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18May2014

Automatic subscriptions

Information
1294 hits Updated: 05 September 2015

Is it feas­ible?

Design is­sues

Is it viable?

What are the risks?

Developers’ plans for “automatic sub­scrip­tions”

Automatic subscriptions—the ability to enforce a website owner’s policy that all members of the site “automatically” receive email notifications whenever there is some new forum activity (a new topic created or replies made to existing topics)—is a subject that has been discussed going back as far as I can remember. People have asked for the Kunena project team to deliver features that allow them to “autosubscribe” members of their forums to categories and topics without their members having to do anything except to join their websites. This is a subject that has as many different views about how to implement a solution as well as different opinions about whether such methods are ethical, “legitimate”, workable, worthy or legal in terms of the protection of an individual’s right to privacy or an individual’s right to choose.

The different views and opinions expressed by the wider Kunena community exist within the Kunena project team, too. In short, there is no simple answer to this very complex issue.

Every website on the internet is a business in some form or another. Some websites operate in order to generate a cash profit while others operate on a not-for-profit basis—to facilitate sharing of knowledge, community or social activities. Your website provides a service as part of that business and the people who join your site are consumers of that service (or services) that you offer. A forum is part of that business and your members’ participation in the forum acts both to give them the means to discuss the range of “services” that your site provides—that is, something that your members consume—as well as where your members contribute to enhance the business of the site.

It really does not matter for what purpose your site exists. As soon as we start talking about sending out emails to people we’re talking about how your website operates as a business and, as part of operating that business, questions about how you manage the relationship between you and your “customers” are entirely relevant.

This article identifies the technical and non-technical complexities that people need to resolve before attempting to “autosubscribe” your members. The issues fall into the following broad categories:

  • Feasibility: can it be done?
  • Design: how can it be done?
  • Viability: will it work?
  • Risk management: costs, overheads, ethical and legal consequences.

Feasibility

For as long as I can remember, forum members have been able to subscribe themselves to topics and—from K 1.6—to categories of topics. Depending on your forum’s configuration settings, they will receive emails when there has been some new forum activity in which they have an interest.

What happens, when a user subscribes to a topic or category, is that a record is added to the table:

_kunena_user_topics (in the case of topic subscriptions); or

_kunena_user_categories (in the case of category subscriptions).

Although the actual database structure is described elsewhere, the purpose of this article is to discuss ways that site owners could possibly add other records to those tables. It is technically feasible to add records to these tables in order to subscribe your users to some categories (or all categories or even specific topics) that exist in your forum. Although there is no officially endorsed method to automate that subscription process, people have developed and published ways to achieve these things. I have no comment about the effectiveness of those technical approaches except to say that it is technically feasible to automatically subscribe people so that they will receive email notification of new forum activity that occurs on your website.

Whether or not subscribed members can choose to subscribe to other topics/categories or unsubscribe from topics/categories that they have (or are) already subscribed is an entirely different question and that’s not essentially a question about technical feasibility.

Stop hand nuvola.svg

In some jurisdictions it may be against the law to impose automatic subscriptions/mail-outs
unless people can choose to unsubscribe or disable those things themselves.

In short, it is technically feasible and solutions are available using third-party products, something you can pay someone to do for you, something you can do yourself or a combination of these approaches if this is important to your business and, therefore, something worth the investment of your time (and money) in doing.

Design

Autosubscribe survey responsesThere is no universal case for adopting automatic subscriptions. Each site owner has their own reasons for wanting or not wanting this feature. Therefore, before we look at how to design and implement a solution, let’s take a moment analyse the reasons why site owners have said that they want an automated subscription feature.

The graph on the right summarises the reasons people have given when they enquired how to design and implement automatic subscriptions. I should point out that this analysis is only a small sample taken from the hundreds of messages on the Kunena forum that deals with this subject. Further, the analysis only relies on information from people who manage forums not from the consumers or end users of those forums. I might add that I’ve never seen a request from a user of the Kunena forum who asked to be automatically subscribed.

It is interesting to see that people gave no reason about why automated subscriptions were needed in nearly half of the cases in this study. We cannot draw any conclusion from that fact; people often request “is it possible” without explaining why they want to know the answer. I just find it curious that half the time people ask “is it possible” and, perhaps, they may not have considered “why do I need it?”

Of the people who have enquired about automatic subscriptions (who represent only a tiny fraction of people who run Kunena forums) one reason that was given is that there is no alternative mechanism to produce a summary of forum activity—say, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis—and for that summary to be emailed to members. This may also help explain why people gave no reason for wanting automatic subscriptions. I really cannot say.

Of those who gave their reasons, one-quarter of site owners said they had the right to decide what was best for their community: their members were either lazy, ignorant or incompetent, incapable of learning how to use the forum or that automated subscriptions should be the “default”. The remaining (35%) of responses were about improving forum participation, promoting the business and because the site owners said that their members “want this feature”.

If an ideal solution could be designed, forum subscription should be factored in at the time users register at your website. This means that the account registration component needs the necessary mechanisms to allow you users to choose to be subscribed (a) to all forum categories, (b) to certain forum categories or (c) to no forum categories. Alternatively, if you do not allow the range of choices that I’ve suggested, it would also be necessary to include—perhaps as part of the account registration “package”—a reference to your site policy to the fact that your members have been automatically subscribed and what options they may have to cancel their subscription at a later time. I am unaware of any products that currently do any of these things.

Viability

Email is not a guaranteed way to reach your target audience. People who join your website may have difficulties receiving email that your site generates because

  • they registered with a disposable email address—this means that a person joined your website and provided an email address only for the purposes of registration and not for the purposes of receiving email in future;
  • their email client treats mail generated by your site as "spam" and deposits email messages into a junk mail folder that they may never check;
  • their email server may have rules about the amount of mail submitted from your site or may reject mail that you send because your site is blacklisted;
  • your members may receive mail but, for whatever reason, they do not read it; or
  • members may change their email address without updating their registration details on your website—in time this may lead to emails “bouncing” back (adding to your system logs) and increasing your administration workload.

Additionally, generating email increases the workload on your server and may, over time, impact on the performance of your site particularly if your forum is busy and emails are sent to many subscribed members every time a new topic is created or a topic is replied to.

In taking the decision to implement autosubscription on your site you therefore need to weigh all the factors that I have mentioned above as well as take into consideration

  • how many users you have;
  • how busy your forum is;
  • how your website is hosted and whether it has the capacity (CPU, memory, bandwidth); and/or
  • how many emails people are likely to get as well as how appreciative they will be of the “service” you are giving them.

I do not intend to give a step-by-step guide to implementing an autosubcription feature. The purpose of this article is to make people aware that no solution is perfect, there is no guaranteed way to satisfy your business objectives by autosubscribing your members, and that there are risks and overheads associated with whatever approach you decide to take. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Forum subscriptions are only one way that may help people stay “in touch” with what happens at your forum. It’s also a possibility that automatic subscriptions may be no help at all.

Risk management

As I have mentioned in this article, there are many factors that people must keep in mind when considering the merits of automatically subscribing forum users. These include the fact that email may not always succeed as a means of contacting your users, the additional costs and operational overheads that are involved in keeping automatic subscriptions up-to-date whenever changes occur within your community—when new members join and when existing member “retire”—as well as changes in your business.

For example, some parts of your forum may outlive their usefulness, some other parts may become more important—or relevant—to your members and new purposes or features may replace existing ones. As well as organisational changes that can occur, your users may decide that “automatic subscriptions” are no longer important and they may demand more freedom to choose how they want to remain engaged with the community or whether they wish to remain part of the community at all.

With the growth in web-based social networking—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Instagram (to mention only a few examples)—and the explosion of emails that are generated by these products, we are constantly bombarded by an increasingly huge amount of data. The technical term for this phenomenon is infoglut. If we add—to the seemingly endless sources of the email that we receive each day—notification by email about the activities of forums that we’ve joined, sifting through this plethora of data presents us with difficult choices. Because of the continuing rise in email and the probability that email may be used to advertise products that we’re not interested in, phishing for personal information and spam and other frauds, governments and intergovernmental agencies have joined forces to protect the individual’s right to privacy. Many recent changes in privacy and commerce law have forced major software developers—Google, Facebook, Twitter as examples—to revise their policies and terms of use in order to mitigate criminal prosecution or civil liability issues. It is no different, either, in the case of a website owner who manages a small—in relative terms compared with, say, Microsoft—business. The law makes no distinction between the big players and the small-time operator (i.e. the owner of a forum with a handful of members). Privacy is, perhaps, the major issue website owners need to contend with and it’s imporant that you are up-front with your members about how their rights are respected and what practices your site may use that could infringe on those rights.

This site has a clear statement about privacy and terms of use. Indeed, no-one joining this website can do so without acknowledging that they have seen and accepted these conditions. How other people manage their websites is their own business but it is my opinion that having a clear statement about the conditions of membership goes a long way to manage the “customer relationship” issues I mentioned earlier in this article.

If people implement an “autosubscription” feature at their website, without diligence to their legal obligations in respect of privacy, they may face serious consequences. It is, therefore, vital that people familiarise themselves with their legal obligations not only within their own countries but also in relation to international conventions that regulate fair trade, privacy and anti-spam.

The main risks to autosubscription are:

  • cost;
  • perceptions of infringement of privacy;
  • exposure to criminal and/or civil litigation;
  • availability of ready-made solutions;
  • effectiveness of those solutions;
  • emails that are not sent, sent but not received and/or received but not read;
  • relevance to people’s needs and/or wants;
  • relevance of forum activity to the purpose of the site.

Last of all, the quest for that “perfect solution”—the utopian dream of achieving a forum that attains a high level of membership interest and participation—may be the “impossible dream”. Contrary to the ancient proverb, just because you build a website does not mean that people will come to it.

Does the Kunena team have plans for an “automatic subscriptions” feature?

There are no plans to include an autosubscription feature within the standard Kunena forum software; this is not the final word on the subject.

Although there are no specific plans to develop an autosubscribe feature, an idea has been canvassed for an optional add-on that could deliver this functionality. If such an optional extra feature were available in future it is probable that it would be offered under different conditions to those of the Kunena forum component. I strongly doubt that there will be an “automatic subscriptions” feature developed and supported by the Kunena project.

My personal views on autosubscription are well-known and they are a matter of public record. My personal views notwithstanding, I respect the opinions of others on this subject. Autosubscription is a controversial subject; no-one is 100% right to argue against adopting automatic subscriptions just as no-one is 100% right to insist on using automatic subscriptions, either.

Summary

In conclusion, automatic subscriptions is a controversial topic. Every person I have spoken to seems to have a different opinion but the conventional wisdom is that it is probably better to allow people to opt-in to subscribe to topics and/or forum categories that they’re interested in and allow them to opt-out later when they’re no longer interested in those things. The conventional wisdom is that it’s probably better to educate your membership so that they’re aware of how the existing subscription features work and allow your members to use your forum however they like (within reason, of course).

Automatic subscription may have benefits in small communities: it may improve forum participation and it’s possible that it may advance your site’s business but automatic subscriptions could also have detrimental effects on your business and may, in time, prove to be counter-productive.

It is technically feasible to implement automatic subscriptions.

Implementing an autosubscription mechanism on your site requires careful planning in how it’s designed.

No automatic subscription mechanism is foolproof or guaranteed to work; some approaches are viable and some approaches may not be viable on a strictly case-by-case basis.

Autosubscription involves risks and potential threats

The Kunena team has no specific plans to develop an autosubscription feature for Kunena.

About the author:

is a Joomla professional and former member of the Kunena project for more than 8 years—a substantial contributor to the original Kunena documentation project with over twenty thousand messages posted at the Kunena forum. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author. View his profile here.


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