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Windows on the Web
-- by David Hafke
Our entire target audience-whether scattered around the globe or around your neighborhood-is just a mouse click away, thanks to the simplicity of electronic mailing lists.
Businesses can use electronic mailing lists to inform customers about sales, promotions and new products. In an educational environment, professors can provide students with course information, and administrators can include enrollment and registration information, as well as campus activity announcements. Travel agents can provide clients with destination tips and information.
Mailing-list software has existed on the UNIX platform for a while. But recently, some larger mailing-list managers, such as Listserv and ListProc, have been ported to Windows 95 and NT. (For smaller-scale lists, several shareware and freeware mailing-list products will do the job.)
Listserv and ListProc provide in-depth documentation and support. If you go with a cheaper or free solution, you'll have to rely on support from other list owners by subscribing to certain mailing lists. LSTSRV-L, for general Listserv discussion, and LSTOWN-L, for list owners, are two examples of support mailing lists.
Licensed by L-Soft International (http://www.lsoft.com), Listserv pioneered the mailing-list management niche, setting standards that automated subscription requests and file archives. Created in 1986 by Eric Thomas for BITNET academic mainframes, it remains the market leader.
ListProc (http://www.cren.net), developed by the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), is currently beta testing versions that will run on Windows 3.x, 95 and NT. With these versions, subscribers and administrators will be able to change settings through the server. They won't have to send commands over e-mail, and they'll be able to change settings via a graphical user interface.
Goal: Cut Clutter
Today, more than 50,000 electronic mailing lists generate approximately 17 million messages a day to more than 7 million subscribers. The busiest mailing-list site is L-Soft's, which delivers an average of 2.3 million messages per day. (For more electronic mailing-list statistics, you can visit L-Soft's Top 20 Statistics page at http://www.lsoft.com/ltop/ltop-main.html.)
Users suffering from information overload from the Web or Usenet newsgroups are turning to such electronic mailing lists to help them cut through the clutter. Instead of searching endless numbers of Internet sites, list subscribers receive focused information delivered directly to their e-mail inboxes, and they can read it at their leisure.
Many users complain about the intolerable number of useless posts, or noise, on Usenet. And because no one's in charge, there's nothing to prevent someone from starting a flame war that can burn out of control and generate enormous volumes of junk mail. Mailing lists offer some built-in safeguards against such abuse, including the ability to revoke a subscriber's posting privileges or ban the troublemaker entirely. You can even exercise more stringent controls by setting up a list where only designated users can post messages.
Also, many news servers contain "holes" or missing posts. Mailing lists can't guarantee a 100 percent delivery rate, but failures are usually on the subscriber's end (because of a network that's down or a full mailbox)
Electronic mailing lists are growing more popular as e-mail becomes the most common form of network communication. All you need to subscribe is an e-mail address, giving electronic mailing lists a huge potential audience. And participants have asked to be placed on the list, so list managers are assured of an audience that's interested in the information they're providing.
You don't need special skills to run a mailing list-you just have to be familiar with your e-mail client. You don't even have to be in front of the server to configure it-administration simply requires that you send an e-mail message to the server.
Before you start building your own electronic mailing-list system, you have to resolve certain issues:
-- Choose a topic wisely. Make sure your topic is broad enough to generate ample traffic, but narrow enough not to generate too much.
-- Secure your list. Without proper security, anyone can forge an e-mail in the list owner's name and wreak havoc. Most lists let you set a password to protect the more powerful commands. Listserv adds a stronger level of protection known as the OK confirmation mechanism. The list server sends a confirmation request to the sender, who then must reply with OK as the body of the message. The trade-off for this security is a little extra work for users, who must confirm every command they send.
-- Say no to spam. Spam comes in two forms: as a message that has been cross-posted to several mailing lists (regardless of its relevance to the discussion at hand) or as a mass advertising message. Spam creates unnecessary network traffic and irritates subscribers. Any one of the millions of Internet users can do it. You can even find books that provide step-by-step instructions on the most effective means of spamming.
The first line of defense is to ignore these messages. Replying further increases the noise level, and spammers can set up phony reply-to addresses so they never see your replies anyway. You should forward a copy of the offensive message to postmaster at the originator's domain. Listserv offers a spam-control function that enables core servers to inform one another of potential spams and take action to prevent their spread.
But the only surefire way to thwart a spam attack is to assign a list moderator to approve all postings before they're distributed. The list moderator weeds out useless posts, ensuring every message distributed is valuable to subscribers. Of course, this means someone must read each post before it's sent, which can lead to delays.
Reduce the frequency of bounced mail. Bounced mail increases network traffic, bogs down the server and can generate thousands of returned messages a day if left unattended. It can be caused by a domain going down, accounts being closed before the user unsubscribes or improper configuration of the client software on the user's end. Listserv and ListProc automatically remove from your mailing list subscribers whose mail chronically bounces.
How to Get Subscribers
Once you've resolved these potential problems and you've created your list, it's time to spread the word and get subscribers. One effective way is to register with List of Lists, a collection of one-line descriptions of mailing lists across the Internet. Access it by sending the message list global to the mailing-list server of any electronic mailing list. Two examples of such mailing-list servers are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also announce your new list in an appropriate Usenet newsgroup or on your Web site, if you have one.
When you finally have your list up and running, it's important to make sure you constantly maintain its value to subscribers. Electronic mailing lists are a valuable means of communicating with peers, colleagues, clients and customers. And as more people get connected, the demand for mailing lists will continue to grow-but so will competition for users' mind share.
Electronic Mailing List Software
Price: from $625 per year for one list with unlimited users
Price: $1,125 (includes CREN membership)
202-872-4200, fax 202-293-2853