Email Subscriptions

This week’s topic of discussion at the CoPress forums regards email subscriptions/alerts, something which I’ve given a fair amount of thought to in the past few months. Today’s post will cover how the YDN has used email subscriptions up to the present and some ideas for email handling in Courant News.

YDN Headlines Email Screenshot

YDN Headlines Email Screenshot

YDN

Since the launch of the current YDN website in January 2007, we have had a headlines email subscription available for public consumption. Visitors could either sign up with just an email address, or if they had a YDN.com account there was an option in their user settings to subscribe. We currently have several thousand subscribers to our email list, which encompasses both the daily (nightly) headlines and breaking news stories. To the right is the email for today’s issue.

As I’ve discussed before, our website currently runs on a custom system built on the CakePHP framework. Because sending thousands of emails at once is a time consuming process, we use a mail queue system to spread out the work. When the editors click the “Email headlines” link in the admin interface at the end of the night, we queue up all the emails in a table in our database. We then use a cron job to pull out a certain number of emails from the queue each minute and send them through our outgoing mail server. It can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to process all the emails in this manner, but it prevents overloading or slowing of the server, and the emails are not really time sensitive.

Courant News

For Courant News, we have also planned to implement a queue-based mail system. django-mailer plans to do alot of what we want, but is still in an early stage of development. It is part of the popular Pinax project, so I’m sure development will continue for the forseeable future. The queue is just part of the email system, however, and we have some ideas about how to make emails more useful and customizable.

The basic premise is that we wanted people to be able to subscribe to emails like they can subscribe to RSS feeds, where they can choose to only receive content from certain sections, or by certain authors, or with certain tags, etc, etc. For example, a parent of one of the staff reporters might want to get an email digest of any articles his/her son/daughter writes, while not necessarily wanting to have to filter through all the rest of that day’s paper’s contents. Or someone may only be interested in news in a certain section, such as Sports. The user would also be able to choose a periodicity of the emails, choosing to receive such aggregations daily, weekly, or monthly.

While many younger people are comfortable using RSS feeds, many less tech-savvy students, alumni, and parents are still unaware of or unsure how to use RSS feeds. Others, like myself, may simply prefer emails to digging through an RSS client. By giving such visitors the ability to subscribe to emails with exactly the content they want, we can increase the likelihood that they will follow those links to our site and become frequent visitors. By not forcing them to sift through a bunch of links they probably don’t care about, we can reduce the friction associated with browsing our content and help them find what they are looking for.

We’ve currently been exploring how to implement such functionality, and have several ideas. Email alerts/subscriptions are one of the next things on the docket for actual implemention for Courant News, so I welcome any feedback or additional ideas and suggestions from the community.

3 Responses to Email Subscriptions
  1. Can Duruk

    Having people sign up for only the emails that they would like us a noble idea but with that amount of fine-grained details, you’d be making it hard for users to sign up for what they really want.

    I mean, a huge form with checkboxes for sections and selection boxes for authors and such might work but I’d probably make some UI mockups before going along with implementing it. As you mentioned, people signing up for email subscriptions would be less technically competent.

    Also, make sure you have some sensible defaults when you have that many selections. Sometimes people just want to sign up for the newsletter and be done with it.

    One other thing you should do is have some room for exploration. What if there’s no content for that user that day? Do you just not send anything? Or do you send an email with something like “No matching content for your criteria?”. Or maybe you should send them stuff they *might* be interested in.

    I think it’s good that you are seeking feedback for Courant. this early in the process though.

  2. Andrew

    Nice post Max. That screenshot that you have there looks great. Much better than the default kicked out by Feedburner’s email subscription settings.

    I like the idea about allowing people a lot of flexibility as to how they subscribe (to certain topics, authors, etc.). I think that a lot more people might actually subscribe to things if they could customize it so heavily.

  3. Paul O’Shannessy

    @Can, Maybe with your HCI prowess, you can help out 😉

    Ultimately I think will end up falling in the site’s theme to handle it, with a (hopefully) sensibly default in the default/sample theme.

    My thoughts on designing this: a single checkbox (subscribe to newsletter/email updates/whatever with something to toggle the available subscriptions available, which would override the default. “Check this for all, or click here to subscribe to specific sections of the site”.

    Usability is something that is going to be really important in Courant, but it’s going to take work & input from people. So I think we’ll (even if “we” is mostly Max) continue posting screenshots, thoughts, etc to hear what people have to say.

Leave a Reply