WordPress + MailChimp: Going Beyond Subscribe Forms

Over 5 million users rely on MailChimp to deliver their email marketing campaigns and undoubtedly that number includes a good many WordPress users. Perhaps you are one of them.

If, like most WordPress and MailChimp integrations, yours starts and stops with the subscription form widget then you are missing out.

In this article, I’ll show you how you can use MailChimp for everything from automated new post notifications to complete outsourcing of every WordPress-generated email.

MailChimp logo alongside WordPress logo
WordPress and MailChimp makes for a pretty potent combination

Whilst it may be surprising in this era of social media that email is still critically important to many WordPress site owners, it’s not surprising given the popularity of both WordPress and MailChimp that a plethora of plugins exist that integrate the two applications.

Most integrations begin and end with subscribe form that adds a visitors email address to a MailChimp mailing list even though it’s possible to shift virtually all of a WordPress site’s email requirements to MailChimp.

Why would you want to do that?

MailChimp is a dedicated email service; that’s all it does. Whilst you could try and find plugins to replicate MailChimp’s functionality, why do that when it’s already there? Many would argue cost but if your requirements mean that you are falling into MailChimp’s paid services then you are already too big to be sending email from WordPress without the risk of irking your hosting provider or ending up on an email blacklist.

As we’ll see, some of the email plugins that you may currently have installed can be replaced entirely by MailChimp, lightening the load on your WordPress install, slimming down your codebase and potential maintenance and conflicts and in most cases providing more functionality and a better user interface.

It also makes sense in terms of consolidating functionality in the one app. Rather than managing emails in two applications, they can be managed from one: the one designed specifically for the job.

A Word Of Warning About Plugins

In researching this post, I looked at a lot of plugins and discarded most due to an apparent lack of support (plenty of unresolved support forum posts or no input from the developer for an extended amount of time), multiple reports of issues, disappointing functionality or simply that they didn’t work.

All the plugins listed here, with the exception of Subscribe To Unlock, have been tested. I would urge plenty of testing for any other plugins before you install in a production environment.

Okay, to the list then, and we’ll start with the most common WordPress, MailChimp integration: the subscribe form.

Adding Subscribers To A Mailing List

We all want to build our subscriber lists as despite the rise of social media, email is still the dominant method for communicating with an audience.

There are many, many plugins that provide the ubiquitous subscribe form in a widget that will add subscribers to a selected MailChimp mailing list but it is by no means your only option.

Optionally Subscribe On Registration

MailChimp For WordPress from Danny van Kooten not only provides a customizable subscribe form but also allows you to add a checkbox to both the registration and comment forms.

Offering visitors the option to subscribe as part of the registration process seems particularly smart.

The free version of this plugin is comprehensive but if you want more forms, more templates, detailed statistics and a year’s support then you can upgrade to the premium version for $35.

Screenshot of the plugin settings
Add a subscribe checkbox to a host of forms

Automatically Subscribe On Registration

WPMU DEV’s very own MailChimp Integration plugin will allow you to automatically add visitors to a mailing list as they register on your site. Again, a smart way to build a list, but obviously the new registrant has to be aware that this is going to happen.

This plugin will also allow an initial syncing of your existing WordPress users to a MailChimp mailing list which will be of particular interest if you are looking to migrate a newsletter from WordPress to MailChimp and don’t want to have to worry about exporting and importing users from one system to the other.

And, of course, like virtually all WPMU DEV plugins, MailChimp Integration is multisite compatible. A premium plugin, the cost of $19 includes one month’s support.

Just while we are talking about syncing, this is a one-way sync from WordPress to MailChimp and not two-way. That is subscribing or unsubscribing from a mailing list via MailChimp does not trigger any updates in WordPress itself.

My search for a plugin that did two-way syncing came up empty-handed, so if you do know of one, let me know in the comments.

Generating New Post Notifications

Many WordPress sites, this one included, offer visitors the option to be notified when a new post is published via any one of a number of notification plugins.

This functionality can be easily replicated in MailChimp which will not only keep all your subscribers in the one spot but will also ease the load on your hosting environment.

To provide new post notifications requires only 3 steps:

  1. In MailChimp, create a new Post Notification list.
  2. Create an RSS Campaign, using the RSS feed from your site and the Post Notification list, set to send daily.
  3. In WordPress, use MailChimp For WordPress (or similar) to create a subscription form for this list and embed in a widget.

Visitors will now be able to sign-up for new post notifications that will be sent by MailChimp when a new post is published. Of course, you can replicate the steps and create a campaign that sends out weekly or monthly for more of a round-up type email and you could use an RSS feed for a specific category or tag if you wanted to control the posts that are included.

MailChimp also has its own tool for merging multiple RSS feeds if you need to combine several feeds for the email.

Subscribe To Unlock

This is one of the potentially more interesting integrations with MailChimp.

The Subscribe To Unlock plugin from ichurakov via Code Canyon uses shortcodes to replace content with a subscribe form; it then reveals the content on successful submission of the form.

A cookie is used to remember subscribers which obviously has its pros and cons.

The plugin works with a number of services, including MailChimp, and is perhaps a tool to add to the list building toolkit although one that you probably want to use sparingly to avoid annoying your visitors.

Subscribe to unlock subscription form
Used sparingly this could be an effective list building tool

More Monkey Business: Mandrill Transactional Email Service

Mandrill shield
Outsource email completely with Mandrill

Mandrill is MailChimp’s transaction email service that provides an API to MailChimp’s bulk email infrastructure.

Why is that interesting?

Well, the majority of WordPress sites are not hosted in environments that are conducive to sending email in any sort of bulk quantities. Start a regular newsletter for a few thousand readers and not only will you get your hosting provider taking a long hard look at your activity (and possibly taking remedial action) but you are also taking on the risk, especially if you are just starting out, of email services such as Gmail and Hotmail blacklisting your domain if they think you are not legitimate.

Mandrill solves both these potential issues by taking care of the sending for you, potentially keeping your resource usage under your hosting provider’s radar (don’t forget there’s still a potential API call for every email) and leveraging MailChimp’s excellent reputation.

The official Mandrill plugin for WordPress effectively replaces the native email function: instead of every call to wp_mail generating an email, it generates an API call to Mandrill. This blanket integration means that every email, from those generated by an email newsletter plugin to WordPress’ built-in notifications will be sent via Mandrill.

(Quite a few plugins, especially the e-newsletter plugins, include SMTP support. Mandrill can also be used in this mode.)

This makes the implementation very easy but does also represent a gotcha! It’s still a one-for-one replacement, so if you have a current process that generates and sends an email to 2,000 subscribers, you’ll simply be replacing that with 2,000 calls to the Mandrill API. Whilst that is obviously more desirable than generating the emails yourself (there’s still the reputation issue) it’s not freeing up all those resources entirely.

It is possible to build a payload with an email and all the recipients and even some custom data and make a single call to the API to send bulk emails but few, if any, plugins offer this level of integration.

Still, if you run your own newsletter directly from your WordPress site, or if your site generates a lot of notifications, then Mandrill offers a good option that will protect your reputation and reduce your resource usage.

Best of all, you can send up to 12,000 emails per month for free which is a pretty good way to get started.

Email Still Critically Important

Email is still, amazingly, an integral part of our lives and the go-to communication tool for many who still prefer to get their updates via this ageing but effective technology rather than through the thoroughly more modern social media.

If your WordPress site has a significant investment in using email as a touchpoint with your audience and especially if you already use MailChimp for campaign management, then it is definitely worth considering moving as much, if not all, your WordPress email requirements to the dedicated email service.

Do you use MailChimp? What level of integration do you have with your WordPress site?