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Writing a HTML E-Learning Newsletter

Well the cold snap in the UK has given me the first two days of 2010 school year sat at home in front of the fire.  I’ve been really busy of late so it’s been good to get some time to concentrate on my E-Learning role.

I have been meaning to write an E-Learning newsletter for the school for some time.  I’ve seen some great examples including: Mark Clarkson Devon Learning Dan Needlestone & Tom Barrett.

I wanted to create a professional looking email so decided it had to be html.  My ever useful Twitter network pointed me to two websites Campaign Monitor and MailChimp.

Now as far as I can see there are 3 options here, and I took a combination of 2 of them which added greatly to my workload!

  1. Outlook: You can write html emails in Outlook.  Google how to do it, I don’t think it’s too hard.  For the simple reason that I was working on my Mac with no access to Outlook I didn’t take this route.
  2. Use a template from Campaign Monitor.  I started with this option.  I downloaded one of their free templates from the link above and started editing it with a text editor.  I’m no html guru, but it’s fairly obvious where to enter text.  I soon realised I had no idea how to send the resulting files, it’s not just one html file, the images etc are all separate files.  There may be a way of packaging these up and sticking them in Outlook for sending? I didn’t know how though.  So I uploaded the files back into Campaign Monitor, having signed up for a free account.  Once this is done you can use the lovely WYSIWYG editor on the site and enter all of your content.  At this point you hit a snag, to send this email to a list of addresses you need a paid for account.  Being a freeloader I was looking for a way around this.  And there is a simple one, send a test email to yourself and forward it on to whomever you choose.  Now if only I’d stuck with this plan I could have saved another day’s worth of fiddling.  But lots of people on Twitter wanted a copy of the email, so I wanted a way to set up a distribution list for non Stretford High School staff.  Which moved me on to option 3……
  3. Design and send your email from MailChimp.  I’ll detail the rest of that process below….

MailChimp offers a complete email distribution service.  You can design emails, set up forms to collate emails for a distribution list, and then design email campaigns directed to your new lists of eager email readers!  The free account allows you up to 500 subscribers and a total of 3000 emails per month – more than ample for my modest needs at present.

First job is to create a list.  As you can see from the screenshot below, there’s not much to this.

Next step is to create a sign-up form so potential readers can submit their details.  This is easy as pie and needs no explanation, here’s the form for my newsletter.

Publicise this form and you should start to receive email addresses in your list.  Next up you need an email to send to them.  Common sense says you go to the create campaign section and choose from one of the existing templates.  You can then add your content in MailChimp’s WYSIWYG editor.

But as I mentioned, I complicated matters.  I’d grown attached to the template that I had used on Campaign Monitor and decided to use that on MailChimp.

There is an option in the template builder to upload a zip file of your template:

This is a little picky, you can only have html or jpeg files in your zip so clear out any txt files or similar.  Upload the zip file and hopefully it will pop up in your custom templates section.  From here you can edit it online.  I’mnot going to go into the specifics of this here.  Safe to say, unless you are either a) persistent; or b) good at html; you are better off avioding this option and using the built in templates.  If you do dive in headfirst then MailChimp has some nifty bits of code that you can add to make sections editable & repeatable in their WYSIWYG editor.  There are also bits of code to add for unsubscribe links, twitter links, translate links and a host of others.  Check them out here.

With a template completed it is time to add you content.  The WYSIWYG editor is pretty solid and an easy way to type in your content.  Depending on your template, certain sections of the email are editable, click on them and the editor pops up, type away and voila – content in your email.  Other sections that are defined as repeatable will have a small green + sign.  Clicking that repeats the section – allowing for multiple articles, all styled the same within one newsletter.

wyswiyg editor

Top Tip: Getting a html email to look the same across different email clients, Outlook in particular is a nightmare.  One important tip I discovered was that Outlook 2007 requires your images to have a dpi of 96.  If they are bigger than this then they will appear larger than you planned in the email.  An image of 192dpi would appear twice as large – ruining your carefully crafted design!

Nearly there! Next step is to edit the plain text version of your email, some people might still choose this option!  You can import the text from your main email design, a little deleting of links and code will have something suitable ready in no time.

Final job is to hit send and hope your email is enjoyed!

There are also some fairly detailed tracking stats available, number of openened messages, clicks per link, locations etc etc.  Click through on this pic for a look at the menu:

Here’s my first edition – hot of the press, please let me know what you  think!

On reflection, I’m really chuffed with how it looks, coding the html took me AGES – but was satisfyingly fun at the same time.  More importantly I’m happy with the content and reception it has received.  I have had some positive replies from staff at school already and I’m sure they’ll try some of the ideas out.  This was designed from the outset to be a source fo quick and easy inspiration for very busy staff, with that in mind here are my top tips:

  1. Keep it short – I’d not want to write any more than I did this issue, in fact I’ll keep them briefer in future.
  2. Simple ideas – save the more complex stuff for training in school.
  3. Make it pretty – it needs to stand out from the email deluge.
  4. Include real examples – I hope to fill the left hand sidebar with examples from around the school in issue 2

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