What's the Best Way to Run an Electronic Mailing List?

So you’re starting a community using an electronic mailing list, but you’re wondering what’s the best way to run it. There are many ways to run an electronic mailing list (or listserv or email discussion group) and many facets to this topic. But for this post I want to compare two particular methods. In one method, which I’ll represent using List A, the list uses a question and answer summary method. In another method, List B, every question and every answer is sent to everybody unless they take steps against it.

Let’s look at these two hypothetical electronic mailing lists, List A and List B:

  * **List A** has 680 members getting each individual messages and another 328 getting the digest version (all messages for that day, sent out at midnight in one email).
  * **List B** has 1000 members getting each individual message and 64 on the digest.

So both lists have about the same number of people. Plus, both list’s members pay dues to their organization, and this list is one of the benefits. List A has 20% of their dues paying members on the mailing list, and List B has 90% of their members on their discussion group.

  * **List A** sent 473 messages to their listserv in the month of May 2012
  * **List B** sent 89 messages in the same month.

So List A has more messages and might seem, from quantity, to be the better group. But consider this:


  * When somebody on **List A** asks a question, everybody that wants to can send a reply back to the list. Some messages might receive 5 or more replies, within a matter of minutes.


  * When a question is asked on **List B**, everybody replies to the person that asked the question. That person summarizes the answers and posts 1 reply a day or two later.

Hence the large difference in the number of messages going to the list. List A may look like it has more activity, but that’s because List B has a system set up where the questioner summarizes the answers into an easily digestible packet.

Quality is Sometimes Better Than Quantity

In fact, although quantity might seem like a plus, having a lot of messages sent to an electronic mailing list is one of the primary complaints of a mailing list. Just too many interruptions coming into your inbox, which may not be the best way to run an email discussion group.

  * **List A** sends an average of 23 messages each business day.
  * **List B** only sends 4.

The large number of messages is probably why 30% of List A is on the digest, so that they only get one message each day. And it might be why only 20% of List A’s eligible members are even on the mailing list.

List B’s method may not seem like the best way to run an email discussion group. But there could be reasons why List A doesn’t use the question and answer summary method in their list. It may be the List A needs to get answers quickly and can’t wait a day or two for a concise summary to be posted. It may be the culture of the list, that everybody enjoys getting an opportunity to reply and see their name in lights.

So What’s the Best Way to Run an Electronic Mailing List?

There is no right answer to this question. The point to remember is that many decades ago, when mailing lists were the only conduit for communities of practice, some lists invented the convention of having replies go back to the individual that asked the question. And their responsibility was to edit and summarize the answers they received and post it back to the mailing list for everybody’s education. And this protocol may be appropriate for your mailing list.

Looking for other suggestions for running an electronic mailing lists? Try out these guidelines.

Would you use List A or List B’s method in your list? Respond in the comments below!