Choosing the right email listserv
I am doing a seminar tonight here in St. Louis that talks about how to use blogs and other Internet tools for self-published authors. And one of the first things that I wanted to talk about has to do with email lists. Ironic, but the underpinning of Web 2.0 is something so old that we take it for granted.
Email is at the core of just about anything else that you do on the Web: it is the primary notification mechanism for Facebook et al. when you make changes to your site. It is the way these social sites find your network of contacts, and the way that you keep your audience informed of what you are doing, too. You can have the best Web site going, but you need to remind people about what you have on it. Ironically, that was the original reason that I started Web Informant lo' those many years ago.
Why bother with an email list when you can just send out a bunch of emails from your desktop? Several reasons: First, you get a more professional means of communication that can manage all the bounces and mistaken reply-to-everyone situations. Your desktop program isn't designed to send out a message to hundreds or thousands of recipients either, while the list servers are. You also don't have to reveal all your subscribers in the "To:" field, which I still see from certain PR people. (Hey, thanks for sending me your contact list! I will be sure to take note of whom you think are my colleagues.) Finally, a list server or list provider can manage unsubscribes automatically, as well as post your messages in an archive that is available online for anyone to review.
Over the years I have used many different technologies to maintain this humble email list, so I have had some experience with the technology. If you are starting a new list, you have three basic choices: the free, the cheap, and the pricey. While price alone is a good way to decide, there are some other reasons that are less obvious. Let's talk about a few typical providers for each category: Google and Yahoo Groups (free), Mailman hosted by EMWD.com for $4 a month and iContact. If you don't want to read how to do this and want to watch one of my screencast videos that actually shows you the process, go on over to http://yourpersonalgeek.tv now.
No matter what method you choose, you will need to assemble all your email addresses that you want to start your list with. You can export these from your email program into a text file, and then bring up the file in a word processor program. The first time that you do this is painful, no doubt. You have to cull through all your correspondence, and I guarantee you that many of your addresses will be outdated, given how quickly people change jobs these days.
For free list servers, I like Yahoo Groups. It offers a lot of control, easy list management, and the Web-based control screens are easy to understand and figure out where things are located. There is one big downside, though -- the ability to set up large lists quickly. Yahoo only lets you add 10 people a day to your list without asking them to opt-in. To get around this, you can use Google Groups, which supports lists up to 500 names. Google Groups has fewer features though. I use Yahoo Groups for supporting many community lists that I maintain.
To get started, go to groups.google.com or groups.yahoo.com and click on the create a new group button at the top of the page and fill out the form. You can cut and paste the email addresses from your master list right in the Web form and you are ready to go. With both Google and Yahoo, you have a few parameters that you want to make sure you set correctly in terms of who can join your list and how they see messages from you. I suggest you experiment with just a few names as a test before you add the entire list so you can get the hang of things.
Mailman is a more professional program and gives you all sorts of control over the message and recipients, and it is what I currently use for this list. I recommend the provider EMWD.com – there are others but they are more expensive. You need to obtain an account for $10, and this will give you access via the Web to a series of control screens, fill-in forms, and zillions of parameters. This is more complex than Google, but you have more control. As I said, each list only costs $4 a month to operate. You need to set up a subdomain that points to their list server, and you can usually do that with your registrar's control panels.
But this may not be fancy enough for your purposes. If you want to add Web links in your emails and track who clicks on which link, such as for promotional purposes, then you want iContact. I personally don't like rich HTML emails but I know many of you want this, so I mention it here. The cheapest plan is $10 a month for up to 500 names. If you have 2500 names, the fee increases to $30 a month. The more names, the more you pay a month. The advantage of iContact is that you can send out very snazzy emails, with pictures, color, and links to Web sites, and maintaining lists is all they do. You don't have to mess with setting up domains or servers, either. And like the others, everything is set up with a series of Web forms that are fairly easy, with lots of control over how the newsletter will look like.
So there you have it. Good luck with your list.
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- David Strom
- David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.