E-mail lists can enable you to generate awareness and, more importantly, build mutually beneficial relationships with key audiences.

Two main categories of mailing lists exist: those others create and manage, and those you create and manage. This column looks at the latter.

You can quickly and easily set up mailing lists using Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, Eudora, Yahoo, Hotmail and other popular e-mail software and services. It's simply a matter of following the instructionsprovided.

If you envision creating larger lists or prefer not to deal with administrative tasks such as removing bad e-mail addresses andmanually adding new people to the list, consider services such as bCentral List Builder, Yahoo! Groups, and Topica. These servicesenable you to set up and oversee mailing lists quickly and easily.

It's a relatively simple task to set up a mailing list, regardless of which option you choose. But more must be done to get the mostbenefit from your list. Begin by answering the following questions.

What's the purpose of the mailing list? First, decide whether you have worthwhile information to communicate. Second, determinewhether e-mail is the best tool for communicating this information.

Are the individuals in your audience e-mail savvy? Do they want to receive information from you via that channel or via anothermeans? Is e-mail the most efficient and effective means for you to disseminate that information?

Who is the audience for the mailing list? Customers? Vendors? Business partners? Media? An effective mailing list -- or any formof communication, for that matter -- can't meet the needs of all audiences. You need to focus your content to have a chance atsucceeding in your communications efforts.

What content will you offer, and how will you present it? You not only need to determine what to include on your list but how oftenyou will disseminate information, how to secure it from appropriate staff, and how to present it in a format suitable for e-mail.

In other words, you'll have to develop a schedule for collecting, developing and formatting mailing list content. You'll need toconsider offering mailing list subscribers options for how they want to receive information, as plain text or as an HTML document.

How will the list be promoted? The possibilities are endless. You can mention it on your Web site, in your signature file, on yourletterhead and packaging, and in any other communication directed at your target audience: e-mail, brochures, business cards, pressreleases, articles and voice mail.

Will the list be used for announcements or discussion? You can use a mailing list to send press releases, product details and othermaterials to subscribers without offering them the option of contributing to the list content or talking to each other. These lists areoften referred to as announcement or distribution lists.

However, you might wish to create a discussion list that allows subscribers to exchange ideas. This alternative might be attractive ifthe list consists of individuals for whom the ability to interact with colleagues is essential.

Mailing lists used for discussion purposes typically demand more active management. Such mailing lists tend to suffer whenmembers send incendiary messages or when they fail to stay on topic or otherwise don't contribute constructively and substantively.

Skillful list management creates a supportive, productive environment. Be sure to consider the ongoing commitment this role requireswhen allocating resources to Internet public relations activities.

Is membership in the list open to anyone, or is it restricted? You might wish to allow anyone interested in a list to subscribe to it.But some lists, such as those just for customers, will be exclusive, so you'll need to evaluate each request to join. Again, such a taskadds to the work of managing the mailing list.

Will the list be moderated? A mailing list moderator plays the role of traffic cop, receiving messages subscribers want to post to thelist and determining whether they are appropriate.

This role allows you to remain tuned in to what's important to your subscribers and to build relationships through the conversation.The alternative is to create an unmoderated list.

Other list management options include offering subscribers the option of receiving a digest of messages posted to the list during acertain period of time. You might also wish to create a searchable archive of all mailing list content, which benefits current as well asprospective members.

Once you've got the ball rolling, follow these guidelines:

  • Be concise. Write in short paragraphs and provide summaries of longer articles. Include links to additional information for thosewho want it.
  • Create a welcome message that is immediately sent to subscribers. This message should include the list's purpose and targetaudience, frequency, appropriate topics for submissions, and contacts for questions about list content and technical issues.
  • Create an opt-in mailing list, whereby you invite people to subscribe - rather than simply adding them without notice. It's to yourdistinct advantage to send information only to subscribers who have chosen to receive it, rather than alienating people you've addedindiscriminately.
  • Make it easy to subscribe and unsubscribe from your lists. Always include information on how to subscribe and unsubscribe in allmailing list messages. Subscribers often don't save or can't easily find your introductory message that includes list directions. Or,hopefully, they've forwarded the message to someone who's not currently a subscriber but who decides to join.
  • Assure subscribers that their e-mail addresses will not be sold or used for any purpose other than list-related communication.
  • Be true to your purpose, audience and content. In other words, give your subscribers what you promised and, presumably, whatthey value.

The Internet is overflowing with mailing lists clamoring for subscribers. By following these guidelines, you'll stand out, attract a loyalfollowing of subscribers, and be on the way to creating a list that meets your public relations goals.

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