New Email Discussion List Solution, Integration with WP Mailster

The WordPress for Toastmasters solution now includes a new email discussion list solution, based on integration with WP Mailster, that offers a tighter integration than was possible with the Mailman utility I worked with previously.

Users of the toastmost.org service associated with the WordPress for Toastmasters project who had requested a mailing list have been converted to the WP Mailster solution because the web host for the service is dropping support for Mailman.

Discussion lists can allow members to share information and discuss issues of interest to the club, such as dues and budget proposals. You write to a single address, and your message is distributed to all members (as are the replies to your message). At Online Presenters, for example, the member email list is op@toastmost.org. Non-members who write to that address, will get their message bounced back (unless we’ve made a specific exception), but any member can use that address to share whatever they want to share.

The WP Mailster plugin adds its own menu item to the administrator’s dashboard. Beneath that, as a submenu, I’ve added a link to a Toastmasters Lists screen that provides easy access to the functions I think a Toastmasters club will most commonly need:

  • See the status of your member and officer lists. If they are not completely set up yet, any remaining steps will be spelled out here (mostly applies to those who host their own club websites outside of Toastmost.org).
  • Add email addresses that should be allowed to send to the list to a “whitelist” – useful for members who use multiple email addresses, in addition to the one associated with their login.
  • Add non-member email addresses to the list, for example if you want an honorary member or area director to be included on the “members” list.
Toastmasters Lists for Mailster

You may wish to configure other lists, in addition to those for members and officers, or you can alter the settings, by working directly with the WP Mailster plugin. I’ve tried to shorten the learning curve and provide settings most likely to work without letting your messages get caught in spam filters.

Toastmost.org Users

Clubs that use toastmost.org will get email lists for both members and officers, set up with a reasonable set of defaults, configured for them upon request. All club members with active WordPress accounts will automatically be added to the members email list.

Note that if you try to activate the WP Mailster plugin on your own, I will still need to complete a couple of steps to create the corresponding email accounts on toastmost.org.

It is possible for more technically adept webmasters to instead host the email accounts elsewhere. For example, you might be able to configure an email address associated with a domain name you own even if your site is hosted as a subdomain of toastmost.org.

The how-to details for more complicated scenarios are addressed in the following section, aimed at webmasters who operate WordPress for Toastmasters sites outside of toastmost.org.

Self Hosted Clubs

If your club uses the WordPress for Toastmasters software (the RSVPMaker and RSVPMaker for Toastmasters plugins) on its own web hosting, you will need to complete some additional steps.

I recommend you use the free version of WP Mailster, but if you try the Pro edition I’d love to hear about your experience.

As long as you have the latest version of my plugins, lists set up according to my suggested defaults will be created as soon as you install and activate WP Mailster. However, although a list email address and password will be displayed on the Toastmasters Lists screen (the submenu under WP Mailster), you will still need to create corresponding email accounts where incoming messages will be queued before being relayed to list members.

Typically, web hosts provide a utility such as CPanel that allow you to configure email accounts. If your web host does not include email accounts with your plan, you may be able to get them through another service provider. For example, if you registered your domain through GoDaddy, you can get email accounts through them for an additional fee.

Each list needs its own dedicated email account. The password for the email account must match the one recorded in WP Mailster. Once you have set up your email accounts, you will need to add the email server parameters to WP Mailster.

I suggest using the POP3 protocol for incoming messages, rather than IMAP. With POP3, messages are deleted from the server after retrieval, whereas with IMAP they are retained on the server (requiring a bigger mailbox).

You will also need the configuration for an outgoing server that uses the SMTP protocol.

For each of these, you will record a server host name (such as mail.myclub.org) and a port number. Then click the Test Connection link in WP Mailster to make sure it works. In my experience, sometimes you have to try a few of the variations your web host supports before you find one that works.

Once you have done all this, activate the list so it will start checking for new messages.

Recommended Settings

Before you change the default list settings I’ve established, here are a few notes on why they are recommended:

  • Sender Settings screen, Use WordPress Mailer: no. While WordPress can send out messages without SMTP settings being specified, your messages will be more likely to be trapped in spam filters if you change this setting.
  • Mail Content I suggest a custom header that specifies who the message is from and provides a link members can click to write back to that member directly, rather than writing back to the list. A custom footer provides a link to the Unsubscribe function in RSVPMaker so we can honor this request for both WP Mailster messages and other system messages.
  • List Behavior screen, Allowed to send / post – Restricted to list members (who will also receive the messages), list administrator, and members of the whitelist group.
  • Sending Behavior From name and From email address are set to the list name and list email address. Spam filters do not like when the From email address doesn’t match the account they are receiving a message from. This means that replies go to the list by default, not the individual sender.

These recommendations my change as my club and others get more experience with the software.

Gains and Tradeoffs

The integration with WP Mailster is greater than I was able to achieve with Mailman, allowing almost all configuration (other than the initial setup of email accounts) to occur within the WordPress environment. Mailman is an old, reliable piece of software that has to be managed with a separate password.

As a lower-level Linux utility, Mailman does have some advantages in terms of access to the email system.

Because WP Mailster periodically checks for new incoming messages, rather than receiving them instantly, there will always be a delay between when a message is sent to the list and when it goes out to list members.

A Faster Way to Fill a Toastmasters Meeting Agenda

The latest update to the RSVPMaker for Toastmasters component of the WordPress for Toastmasters solution makes it easier to fill a meeting agenda by allowing you to see at a glance who has NOT yet taken a role.

This is based on a technique I have been using at my home club, where I am Vice President of Education, to make it easier to ask specific people to volunteer to fill specific roles — which tends to work better than making an open-ended appeal for volunteers. Until now, I had been using the Agenda with Contacts view of the meeting agenda, which was introduced some time ago. In addition to showing you a listing of members who have taken a role, it lists those who have not with their contact information so you can call or email them.

When I’m getting ready to step up to the front of the room and call on people, I don’t need phone numbers, just an at-a-glance view of who has not yet committed to a role. The new version of the multi-week signup editor allows me to see that listing and update it in real time.

After passing around a paper signup sheet, I plug in the names of members who have signed up for roles at the next few meetings. The list of Members with No Role updates automatically, giving me a current view of who might be available. If those members are in the room, I will try to enlist them for at least the next week’s meeting before the current meeting wraps up.

Here’s a demo of how that works on the website:

How to Track Member Progress With WordPress for Toastmasters (Updated)

WordPress for Toastmasters seeks to provide club leaders with tools both to organize meeting agendas and to track member progress based on participation history. You can gather a lot of data passively — speech and role signups flow automatically into the reporting system — but the data will be higher quality and more useful if you “reconcile” your records after each meeting to account for no-shows and members who stepped up at the last minute.

On the WordPress Dashboard, the key reports show up under

  • Toastmasters -> Progress Reports
    and
  • Toastmasters ->My Progress
Progress Reports screen

The My Progress screen is where members can see all their own records. That’s the one you want everyone to know is available.

The Progress Reports screen is more for club leaders, although by default members can also get a look at how they compare with other members.

The initial Progress Reports screen display is a 6-month snapshot of member activity within your club. The idea is to provide at-a-glance answers to two questions: are members speaking (and making progress in the educational program) and are members contributing to the health of the club by fulfilling other roles.

If you see someone who has a zero next to their name for Speaking roles, you may want to give them a nudge or reminder. If someone is giving lots of speeches but not filling any of the supporting roles, you may need to talk with them about contributing in other ways. As a VP of Education, I would prefer to see members filling supporting roles about twice as often as they speak — but only as a general rule. A good VPE also understands each member’s goals and situation, for example supporting a member who is pushing to achieve DTM or prepare for a professional event and wants to speak more or the member whose personal situation currently makes it difficult for them to participate.

Additional Views

You can switch from the 6-month overview to a number of additional views:

  • Remove the 6-month filter and display member data for all dates.
  • Display member data for all dates and all clubs that use the same software (see below).
  • Switch to the My Progress screen to see all of your own records.
  • Use the drop-down list at the top of the screen to pick any other individual member and view their records in more detail.
  • Both My Progress and Progress Report (with an individual member selected) display a list of the member’s speeches, chronologically and by manual, on the Speeches tab.
  • Use the other tabs across the top of the screen to view data for the Traditional Program (Competent Communicator/Competent Leader), Advanced Manuals, and Pathways. There are also tabs for editing records and adding a speech (for example, a speech given as a guest of another club).

Website administrators can restrict access to some of these screens if, for example, they do not want members to be able to edit their own data.

Not a Substitute for Base Camp

These reports are not intended to compete with Base Camp, the educational dashboard provided as part of the Pathways program. Maintaining the official records of member progress through the completion of manuals and Pathways levels will still require logging into toastmasters.org. However, I hope you will find them useful for tracking activity that doesn’t show up in Base Camp on for tracking down speech and activity information that can (a) help you keep the official records up to date and (b) get an overview of member participation.

The “Update History” Screen

Do your meetings always go as planned? Mine don’t. So for accurate record keeping, someone needs to go back and fix the changes where the speaker who was supposed to speak didn’t show up and someone else stepped up at the last minute. Like reconciling your checkbook, this process helps account for omissions and mistakes.

You do this from the Update History screen under Toastmasters Administration. In addition to correcting role signup records, you can (if desired) record attendance and recognitions like Best Speaker. Your user account must be set to the Manager or Administrator security level to access this screen.

Update History
  1. Pick any past date to record records for that meeting.
  2. Record your changes.
  3. Scroll down to the bottom and record your changes.

It’s also possible to generate records for any other date, based on a template rather than a specific meeting record. But for the most part you’ll work from a past meeting record.

Sharing Member Data Between Club Websites

If a member belongs to multiple clubs that host their websites at toastmost.org, the reports can display data from participation across these clubs.

It’s also possible for independently hosted websites to synchronize their data. For example, I can log into the website of either my home club (www.clubawesome.org) or the online club I led to charter (op.toastmost.org) and see all my activity from both clubs, plus one other where I served as a club coach. This feature is not turned on by default but can be activated from the Settings -> Toastmasters screen.

Turning on the data syncronization feature

Data is first synced with a repository hosted at wp4toastmasters.com, which also acts as a backup for your records. If you prefer to keep your data contained within your club website, leave this turned off.

Live Demo

For a live demo of the Progress Reports, log into the demo site at demo.toastmost.org using the credentials:

User: member
Password: member

This link will take you there https://demo.toastmost.org/wp-admin/admin.php?page=toastmasters_reports

New: Notification for Contributed Blog Posts

If you would like to encourage members to post to the club website blog, the best way to start them out is to promote them to the Contributor security level. This allows them to submit blog posts for review by an editor or administrator, who can then publish them. See: Understanding User Access Levels in WordPress for Toastmasters.

You might expect that WordPress would send me editors and administrators a notification whenever one of these posts is submitted, but it turns out that’s not built into the base WordPress system. As of the July 22 update, it is built into the WordPress for Toastmasters software (specifically, the RSVPMaker for Toastmasters plugin).

On the Settings page for Toastmasters options, there is now a field where you can enter the email addresses of one or more contacts.

Setup for Contributor Notifications

Each of those email addresses will get a copy of a basic notification like this, pointing to the page where you can view and edit the pending post. You can also reply to this message with questions for the author.