LISTSERV at Work L-Soft
Issue 3, 2010


Ask the Email List Guru:
Online Communities Support the Human Instinct to Connect

Q. What is your advice on how to build and sustain email discussion communities when there's so much talk about social media?

You ask what appears to be a perpetual question with many answers and, as with everything, no black and no white. There have been many comparisons made between email list communication and social media channels in recent times. Rather than viewing this in a dualistic way, as an "either-or" proposition, let's remind ourselves from the start that there are different needs and audiences served by social media channels and by email list technology. This is particularly true when contrasting email discussion lists and email communities with social media. So let's look more deeply into the special qualities of email lists in building communities.

Email List Guru

When looking at email lists alongside social media, there are many interesting differences to observe as well as some commonalities. Overall, email lists are a communication solution that fosters focused exchange of knowledge and support within a closed group of known subscribers. Microblogging, on the other hand, supports brief, frequent updates while social media platforms enable less structured ad-hoc musings to be shared. The audience of social media tends to include more casual followers, many of whom are unknown to the publisher. As for content, email lists support virtually any length and type, while social media is more tailored to shorter exchanges in a more rigid format. Each tool has its own value and benefits to users, so a well parsed blending of channels according to your audience is key.

To gain deeper insights into what will best meet your audience's and therefore your organization's needs, let's look at the words used to describe the users of the various tools and their relationship with the technology:

  • Email Communities and Discussion Groups: Subscribers
  • Social Media Platforms: Fans, Friends and Supporters
  • Microblogs and Twitter: Followers

Reflecting on the core purposes of the various channels also gives important insights. Here is a sampling of thoughts that arise:

  • Email Communities and Discussion Groups: Specific focus, forum for exchange of knowledge and support
  • Social Media Platforms: Open-ended topics, place for social interaction and brand awareness
  • Microblogs and Twitter: Open vehicle for up-to-the-minute quick updates

Clearly, subscribing to an email list allows for a deeper and more invested level of interaction than "following," "fanning," or "liking," so email discussion lists can be a mainstay of community, brand and loyalty building while social platforms and microblogs can be useful in disseminating quick snippets and offering a more casual interaction option.

As you can see from this year's LISTSERV Choice Awards finalists and numerous other LISTSERV discussion lists, the ability of email list technology to build communities with transformational outcomes is proven. I daresay such communities would be challenging to construct using social media, particularly given the sensitive topics being addressed and the need for both depth of discussion and focus on the main purpose of the community. That said, using social platforms and microblogs in a complementary way, as best fits the group's needs and preferences, is important to keep in mind.

While there is talk of social media trumping email lists for online community building, the wise communicator knows that such black-and-white thinking is wasted energy. Video didn't kill the radio star, and social media didn't kill email. Thoughtfully engaging the people being served – while adapting and evolving with an eye to synergy and inclusiveness – is the key to striking the best balance in serving the needs of your community. Listen to what people are saying and how they are saying it. Make communication options available that make sense for your community while respecting community members' needs for a safe place to communicate, collaborate and – at the most human of levels, connect.

Ask the Email List Guru is a column in LISTSERV at Work, designed to bring vision and wisdom (with the power of the crystal ball) to everyday challenges of email list communication and email marketing. Post your questions and the guru will respond to the most intriguing topics in each issue.


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