Build your own social media scheduler with RSS and a few free tools

What’s are RSS feeds? Well, basically they are way for websites to easily share new content using XML. RSS feeds rock. RSS readers rock. I love them. Some search engines love them. They are far superior to social media as a way to consume news and stay up to date with your favourite sites, being far more portable, private, significantly lacking in toxicity, and devoid of interference in what you see beyond the editorial choices of the site you subscribe to. They are also my go-to technology for spreading, or syndicating content. The clues in the name, you see?

But it’s an unavoidable truth that most people don’t use RSS anymore, and get their news from social media instead. If you want to build traffic to your website, you must push your content out on social media.

However, posting and reposting your content to social can be very time-consuming. With each of the major social media channels attracting a different audience demographic, you need to share your content four or more different ways in four or more different places. Not much fun.

Thankfully there are lots, and I do mean lots, of services out there that can automate and schedule your social media posting for you. One of the most popular is Buffer.

Confession: I like Buffer. I really do. It supports the “big four” networks, it can queue and schedule posts, and has been integrated into a range of other apps (including my favourite RSS reader, Feedly).

But, there is something I really don’t like about Buffer and that’s the limitations it places on free accounts. Unless you’re on a paid account, you can only add three social media accounts. Three, out of the big four. A limit on how many posts you could make a month or a week would be fine, but taking out 25% of the audience makes a free account, in my opinion, makes the product crippleware, rather than “freemium” for anyone serious about social media. I guess that’s what Buffer want, but I’ve never been keen on software that limits utility in this way.

So, when I rebuilt my website recently I knew I wanted to automate, as much as possible, posting my content to social media. I also had the additional challenge that I don’t want to post every piece of content to every channel (my LinkedIn in followers aren’t especially interested in my cakes, as far as I know). I also wanted to do it without spending any money…

Enter RSS, Zapier, and just a pinch of Buffer…

What you will need:

You’re going to need RSS feeds coming from your website.

The good news is that if you’re using a content management system these are probably built into that system already. WordPress, for example, provides a feed for the homepage, a feed for every category, a feed for every tag and more. You can find a full list of the WordPress feeds here.

If you’re rolling your own website as I often to, or your website doesn’t come with an RSS feed, then you can either generate one with a service such as rss.app or you can write the code to generate an RSS feed from your content. You’ll find the specification for an RSS feed here and a handy validator to check your RSS feed here.

You’re going to need an account with Zapier.

Zapier is a great service that allows you to connect together applications. It supports over 1,500 different applications and platforms and it’s a great, code-less alternative to dealing with 1,500+ different APIs. Zapier calls each connection a “zap” and you can have up to five of them completely free. They can fire up to 100 times a month and will check for activity that should trigger them every 15 minutes.

If all of that sounded like techno-babble, look at it this way – Zapier lets you do things like connect Twitter to Facebook so that every time you tweet, it turns up on Facebook as well. If you’ve been posting the same content to Twitter and Facebook manually up until now, you’ve just cut your workflow in half. You’re welcome. (Well, I don’t really deserve any thanks but, you know).

You’re going to need an account with Buffer.

I know, I know… isn’t this article all about building a better Buffer with Zapier? Still is – all will be revealed!

What you’re going to get

If you follow this process you should end up with your RSS feed connected to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. If you want to share different content to each then you can use different feeds to do that. You can even attach the same feed to multiple platforms.

Tip: With the free version of Zapier you cannot, as I write this, create multi-stage “zaps” so although you could connect your RSS to multiple platforms in a single zap on the paid platform, we’re going to stick with what’s possible for free.

How to do it, step by step.

  1. Create a new “zap”.
  2. Select the Zapier RSS feed as the source for “When this happens”
  3. Connect it to your RSS feed (you’ll need your feed URL)
  4. Let Zapier grab some test data from your feed
  5. Now, connect the zap to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook and configure what information you want to post.

Zapier lets you pick from a list the components of your RSS item and decide where these are going to go in the post to the platform. Your RSS feed is going to contain a lot of information, but the main things to look out for are

  • The title of the post
  • The description of the post (which might be the whole post or just a fragment of it, depending on you platform/CMS
  • A link to an image attached to your post
  • A link to the post itself

You can configure which of these elements from your RSS feed go where in your tweet, Facebook post, or LinkedIn share. Keep in mind that different platforms set different length restrictions to the length of a post.

When you’re done, Zapier will run a test and let you know if it was successful.

Now, you may have noticed that I left Instagram off the list of platforms in the instructions above. That’s because although Zapier has support for Instagram, it can’t post to it – yet.

For posting to Instagram, you’ll need an account with Buffer…

  1. Register with Buffer for a free account
  2. Connect only your Instagram account
  3. Follow Buffer’s on-page instructions for converting your account to a business account and enabling scheduled posting
  4. Go back to Zapier and create one more zap, connecting your RSS feed to Buffer.

For this feed to work, every post will need an image. If possible, make sure that you’re using a feed that only contains images. If you can’t do that, it is possible to filter data in a zap, but that requires a paid account.

This seems like a lot of hassle – what’s the point?

There are a couple of reasons I think you should do this:

  1. Creating content on your website and then syndicating it is infinitely preferable to creating content on each platform individually
  2. Zapier does a lot more than just post to social networks. If you are going to involve a third party in your website platform, it may as well be one that offers a wide range of options and has a sensible pricing structure.
  3. If you rolled your own code to create the RSS feed, it’s pretty simple to do a few more interesting things…

Interesting things you can do with an RSS & Zapier powered solution

If you have complete control of your RSS feed, you can do a lot more than just simultaneously to your website and your social networks.

Schedule posting. If you can control when items get added to the RSS feed, you can delay the share on each network to the perfect time for maximum impact. (Yes, this is chargeable feature on most social platforms including Buffer, but you do it for free if you control your feed.)

Recycle posting. Zapier detects new items based on a  Globally Unique IDentifier that each item has. Change the GUID and Zapier will assume it is looking at a new item. This allows you to recycle and re-post content easily.

Recycle posting with some spin. Depending on how easily you can configure your CMS to include some extra fields, why not try adding two or three extra descriptions/titles to the same post and tweeting each of them at different times to see which one performs best?

Conclusion

Managing an online presence is getting harder and more time-consuming. With more platforms than ever to feed with content on a regular basis and more competition for attention, anything you can do to speed up your workflow has to be worth your time.

Could you just pay for one of the solutions that are out there? Of course you could – but it wouldn’t be as fun, wouldn’t give you same level of control, and would ultimately mean tying yourself into yet another platform instead of controlling your content yourself.

Also, RSS still rocks. 😉

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