Email discussion lists (part 1): selecting the right platform

The good ol’ email discussion list. Not only is this this communication tool still around, but it’s still an important and popular platform for knowledge exchange. Some of the reasons this continues to be such a practical solution for communities of practice include:

  • It all happens right in your email box, which is still the place that many of us spend most of our communications hours.
  • Thus, it’s a pretty low-bandwidth tool. Even if you only get internet for 10 minutes per day, you have the ability to download email to your email client of choice.
  • It’s also operating system and device agnostic – you can get email pretty much everywhere! And some could argue it’s language agnostic to a certain extent because you can write an email in most languages.
  • If required, members of the discussion list can access archived emails via a browser (so it has the potential to be used as a searchable knowledge base).

Seeing as how it doesn’t look like this tool is going anywhere, as a community-builder it’s worth knowing: what platforms are available, ways to master the configuration settings for your community, and strategies for successful moderation. So that’s my plan for this 3-part blog series.

Let’s start with what an email discussion list is. An email discussion list is a collection of email addresses that allow those included in the list to send a message to the entire group (many-to-many communication).  Examples include:

A point of clarification: Most of these platforms will let you use their list as a broadcast-type tool (one-to-many communication) – but that is not the email list purpose I am referencing in these blog posts. For community-builders, the most important feature of an email discussion list is that members are able to reply to messages, which are then shared with everyone on the email list.

Selecting the right platform

I’ve been researching email discussion list platforms for an initiative with CIVICUS called DataShift. I was surprised by how little has been written on this topic so I thought I’d share what I learned. There are so many different considerations that go into selecting an email discussion list platform (see the list of criteria on the right side of these comparison tables). For this initiative and for the purpose of this blog post, I prioritized the following criteria: cost, type of hosting (we need it to be fully hosted), ability to modify email domain (we wanted something@lists.civicus.org not something@googlegroups.com), good security reputation, and ideally built on open source software. Also, I tried to find platforms that work primarily with nonprofits and social change organizations.

email-disc-list

Ultimately, we decided to go with Electric Embers. We have worked with them before and have been very happy with their product and their customer service. They let us add our own logo and color scheme. Check it out!

I also want to mention that Greenhost provides GNU Mailman for their clients (without an extra charge) so if you’re looking for a new web and/or email host, Greenhost might be a great option!

What other platforms are out there? What information am I missing that should also be considered? I’d also be curious to see an example of an email discussion list being used as a knowledge base (via round-trip emails to an online forum, or a searchable archive of emails). Please add additional resources, platforms, important criteria, as well as any questions or comments to the comments section below!

Additional resources:

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