Automate Your E-mail Chores
By Miguel Guhlin
“Thanks for your Email,” wrote a principal back to me. “I didn’t realize I’d missed that workshop. How can I review what workshops I’ve signed up for?” His Email acknowledged that he had missed a workshop, but more importantly, gave me the opportunity to empower him to review workshops he had registered for using an online interface.
Actually, he was responding to my customized Email, sent using a bulk Emailer. The Email went out to over 200 district staff who had registered for a workshop but later failed to attend. Workshop facilitators update attendance status for NO SHOW and/or WITHDRAWN participants in our online registration and tracking. Searching on this information, I was able to quickly generate a list of over 200 staff who were No Shows. The Email I sent looked like the one below: (NB: Bolded plus underlined items below would be live links, purposely disabled here):
||
Dear [Field1]:
Howdy! In reviewing attendance records for Instructional Technology workshops, I couldn't help but notice that you missed the following class:
[Field3]: [Field4] - Attendance Status for [ Name]: [Field5]
I hope that everything is alright. If you need to withdraw from a class, you can send an Email to Jane Doe at janedoe@saisd.net or give us a call at 527-1400. You just need to know what your workshop # is and we can withdraw you quickly. The No Show status appears on reports sent to your supervisor and on your VERIFY CLASS REGISTRATION which is available to you online at http://itls.saisd.net/pd
Thank you for your time and I hope your summer has been full of sunshine! If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Miguel Guhlin via Email at mguhlin@saisd.net or at 527-1400.
||

In the bulk Email being customized above, Field 1 represents the individual’s first name. Field 3 refers to the Workshop #, while Field 4 refers to the Title of the workshop. The Name field refers to the person’s full name, while Field 5 refers to attendance status. I set this information up once but when the Emails go out, each is customized. The Email the principal received actually appeared as follows:




||
Dear James:
Howdy! In reviewing attendance records for Instructional Technology workshops, I couldn't help but notice that you missed the following class:
33333: Technology Assessment Literacy Institute - Attendance Status for James Doe: NO SHOW
I hope that everything is alright. If you need to withdraw from a class, you can send an Email to Jane Doe at janedoe@saisd.net or give us a call at 527-1400. You just need to know what your workshop # is and we can withdraw you quickly. The No Show status appears on reports sent to your supervisor and on your VERIFY CLASS REGISTRATION which is available to you online at http://itls.saisd.net/pd
Thank you for your time. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Miguel Guhlin via Email at mguhlin@saisd.net or at 527-1400.
||

Benefits of Bulk Email in Educational Settings
This article is focused on exactly how to mass Email your colleagues. You need to know how to do this, and what tools are available to get the job done for a simple reason — as a technology director, staff development coordinator, or anyone who has to routinely mass Email work colleagues, it’s important that you get the information out. The following are tools — a.k.a. mass or bulk Emailers which I have used successfully over the last year. Here’s how I’ve used bulk Emailers:
  • To send out HTML/Web Page newsletters to subscribers. True, many Email programs are text-based and do not support HTML/Web page sent via Email. But in the right environment you can send Web pages as newsletters. This allows for a livelier newsletter. View some actually sent online at Instructional Technology eNews.
  • To send Email out to several hundred graduate students who required custom messages based on information previously submitted via an online database. To send these Emails the traditional way would have taken days of tedious work. Instead, it took about 15 minutes to set up and 30 minutes — unattended — for the computer to send out the Emails.
  • To send Emails to TCEA Area 20 members. As Area Director, I felt it was important to publish short newsletters and information updates. Rather than try to maintain a current member list in YahooGroups, it was easier to send the Email out via a bulk Emailer.
  • To facilitate graduate research that involved sending out surveys for doctoral research. Each superintendent received an Email with his/her name, title, and district, as well as a special survey code.
  • To send Email to thousands of workshop participants who had registered and attended — or failed to attend — professional development sessions within my district.
Of course, it’s important that you not “Spam” your colleagues. In all the cases above — with the exception of the surveys — individuals “opted” to participate. Besides, defining as Spam messages sent to district employees about district business is a bit harsh. Spam really refers to commercial unsolicited Email, as explained at “Spam Laws.”
The Process
When launching the Professional Development Planner (PDP) — an online workshop tracking, registration system powered by Filemaker Pro — district-wide, one of the issues encountered was how to send custom Emails to people who were registered. Workshop registrants needed to receive notices to reflect their workshop registration, the date of the workshop, as well as a variety of contact Email addresses they provided. Later, it became important to provide and solicit feedback on services they received as well as attendance. Emailing over one thousand people in so many different workshops and Email addresses was impossible using traditional Email programs and distribution lists.
Instead, the following process, as outlined below, proved effective:
  1. Export only the data relevant from a series of relational databases to comma-delimited format or tab-delimited format. This exported data would include first name, last name, Email address, workshop number, workshop title, workshop date, and registration/attendance status — depending on whether the notice was going out pre- or post-workshop.
  2. Import the data into a mass, or bulk, Emailer and customize the outgoing message using “mail merge” features that allows participants to receive a message tailor-made just for them.
  3. Set up your computer as an Email (SMTP) Server.
  4. Send out several hundred Emails inside the firewall to District Email accounts, as well as other accounts.
Of course, this is the same process that anyone who needs to send mass Emails with custom data encounters. In fact, the process is identical to those sending out “snail” mail in mass but at a much lower cost.
1. Exporting Data
As I mentioned earlier, several Filemaker Pro databases power the Professional Development Planner. One of the databases tracks online registrations, while the others track accounts and workshops available. Using Filemaker, it was a simple matter to export the following fields:
  • First name
  • Last Name
  • Work Email
  • Campus
  • Workshop Number
  • Workshop Title
  • Workshop Date, Time, and Location
We exported the data in these fields as a comma-delimited or tab-delimited file depending on the program in use. It was the easiest part of the process.
Of course, in your situation, you may be pulling Email addresses from a variety of other places. The most common is an Excel spreadsheet, a Web page/HTML table, or as MS Word table. Each of these can be put in the appropriate format.
||
Short Definitions:
SMTP: These four letters basically describe an Email server’s message sending capability.
CSV: This is the filename 3-letter extension to data that has every database field separated by a comma. For example, 3 fields exist in the following line:
Miguel,guhlin,mguhlin@yahoo.com
The data is first name, last name, Email address, respectively.
SHAREWARE: Try before you buy software. You can try the software for 15-30 days, usually before you have to buy it.
FREEWARE: Software that is available for use immediately at no cost. Some software is free only for educational, non-profit use but available at cost for commercial use.
||
2. Importing Data Into Bulk Emailer
While there are many tools available for sending mass Emails, I’m sharing only three that have worked well for me. The cost ranges from non-existent to less than $50, and those that charge will allow you to “try” them out before you buy them, under the shareware concept.
Some of the features that make a mass Emailer useful to you include the following:
  • Can import comma-delimited, called CSV, or tab-delimited files exported from databases (e.g. whether it’s Access, Filemaker Pro, or even, an Excel spreadsheet).
  • Has a wealth of custom fields aside from name and Email address into which you can drop data. Some programs allow only 3-4 fields for import. This is limiting because you are able to customize the Email message only for their name and title rather than really get specific. The more specific you can be, the better the Email is received by the user.
  • Provides its own Domain Name Server (DNS) so that you do not have to set up an Email server — easier than it sounds if you follow the instructions here. The DNS makes the program less dependent on your ability to set up an Email server, a.k.a. SMTP Server.
  • Allows you to send out not only text Emails but also HTML/Web pages. To create these, you set up a Web page on a Web server with absolute links (that is, you include the complete URL or address to the graphics and to items linked from that Web page) then copy-and-paste the HTML source code into a message window. The bulk Email software sends the HTML as is and when the Email recipient opens the message, s/he sees exactly what would appear when s/he visits the Web page. This is a benefit since the attractiveness of a Web page is brought to an Email message, enhancing readability and attractiveness.
  • SMTPit Pro Plug-in:
Available for $44 to non-profit educational institutions in Windows and Mac versions, the SMTPit Pro plug-in has many wonderful features. However, be aware that to take full advantage of the plug-in, you will need Filemaker Pro 6 or 7. I have used the sample mass mailer databases that come with the SMTPit to create a gradebook that sends out online progress reports and report cards. SMTPit has allowed me to send out thousands of Emails customized for individuals. From their perspective, they have no idea that I have sent them a “customized mass Email” using a database, which is the beauty of mass Emailers. Unfortunately, customizing messages via SMTPit may require you to delve into Filemaker Pro calculations. As such, it is recommended only for owners of Filemaker Pro comfortable using the calculations features of the program. But take heart, for there are easier solutions, both for Windows and Mac.
Available free to non-profit educational institutions in Windows only version, this is a versatile mass Emailer. Registration does not result — as I once feared — in more junk Email; and the free registration code arrived instantly upon my Emailed request. FairLogic describes its product — accurately — as being able to send bulk Email, validate if Email addresses are active, and send Emails to huge recipient lists imported from dBase tables, text and comma-delimited values and address books that exist in popular Email programs (e.g. Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm Desktop). It can also import many fields — no limit that I’ve discovered — and include the fields in mail merge format within the body of the Email. It can also set itself up as its own SMTP server, which is a powerful feature. It is an excellent bulk Emailer and easy to use with built-in wizards. What’s more, it can send HTML, or Web page, Emails without problems. Of course, the main benefit is that it is the only free bulk Emailer encountered.
Available for Macintosh only (although the vendor recommends a Windows alternative program) at a cost of $39.90, this is a powerful bulk Emailer. The Pro version not only boasts the features of FairLogic’s WorldCast but also support for MySQL, direct Emailing from Filemaker Pro databases, and conditional message content based on to whom you are writing. I highly recommend this Mailer, available in OS 9 and OS X versions, for Macintosh users.
3. Setting Up Email Server
Unfortunately, achieving the first two objectives was a matter of finding the right tools for the job. You can probably find many more bulk Emailers on the Web. Yet most Emailers — with the exception of those using FairLogic’s WorldCast — run into a serious roadblock.
Bulk Emailers encounter that roadblock when they try to use their standard Email account (e.g. with Yahoo, TENET, work Email) for sending mass Emails. Legitimate use of bulk Emailers through SMTP presents problems. For example, to protect itself and minimize Spam, my district blocked any SMTP mail servers including Roadrunner, Yahoo and Hotmail. While users could still read their Email through Web-based services, they were unable to send SMTP mail from an Email client like Outlook Express or Eudora Lite.
A detour around the SMTP roadblock is to set up your own Email server. This allows you to send Email using your computer as the Email server. While this solution is actually unnecessary for those using FairLogic’s WorldCast in a Windows environment, you still may consider setting up your own mail server for use within your district. Regardless of whether you use the Email servers below or not, remember that you should check into district policy regarding setup and appropriate use. Also, disable the Email server after use to prevent inappropriate use by others or take advantage of security features that allow Email to be sent only from your computer (a.k.a. “localhost”).
Macintosh Email Server
If using Mac OS X Jaguar (harder) or Panther (easier), you already have the capability for setting up your Email server built-in. You can find detailed instructions online at “Activating Postfix on OS X 10.3 – Panther.” Be warned that you will have to drop down into the command line to accomplish these changes, but even a novice should have few problems following the directions, albeit, with careful attention to detail.
Windows users can take advantage of a wide variety of free Email servers available, as listed below. Of course, what you need to look for is simplicity and speed. The easiest of the servers to configure is Free SMTP Server. Essentially, you install it, start it up and then you simply configure your Email program — or bulk Emailer — to see “localhost” as the Email server (or SMTP host). Other programs can be more complex to set up and may be IP address based (192.168.1.197 for example) or DNS centric.
Other Email servers are available at cost, however, these are two free SMTP Server packages that can get you started. Obviously, not having to set up an Email server makes FairLogic’s WorldCast the best all around product. Here’s a short list of free, Windows-based, Email servers:
Free SMTP Server
Free SMTP Server v.2.0
PostCast Server
ArgoSoft Mail Server Pro 1.8.8.1.
Conclusion
Using bulk Emailers in educational settings enables you to get the information needed to those whom you serve so as to enhance their performance and work. And, in the end, enhancing performance and work in educational settings can yield tremendous results when multiplied by several hundred. Staying in touch via Email can make not only your job, but that of others receiving the Email, easier.
Email: Miguel Guhlin
Website: http://www.mguhlin.net