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What looks simple but is really a complicated costly pain? Electronic Newsletters. While they look simple and straight forward on the surface they've been known to cause developers to shriek and have sleepless nights. But, churches want them and rightfully so. This week we talk about electronic newsletters, what works, what doesn't, and how to do them effectively.

Before we dive into E-Newsletters we talk about the book "The Reason Your Church Must Twitter" and we have Dean Simmer on as a guest.

I know you guys don't like PDFs

I disagree with your views on PDFs and I don't think always saying that it is wrong to use is helpful. It has benefits such as being consistent between computers and there is software that is readily available for everyone, such as Adobe Reader to view it. (There is a great program called Skim on the Mac that I like to use). Nowadays, its also possible to view PDFs within some browsers. I would agree, having a regular email would still be good. One missionary I receive newsletters from does that with a HTML email with an attached PDF that is well done. PDFs done right can be work just as well as anything else.

Also regarding plain text/HTML emails make sure with HTML emails that there is a plain text alternative for the HTML. I usually don't mind HTML emails, but sometimes I've come across emails with small text, but switching to a plain text alternative can help.

Cheamweb Your window into the Fraser Valley
Dave's Journey | The Macfoto Life

Why I Don't Like PDFs

First, I use PDF files every day. I create them, I save them, and I share them. I used to have a job where I had the full adobe acrobat and used all those crazy features. It was great.

I like them on the web for some things. If you something you want someone to print out or download they are great.

But, when they are used for things like newsletters I've gotten calls for help to use them. Like, on my phone from people in my family. In this case we need to think about usability from the standpoint of someone reading what we're putting out. There are a lot of times where pdf files are used and they end up promoting lower usability for the end users.

A common place this happens is with newsletters. So, be careful when you create this and remember that the common reader of them is not a web savvy person and not the type of person who listens to the podcast.

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Former Co-Host

Email Marketing

2 words - Marshall McLuhan

There is so much here that goes beyond just the technologies and into the message itself, but I'll try to just address the topic presented.

Email marketing can be huge successes, or dismal failures, depending on how you approach it. Most important for anyone venturing into this realm is to do your homework! I'm listening to the podcast as I type this, but, if you are true to form, you will help in this aspect and provide some good perspectives and background on this technology.

Having done my homework, (I manage the email newsletters for our team at work), there are enough 'gotchas' to employ an outside service, as opposed to trying to do this yourselves. After evaluating some of the available SaaS solutions for email marketing, we settled on MailChimp. Here's one of the resources they provide to help you through the email marketing jungle - http://www.mailchimp.com/articles/email_marketing_...

An important motivating factor is the stewardship impact - if you do decide to start to use email newsletters, you should do it as an offset for at least one of the print newsletters you mail out. Our church used to print and mail 2 newsletters each month. Each had a slightly different audience and distribution, but the differences were slight. They have now gone to only 1 print newsletter each month and an email newsletter mid-month. This has had a significant impact on our own stewardship - this is for a congregation of almost 5,000 baptized members and weekly attendance of 1,000+.

Another point I would like to share is that an email newsletter is not a product, but a process. Your goal is not to increase the number of messages going out, but to increase the number of interactions.

Is this something churches and ministries should leverage? Absolutely!
Should they try to tackle this themselves? Absolutely not!

As usual - good stuff, guys! Thanks and blessings.

Love Your Point

I love your point on increasing interactions.

The church is not a building, a staff, or a pastor. It's the people of God on a mission. And, according to stats, studies, and lots of research we aren't doing so great at this. The idea of increasing interactions is so important. Our goal isn't to transfer information. It's to invite people into Christ and what that means. That includes our own members.

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Former Co-Host

Skype Counseling

I second the Skype counseling move. Colorado is a destination for weddings and I've used it with a few couples who are from somewhere else but getting married here. It's not quite the same as in person, but it works well on the whole.

Skype Counseling?

I have to disagree here in all but the most rare of cases.

Counseling is something that is done best when the counselor (Pastor, etc) knows the people involved and has insight into their situation beyond just what is inspired from God. If I were a pastor here in Key West, Florida (I'm not) I would have no way to relate to a couple in Salt Lake City dealing with a partner who wants to become a Mormon, for instance. I can't know the person. I can't relate to the constant barrage of LDS influence. I just don't get it.

Technology is great but it can never replace the in-person, personal relationship that a good counselor can use to help others. The Church is about relationships and I just can't imagine that much of a relationship on the "phone." My fiance is about 600 miles away and we only "maintain" this far. We build relationship when we visit each other. A quick question about something from people whom you know very well may be fine for Skype if the situation demands, but anything more should be dealt with in person.

My Pastor will absolutely not marry anyone without talking to their Pastor at home and finding out why they came here to get married. If their Pastor won't marry them the mine won't even consider it. It's for this very reason, he has no relationship with them. Rarely he will do it if they are here for a good reason and there's nothing hinky at home... but he doesn't like it even then.

For what it's worth. :)

Campaign Monitor and table-based layout

Hey guys, I was the one in the chat room during the live recording who offered up the links of dissenting opinion... after having done these emails as the primary task in my day job (with columns, banners, ads, and other inanity), I can tell you that CSS will work fine... if your design is a simple, one-column affair. If you want columns, horizontally arranged objects, or any other significant layout complexity that is consistent between Outlook, Gmail, Mail, etc., you'll need to use tables. No way around it, I'm afraid.

Here's some link goodness:


The guys behind this "Email Standards Project" are Campaign Monitor (http://www.campaignmonitor.com/), whose service I use and love.

Tables Are Dead. Long Live Tables.


Thought I'd share my experience in this area, both as a recipient of newsletters from Constant Contact and in trying to help my wife create a cheaper solution at the church where she works.

Here's my summary: Unless you want to do HTML email the hard way, use a service. Period!

That sums up everything else I can say about HTML email, which is this:

Someone in the chatroom mentioned the email design guidelines from Campaign Monitor. If you're going to try this on your own, go read those. Actually, read them even if you're going to use a service, as they have good tips on content.

Also, check out this Guide to CSS support in email clients. Note in particular that CSS Float is not supported in Outlook '07, even though it was supported in Outlook '03! Now, I'm not saying it's completely time to Give Up and Use Tables, but if you want multiple columns in E-Newsletters, tables are probably the most reliable approach.

Now wait! I'm not saying go back and use tables-within-tables-within-tables and party like it's 1999. If you must resort to tables, I'd say make one table for your column layout, then theme and position everything inside those columns with pure CSS. (Although you may have to use img align instead of floats there, too.)

So, you've battled one way or another to get the cleanest HTML and CSS markup possible. Now, how are you going to send it? I tried a variety of methods, and the best result I could find was to use Outlook Express, enable the tab to view source, paste your HTML into the source editor, then don't type anything in the WYSIWYG editor before hitting send. Also, make sure to set OE to send links, or else it will automatically download remote linked images and embed them in the message for you.

Frankly, doing all of this is just too time consuming, and it's too easy to screw it up. My wife ended up using MailChimp, and she loves it.

Our church is using Constant Contact. As a recipient, I'm very pleased with these emails. My mail clients block all images, but the messages use good ALT tags, so I can easily read and comprehend the whole newsletter without images if I so choose. (And yes, Constant Contact uses tables for layout.)

One thing I noticed is that the content of the newsletter changed when we switched from print to email as the primary distribution. The articles are shorter and everything in general is more clean and concise. There are lots of links back to the church website, and those are all click-throughs for tracking newsletter effectiveness.


Micah is right

Use templates if you can, but if you're doing custom, I stand by my statements... gotta do tables for framing until Outlook 2007 and Gmail are patched/replaced/etc. Use it only for the general layout! Use CSS for the rest - smaller layout, typography, etc. Gmail still ignores styles in head, so make sure to add them inline, or do styles only inline.

Keep your title and paragraph styles simple to make it easier on you and the content-writer-person later on.

Great advice

Great advice here guys. I can agree that using tables for general column layout is the way to go right now...but I can't go further than that. As you guys have said, everything inside those basic columns should be CSS oriented.

Great feedback, thanks for adding your 2 cents.

-Rob Feature
Geeks and God Co-Host

Thanks for the info


This podcast was extremely helpful. In 2001 I started sending a weekly email to members of my church. It was mostly a devotional email with a few updates about happenings at the church. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. I collected emails of anyone who was interested in receiving these emails. I managed this list through Outlook. I sent it out to about 40 or so people.

I then went to a larger church. I knew that I would not be able to manage the list in the same way I had managed the previous list. So I set up a google group. I currently have about 250 who are signed up through the google group I had established.

I send my emails plain text. I am not sure that I want to use HTML. Especially after listening to this podcast. The plain text makes it more personal to me. HTML I associate with spammers. Plain text I associate with emails I get from friends. More like a handwritten note versus a form letter. Maybe that is stretching it a bit far.

What I am currently working on is generating more discussion. I have a lot of people who reply directly to me with comments. But what I need to work on develop the community discussion.

A couple tips and a question


  1. Sign up for the AOL Feedback loop http://postmaster.aol.com/fbl/fblinfo.html If someone on your list who has an AOL email marks your email as spam AOL will let you know. Removing these from your list will help to keep your list clean and improve delivery rate.
  2. If able, consider applying for the AOL Whitelist http://postmaster.aol.com/whitelist/. Again this will help with delivery and open rates.

I currently use Email Marketer http://www.interspire.com/emailmarketer/. I'd love to be able to have a lower cost solution that is Drupal based but I haven't found a solution that tracks bounces, open rates and click through rates. Is there a Drupal module that offers these features? My understanding is that SimpleNews doesn't.

PDFs and HTML: A little case study

Thanks for the podcast! It is informative and helpful. As a newbie I look forward to hearing more and looking into the archives.

I've been doing e-newsletters at Ozark Christian College for about 4 1/2 years now. We've done our distribution through eTapestry (online donor management system). Not really the best way to do it for our needs, as eTapestry's mass email system is more oriented to communications just with donors and not with multiple target groups. We have around 4,900 email addresses to work with and not all of them are donors. We would like to start some specified group newsletters (future students, current students, alumni, donors, friends/family). So far we have just sent out a "one-size-fits-all" monthly email, http://occ.edu/enews/OCC.Archives.eNews.aspx, which is taking a break for the summer. That being said, we are looking at possibly moving to ConstantContact.com for our mass emails.

We have always used basic HTML with tables for our e-newsletter, the OCC e-News, along with a text-only version option (which e-Tapestry's system allows). I've never had anyone complain about the HTML format. Since December of 2004, when we started, we've had 145 people opt-out of the OCC e-News. Some of those were due to people who now work in closed countries. I have no accurate way to easily count how many have opted in since December 2004, but I know (through email notifications) that about 142 have opted in since February 2008. The e-Tapestry system is nice in that it gives the opportunity to use their templates or submit your own HTML, which is what we do, and they offer the option for submitting a text-only version. This is a great option and we don't have to worry about managing who gets which version. ConstantContact.com has the same options but also offers setting up target groups. They also allow a variety of subscribing options if people want or don't want to subscribe to multiple newsletters. Also appreciate that the cost is based on how many contacts you have. You can send out as many emails as you want.

As for PDF newsletters, I think it is a good option if done correctly. As said before (thanks macfoto), there are free PDF readers to download. You could include some simple help text in your email, even just a link to Adobe.com, to help those who don't have it. My church recently began sending out PDF newsletters in a way that I don't recommend and I'm trying to get them to fix it. They leased a photocopier which can "create PDF documents". Unfortunately the PDF's are just graphic copies of each page. There's a big difference between graphic PDFs and "hybrid" (text and graphics) PDFs. Graphic PDFs are definitely not searchable and can be much larger in file size. It would be better to purchase Adobe Acrobat or some other program which would do a better job of converting a document into a "hybrid" PDF.

Keep in mind that I am the webmaster (a.k.a. advanced data entry person) for the college. I have about 10 years experience with the upkeep of information on our website including using Dreamweaver, some custom made CMS, some Visual Studio work and a little bit of code knowledge. Me and another tech guy here are currently working on developing a new website for the college using Ektron's CMS 400.Net, which includes sink-or-swim for me to learn some more advanced coding :-)

Ty McCarty
Webmaster / Tech Assistant
Joplin, Missouri

PDF and Security

Listening to some of Leo Laporte's recent TWiT podcasts, there are a few mentions of Adobe's free reader - both how much of a pig it is, and how much of a security threat it is (even on Mac OS X!). There's a lot of unnecessary cruft in Adobe Reader that doesn't need to be. What if your readers are aware of this, and don't want to install that reader, or anything PDF-related?
Unless they're on a Mac (which has Preview, and opens PDF files in Safari), they're stuck.

For security, and to encourage Adobe to reverse their policy of writing bloatware, please don't do it!

Thanks Jason! Wasn't aware

Thanks Jason! Wasn't aware of security issues. I've seen that mailchimp.com has free email for 100 or less contacts. I'm not sure how many addresses my church (around 230 AWA) is sending to, but I'll investigate how many they send and what else we might be able to afford.

Ty McCarty
Webmaster / Tech Assistant
Joplin, Missouri

Email Service Providers and Spam

I typically am a proponent of using the CMS based newsletter system, as long as the list is less than a few thousand. It is much easier to integrate with your content and for the most part, you can have access to features such as tracking the stats, clicks, etc for at least some of the newsletter options. Joomla has several different options that allow that.

One advantage of using an email service provider such as ConstantContact, etc. is that they do a lot of work to ensure deliverability with the various ISPs. That can be a real pain. DDean above mentioned the AOL Feedback loop which is essential. Also, MSN has the Smart Network Data Services which offers overall statistics on email marked as spam from your specific IP address. It is at https://postmaster.live.com/snds/.


Don Cranford
Sterling, VA

Moving to an e-newsletter

We are planning to move away from paper newsletters for people who opt out. One option we have talked about is emailing a simple notice with a link to a web page containing the newsletter content. The page would have teasers for each article that would open up into full nodes. This seems very simple to manage (no fussing with HTML email etc) and has the advantage of pulling people into the web site for further interaction. Are there any pitfalls with this plan?

Response rates for html vs. plain text emails ?

I would be curious, has anyone has seen any statistics on the response rates from plain text emails vs. html emails?

Plain text is certainly easier to manage. But I think that if you can argue that it is important to have a well designed website, because people will respond to that better, then you can make the same argument for having a well designed email. But in the end, if there is little difference in the response rate on the email, then it would be hard to argue that html email is worth the extra effort.

Any thoughts?

Don Cranford
Sterling, VA

Response rates

By "response rates", do you mean open-ups or clicks? On most hosted packages, you can track both. We choose not to track plain-text emails, because all of the URLs in such an email would be obfuscated into a really long, less human-friendly URL.

Back in the day, when we *did* track them, we got about a 5% better response on open-ups and clicks on our plain-text messages - but these were folks who had actively chosen to change their subscription to plain text. A captive audience, if you will.

I would say design for HTML, but include the alternative text. The email sending systems I work with have all offered to include the plain-text within the HTML message. The user can then configure their client to view that plain-text instead.

Response Rates ~= clicks

I think "response rate" would be specific to your goals for the communication, whether that is reading an article, signing up for an event, etc. For me, I'm thinking more in terms of click-throughs to the website, which would typically be what I'm looking for.

Don Cranford
Sterling, VA