July 31, 2007

Keep users informed with PHPList

Author: Ryan McGrath

If you've ever considered throwing together a mailing list to keep the members of your group, project, or organization informed, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better application for that purpose than PHPList, a free and open source newsletter manager.

PHPList is a Web-based application written in PHP, and relies on MySQL databases for storing information. If you're leery of setting up PHP, MySQL, and a Web server, you can opt to pay for a hosting package with a service that offers PHPList preinstalled and configured, such as Host Color or SiteGround.

However, setting up PHPList isn't that difficult. You can download the software as either a ZIP or a tarball, depending on your needs, and basic documentation is included within the downloadable PHPList package. If that doesn't cover your needs, there are other places to turn, such as the more extensive online documentation or the PHPList forums. Make sure you have a Web server and PHP installed, and a MySQL database to throw all your data in.
Depending on how your site is hosted, you may have a basic database already set up -- check with your provider to make sure.

Once the prerequisites are in place, simply download and unpackage the contents of the archive. Edit the PHPList config.php file and make sure all the variables --username, password, database ID, and default language -- are set. The configuration file is pretty well documented with comments concerning what each option is. Save the file, then open the PHPList installation page (www.siteaddress.com/lists/admin/) in a browser. The installation procedure asks for some general configuration settings, such as whether to offer RSS feeds with your lists.

Once the software is installed, you can tailor your signup page to your needs. PHPList offers many different options for obtaining information from users at signup, which can then be used in the mailing process. For instance, you can ask for users' country of origin, and then down the road, if you'd like to send a newsletter to all users from a particular country, it's a snap -- that data is already stored.

Integrating PHPList signup and address management pages into a Web site's existing design is simple, since PHPList templates are fully customizable. You can even apply different templates to different messages and signup pages.

Using the Free PDF Library, PHPList can automatically create and attach messages as PDF files to ensure that formatting and graphics are kept intact.

PHPList lets you track the messages you send, so you can tell how many of your users actually opened a message. You
can also specify a certain time or date for a newsletter to be sent, and PHPList will wait until that moment to send it.

The software includes some email bouncing tools that try to prune unused and nonexistent email addresses. In my time
using the program, it managed to kick out 95% of the fake addresses I tossed in there. There are options for some advanced bounce handling tools, which help distinguish between situations such as "this email address has never existed"
and "this email address may be experiencing some slight downtime."

Users too can control PHPList's behavior. For example, at any time a user can choose to opt out of receiving a
newsletter. Users choose to receive messages in full HTML or text-only mode. They can also change almost all of their
information on record -- name, location, interests, even their email addresses.

I've found very few disadvantages with PHPList. Some could make the argument that users should be able to reply to
any of the newsletters, but then you're getting more into the territory of Mailman,
which is an actual email discussion application, somewhat different from PHPList. I found the bounce handling a bit
confusing at first, but looking at the different documentation resources proved to be a help. There's a slew of FAQs and documentation, as well as an entire community of people to ask for support. After exhausting those resources,
you can resort to the paid support from tincan, the product's
sponsor.

All in all, PHPList is a versatile and easy-to-use application for managing newsletters and mailing lists.

Categories:

  • Mail & Messaging
  • Internet & WWW