Select Your Software
You probably rely on some sort of postal service to transport mail from your home or business to another location. In the same light, you're going to use some sort of list software to distribute your e-mail.

E-mail clients are perfect for distributing your publication when you're just starting out. However, they're not incredibly powerful or efficient when it comes to mailing to more than 25-50 people at one time. If you want to really run a mailing list, you'll need to do one of these things:

  • Download or purchase list software to be run on your own computer. This is probably the best option for individuals who are using a very fast Internet connection (56K modems don't count), who use one of their computers as their Internet/Web server, and/or who are extremely knowledgeable with e-mail and/or Internet applications.
  • Ask your ISP (Internet Service Provider) if it offers any list hosting services with your account. These services are typically limited to the number of subscribers, which is okay if you don't plan on growing your list over 20,000 subscribers or so. Remember, too, that if your ISP doesn't concentrate its efforts on providing excellent list service, you run the risk of it not knowing everything it should know regarding professional high-volume e-mail delivery.
  • Ask your Web host (the company that provides the hosting for your Web site) if it offers any list hosting services with your account. Yeah, it's pretty much the same story as when you talk to your ISP. However, Web hosts are typically more responsive to your needs and understand more about the underlying technologies of the Internet.
  • Go to a company that provides only list services to its customers, or one that has dedicated list service resources. This is probably the best route for most e-publishers; if you find the right team that provides outstanding, competent service and uses top-notch software, you'll be set for a long time.

You can always change list hosts later, although that can get rather complicated and messy (and wind up costing you a few extra dollars). Imagine telling all the people in the world that they can subscribe to your newsletter by sending a blank message to chubby-bunnies@lists.horizonlists.org for months and then suddenly switching to a new list host that uses a different subscription address. All that time you spent hyping the original address will have gone to waste unless you can arrange forwarding with your old list host.

TIP: One fantastic way to avoid this problem altogether would be to set up an alias for all subscription inquiries. This way, if/when you change list hosts, the users won't know the difference. For my lists, potential subscribers would always be e-mailing subscriptions@lockergnome.com. Ya gotta think ahead, people.

Choose Your Weapon
All software is buggy; you'll encounter headaches no matter which list software you use to distribute your e-publication. They'll all get the job done, although each package will vary in speed, efficiency, and subscriber/administrator benefits. Some will cost a pretty penny, and some will be more robust than others. You will more than likely be dealing with "list stuff" on a regular basis. When something isn't working the way you need it to work, you'll need to either fix it or find someone who can fix it for you. The more tools you can find to make your job as list owner/administrator easier, the better off you're going to be. Unless, of course, you thrive on stress.

I'll discuss the most popular programs in the following section. But popular or not, every list software package has its share of benefits and drawbacks-feature classifications are for you to decide. Talk to other list owners, join electronic publishing-related discussion groups? remember that you're not alone. You'll discover that software isn't a textbook industry; just because a product or service says it will work in a certain fashion doesn't mean it always will. When you outgrow your current means of distribution, don't be afraid to explore your options.

The Big Three
If there's one piece of list software an ISP or Web host probably has installed already, it's Majordomo. But keep in mind that Majordomo really wasn't designed to handle larger lists efficiently; there are headaches associated with the administration, distribution, and maintenance of your list when using it. It's very popular, though, because it is usually free (or costs very little), and is perfect for e-publishers who don't have or plan on having a large subscriber database. It's been around for a long while, and Internet veterans are familiar with its structure and e-mail command set.

Another very popular program is LISTSERV. Traditionally used for discussion lists, LISTSERV has been around since the beginning of the electronic publishing industry (if you would call it that). The word "LISTSERV" has inadvertently become a generic term for mailing lists in general. If you plan on hosting a discussion group (moderated or unmoderated), understand that LISTSERV was designed expressly for the management of interactive e-mail communities. Unless specifically customized for a site or host, this software accepts commands via e-mail. It's simple, and it gets the job done with a good degree of accuracy.

And then there's Lyris, another major player. I have yet to interact with an e-publisher who didn't think that Lyris was top dog. Arguably one of the more complete, hassle-free list software packages available to the average Joe, Lyris is quickly becoming the list software of choice for both experienced and novice list admins. It will generally cost you a bit more to run your list using Lyris, but after being spoiled by its features, you'll find it difficult to use anything else. If you're more budget-conscious (not wanting to spend thousands of dollars on software), Lyris probably isn't for you at this time.

Pegasus: More Than a Myth
"I don't want to spend any money on list software or services. I just want to maintain a small list on my own computer. Isn't something out there easy to use and free?"Open almost any mythology book and you'll find your answer. No, there isn't such thing as a mailing list god (although, at times, I wish there were). You're going to find satisfaction by using Pegasus Mail, an e-mail client that runs on both the Windows and Macintosh platforms. Pegasus has been used for years in networked environments, and has been in perpetual development. System administrators have always appreciated how it handles small distribution lists without hassle. Subscriber databases can be edited easily, mailings can be dispatched with the click of a button, and it doesn't take up that much hard drive space.

When I first started Lockergnome, all that "list software stuff" was confusing for me. I just wanted to publish my information promptly and without too many problems. For the time I used it, Pegasus didn't disappoint me. If you're still unsure that you want to do a mailing list, I'd encourage you to use Pegasus (rather than spending too much time and money on other products and services). It runs well for list owners with fewer than 2,000 subscribers in their database, but once you pass that number, you should certainly start using software specifically designed to handle larger lists. Remember, too, that all subscription requests must be handled manually; you'll have to manage subscribes, unsubscribes, bounces, and duplicates. Hey,you get what you pay for.

Excerpted from Chapter 8 of Poor Richard's E-mail Publishing by Chris Pirillo (Top Floor Publishing, ISBN 0-9661032-5-4). To order or for more information, visit http://www.topfloor.com.

Copyright © Chris Pirillo with parts by Adam Boettiger, Randy Cassingham, John Funk, Peter Kent, Geoffrey Kleinman, Fred Langa, and T.J. Lee.