailing List Example C:

tom@domain.com|Tom|Jefferson

dick@other-domain.com|Dick|Nixon

harry@third-domain.com|Harry|Truman

Example C is the most versatile of the three examples. In some cases, it makes sense to personalize the list owner's messages. Whereas, Example B will permit you to address someone by first name or first and last name --- depending on how you direct subscribers to sign up --- it does not always serve the more personable style of mixing and matching the first name and the combination of the first and last name as provided for by Example C.

UTILIZING DELIMITED DATA IN YOUR MAILINGS

Depending on the software that you will use to initiate your mailing, you will be directed to show where you want the additional data fields in your mailings.

The range of software available makes it nearly impossible to quantify the various methods to get your personalized data into your mailing. As such, I will only define an example to show the basic idea of how to do this.

Personalization Example:

To: #FIRST# #LAST# <#EMAIL#>

Dear #FIRST#,

Welcome to my example of a personalized mailing.

According to our records, your subscription information is as follows:

Name: #FIRST# #LAST# Email: #EMAIL#

#FIRST#, we appreciate your attention to this information as we feel it will help you better utilize the tools of the Internet in your activities. In the end, the more knowledgable you become, the more likely that the Internet will become a more useful place for all of us.

Sincerely,

Your Publisher

As you can see, it can be far more useful to you and your purposes to address your subscribers as individual human beings with individual desires. As all of the sales teachers in the world will tell you, the one word that humans enjoy hearing most is the sound of their own name. Even in print, people appreciate being spoken to directly as an individual person.

Delimited files give you the power of utilizing multiple data resources connected to your individual records.

METHODS OF MAIL DELIVERY

There are two basic methods of delivering your email to your mailing list. The first is by direct email, and the second is by a website interface.

Direct Delivery Method

The direct mail method is the most complicated method from the programming perspective. If you are using a mailing list management company such as YahooGroups or Topica, then they will have done the hard work for you. If you are managing your own mailing list, then you will need to jump through some hoops to get your infrastructure set up for the direct mail method.

You will need to set up your server to take any incoming mail to a specific address and to process that email through a mail handling script. The script will search for and verify your posting password, and then the script will reformat your message for direct delivery to your mailing list.

Using this method, you will actually address your outgoing email to a specific email address, often accompanied by a posting password. The posting address may appear in this kind of format:

mailing-list-name-[password]@your-domain.com

Website Interface Delivery Method

From the technical perspective, this is the easiest delivery method to construct. It only requires the publisher to visit a webpage, fill out a form, and click the send button.

Clicking the send button will take the placed information and send it to the mailing script. Once again, the mailing script will take the given information and format it into an outgoing email message for direct mailing to your mailing list.

ACTUAL MAILING LIST DELIVERY PROCESS

Whether you are using the direct mail or website interface method to get your data into the mailing script, the next step is the same. It is important to note that by the time you reach this point in the process, the outbound delivery is completely out of your own hands. Now is the time for the server to deliver on its part of the process.

Your mailing script has taken your input and put it into a direct mail format. Once that is completed, it is time to mail the information to each and every email address in your list.

The basic message structure is kept in its own variable. This variable will not change during the entire mailing process.

The basic message structure is then copied into a second variable, and the final preparation is done on that message as each individual mailing is prepared.

The software will read each record in your flat file or your database, and then the personalized data will be exchanged for the #FIRST#, #LAST# and #EMAIL# as it appears in your message construct. Once the personalized data is swapped for the variables in the text, the message will be delivered to the defined email address.

This process is repeated for each record in your mailing list.

Depending on how busy the server is and the size of your list, the mailing process could take two minutes or even twenty minutes.

A SUGGESTION FOR THE ACTUAL DELIVERY OF YOUR MESSAGE

Having learned the hard way, I do highly recommend that you set up your posting address as a special email address that you do not use for everyday business.

The reason is simple. With each and every mailing, you will find a certain level of attrition in your mailing list. People change email addresses everyday without unsubscribing from mailing lists; people lose their email accounts due to unpaid ISP bills; and people exceed the size limits of their mailboxes. People quit the Internet and die. That's the reality of life on the Internet.

But with some fore planning, you can prevent a nightmare in your own email box. Lists that I have managed have experienced as little as two or three people, and as high as a 5% attrition every month. The list that I managed that had the 5% attrition rate also had 20,000 subscribers. As such, I was receiving 1,000 bounced emails every month with that one list.

I did not utilize a special address for my mailings at that time, and as such, I was losing track of important messages under the barrage of bounced email messages. This is the only reason I suggest the use of a special limited use email address.

Another list I managed later had an attrition rate of about 4% with 100,000 subscribers. With this second list, my secondary email address was receiving 4,000 bounced messages every month.

If you are using a mailing service such as YahooGroups or Topica, they will handle the bounced messages for you, so there would be no concern using your primary email address with those messages.

THE PROCESS OF SUBSCRIBING AND UNSUBSCRIBING AND THE SELECTION OF THE EMAIL SERVER IN THE PROCESS

For the average mailing list, the process of adding or deleting an email address is as simple as going into the file or database and removing the record.

It must be noted that while there are several email servers available to webmasters, there are two servers that are used far more often than the others.

Sendmail

One email server software is called Sendmail. For the longest time, this was the most often used email server. It is still in wide use today.

Qmail

The second email server software is called Qmail. Qmail is most often used by e-commerce mass mailers. Simply, Qmail offers more flexibility and speed and fewer bugs than Sendmail could ever dream of providing. It is also easier to customize.

If you visit a website and ask to be unsubscribed from the website's mailing list, and the website notifies you that your name will be removed from the list within 48 to 72 hours, then you should assume that the website is utilizing Qmail as their mail server.

On the surface, this 48 to 72 hour window might seem like a scam --- it is not. Qmail actually sets up an outgoing email and then queues that message for a later delivery. Qmail does this because it is usually set up on a very high volume mail server. By queuing the message for later delivery, the server can actually continue to process outgoing mail as long as the resources to do so are available for the task. If the messages were not queued for later delivery, multiple requests to deliver mail within a certain limited time period could crash the mail server. A crashed server is always bad news.

The site who is promising removal within the next 48 to 72 hours is actually telling you in advance how far ahead they have already queued outbound messages. Any piece of email that is already in the queue cannot be stopped from being delivered. Therefore, if a message exists in the queue with your address already on it, then there is nothing the webmaster can do to stop that mailing. Instead, all they can do is to let you know that you will no longer receive mail from them on any email that is sent to the queue from this point forward.

IN CONCLUSION

With this tutorial, you should now have a better understanding of the nature of a mailing list and how it works. For some of you, I will likely have provided too much information. For others of you, I will have not provided enough.

Either way, if you are looking for help in setting up your own mailing list, most web hosting companies that you might use to host your domain will have already provided an option to you for your mailing list management.

However, it must be noted that not all mailing list software is equal to the other. I have used some really bad software packages, and have yet to explore the full range of what is available to you. I do not have an actual recommendation for you as to a good software to use. What I can do for you is to provide a good starting point for locating that software you will need to run your mailing list efficiently:

http://cgi-resources.com/Programs_and_Scripts/Perl/Mailing_Lists/

By using an already developed mailing list manager, all you will need to know is how to install the software on your server and how to set the file permissions on the package files. Be sure to read the installation files that are provided with your new mailing list software. The creators of this software will tell you exactly what you need to know to get their software packages up and running.

FINAL PRECAUTIONS BEFORE SENDING YOUR FIRST EMAIL

One final but very important note. I strongly recommend that you select a mailing list management package that will install on your web server. Additionally, notify your web hosting company that you will be running a mailing list through your account. And, for the purpose of self-preservation, always keep up-to-date backups of your website and your mailing list.

Some web hosts are very leery of letting their customers run a mailing list from the customer's site. With all of the s/p/a/m accusations floating around, it can sometimes be a dangerous proposition to run a mailing list. Many smaller web hosting companies fear the rogue webmaster who will get their servers shut down for s/p/a/m. This is why it is so very important to notify your web hosting company of your plans to run a mailing list from your account. Make sure your web hosting company is aware of your intentions, and be sure to know where they stand on the possibility of s/p/a/m complaints. My web hosting provider takes the time to actually investigate a complaint before actually pulling the plug on any of their customers. For web hosting, I use the Site5 Web hosting Program .

Additionally, I am very serious when I say that you should never run a mailing list from your desktop. Local ISP's are far more worried about the s/p/a/m issue than the web hosting companies are. Given that so many of us live in locations where we only have one, two or three ISP's to choose from, we would run the significant risk of losing complete access to the Internet if we were to run a mailing list from our desktop.

Good Luck in your publishing endeavors.

Bill Platt owns http://thePhantomWriters.com . Do you need free content for your website or ezine? Our archives deliver more than 350 free-reprint articles available for your use. http://content.thePhantomWriters.com . Do you write your own articles? Let us distribute them for you to our network of 6000+ publishers & webmasters http://thePhantomWriters.com/distribution

 

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This Page Last Updated:
 October 09, 2004