Non-profits rely on their members to volunteer their time and talents. A local non-profit client was looking for ways to increase revenue beyond membership fees and sponsorships. They already had an eblast promotional service for members. However, they wanted to add options for ads on their website and posts on their social channels. There were two major challenges: finding someone technically able and available to handle the additional promotion types and no funds available for paid online services.
When discussing this project with the non-profit, I recognized that an automated process would alleviate both the time and technical skills needed. The original eblast setup required 15 minutes or more of volunteer time. In addition, members submitted eblast requests via email to the director with no conformity in file size, format, or dimensions. Manual resizing, file conversion, and sometimes a complete design reconstruction were needed to set up the eblast in the non-profit’s Mailchimp account. I was already handling the eblasts manually, composing and scheduling posts to the social channels, and updating the non-profit’s website. I knew the enhanced offerings would increase the time required to an hour or more.
Having worked with several automation platforms and online form services, I knew there would be a way to automate this process. The trick was to set something up with no additional costs to the non-profit.
The solution was an automated system comprising free versions of several online services: JotForm, UploadCare, Integromat, Google Sheets, and SendGrid, as well as the non-profit’s existing website.
The process starts with an online form made with JotForm. Using a form places more responsibility on members to submit properly prepared eblast requests (versus sending random emails) while making it easy for them to do so. By providing clear instructions and utilizing conditional elements, the fields presented to the user change based on the user’s selections.
For example, users select one of three price tiers, each offering different levels of service. The Basic tier offers the eblast distribution only. The Plus tier adds an ad on the non-profit’s website. The Premium tier adds social channel posting. As users make selections, they are presented with different options to complete. Additionally, users can choose from two email styles: single image or text/image combo. For each option, the user must provide specific information, such as images that conform to a particular size and a subject line for the email.
While JotForm allows files to be uploaded, the free account provides only 100 MB of storage. Additionally, the built-in upload feature does not provide a way to control file sizes. Using a plugin for JotForm called UploadCare, limits can be placed on the size and dimensions of uploaded files. In addition, the plugin’s crop tool allows users to fine tune images to avoid clipping any crucial elements. UploadCare offers 500 MB of storage on its free account; however, I knew the data cap would be reached eventually. I devised a way to delete files after entries have been successfully processed. More on that later.
After a form is submitted, the non-profit receives a notification email from JotForm with instructions to log into JotForm and add a schedule date to the entry. That’s the end of the manual portion of the system. From here on, the rest of the process completes automatically.
Integromat, a process automation service, allows hundreds of apps to be connected. I used Integromat as the core of the automation system and designed three “Scenarios” to execute the tasks needed. Integromat also handles all login authentication. Once a connection to an app, such as Facebook, is established, the credentials to log in to that service remain indefinitely—eliminating the need to share login details with staff or volunteers.
The task for the first Scenario was to provide a way for users to preview their email when they selected the “text/email combo” email design option. JotForm has the ability to show a formatting bar on a field. For text/image combo emails, this feature was utilized to allow users to stylize the contents of the text portion of their email. However, there wasn’t a no-cost way to create a preview of the entire email design before the form was submitted.
The first Integromat Scenario activates automatically when an entry contains the “text/image combo email” option. The Scenario creates a Mailchimp campaign using the elements uploaded on the form then sends a test message to the member’s email. The Mailchimp campaign is then deleted at this stage but will be recreated when a schedule date is added to the JotForm entry.
The second Integromat Scenario monitors the JotForm entries daily, looking for any entries whose Schedule Date matches the current date. When an entry matches, Integromat initiates the appropriate routes in the Scenario based on the selections made on the initial form:
- Send a Single Image Email
- Send a Text/Image Email
- Create Ad on the non-profit’s Website
- Post to Facebook and Instagram
Being mindful of the data storage cap on UploadCare, the first step in each route copies the image from UploadCare to the non-profit’s website media library, which has a much larger storage capacity. Then the Scenario executes any additional routes based on the options selected on the JotForm. In other words, if the user selected the Basic tier, only the route related to constructing the eblast is run. If the Plus tier is selected, then the eblast route and the website route are run.
At the end of both eblast routes, a row is added to a Google Sheet with a Report Date (calculated to be seven days after the current date), the member’s email address, and the Mailchimp Campaign ID. In all cases, the end of each route assesses whether it’s the last route and deletes the files on Uploadcare to free up space.
To create ads on the non-profit’s website, Integromat creates a post in the “Ad” category of the non-profit’s website blog. The latest posts in the Ad category are designed to appear on the non-profit’s home page. Using a free post-expiration WordPress plugin, posts in this Ad category are configured to expire automatically after one week—the length of time offered by this promotional option.
The final Integromat Scenario monitors the Report Date field on the Google Sheet containing the list of eblasts processed in the second Scenario. As noted above, this date field is set to seven dates after the eblast was transmitted to allow enough time to pass before retrieving the campaign results. When an entry’s date matches the current date, it connects to the MailChimp campaign associated with this entry and retrieves the open and click-thru rates of the email campaign. Next, the Scenario triggers SendGrid to compose an email with the campaign results and send it to the member’s email address listed on the Google Sheet entry.
Documenting the Process
I also wrote and designed an ebook detailing the file types, sizes, and content required for each of the promotional types. The ebook includes samples and tips to help users better prepare their promotions.
By adding a parameter to the form URL (e.g., www.jotform.com/formid?field=value), a staff person or volunteer can enter details on behalf of a member and schedule the promotion directly on the form without the need to login to JotForm after the form is submitted. While some time is needed to ensure images provided by the member will conform with the size and dimensions set in the automated system, the overall process requires less than 15 minutes.
Social Post Scheduler
I also created another automation to schedule social posts after learning that Facebook no longer allowed posts to be scheduled more than 45 days in advance. While many paid services can accomplish this, the goal was to avoid incurring additional costs for the non-profit. I built a simple automation using Integromat, a Google Sheet, and the non-profit’s website. I used the non-profit’s website as a file repository again to eliminate Google file upload restrictions.
After manually uploading the post image to the non-profit website’s media folder, post information is entered into rows in the Google sheet, e.g., post date, contents of the post, and link to the image file. An Integromat Scenario monitors this Google Sheet, looking for entries with post dates matching the current date. When a row matches, Integromat posts the information to the appropriate social channel and pulls the associated image from the website. The Scenario then moves the Google Sheet entry to another Google sheet, marks it as completed, and deletes the row on the initial sheet.
While it took many hours to design and test the promotional system, the results were definitely worth it. The automated system reduced the manual labor time by 99%! It also reduced the number of login points to one—providing increased security for the non-profit’s digital accounts. This added security allows any volunteer or staff, with or without technical knowledge, to complete eblast promotions, website updates, and social posts without knowing the login information to each of these separate accounts.
Both of these automated systems are excellent examples of how process automation works. Process automation can reduce the time needed for repetitive tasks, ensure conformity to set standards, eliminate technical skill requirements, and increase security.
Nearly every business can benefit from some form of process automation. Developing a zero-cost solution isn’t always possible. Depending on the needs of the business, the time savings alone can justify any fees for the selected services and the cost to develop a custom system.
Automation is not limited to the services mentioned here. Hundreds of apps and services can be connected. Do you have a business process that would benefit from automation? If so, please reach out to me with any questions.