August 28, 2002 spout

Newsletters Are Hard!

As I write this, several thousand emails are being sent to the initial list of SellsBrothers News newsletter subscribers. My motive (to let folks know what was happening on the site without having to visit every day) was pure, but if I would have know how hard it was going to be to set the thing up, I don’t that I would have started.

It began with a simple form on the web site to take people’s email addresses, which were in turn emailed to me and sorted into a Outlook folder. When that reached a couple thousand without yet having sent out a single issue, I figured it was time to put it into a real database. So, which a bit of data cleaning through VS.NET and Excel to get the dates right, I plunked it into an Access that would serve as the repository on my ISP-managed site. That was all fine and dandy but for one problem: I had to send emails using the data from my own machine, not the machine with my live site (and therefore the latest subscriber data). Did I really want to download an Access database from my ISP every time I needed to send a newsletter? It won’t be often, I admit, but that still seems wrong, doesn’t it?

So, I paid the extra $10/month to get SQL Server support on my site and worked with a friend of mine (Paul Crutcher) to build the form to take name, email address and HTML vs. Text settings. Except it’s not just one form. To make sure that folks aren’t subscribing other folks, we send out a confirmation email with an URL in it that updates the database and shows another form indicating whether that worked or not. Then, in case anyone changed their mind, we needed another form to change subscription settings along with another form letting them know that their changes were made. Of course, before we could let them change their settings, we needed to let them log in, which was another form. And, if they forgot their password, they need another form so that they can enter their email address and we can send it to them. Further, if the worst happens and they tire of my musings, they need to be able to unsubscribe themselves.

Not only did Paul build all of these forms, but he built them in two parts, a form part and a control part, so that I could update the form part to have the look n’ feel, while leaving the real logic in the control part untouched (and potentially reusable). All in all, just letting folks manage their newsletter subscriptions was 46 hunks of HTML packaged as .htm, .aspx and .ascx files. 46! I would have downloaded something and integrated it, but I never found anything to do the job (and this is where I get a hundred emails showing me the error of my ways… : ).

Of course, all that user-managed subscription work was to avoid one thing: angry emails. I didn’t want folks who’d forgotten they subscribed many months ago or, worse, folks that were subscribed implicitly from other activities like the DevCon, to find themselves on a list with no way to get off of it except for sending me angry emails. That’s just how insecure I am. : )

So, after a few weeks of Paul and I working on the pages to do the administration for me, I thought that the hard part was over. I was wrong. While I did have an SQL database on my site, it was still nearly empty. There were some folks who were newly subscribed after the new code went live, but all of the folks who’d subscribed before then were stuck in an Access database. That’s OK,” I thought. SQL Server and Access were made by the same folks. I’m sure I won’t have any problems moving the data.” That was two weeks ago. It took tons of advice from my database friends (thanks BobB and ShawnW and BrianR!), along with a final push from my brethren on the Off Topic Mailing List to get the data moved to the right place. The good news is that I got to polish my T-SQL skills a bit and I got to play with DTS and the Enterprise Manager (both very nice pieces of software).

But that’s not all. Once I had the subscribers in the database, I then had to send several thousand emails, sorted into folks that want HTML and folks that want Text, keeping track of bad email addresses. This time, I went looking for a commercial product to do the job. I figured that since my inbox was full of spam (SpamNet is my new best friend!), that there must be really great tools for sending emails by the boatload. And again, my friends on the Off Topic mailing list were there to help with a recommendation of the Advanced Direct Remailer. ADR is also a nice piece of software that comes out of the box configured almost right, but not quite and the documentation has to be read very carefully. ADR is an SMTP server that takes mail from your mail client and forwards it to a list of folks based on who you sent it to. For example, you can send it to foo@localhost where foo” is a mailbox that resolves to a list of email addresses in a text file or you can send it to bar@localhost where bar” is a mailbox that resolves to a select statement from a database. That all works great, except if you get any of the settings at all wrong, ADR starts acting like a real email server and just tries to send the email to foo@localhost. Well, actually, it can’t be foo@localhost for me, since I’m using Outlook XP, a marvel of software engineering that in it’s infinite wisdom prohibits me from sending an email to a server without a .” in it. So, I send an email to foo@, which ends up in ADR, but the default settings only resolve requests sent to localhost”, so ADR won’t do the queries. However, it is talking to the built-in SMTP server on my machine (which I need for testing my web site before publishing it), so it looks like it’s doing something, making it even harder to figure out what’s going on, since I’ve never seen what ADR does when it works correctly.

When I finally do get everything right and the emails are queued in ADR properly, I can tell it’s going to take hours of 100% CPU utilization for the newsletter to get out, so I go on to something else. But I can’t stay away for very long, so I’m constantly logging into the machine doing the sending via Terminal Services to check on the progress. With the CPU fully utilized, all the failed TS connections (I have to keep trying!) eventually crash the ADR machine, causing a panic as I reboot. I needed have worried. ADR has kept everything logged and picks up right where it left off before the crash. Truly an amazing piece of software.

Why do I feel like Jerry Pournelle all of a sudden?

Now, as I’m drawing this missive to a close, I’m getting half a dozen emails from subscribers that wish to unsubscribe but can’t because of the peculiarities of the imported data vs. what I tested against. So, the angry emails have started. Here’s a particularly angry one:

Subject: Get me off your spam list

You are too much of a hassle to remove, you lie about where you got my address, I do not trust you at all.

I will prosecute you my every means possible if you do not remove my address from your database.

If I find out you spread my address, I will go after you for that.

Oh, well. I tried…