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New Subscribe Options (and How I Created Them)

This week I added categories to the subscription widget for this blog. Originally the blog was only for news updates, but then I started posting tips for writers and editors. As I continue my fiction writing journey, I hope to post content related to my future books; considering this new content pushed me to make a change.

I put off making this change for a while because it seemed daunting. Below, I’ve shared how I added the category capability.

About the Categories

First I clarified the categories I’ll be using. I wasn’t sure about the new category, which is why it has the vague title “Emily’s Thoughts.”

  • two cartoon people holding a laptop and a checklist with boxes checkedNews
    News about Emily’s upcoming books and events, and other happenings in her life. Usually there is one post every few months.
  • Emily’s Thoughts
    This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) new-adult dystopian fiction book.
  • For Authors
    Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.
  • For Academic Authors
    Practical posts relevant to science and academic paper authors.
  • For Editors
    Practical posts relevant to editors, including tools and resources as well as the business of editing. Authors may be interested in this category as well, to learn tips that can help them self-edit their writing.
  • For Self-Publishers
    Practical posts relevant to those interested in self-publishing.
  • Miscellany
    Posts that don’t fit elsewhere. There are not too many of these.

(I categorized this post as “For Authors” because of the how-to content below.)

About MailChimp

The basic idea is to use an outside email service (I chose MailChimp) to manage my list of subscribers. My list will have “groups” (that is MailChimp’s term, and is parallel to the blog’s categories). Subscribers will be able to choose which groups they join. I’ll then set up an automatic “RSS to Email” campaign for each group; when I post in the News category, for example, everyone in the News group will automatically receive an email notification.

MailChimp offers a free account if you have less than 500 subscribers. This free account only includes support for the first 30 days; so, plan to set up your list immediately after signing up, so that you can get help if needed.

I had used MailChimp at my day job before setting up my own list. It can be a little confusing. I hope the steps below will help!

How to Add Subscription Capabilities for Categories

Step 1. Get started.
Create an account at MailChimp, and answer their questions. They will automatically create your first list, with your email address in it, using the name of your business; you can change the list name if you want. This list is where you will add your subscribers. There are other pages you should look at and customize under Settings (“List fields and *|MERGE|* tags” is where you can choose which information subscribers are required to provide, for example), but this post’s focus is on creating the campaigns and a sign-up form including categories, to use with my blog.

Step 2. Create groups.
On the main menu, choose Lists. Then choose the name of the list to open it. Under Manage contacts, choose Groups. Click the gray button to Create Groups. Choose “As checkboxes” so that subscribers can be in more than one group. Name your Group category (I used “Emily’s Author Blog”) and then fill in your blog categories under Group names. (This is a little confusing because MailChimp uses different terminology! Don’t create a new group category for each blog category. [You might if your categories fall into different types—like if you had an author blog AND a plumber blog, and you wanted a set of groups/categories under each.]) You can see mine below. Remember to Save.

a screenshot in Mailchimp showing a list of group namesStep 3. Create segments.
When you send an email campaign in MailChimp, you can send it to your whole list or to a segment of your list. You cannot, however, send it to a group. So, you will create a dynamic segment for each group; the segment will update as the group updates. Then you will send the campaign to this segment. To create a segment, choose Manage contacts, Segments, and click the gray button to Create Segment. Then use the dropdowns to find your Group category and one Group name, like this:

A screenshot from Mailchimp showing the dropdown menus in use when creating a new segment

Click Preview Segment, and Save Segment. Don’t worry about the “Goose egg” screen; there is just no one in your segment yet. Name your segment and save. Now repeat Step 3 for each blog category. Note: you can’t rename a segment so get it right the first time, otherwise you’ll have to delete it and create a new one.

Step 4. Create signup form.
Choose Signup forms from the menu, and then Embedded forms. (Note: This is not relevant to the current process, but it is worth looking at the Form builder, which is where you would make a “free-standing” sign-up form; you could then send interested people to this form via a link. There are also items like the confirmation email subscribers receive, which you may want to customize. There are a lot of items here, and I am not clear on which ones get used when. Another option is a pop-up form, but I did not want anything popping up on my website, because pop-ups have become common and I find them annoying.)

The embedded form will appear with information already filled in. You can see a preview on the right (you might need to scroll to see all of it) as well as the code. You can customize the form under Form options on the left; I changed the title, to indicate a blog. Copy and paste the code into a text file and save it. (There doesn’t seem to be a way to save it in MailChimp.) Then, paste this code into your website and the form should appear. For me, using WordPress, I used a “Custom html” widget in my sidebar, although a “Text” widget seemed to work as well.screen shot of creating a signup form, with the form preview and code on the right, and the place to edit on the left

Step 5. Test the form.
Your email address is already subscribed in MailChimp, but use the signup form on your site to subscribe to all the blog categories. Having an email address in each group will make Step 6 easier.

Step 6. Create an RSS campaign for each group (using segments).
Choose Campaigns and then click on the gray button to Create Campaign. Choose Email, Automated, and Share blog updates. Rename the campaign to match one blog category, and click Begin. Note that steps of creating the campaign will appear along the bottom of the screen. Here are the steps:

RSS Feed: Paste in the URL of the RSS feed of your blog category. I’m not totally clear on how RSS feeds work, but I think if you go to your blog, click on a category, and add “feed” at the end, the URL will become the feed URL. (You can’t see the feed on Safari; you’d need to download a feed reader app.) When you try to save, MailChimp will tell you if the feed URL is invalid.

My feed URLs for the above categories look like this:

  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/news/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/thoughts/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-authors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-academic-authors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-editors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-self-publishers/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/miscellany/feed/

You also need to set when the emails will go out. If you post often, you might decide to send emails once a week, as a digest. I decided to send on most weekdays at lunchtime, because I think more people are online at this time. So, if I post in the News category on Saturday, subscribers in the News group will receive an email notification on Monday at 11 AM. If I post in the For Authors category on Tuesday night, subscribers in the For Authors group will receive notification Wednesday.

screenshot showing the URL of the blog feed and schedule for sending emails

Click the blue Next button to proceed to the next step. If you need to stop working, click Save and Exit at the top right. Note that you would find you campaign under Drafts when you are ready to continue building it.

Recipients: Choose Segment or tag, and choose the segment from the options that appear. (You can also create new segments at this point, but we created segments in Step 3. I find it less confusing to create the segments in advance.)

screenshot showing how to choose a segment to send your campaign to

Setup: I altered the From name but otherwise left the defaults in place. I selected “Personalize the ‘To’ field” using the subscriber’s first name (*|FNAME|*) because I like the idea of the notifications going to a person’s name. Note that the Campaign name is not visible to the public.

Templates: This is where you start designing the actual email. The body of the email (the links to your blog) will be generated automatically, but you might want to add a logo or header at the top, and a background color, among other things. You can build from scratch or start with a template from the Themes tab. My advice is to start simple if you are new to MailChimp. Remember that whatever you use will be in every email (until you change it); you would not want to include five photos and a lot of text introducing yourself, because your subscribers would then receive this material every time they get a notification. I wanted a simple design that would work week after week. I chose Basic, 1 column.

Note that below, after designing the email, I saved it as a template. Then when I repeated this step, I used the same template, so that all emails would have the same look.

Design: MailChimp has a drag-and-drop system where you drag elements from the right onto the email on the left, and then click on an item (on the left) to open an editing window (on the right) where you can make changes. You must click Save and Close after editing each element. I’m not going to give details here, other than to say that you’ll want to use “RSS Header” and “RSS Items” because those are the elements that will automatically populate with your blog posts. The RSS information comes from your feed, so (for example) if you don’t like the title of the feed, you would update it at your blog. MailChimp’s design help is here: https://mailchimp.com/help/design-an-email-campaign-in-mailchimp/

Here’s what my campaign ended up looking like:

screen capture of email campaign, with merge tags showing

And, if I click on Preview and Test and Enter preview mode, it looks like this:

screen capture in preview mode, with blog post information filled in to email campaign

Just to make sure it was working, I published two test blog posts in my News category and checked preview mode again, and saw this:

screen capture of preview of email, with two blog posts showing

Note that, as seen in the above images, the merge tag “RSSFEED:TITLE” is being filled in with “News – Emily Buehler” while “RSSFEED:DESCRIPTION” is blank. I can try to find the place to change the title or to add a description at my blog. I can also remove either merge tag by clicking on the “RSS header” element in my email, choosing “Custom,” and editing the code.

(This is where you should click Save as Template.)

Confirm: I had an error here that no one was in my segment. I knew that my own email address was in the segment, however. I tried logging out and in, but it didn’t help. It took a whole day before MailChimp got on track and recognized that an email had been added to the segment. Once the error was fixed, I clicked Start RSS and was told that an email would go out Monday at 11 AM. It would only go to me (the only subscriber).

Now repeat Step 6 to create a campaign for each of the other blog categories! Remember to use your template. Don’t worry, this step goes much faster with the template.

Step 7. Add subscribers.
You now have a form on your website where fans can subscribe to your blogs by category. If you collect email addresses at events (note: you need permission to subscribe people), you can add them to your list and to the various groups from inside MailChimp (open the list and use the Add contacts dropdown). If you previously used a subscription plugin, you can export the emails and import them into MailChimp.

Note that when someone subscribes, MailChimp will send them old posts going back a certain number of days, depending on how you’ve configured the timing of emails. When I added my list of subscribers to MailChimp, I didn’t want them to receive emails about blog posts they’d already heard about (with my old system). I wasn’t sure what would happen, so I didn’t post for a week, then posted one new post (this one!), and then subscribed a second address for myself, to see what would happen, before uploading my subscriber list. (Even then, it didn’t work out as planned; this post had “expired” from the queue by the time I uploaded my subscribers, so I had to update the date on it to get it to send.)

I also sent an email to all subscribers (using a separate, one-time campaign in MailChimp) that explained why they were receiving the email, that I was changing to a new system, and that they could now choose which categories to subscribe to.

So, to sum up, you now have a MailChimp campaign set up for each category on your blog. When you post in a category (e.g., “News”), the post goes into the News feed, which MailChimp picks up. The RSS to Email campaign you created in MailChimp for the News feed creates an email that is sent to everyone in the News segment, which is everyone who subscribed to the News category on your blog. Yay!

a flowchart showing a stick figure and computer posting a blog post, which goes to MailChimp, is turned into an email, and is sent to Segment X, which includes people who subscribed to category X on the blog

Resources I Used

Here are the articles I read while doing this process:

This one is about installing RSS buttons on your blog, which I did not do, but reading this article reminded me that MailChimp would enable me to have readers subscribe to categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-allow-users-to-subscribe-to-categories-in-wordpress/

This one is about the difference between categories (overall groupings, can have subcategories) and tags (more like items in an index), and is important to understand from the beginning: https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/categories-vs-tags-seo-best-practices-which-one-is-better/

This one is similar to what I am doing, but they tinker with the code from MailChimp to alter the signup form, which adds complexity to the instructions. They are also setting up email campaigns for different send times, as opposed to different blog categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-create-a-daily-and-weekly-email-newsletter-in-wordpress/

Here are Mailchimp’s instructions for a basic RSS campaign (which does not mention groups/categories); I basically did this process several times, once for each group/category: https://mailchimp.com/help/share-your-blog-posts-with-mailchimp/

Problems with the System

two identical 6-paned windows in a wallIn the past I’ve sometimes added a blog post to multiple categories. Subscribers would get one email each time there was a blog post. With the new system, if I add two categories and someone subscribes to both of them, the subscriber will get a separate email notification for each category. So, I will try to use only one category per post. (This seems to be a best practice for SEO reasons anyway.)

Right now, the notification emails are set to go at lunchtime on most weekdays. I think this will work because I don’t post constantly. If I started to post multiple times per week, I would switch to a weekly send time, to announce multiple posts at once. However, MailChimp does not have an easy way to combine the notifications from different categories, so someone who subscribes to multiple categories would receive multiple weekly digests, if I use a weekly send time. I’m not going to worry about this for now.

I did add one thing, though: an “All Categories” category. This is not actually a blog category! But I went through Steps 2 through 3 to create a group where readers can subscribe to all blog posts with one checkmark, and redid Step 4 to generate a new signup form including the All Categories category. Readers who check the All Categories box will receive notifications of any blog posts bundled into one email at noon on weekdays. (If they check all the other boxes AND the All box, though, they’ll get multiple copies. I included some text at the bottom of my emails [see above] to try to alert people to avoid this.)

The feed URL that you use for All Categories is the feed for the whole blog, not just one category. It should look something like this:*
https://emilybuehler.com/blog/feed/

I created three test posts in various categories on my blog. I also used the custom RSS header block and removed some of the code. My preview of the campaign for All Categories looked like this:

screenshot showing preview of email including all blog categories

I hope these instructions help anyone else who wants to add the ability to subscribe by category to their blog.


*On my site, I had originally named the blog page “News,” so my feed actually appears at this URL: https://emilybuehler.com/news/feed/. But since News is now a category as well, this is confusing. On most blogs, the default name will be “Blog.”

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