Monday, December 11, 2006

Behind the Scenes: Setting Up and Managing a Blog

Well, I've been practicing this Blog thing for a few months now and I've decided to roll it out to the public. It was easier than I thought it would be to set up a Blog, but harder than I thought to manage an email subscription list.

Setting up a Blog

This part was easy. I choose Blogger (a Google subsidiary), because I had heard of it before and it only took me five minutes to get started. I wasn't frustrated enough to try anything else, but I've heard that Yahoo! has a pretty good blog engine now. I spent a half-day customizing the template so that I could set up the side bar you see on this page, but besides that the only time I spend on this Blog is the time it takes me to write the posts.

Managing a Subscriber Base

I thought that I could use Blogger to manage a subscriber database, but that turned out not to work. I want people to be able to subscribe or unsubscribe to my Blog so that I can notify them via email each time I make a new post.

After a little research, I found a free web-based subscription database management tool called Mach5 Subscriber. It's limited to 5,000 contacts, but when I have more readers than that then I'll be willing to upgrade to the paid version. In a few minutes I set up an account, selected the data that I want to collect from my audience, and Subscriber instantly created both a subscription signup page and a subscription management page. I then added these hyperlinks to my Blog so that readers can subscribe and unsubscribe from my email list.

Sending Notification Emails

The next step was to find a tool to let me send bulk email to my subscriber list. Mach5 has another product for this purpose, Mach5 Mailer, which is also free up to 50 emails at a time. This is a Windows-based application that integrates with Subscriber in order to allow users to send personal, customized emails to your subscription list. It sends both HTML and text versions, and can contain hyperlinks to your Mach5 Subscriber pages for your audience to manage their subscription.

The last hurdle was to find an email server that I could use to send the notification emails. Outgoing email requires a SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server. Fortunately, Greg Paik, the Director of Network Engineering at Certain, allowed me to use our Exchange server for the small scale of my current subscription database. Our SMTP Server requires me to connect to our VPN first in order to prevent unauthorized users from relaying spam through our network, but this isn't a big deal from my laptop, even when I'm on the road. When I outgrow the scale of Mach5's free tools, then I'll need to find another option for mail delivery. (Mach5 is working on a product called Mailer Express that will hopefully do this.)

Putting It All Together

Now I have the Blog, subscription database, bulk mail merge application, and outgoing email server. Each time I post to the blog, I'll send an email to the current subscriber list with the first paragraph and a hyperlink to the full posting. If you want to add or remove yourself from the subscription list, it's as easy as clicking on the hyperlinks in the email or on the left column of this page. And I hope that readers will send me topics that they would like me to discuss, and forward the subscription emails to their friends and colleagues.

Let the experiment begin!

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