10 Ways To Improve Your Home Page (or Any Page or Post)

WordPress gives you all the tools you need to market your club on the web and an anchor for your outreach by other means, including email and social media.

What the software will not do is tell your story for you. The words, the image, and the creative message have to come from you.

Club website with a strong home page image

New sites on the Toastmost.org service (the easiest way to get up and running with WordPress for Toastmasters) come with a sort of prefab home page that includes boilerplate content from Toastmasters International. That is intended as a starting point, but you should replace most of it with — or at least the introduction — with your own story.

What follows are tips about what content to include, along with how-to instructions for WordPress.

To be clear, I am not saying you need to use all these techniques on every page of your website. In fact, be careful about overloading your web pages with too many types of content or making them too long. It’s better to break the content for more pages and posts, keeping each one short, simple, and focused.

Continue reading “10 Ways To Improve Your Home Page (or Any Page or Post)”

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
  • 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.

Understanding User Access Levels in WordPress for Toastmasters

WordPress for Toastmasters takes advantage of the standard WordPress user security levels, with a few tweaks. The creator of a club website becomes its Administrator, with broad powers over the design and content of the site, and new members are typically granted Subscriber-level accounts, which allow them to sign up for meeting roles and edit their own profiles.

This post focuses on the levels in-between, order of increasing responsibility and capability for adding and editing website content. Club webmasters may want to consider granting elevated access to club members, particularly given that Pathways includes both projects for blogging and podcasting. You can make the club website available as a platform for them to create and promote their content, and potentially get some public relations / social media marketing value for your club in the prospect. I’m doing something similar as this year’s webmaster for Toastmasters District 47, where I’m inviting participation from active members of the district.

For the Pathways blogging project, I suggest encouraging members to create a few posts relevant to the mission of Toastmasters and your club (or area or division) or showcasing what we learn in Toastmasters by example. If you video record speeches, a member might build a blog around a speech the were particularly proud of — with the video and maybe a few stills from the speech embedded in the body of the post, plus some commentary on where the idea came from, how they practiced, and so on. PowerPoint slides and other resources can be made available for download.

Contest speech videos are a potential goldmine for showcasing Toastmasters talent and dramatizing what we learn in the program.

My recommendation is that members be offered the opportunity to create blog posts on the club website but shouldn’t feel obligated to do so. The Pathways blogging project asks that they create 8 posts and then give a speech about what they learned in the process. My advice would be to do a couple of Toastmasters-appropriate posts to the club website, and a few others to a personal blog (a free account on WordPress.com or Blogger/Blogspot) or a professional forum (for example, with the LinkedIn blog/article tool). Many small businesses (and some larger ones) run their websites on WordPress, so blogging to promote the business could be productive as a way of attracting people to your business website.

I have much more to say about what to post and why, but first let me get back to my topic of security and access levels. In general, it’s good advice not to give users more privileges than they require to do their work. And the more access you grant, the more important it is to drive home the message about being careful with passwords and web security because a hacked account could do more damage.

The next step up from Subscriber is …

Contributor: An Author on Training Wheels

Continue reading “Understanding User Access Levels in WordPress for Toastmasters”

Web & Social Tip: Balance Your Use of Images Versus Text and Links

This is going to be one of those “pet peeve” posts — sorry — but I have burning urge to share observations about something that drives me crazy: people using images and PDFs to do jobs that text, links and interactive web or social content could do better.

I see this issue a lot with a volunteer organization I’m working with on digital strategy this year (Toastmasters District 47) where people often put a lot of effort into creating flyers (PDFs) or “poster images” for promoting an event or item of news on Facebook or Twitter but neglect to include important details in the body of those social posts. They seem to forget that people often want to copy and paste text like the address of an event location or click on a link or email address, which they generally can’t do with an image in a social post.

The examples of this pattern I’m thinking of where this pattern is most counter productive come from the world of business, not volunteerism — so the volunteers have nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m just encouraging them to do better.

I’m going to pick on a business, not the volunteers, for my example of what not to do. The post below is not at all the worst example that I’ve seen. I don’t know this business, and I don’t have anything against them or their marketing team. The only point I want to make with the image below is that it contains what looks like it could be a button. I’ve seen other examples where the “button” has rounded corners that makes it look even more button-like. The first time I saw this in a tweet, I thought “Oh, cool, someone has figured out how to make Twitter posts more interactive.”

No alt text provided for this image

The catch is the button is not really button; it’s just a picture of the button. If you try to click on it, Twitter shows you an enlarged version of the picture including the picture of a button. It doesn’t actually take you to a registration form, as you might expect.

Continue reading “Web & Social Tip: Balance Your Use of Images Versus Text and Links”

Adding Another Club Website Administrator. Also, Toastmost.org Requests & Help

With the start of the new Toastmasters officer term, many clubs may be adding or changing roles related to administration of the website. Continuity is important, but this may also be an opportunity to give your club website a face lift or add compelling content that tells visitors why they should invest in learning about Toastmasters — and your club in particular.

Recommendation #1: Your Club Should Have More Than One Website Administrator

Toastmasters leaders come and go. Even if you personally have made a long-term commitment to the club, there could come a day when you are unable to keep participating because of illness, or a job move, or who knows what? Or maybe you are the club leader who has delegated most responsibilities for managing the club website to someone else — perhaps someone with more “techie” skills than you give yourself credit for — and one day that person goes missing.

You don’t want to find yourself “locked out” of your own website, which is showing outdated information (say, because your meeting location has changed), and you can’t fix it.

So name at least one additional administrator, someone who is reasonably comfortable futzing with web software, even if your primary admin continues to do most of the work. You can change user roles on the Toastmasters screen under Settings, or from the Users page on the administrative dashboard.

You may also want to assign officers and other trusted club members to elevated security roles. Your choices, with increasingly broad rights are:

  • Subscriber – the default security role. Can sign up for roles and edit their own user/member profile.
  • Contributor – Can contribute blog posts and submit them for approval by an Editor or Administrator.
  • Author – Can create and publish blog posts without prior approval by an Editor.
  • Editor – Can edit any of the site content, including blog posts, pages, and event posts.
  • Manager – Can edit content and can also add or edit user/member records. (Not a standard WordPress security role — added for use by an officer such as the VP of Membership who needs to be able to add user accounts).
  • Administrator – Can change configuration settings, enable plugins, and change the site design (color choices, banners, etc). On a stand-alone website, the Administrator can also install plugins and themes. On a multisite network such as toastmost.org, only the network administrator can install additional software.
  • Network Administrator – On a multisite network such as toastmost.org, this super-administrator has administrative rights to all the individual club websites and can make changes that affect all websites.

As an Administrator, you can appoint a second administrator, and you can also appoint users to any of the roles below that level.

New Way to Submit Requests and Questions on Toastmost.org

Club website administrators should be able to operate fairly autonomously, for the most part. However, there are a few functions that require help from a network administrator. In addition to the WordPress functions you cannot access, tasks such as creating an email discussion list require access to server operating system utilities outside of WordPress.

Requests and Questions

In most cases, a network administrator can fulfill these requests within a day or two. I’m introducing two new tools to make it easier for you to submit these requests and for me and my backup admins to follow up on them.

  • Requests and Questions Form – Use to request setup of email lists and email forwarding addresses, or submit any other request or question for the network administrators. This form appears on the main Dashboard screen and also as a submenu under TM Administration. The version you get to from the menu also shows a history of all your requests and the responses to them.
  • Plugin Search – Plugins are optional software modules for specific functions. Plugins for many common purposes are pre-installed and just waiting for you to turn them on. Thousands of others are freely available from WordPress.org, and this new search screen (which you will find as a submenu under Plugins) lets you research them and request that additional plugins be installed.

One caution about plugins: don’t go crazy installing dozens of plugins on your website. Having too many active can slow down your website. They may even interfere with each other. Used judiciously, they can add useful functions to your website.

For example, searching on “poll” would allow you to locate multiple plugins for adding an interactive poll to a blog post or page. Before requesting additional plugins, see if an existing plugin for that function is already available. In fact, there are already two polling plugins available for your use. However, if another one looks like it fits your requirements better, go ahead and ask for it.

Requests for plugins will be reviewed based on factors like ratings and how frequently the software is updated. Plugins may also be removed form toastmost.org from time to time, for example if they have known security bugs or haven’t been updated in a long time.

In general, requests for mailing lists and forwarding addresses are more straightforward and will be processed on a routine basis. Just keep in mind that forwarding addresses must be unique. In other words, vpe@toastmost.org will not work but myclub-vpe@toastmost.org or vpe2445@toastmost.org can be set to forward to whatever address or list of addresses you specify.

Proposed Toastmost.org Subscription Fee Starting in 2020

Heads up, users of the toastmost.org service for hosting club websites. Because relying on donations and sponsor advertising isn’t generating enough money to cover my costs, I plan to begin charging $30 per club per year at the beginning of 2020.

This fee will apply to clubs whose website has been registered on the site for more than one year. Going forward, I will continue to allow a generous one-year trial period — which should be long enough for clubs to see the value.

Metrics of success I would suggest looking for when you decide whether to stick with toastmost.org or migrate away to Free Toast Host, easySpeak, or some other option:

  • Visitors praise your website when telling you how they found your club. This assumes you have published valuable, engaging content (the software doesn’t do that for you, but it should make it easier).
  • Your VPE and other officers are saving time when organizing the agenda and appreciate features like automated meeting role reminder messages.
  • You recognize the value of paying to support investments in improving the security and performance of your club website.
  • Even if you’re not taking advantage of them yet, you appreciate the availability of options for online dues payment and online submission of member applications.

If you are not achieving success with the platform, I am available to coach you to greater success. Everything on the list above is something my clubs have achieved, which is why I decided to share these resources with other clubs in the first place. Moving to a paid model will mean redoubling my commitment to making more clubs realize the value of the software and services.

Outside of toastmost.org, the same software is available, free and open source, for you to install on your own web server. That can be a good option for those with the necessary budget and technical wherewithal, but toastmost.org hosting means I worry about most of the techie details.

A friend advised me to name a higher number (based partly on the idea that people often don’t value things that come cheap), but $30 USD is calibrated to be substantially less than the cost of hosting and independent website and not so much that any club can’t scrape together that money once a year.

Donations and Sponsor Advertising Still Welcome

I still hope to raise a little money through donations and sponsor advertising — see the information posted at wp4toastmasters.org/support — and I thank the handful of sponsors and advertisers who have helped out over the past few years. Ultimately, I think it’s fairer to everybody to require a modest annual contribution from all toastmost.org users than continue to lean on a few generous people and clubs.

My own small editorial/digital consulting business will continue to contribute to the cause, operating this venture at a modest loss — I just can’t afford to allow the loss to keep growing. I personally will continue to contribute substantial amounts of time to improving the software because I love the challenge and believe in the mission of providing Toastmasters clubs with better digital tools.

I welcome your feedback.

David F. Carr
Webmaster for toastmost.org and founder of the WordPress for Toastmasters project.

Web-based member application for Toastmasters

As the founding President of an online club, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to construct smoother workflows for processes like enrolling members. This online member application submission and approval process is part of that. We’re currently piloting it at both Online Presenters Toastmasters and Club Awesome (a traditional offline club) and have seen a flurry of new applications in the space of a few days — which looks to me like evidence that we’ve successfully reduced some friction in the process.

By “online,” I mean this is an application process built where the new member fills out a web-based form that includes agreement to all the same legal terms you would find on the PDF or paper versions of the application. The completed application is saved as an HTML formatted document that is stored as part of your club’s online records and can be shared via email.

Update, June 22: I’ve now gone through the process of submitting a couple of transfer applications in this format to the Membership Department at the Toastmasters International, and they’ve accepted them with one proviso. As additional validation of the member’s digital signature, they have asked that the member personally confirm the transfer request by email.

The video below shows the user experience for the member completing the application and paying dues, as well as the reviewing and approving incoming applications, then creating member accounts on the website.

This is part of the WordPress for Toastmasters system for club marketing and meeting management. It takes advantage of the online payment features introduced a few months ago.

If no online payment has been received, the club officer reviewing the application will see a notice saying so at the top of the page. That notice is accompanied by a payment link you can copy-and-paste into your follow up email to the member. Or maybe you have received a payment by check or some other means, in which case you can ignore that alert and approve the application anyway.

No payment warning

Setting Up the Form

Getting this to work includes a little back-end setup to establish your club’s dues schedule and create a page on your website where the application will be displayed. There is a separate settings screen for this feature, labeled TI Application Form.

When you first load that setup screen, you will have to fill in some blanks. If you haven’t previously signed up for an account on the stripe.com online payment service and obtained the required API keys for integration with the website, you’ll have to do that now if you want to take advantage of the online payment feature.

Once you’ve completed the setup, the screen will look like this, with details on your own dues as well as the TI dues prorated by month.

Note that at the bottom of the setup page there are links to view or edit the member application page. That page will contain a placeholder code for the form itself, but you can add your own content before or after it (for example to provide some additional info on your dues).

Page with placeholder code for the application.

Before creating this, I verified with Toastmasters International that the legalese in the membership application form includes terms about how a digital signature on an application is legally binding. That’s something you agree to when submitting a digital application.

However, I believe this is much less awkward than emailing around PDFs (in my online club) or dealing with data entry issues like unreadable handwriting on paper forms leading to emails being entered incorrectly when we register a member (an issue for my offline club). It’s also one smooth process rather than a series of fragmented processes.