When I was migrating my blog from Joomla! to WordPress, I investigated a bunch of different automatic newsletter generation options. I concluded that MailPress was the best fit for my requirements. Here is a summary of what I found along the way.
Under Joomla! I used Vemod News Mailer to automatically mail new content to subscribers, and I wanted the same functionality under WordPress. My basic requirements, prioritized from most-to-least important, were for a solution that could:
- Automatically email new posts to all subscribers
- Send HTML
- Bulk Import subscribers from CSV file
- Export subscribers in a CSV file
- Support throttling to avoid mail server rate limitations
- Capture Name in addition to Email address
- Allow links in HTML
- Send a personalized email per article, Title as Subject
- Include links generated by the SEO Smart Links Pro plugin
- Include a simple unsubscribe link in every email
- Add a clickable list of Recent/Popular/Related Posts
- Send a periodic combined newsletter (Daily or Weekly)
- Embed a friendly “Comment on this article” link
- Updated relatively recently by the author/maintainer
- Embedded videos referenced via WordPresss Video plugin
- Automatic Bounce Handling
- Easy to add subscribers in the backend
- Manually send subscriber-only newsletters
- Captcha/Spam protection on subscription
- Not cost the earth
I'll give details of the most promising options later, but first here's a summary table of how each option I looked at stacked up. I've included Vemod for comparison purposes:
|7||Links in HTML||95||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|8||Once per article||90||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes||No|
|14||Last Update||70||9 Dec 08||13 Jun 10||13 Aug 10||14 Jul 10||N/A||19 Jul 10||30 Jun 10||28 Mar 10|
|20||Price per 1000||10||Free||Free||Free||$49.99||Free||$15/mo||$40.00||Free|
Bold means I verified it myself. Regular means I relied on documentation or feature claims.
N/A means not applicable, which is generally favorable.
Blanks mean I couldn't easily determine whether this feature is supported or not.
Ext means is supported when used with another plugin or external component.
Hosted means the emails are sent by your hosting provider. Service means a separate service sends them.
Prices are in $US, based on a list with 1000 subscribers.
So in more detail...
Hosted versus Email Services
There are two different approaches when it comes to sending email from a blog. You can get your web hosting service to send the emails, or you can get an email service to send them for you. Email services cost money on an ongoing basis, but are generally more reliable; they specialize in getting messages delivered and avoiding SPAM filters so your readers actually end up seeing your messages. Web hosting companies generally don't care much about delivering your site-generated emails; for all they care it's SPAM and email is a hassle to them that they'd really rather not have to deal with.
I discovered during this exercise that my own hosting service IX Web Hosting have a draconian approach to email that isn't documented either in their sales documentation nor their online manual: send more than 300 emails per day, or 5000 per month, and the rest get silently discarded. No bounce messages, notification, error logs or anything... they just accept and then silently drop them. Ouch. They can whitelist me to remove the 300 emails/day limit, but the 5000/month is non-negotiable.
If your average email rate isn't too high, you can use throttling to get around peak hourly or daily limits. Once you exceed your hosting service's average limits, you either need to switch to an email service, or pay a mail delivery service like SMTP.com; which end up costing about the same.
MailPress is the grand-daddy of WordPress email plugins. It has everything, and turned out to be the only free solution that met all my requirements. Unfortunately it's also the most difficult to configure and it does have some missing features, limitations and bugs I'd like to see addressed. The documentation is sparse, and was written by a native French speaker. Modifying the appearance of emails requires editing template files containing HTML, PHP & CSS. This makes it extremely powerful, but there is no visual template editor. MailPress works and it's free; so it's currently my preferred solution.
To get the functionality you want in MailPress you have to activate add-ins by going to Plugins → MailPress Add-ons. To meet my requirements I activate Batch_send, Bounce_handling_II, Bulk_import, Comment, Connection_php_mail, Import, Newsletter, Newsletter_categories, Tracking_ga, and View_logs. Then, go to Settings → MailPress → General → Admin, enable Dashboard widgets and Save Changes. A row of buttons related to your add-ons will appear. Click each one to set the relevant settings for the features that you need. To learn more, read this article on How to Configure Your MailPress Newsletter.
Be prepared to spend some time configuring and checking that it's doing what you want before unleashing it on your list. A really handy feature is the Test widget that appears when you open a post in the WordPress backend, allowing you to generate a test email using the selected post with any template. This makes it possible to hack an existing template into the shape you want and test it rapidly with your email client, without bothering your subscribers.
WP Responder Email Autoresponder and Newsletter
This plugin has a very impressive feature list, and with the author's interest in email marketing it's definitely headed in the direction I want to go. But I got the feel that it was lacking in maturity and not up to commercial quality at the moment. Some of the backend features don't work, and screens don't format correctly. Comments on the author's own blog gave me the sense that it was a bit amateurish. At the time of writing, it appears to be under rapid development. However, it does support a visual template editor and it's also free. If he keeps going, this may well surpass MailPress as my preferred free hosted solution.
Tribulant WordPress Newsletter
I didn't actually test this commercial plugin from Tribulant Software, but according to the feature list and a support enquiry I sent them, it appears to meet all my requirements. It looks much easier to configure than MailPress, principally because you don't have to hack PHP/HTML/CSS to edit your template. It's also commercially supported, and reasonably priced with no ongoing fees. Enter the coupon code 15OFF if you purchase it, and it's even 15% cheaper. If MailPress scares you but you really want a powerful hosted solution, I recommend Tribulant WordPress Newsletter instead. Let me know how it goes.
Feedburner is the simplest and cheapest solution for allowing subscription to a daily newsletter from your site. You register your RSS feed with Feedburner, then add a Text widget to your sidebar with the Feedburner subscription form HTML code. Everything else is taken care of for you, and it's free. Unfortunately like other RSS-based solutions they only visit once a day so it's not possible to generate an email for each post this way.
MailChimp is a commercial email marketing service, which gets around the volume delivery limitations of hosted solutions I mentioned earlier. It also has a free low-volume trial plan so you can get started at no cost while you're building your list and not earning anything yet. That meant I could evaluate it for free too. It's much more flexible than Feedburner, but since it polls your RSS feed it still can't publish a per-post newsletter.
Their service is very easy to use, and has advanced email marketing features. There is also a plugin with a subscription widget for your sidebar so it's trivial to integrate. If you want a periodic newsletter and plan to use your blog to get into serious internet marketing, MailChimp looks like a great place to start.
Other Email Marketing Services
There are many email marketing services out there with very similar features to MailChimp, although I haven't evaluated anything else in detail. They all use your RSS feed to generate emails, and can do a great deal more than just automate your blog newsletter. All charge around the same amount depending on how big your list is, and how many emails you send.
Many of my Internet Marketing friends swear by AWeber. Other popular services include ConstantContact, and iContact. I recommend you check them all out if you're looking to build your blog newsletter into a serious email marketing business.
I've used Interspire Email Marketer on another site of mine. It has some great features, but it's impossible to integrate with a WordPress blog as it doesn't support RSS-to-email.
Subscribe2 is hugely popular, but has some limitations that ruled it out for me. It doesn't capture your visitor's names, and doesn't appear to expand shortcodes meaning that things like embedded videos via the WordPress Video Plugin wouldn't work. It also doesn't support individual subscriber emails, making personalisation impossible and the unsubscribe process a little tricky. I only evaluated the free non-HTML version; but on that basis, it looked like even the premium HTML version wasn't going to meet my needs either.
The Newsletter plugin provides a manual newsletter facility for visitors to subscribe to. It's great if that's what you want, but isn't designed to automatically send new posts to them.
There are many other WordPress newsletter plugins available. Most of them didn't look like they would meet my requirements and once I found a solution that did, I pretty much stopped evaluating.
If you're aware of another solution that matches all, or at least most, of my requirements that you think should be included here, please leave a comment describing it.