The Lowly Mailing List: A New Start?

By: Steve Outing

Among the various things I do in my career is administer two Internet mailing lists, online-news and online-newspapers, which are international discussion forums on the topic of interactive news publishing (with around 2,000 members). They are great resources for new media professionals to stay on top of trends, float ideas or questions in front of an audience of knowledgeable peers, and generally get to know industry colleagues from around the world.

For the 2-1/2 years that I’ve been operating these lists (which are provided as a free public service to the industry, although I do solicit sponsorships to defray costs), I’ve used a free software application called Majordomo. But I’ve long been dissatisfied with the program, since administering a list with it requires a lot of busy work in weeding out bad e-mail subscriber addresses. So, recently I went looking for an alternative.

What I found is that most Internet mailing lists are operating on some pretty old technology. There are a number of mailing list applications available; one developer in the know says there are about 50. Most are still utilizing technology that was developed a decade ago, updated and revised over the years. The leaders in field of mailing list software are ListServ (developed by LSoft) and ListProc (developed by CERN).

I’ve decided to purchase a new product called Lyris, which is being billed by its developers, The Shelby Group of Oakland, California, as an application that tackles mailing list management from the ground up, rather than relying on patching and improving old technology. I haven’t seen Lyris in action yet — it was due to be released for a first beta testing round this week — and know of its capabilities from the product’s specification sheet and talking to its developers. (Just to be clear, my copy of Lyris will be paid for; the company is not giving me anything for saying kind words about it.)

Lists: A new option

I’m excited about the appearance of Lyris because it signals the rebirth of the lowly Internet mailing list. And that’s significant because publishers may want to reconsider the use of discussion lists as part of their online services.

According to Shelby Group partner John Buckman, there are some 36,000 Internet lists in existence, with about 15,000 of them using list-specific software applications (like ListServ, ListProc, SmartList, Majordomo and others). The rest are running on desktop applications like Microsoft Mail that can be used to run a crude mailing list, without some of the functionality of the aforementioned apps.

While mailing lists have long been popular in the academic and research worlds, they haven’t really taken off among professional publishers and the corporate world. That’s because “they’ve been a pain in the neck to run,” says Buckman. Most publishers wishing to run online discussions have created threaded Web site discussion forums; some have created their own Usenet newsgroups.

But Web and Usenet discussions have an inherent limitation: the user is expected to show up. Mailing lists are superior for some types of discussion forums, Buckman says, in that participants receive the discussion proceedings as e-mail — delivered to them.

To be sure, Web threads and Usenet groups have their appropriate uses. Some forums are so busy and generate so many words that a mailing list is the wrong application. But consider a few examples of how a publisher might use mailing lists:

Temporary lists. When a major breaking news event occurs, some readers can’t get enough information. When a disaster strikes your community, set up a temporary discussion list for your readers. The list can be terminated when interest in the news event dies down. For a discussion list on a specialized topic. A newspaper Web site might create a mailing list about a topic like a local zoning controversy, where local residents intently interested in the issue join a mailing list to be kept informed of new developments and offer their opinions. If this is a neighborhood issue, the membership is likely to be small enough to warrant using a list. A newspaper staffer would moderate or seed the discussion with news from the paper’s coverage of the issue. Suburban news lists. Use these lists either as community two-way discussion forums, or as one-way broadcasts of local news and information that doesn’t make it into the newspaper. Specialized topic lists. Use this same concept to create special-interest lists, such as for local sports teams. A two-way list might work for each local high school sports team, allowing players, coaches and parents to communicate with each other. A one-way list might be used for sending out news and minutia about the local pro football team. A newspaper can host lists for community groups, allowing their members to create an ongoing dialog online. Many newspaper online services invite community groups to take part in their Web sites, offering them self-publishing space within the newspaper site to give their memberships news of group events, etc. This is another way to step up community group involvement in your publication’s online service. I won’t go on; you can easily dream up dozens of uses for mailing lists by yourself.

The operative word in thinking about mailing lists is “community.” Lists, much more so than Web threaded discussions or Usenet newsgroups, create a deep sense of community among their members. I can attest to that with my own lists; on online-news and online-newspapers, many of us “know” each other well through the online experience and meet for drinks or dinner when we show up at the same conferences. Creating a sense of community is a great way to get people using your publication’s online service to come back — to be repeat customers. Mailing lists can help.

Don’t forget, also, to consider the advertising opportunities inherent in lists. A local sporting goods store might sponsor the little league lists, for example; a text banner can be appended to outgoing list messages. (“The ABC Junior High little league list is made possible by …”)

Administration issues

The reason I’m excited about Lyris is that it will take much of the drudge work out of administering my lists. Buckman says that the biggest impediment to the growth of mailing lists has been bad addresses, which administrators like me have had to weed out manually based on “bounce” messages that come back from mail servers indicating a failed mail delivery. Lyris (and others like ListServ and ListProc) automate the deletion of bad addresses. Buckman says that a list administrator using Lyris will not have to do anything to insure that all the addresses in a list are functioning. That’s important, because Buckman estimates that 5% of all e-mail addresses go bad each month (because the owner changed addresses, cancelled her account, or allowed her mailbox to overflow so it rejects incoming mail).

Lists traditionally have been administered primarily by sending e-mail commands to the list software, but Lyris puts a Web interface on administration. To unsubscribe a list subscriber, the administrator does it from a password-protected Web form; that’s much more efficient than the old way. Users also get an easier interface, since a password-protected Web form will allow them to change their settings quickly (unsubscribe, request digested message delivery, set an expire time on their accounts, change password or e-mail address, etc.).

Among other important improvements in the state of mailing lists included in Lyris are anti-spam features, which allow administrators to block out messages from known spammers, and the ability to prevent an unruly member from posting or re-subscribing to a list.

If you haven’t looked at mailing lists as a component of your publication’s online service, the advancing state of the art makes now a good time to look into it.

Contact: John Buckman, john@shelby.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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