Staying in Touch: “How To” with Bulk Emailers
Copyright 2004 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.

His email was in response to a customized email I sent using a bulk emailer. The email went out to over 200 district staff who registered for a workshop but 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 Workshop facilitators update attendance status for NO SHOW and/or WITHDRAWN participants in our online registration and tracking.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 registered for a workshop but failed to attend. The email I sent looked like the one below:

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 Josie at jsalas2@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/pdThank 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 Bolkman: NO SHOW

I hope that everything is alright. If you need to withdraw from a class, you can send an email to Josie Salas at jsalas2@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/pdThank you for your time. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Miguel Guhlin via email 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--I have used successfully over the last year. Here’s how I’ve used bulk emailers in the past few years:
  • Sending out HTML/Web Page newsletters to subscribers. While many email programs are text-based and do not support HTML/web page sent via email, in the right environment, you can send web pages as newsletters. This allows for a livelier newsletter. You can see some actually sent online at http://itls.saisd.net/enews
  • Sending email out to several hundred graduate students who required custom messages based on information they 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 the emails out.
  • 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.
  • Facilitated graduate research that involved sending out surveys for doctoral research. Each superintendent received an email with their name, title, and district, as well as a special survey code.
  • Sent 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 too much. In all the cases above—with the exception of the surveys—individuals “opted” to participate. And, defining messages sent to district employees about district business as spam is a bit harsh. Spam really refers to commercial, unsolicited email (more information online at http://www.spamlaws.com/federal/108s877.html).

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 that were customized to reflect their workshop registration, the date of the workshop, as well as a variety of contact email addresses they provided for us to stay in touch with them. Later, it became important to provide and solicit feedback on services they received as well as attendance. Emailing so many different people—over 1000—with so many different workshops and email addresses was impossible using traditional email programs and distribution lists.

Instead, the following process proved effective. The process is outlined below:

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 #, workshop title, workshop date, and registration/attendance status (depending on whether the notice was going out prior to the workshop, or after they had attended the workshop).

2) Import the data into a mass, or bulk, emailer and customize the outgoing message using “mail merge” features that allowed participants to receive a message that was tailor-made just for them.

3) Setup your computer as a 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.

EXPORTING DATA
As I mentioned earlier, several Filemaker Pro databases power the Professional Development Planner (http://itls.saisd.net/pd). 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 #
  • Workshop Title
  • Workshop Date, Time, and Location
The data in these fields was exported 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 a MS Word table. Each of these can be put in the appropriate format.
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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 data below:
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.
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IMPORT DATA INTO BULK EMAILER
While there are many tools available for sending mass emails, I’m only sharing three that have worked well for me. The cost of each is either non-existent or less than $50. Those that cost money, each 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 (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 that you can drop data into. Some programs only allow 3-4 fields for import; this is limiting because you are only able to customize the email message 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 setup 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-n-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, they see exactly what they would on visiting the web page. This is a benefit since the attractiveness of a web page is brought to an email message, enhancing readability and attractiveness.

1) SMTPit Plug-in: Available for $44 to non-profit educational institutions in Windows and Mac versions, the SMTPit 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.

In using the SMTPit for sending email to workshop participants, I’ve sent out thousands of emails customized for individuals. From their end, they have no idea that I have sent them a mass email customized for them using a database. And, this is the beauty of mass emailers. Unfortunately, customizing messages via SMTPit may require you to delve into Filemaker Pro calculations. As such, it is only recommended for owners of Filemaker Pro that are comfortable using the calculations features of the program. It is available online at http://www.smtpit.com . However, there are easier bulk emailers for Windows and Mac.

2) FairLogic’s WorldCast: Available for 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 email addresses as to whether they work or not, send emails to huge recipient lists imported from dBase tables, text and comma-delimited values and address books from popular email programs (e.g. Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm Desktop). It can also import many fields—no limit yet 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 this author has encountered. It is available online at http://www.fairlogic.com

3) MaxProg’s MacBulk Mailer: 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 as well but also support for MySQL, direct emailing from Filemaker Pro databases, and conditional message content based on who it is your writing to.� I highly recommend this Mailer for Macintosh users.� It is available in OS 9 and OS X versions. The program is available for download and/or purchase at http://www.maxprog.com/MaxBulk.html

SETUP EMAIL SERVER
Unfortunately, achieving the first 3 points 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 bulk emailers. For example, to protect the District 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 setup your own email server. This allows you to send email using your computer as the email server. While this solution is unnecessary for Windows users that have decided to use FairLogic’s WorldCast, you may consider setting up your own mail server for use within your district anyways. Regardless of whether you use the email servers below or not, remember that you should check into district policy regarding their 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 have the capability for setting up your email server built-in. You can find detailed instructions online at http://www.reitter-it-media.de/software/osxpostfix.html#panther
Be warned that you will have to drop down into the command line to accomplish these changes, but even a novice should not have problems following the directions, albeit, with careful attention to detail.
Windows users can take advantage of a wide variety of free email servers available. Of course, what you need to look for is simplicity and speed. The easiest of the servers to configure is Free SMTP Server; you essentially 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 setup 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, based on this review and not having to setup an email server, FairLogic’s WorldCast is the best all around product. A short list of free email servers include the following:
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OS|
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Cost|
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Web Location||
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Free SMTP Server
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Windows
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FREE
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http://www.softstack.com/freesmtp.html or http://www.softaward.com/1036.html
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PostCast Server
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Windows
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FREE
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http://www.postcastserver.com/
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ArgoSoft Freeware Email Server
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Windows
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FREE
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http://www.versiontracker.com/dyn/moreinfo/win/14856
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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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Miguel Guhlin currently serves as the Director of Instructional Technology Services (http://itls.saisd.net) for a large San Antonio school district. Please help him keep up the fiction that he spends days writing customized emails to staff. You can reach him via email at mguhlin@yahoo.com or peruse his other writings at http://www.mguhlin.net