16 Plugins to Help You Communicate With Your Users
A website is a communications tool. You create one to communicate with visitors, and to give them somewhere they can communicate with you.
Whether your site is for blogging, marketing, selling, fundraising or passing on information, one of your key concerns will be making sure you can communicate with your visitors to let them know what you’re doing and what’s new on your site.
But you can’t simply rely on people to keep coming back to your site. What if they visited your site yesterday, had a thorough look around, but you make a major update today? They don’t know that so they may not come back? You could lose a potential customer, subscriber or fan.
In this post I’ll look at some of the plugins you can use to reach out to your audience and communicate more effectively with your visitors.
These include plugins to help with:
- RSS feeds,
- Mailing lists and newsletters (using third party services or direct from your site), and
- Social media.
Which ones you use will depend on your needs and those of your users, but there should be at least one here which will help you to communicate with your audience.
But First – a Warning!
Before you start to communicate directly with your audience, a note of caution: don’t be spammy. There are plugins which will let you send a newsletter to your subscribers every single day, and you can use social media to push out links to your site hourly, but it’s not a good idea.
Wikipedia defines spamming as:
“The use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited messages (spam), especially advertising.”
So even if your users give you their contact details, that doesn’t mean you have permission to use them in any way you want. You should use all of the plugins below with caution, and be careful to ask for people’s consent for the specific form of communication you intend using their data for.
Keep your users happy and they’ll be far more loyal. Annoy them with spam and they’ll pass on their negativity to others, damaging your reputation.
So, let’s take a look at some plugins. First, RSS feeds.
The most basic way to push data from your site is with RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication.
By default, WordPress will generate RSS feeds from your content, which you can find by visiting one of four URLs:
Alternatively if your site uses pretty permalinks, you’ll find your feed at some more user-friendly URLs:
These links won’t be apparent to the majority of your users, so you need to add an easy way for people to subscribe to your RSS feed. That’s where these plugins come in.
The free Subscribe Me plugin makes it easier for your visitors to use some of the most popular feed reading applications or services to subscribe to your feed, by adding a popup that lets them choose which service they want to use.
Simply install the plugin and add its widget to a widget area, and it’s good to go. It doesn’t let you specify which feed reading services to include and isn’t customizable but does the job.
If you’re running a large blog with multiple categories, especially if those categories cover quite different content with separate target audiences, the Category Specific RSS plugin will make feeds more user-friendly for your subscribers.
It provides you with a widget which displays a list of the RSS feeds for each category in your site.
By default it lists all of the existing categories but if you’re working with custom post types or taxonomies, you can add extra feeds to the widget using its Settings screen. You’ll need to work out the url for each feed to do this, but instructions are provided by the plugin.
The Featured Images in RSS Feeds plugin won’t make it any easier for users to subscribe to your feed, but it will make the feed more appealing and so increase the chances of them clicking through to your site and reduce the chances of them unsubscribing.
The plugin does what you expect: it adds the featured image to the feed for each post. Unfortunately if a post doesn’t have a featured image it adds an empty box where the image would be, so if you do install it, you’ll have to make sure you add a featured image to every post.
Mailing List Services
You can set up your own mailing list in WordPress, which I’ll come to shortly, but the easiest way to handle mailing lists is by using a third party provider. For most of these you’ll find there’s at least one plugin to add a signup form to your site.
If you’re using MailChimp for your newsletters, the MailChimp List Subscribe Form plugin may have a horrible name, but it does what you need – it gives you a widget with a signup form in which users can enter their details and sign up to your mailing list.
You install it, and then log in to your MailChimp account from the settings screen:
You can then choose which of your mailing lists you’ll let users sign up for, and add a widget to your site.
The fields in the widget form will depend on the fields you’ve added to your newsletter signup in MailChimp, but you can use the settings screen to remove fields if you don’t need them here, as well as to customize the text and the CSS.
Campaign Monitor is another big player in the world of mailing lists and newsletters, and it has its share of plugins too. The Campaign Monitor Ajax Forms plugin uses Ajax to power a signup form in a widget which you add to your site.Instead of signing in to your Campaign Monitor account, you add your account and list API keys to the widget settings, and unfortunately there isn’t a lot of customization. But again it does the job.
If you’re using AWeber to power your newsletters, the AWeber Web Form plugin will let you link your WordPress site to your account. First you’ll need to add your authentication code from your AWeber account to the plugin’s settings screen:
You then have access to a widget to allow people to sign up:
It also gives you the option to let people sign up to your newsletter as they subscribe to your site or leave a comment, which means you can grab people’s attention at just the point when they may be most likely to sign up.
The premium Gravity Forms plugin has extensions for the major newsletter services which you can use to create a custom form with newsletter signup fields.
This has the benefit of extra flexibility compared with the widgets above as you can add fields to your form using Gravity Forms, and also integrate other features such as subscription and payment at the same time. If you’ve got a developer license for Gravity Forms you can access add-ons for MailChimp, Campaign Monitor and AWeber.
If your site runs a store using WooCommerce, you can use the premium WooCommerce Newsletter Subscription add-on to add your customers to a mailing list and send them newsletters based on your blog posts or with information about new or promoted products. This can be a powerful way to keep customers coming back to your store.
The plugin links to your MailChimp or Campaign Monitor account and can add new customers to your mailing list. To avoid being spammy you should set the default so that new customers aren’t auto-subscribed, and provide a checkbox for people to tick if they want to sign up for your newsletter at the checkout:
Again this gives you an opportunity to encourage people to sign up for mailings at a point where they’re feeling positive about your site.
Site-based Mailing Lists
If you want to create a mailing list that’s directly linked to your WordPress site and doesn’t use a third party service, then there are plugins to help you do this.
This gives you more flexibility: You can send out an email every time you publish a new post or add a new product to your store, or you can send out weekly or monthly digests.
However, there are caveats: If you’re sending out a large volume of emails, you might get blacklisted by your hosting provider as a potential spammer, and you’ll need to ensure that the data on your site is robust, as well as ensuring spammers can’t join your mailing list and swell the volume being sent out.
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There is a school of thought that says you should never send mailings directly from your WordPress site, but if you’re confident, these plugins can help you.
The freemium MailPoet plugin aims to make sending mailings directly from your site easy. It includes a selection of themes you can use to style your newsletters and a visual editor you can use to drag and drop content, placeholders and other elements such as social shares into them. You can automate regular mailings with your latest posts or send a newsletter every time you publish a new post, as well as setting up newsletters manually. You can create lists from your website subscribers for specific mailings, as well as creating forms to sign up to specific lists, which you then add to a widget.MailPoet has a large range of options and customizations with the free version, which is why it’s taken off very quickly and is now the most popular free in-site newsletter plugin.
Our e-Newsletter plugin gives you a user-friendly interface for creating individual newsletters. You’ll have to install it and configure settings for your mail server first, so need to know a little bit about your email setup. You can also specify whether to stick with the default of using CRON to schedule emails or use PHP instead:
Once you’ve got it set up, you’ll find that it uses themes for the newsletters you send out, which you can customize and add content to using the theme customizer.
You have to create your newsletters manually – you can’t auto-schedule them to send out the content of your posts. But because the content fields in the customizer use the same editing pane that you use for posts, you can easily add links to your latest blog posts, with images and static text, too.
The plugin also provides you with a signup widget, with the option to allow users to choose one or more mailing groups they’ll be added to. The plugin also lets you view statistics for your campaigns in the WordPress admin.
The freemium Subscribe2 plugin lets you create mailing lists from the list of subscribers to your site.
People can subscribe to mailings relating to each category on your site, and you can schedule regular automated mailings, send out a mailing with each new post, or create manual mailings. The styling options are limited with the free version however, and all you can customize is the content of your mailings and whether they are sent as HTML or text.
The screenshot below shows you the options for editing the text of your mailings:
Historically, this has been a popular free plugin, but it’s seen a drastic fall in the number of downloads in the last year, most likely because its features haven’t been developed much recently and it’s been overtaken by other free and premium plugins.
Our Subscribe by Email plugin lets you register on your site to receive email updates when you post content. It gives you flexibility with the frequency of your emails, letting you send a new email every time you post or via a daily or weekly digest, and also lets you make some basic customisations to the design and content of your emails.
This plugin also lets you send out an email when a new post of a custom post type is added, which would be useful for an events website or a store:
Social Media Plugins
Another effective way to tell users and followers about updated content on your site is by using social media.
Obviously, you can use the various social media sites to manually post links to your content, but here I’ll look at some of the plugins which can help you automate this process, pushing out status updates or tweets for you when you publish new posts or pages.
The freemium WP to Twitter plugin lets you send out tweets every time you publish new content.
You’ll need to create an app using the twitter API and then add your API keys to the plugin’s setting screen, which will allow the plugin to link to your twitter account. Once you’ve done that you can configure default settings for different post types and override these in individual posts when you need to, or specify that a tweet shouldn’t be sent for a given post.
When you’re adding a new post, you’ll see a metabox on the bottom right of the editing screen where you specify whether you want to send the default tweet for that post type or change the content of your tweet.
And if you want to display your tweets on your site too, you have a widget you can use to do this.
If you want to automatically post updates to your Facebook account or page when you add new content to you site, then the free Add Link to Facebook plugin will help you.
Again you’ll need to create an app using the Facebook developer API, and add its app ID and secret key to the plugin’s settings page. The app then adds some checkboxes to the publishing metabox on the post and page editing screen, which you’ll need to tick if you don’t want your post to be added to Facebook in a status update.
If you want to display your Facebook updates on the front end of your site as well, the plugin also gives you a widget you can use to do this.
As well as posting your content to your own social media profiles, you may also want to let users share your posts on their own Facebook or twitter account. The ShareThis plugin integrates with a range of popular social media sites including twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest.
The plugin gives you configuration options where you choose which services you want to link to and what style of button you want. It then automatically adds the buttons in the position on each post that you specify:
It also gives you statistics for the number of shares of your content, helping you to focus your content strategy on the types of post that are most likely to be shared.
WPMU DEV’s Ultimate Facebook plugin aims to give you everything you could need to link your site to Facebook. It lets you display the feed from your Facebook Page on your site, provides a Like button to encourage people to engage with you on Facebook, and also lets you post new content from your site to your Facebook Page.
To use the plugin, you’ll need to create a Facebook application and input your App ID and Secret keys in the plugin’s settings page:
It then gives you a range of options including shortcodes you can use to insert content or buttons from Facebook and the ability to let your users log in using their Facebook account.
But the most useful aspect of this plugin when it comes to communicating with your users is the “Autopost to Facebook” feature, which lets you automatically post new content (posts and other content types) to Facebook and choose which images will accompany that content.
Your website is just the first step in communicating with the wider public. If you’re going to reach as wide an audience as possible, you need to push your content out beyond your WordPress site using RSS feeds, newsletters or social media.
There is a wide range of plugins out there which will help you do this, and the examples I’ve listed above represent a selection which cover the most frequently needed functionality. Hopefully with one or more of these you’ll be able to drive more traffic to your site and encourage your visitors to keep on coming back.
What methods do you use to communicate with your site’s users? Let us know in the comments below.