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Automatic bridge between iContact e-mail marketing service and Rails ActiveRecord
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ActsAsIcontact connects Ruby applications with the iContact e-mail marketing service using the iContact API v2.0. Building on the RestClient gem, it offers two significant feature sets:

  • Simple, consistent access to all resources in the iContact API; and
  • Automatic synchronizing between ActiveRecord models and iContact contact lists for Rails applications.


You'll need the following to use this gem properly:

  1. Ruby 1.9 Yeah, we know, change is scary and a zillion of your other gems only work in 1.8. But ActsAsIcontact makes use of a few 1.9 features for efficiency, such as Enumerators. It's possible that this might work in 1.8.7 if you install the JSON gem and require 'enumerator' explicitly -- but the author hasn't tested it. If you need it to work in 1.8, speak up. Or better yet, make it work and submit a patch.

  2. Rails 2.1 (If using Rails integration) We use ActiveRecord's 'dirty fields' feature that first appeared in 2.1 to determine whether iContact needs updating. If you're on a version of Rails older than this, it's probably worth your while to update anyway.

  3. rest-client This gem should install when you install the acts_as_icontact gem. But we include it here for completeness.

Setting Up

Using ActsAsIcontact is easy, but going through iContact's authorization process requires jumping a couple of hoops. Here's how to get going quickly:

  1. Install the gem.

    $ sudo gem install acts_as_icontact

  2. Optional but recommended: Go to and sign up for an iContact Sandbox account. This will let you test your app without risk of blowing away your production mailing lists.

  3. Enable the ActsAsIcontact gem for use with your iContact account. The URL and credentials you'll use are different between the sandbox and production environments:

  4. Set your (sandbox, if applicable) account username and the password you just chose for API access. You can either set the environment variables ICONTACT_MODE, ICONTACT_USERNAME, and ICONTACT_PASSWORD, or you can explicitly do it with calls to the Config module:

    require 'rubygems'
    require 'acts_as_icontact'
    ActsAsIcontact::Config.mode = :sandbox
    ActsAsIcontact::Config.username = my_sandbox_username
    ActsAsIcontact::Config.password = my_api_password  

    If you're using Rails, the recommended approach is to require the gem with config.gem 'acts_as_icontact' in your config/environment.rb file, and then set up an initializer (i.e. config/initializers/acts_as_icontact.rb) with the above code. See more about Rails below.

  5. Rinse and repeat with production credentials when you're ready to move out of the sandbox environment.

API Access

Whether or not you're using Rails, retrieving and modifying iContact resources is simple. The gem autodiscovers your account and client folder IDs (you only have one of each unless you're an 'agency' account), so you can jump straight to the good parts:

 contacts = ActsAsIcontact::Contact.find(:all)  # => <#ActsAsIcontact::ResourceCollection>
 c = contacts.first    # => <#ActsAsIcontact.Contact>
 c.firstName           # => "Bob"
 c.lastName            # => "Smith"               # => ""
 c.lastName = "Smith-Jones"   # Bob gets married and changes his name                # => true
 history = c.actions   # => <#ActsAsIcontact::ResourceCollection>
 a = history.first     # => <#ActsAsIcontact::Action>
 a.actionType          # => "EditFields"


The interface is deliberately as "ActiveRecord-like" as possible, with methods linking resources that are either nested in iContact's URLs or logically related. Messages have a Message#bounces method. Lists have List#subscribers to list the Contacts subscribed to them, and Contacts have Contact#lists. Read the documentation for each class to find out what you can do:

  • ActsAsIcontact::Account
    • ActsAsIcontact::ClientFolder
  • ActsAsIcontact::Contact
    • ActsAsIcontact::History (documented as "Contact History")
  • ActsAsIcontact::Message
    • ActsAsIcontact::Bounce
    • ActsAsIcontact::Click
    • ActsAsIcontact::Open
    • ActsAsIcontact::Unsubscribe
    • ActsAsIcontact::Statistics
  • ActsAsIcontact::List
    • ActsAsIcontact::Segment
      • ActsAsIcontact::Criterion (documented as "Segment Criteria")
  • ActsAsIcontact::Subscription
  • ActsAsIcontact::Campaign
  • ActsAsIcontact::CustomField
  • ActsAsIcontact::Send
  • ActsAsIcontact::Upload
  • ActsAsIcontact::User
    • ActsAsIcontact::Permission
  • ActsAsIcontact::Time


Searches are handled in a sane way using the same query options that iContact accepts. The following are all valid:

Messages.all -- Same as Messages.find(:all)
Messages.first -- Same as Messages.find(:first)
Messages.find(:all, :limit => 20) -- First 20 messages
Messages.find(:all, :limit => 20, :offset => 40) -- Messages 41-60
Messages.first(:subject => "Fnord") -- First message with the given subject
Messages.all(:orderby => createDate, :desc => true) -- Messages ordered by most recent first
Messages.all(:messageType => "welcome", :campaignId => 11) -- Welcome messages from the given campaign

At this time, special searches are not yet supported. Fields requiring dates must also be given a string corresponding to the ISO8601 timestamp (e.g. 2006-09-16T14:30:00-06:00). Proper date/time conversion will happen soon.


Again, think ActiveRecord. When you initialize an object, you can optionally pass it a hash of values:

c = => "Bob", 
                :lastName => "Smith-Jones", 
                :email => "")
c.address = "123 Test Street"

Each resource class has a #save method which returns true or false. If false, the #error method contains the reply back from iContact about what went wrong. (Which may or may not be informative, but we can't tell you more than they do.) There's also a#save!method which throws an exception instead.

Nested resources can be created using the build_ method (which returns an object but doesn't save it right away) or create_ method (which does save it upon creation). The full panoply of ActiveRecord association methods are not implemented yet. (Hey, we said it was AR-like.)

The #delete method on each class works as you'd expect, assuming iContact allows deletes on that resource. Resource collections containing the resource are not updated, however, so you may need to requery.

Multiple-record updates are not implemented at this time.

Rails Integration

The real power of ActsAsIcontact is its automatic syncing with ActiveRecord. At this time this feature is focused entirely on Contacts.


First add the line config.gem 'acts_as_icontact' to your config/environment.rb file. Then create an initializer (e.g. config/initializers/acts_as_icontact.rb) and set it up with your username and password. If applicable, you can give it both the sandbox and production credentials:

module ActsAsIcontact
  case Config.mode
        when :sandbox
    Config.username = my_sandbox_username
    Config.password = my_sandbox_password
  when :production
    Config.username = my_production_username
    Config.password = my_production_password

If ActsAsIcontact detects that it's running in a Rails app, the default behavior is to set the mode to :production if RAILS_ENV is equal to "production" and :sandbox if RAILS_ENV is set to anything else. (Incidentally, if you're not in a Rails app but running Rack, the same logic applies for the RACK_ENV environment variable.)

Finally, enable one of your models to synchronize with iContact with a simple declaration:

class Person < ActiveRecord::Base

There are some options, of course; we'll get to those in a bit.

What Happens

When you call the acts_as_icontact method in an ActiveRecord class declaration, the gem does several useful things:

  1. Creates callbacks to post changes to iContact's API after a record is saved or deleted.
  2. Defines an icontact_sync! method to pull the contact's data from iContact and make any changes.
  3. Defines other methods such as icontact_lists and icontact_history to make related data accessible.
  4. If an icontact_status field exists, creates named scopes on the model class for each iContact status. (Pending)


Option values and field mappings can be passed to the acts_as_icontact declaration to set default behavior for the model class.

list -- The name or ID number of a list to subscribe new contacts to automatically
lists -- Like list but takes an array of names or numbers; new contacts will be subscribed to all of them
exception_on_failure -- If true, throws an ActsAsIcontact::SyncError when synchronization fails. Defaults to false.

A note about failure: problems with synchronization are always logged to the standard Rails log. For most applications, however, updating iContact is a secondary consideration; if a new user is registering, you probably don't want exceptions bubbling up and the whole transaction rolling back just because of a transient iContact server outage. So exceptions are something you have to deliberately enable.

Field Mappings

You can add contact integration to any ActiveRecord model that tracks an email address. (If your model doesn't include email but you want to use iContact with it, you are very, very confused.)

Any fields that are named the same as iContact's personal information fields, or custom fields you've previously declared, will be autodiscovered. Otherwise you can map them:

class Customer < ActiveRecord::Base
  acts_as_icontact :lists => ['New Customers', 'All Users']  # Puts new contact on two lists
                   :firstName => :given_name, # Key is iContact field, value is Rails field
                   :lastName => :family_name,
                   :street => :address1,
                   :street2 => :address2,
                   :rails_id => :id  # Custom field created in iContact
                   :preferred_customer => :preferred? # Custom field

A few iContact-specific fields are exceptions, and have different autodiscovery names to avoid collisions with other attributes in your application:

icontact_id -- Corresponds to contactId in iContact. Highly recommended.
icontact_status -- Corresponds to status in iContact.
icontact_created -- Corresponds to createDate in iContact. icontact_bounces -- Corresponds to bounceCount in iContact.

You are welcome to create these fields in your model or omit them. However, we strongly recommend that you either include the icontact_id field to track iContact's primary key in your application, or map your own model's primary key to a custom field in iContact. You can also do both for two-way associations. If you don't establish a relationship with at least one ID, ActsAsIcontact will resort to using the email address for lookups -- which will be a problem if the email address changes.


The reason to add contacts to iContact is to put them on mailing lists. We know this. The default_list option (see above) is one way to do it automatically. The following methods are also defined on the model for your convenience:

icontact_lists -- An array of List objects to which the contact is currently subscribed icontact_subscribe(list) -- Given a list name or ID number, subscribes the contact to that list immediately icontact_unsubscribe(list) -- Given a list name or ID number, unsubscribes the contact from that list

Why Just Contacts?

iContact's interface is really quite good at handling pretty much every other resource. Campaigns, segments, etc. can usually stand alone. It's less likely that you'll need to keep copies of them in your Rails app. But contacts are highly entangled. If you're using iContact to communicate with your app's users or subjects, you'll want to keep iContact up-to-date when they change. And if someone bounces or unsubscribes in iContact, odds are good you'll want to know about it. So this is the strongest point of coupling and the highest priority feature. (Lists will likely come next, followed by messages.)


Copyright (c) 2009 Stephen Eley. See LICENSE for details.

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