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How to Manage an Email Discussion List to Invite Collaboration

Some Nonprofit Tech Discussion Lists

Email discussion lists or listservs (name comes from a specific piece of software called LISTSERV), while increasingly overshadowed by social networks, can still be a great way for a like-minded community to carry conversations and discuss issues online. Originally, discussion lists were the first way to send an email to a group of people through a single address. They then formed a niche in the world wide web of groups of people getting community and support through emails.

The basic idea is that people sign up to be a part of the list and as a result, receive emails from anyone who sends to the list. For example, I can send an email to the list (e.g. and everyone who is signed up to the list will receive it rather than sending to all of their individual email addresses. Some lists are heavy, in that a subscriber will get a lot of emails from various members of the list while others are lighter weight where subscribers won’t receive as many emails. Usually, there is an option on higher-volume lists to get a “digest” every so often that collects emails and only sends you an email when the number of messages hits a certain point.

One question we get asked with some frequency is “how do I manage a discussion list to invite collaboration?” Exactly. In those words. Well, I thought I’d lay out some of Aspiration‘s guidelines to have an effective discussion list.

General Guidelines:

  • Reward participation. Be sure to reply ASAP whenever someone interacts with the list, especially when the list is just starting out. Make sure that someone who is taking the time to post isn’t just talking to an empty room.
  • Keep the wires warm. When starting out the list, find a reason to post once a week. Minimalism is fine, but consistency is key. After a little while, you’ll have a better sense of how much interaction is normal for the list and can adjust your posting so that you’re facilitating conversations rather than forcing them.
  • Ask questions first. Questions that ask for a simple answer are a great hook to get conversations started. A best practice when asking a question is to start your post with the question. Even if you go into further detail afterward, put the question front and center.
  • Maintain the quality of list experience. Keep an aggressive quality rule. Jump on posts that are off topic:
    • Be tough on Bad Off Topic – SPAM, sales pitches, etc.
    • Shepherd away Good Off Topic – Invite off-list discussion for good conversations that are off topic
      Know when to take a discussion off lists. Keep in mind that list subscribers who aren’t interested in the specific conversation are still getting every bit of detail that those who are interested are getting.
  • Be Zen about the list. Don’t be discouraged if there are lulls in list where not too many people are posting. A less active list is not necessarily an ineffective list. Some lists still provide enough benefit to their subscribers without a deluge of messages every day. Think in terms of the quality of the conversations that are happening rather than the quantity of conversations.

Our Take

When looking at how to facilitate an active community on a discussion list (or any community tool, for that matter) we start with the idea that we are trying to create a collaborative, inviting space. Taking that idea a step further, we’re inviting participation by inclusion, not exclusion. What that means is that people are not comfortable being part of a community that only supports, hears from and gives voice to experts. You don’t want your online community to be a place for experts only. Those who don’t know are sometimes the most valuable part of the conversation. Make sure that your conversation spaces including discussion lists are not expert only. Off of this end, make sure that you emphasize coequality no matter what person is voicing their option. Be “Admin Boss Person” only when necessary and stress sharing ownership of the conversation with the list participants rather than forcing a distinct viewpoint.

In general, remember that like other community-based tools, care & feeding is essential for growth.

What are your tips for managing an effective Discussion List?

Other Discussion List Resources

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