Even one-way, e-mail lists can be powerful. Sony Music Canada used the technology for a Celine Dion album, building a 250,000-name customer list called Team Celine
Revnet Systems, Huntsville, Ala., ran the Sony list using its GroupMaster program.
Exclusive use of the list
"They're doing some exclusive previews of the album, some quizzes and games that are only available to the list," says Walter Thames, VP-marketing, Revnet.
The real power of a list, however, lies in its ability to stimulate two-way discussion.
"It's letters-to-the-editor on steroids," says John Audette, president of Audette Media, Bend, Ore., which runs several discussion lists using Revnet's software.
"What happens over time is you start to build a community," he says.
That's what happened with Audette's first list, called I-Sales. Launched two years ago to support Web-based merchants, it now has 8,500 members.
Each day the list receives dozens of messages and Mr. Audette compiles the best into a daily digest, adding a small text-based ad to the file.
Takes more than technology
As a result, he says, "We're getting paid to do our marketing."
It takes more than good technology, however, to run a discussion list, Mr. Audette notes.
"The moderator must be passionate about the topic. [Moderators] must have the discipline to do this every day," he says.
Mainly, the person running the list must "provide a nurturing atmosphere" that will stimulate respectful debate.
Once you have the content, you can get a lot of power from the latest mailing list managers.
All the mailing list programs make it easy to subscribe and get off a list.
Even Majordomo, a free program, lets list owners do all this remotely and run several lists at once, says Brent Chapman, owner of Great Circle Consulting, Mountain View, Calif., which supports the software.
The ability to handle additions or deletions is very important, because most lists have an average turnover of 10%, says John Buckman, president of the Walter Shelby Group Ltd., Oakland, Calif., which produces Lyris.
A list with 5,000 names may get hundreds of change requests a week.
If you can't afford the software, or the headaches of supporting your own mail server, you can also lease all these programs, directly or through third-parties such as Tenegra Corp., Houston, which runs lists using Majordomo.
All the commercial list managers have the ability to handle bounces, collecting addresses to which messages can't be sent so they can be removed from the list.
"Bounce handling is very basic," says Gabriela Linares, marketing associate at L-Soft, Landover, Md., whose Listserv product, first released in 1986, practically defined the category. "It can all be administered through a Web interface."
The best programs also scale well. CNET sends millions of messages a week to lists with hundreds of thousands of members each through L-Soft, Ms. Linares says.
L-Soft's customer list includes Wired magazine and Netscape Communications Corp., among others.
Commercial list management products also handle many types of messages, not just text but multimedia as well, says Rob von Behren, product manager for ListProc with the Corporation for Research & Educational Networking, Washington.
The latest innovation is to turn a mailing list into a database. Lyris was the first to offer the capability and Revnet will introduce it in its next release.
"All the information that's saved in Lyris goes into a database, so we can do things like full-text searches, fancy mail merges, even customized messages," says Shelby's Mr. Buckman.
Demographics made easy
Turning the list into a database also makes it easy to extract demographic information from the list, says Revnet's Mr. Thames, delivering data to a marketing department.
The new version of Revnet's GroupMaster lets list managers track hyperlinks inserted into their messages.
"If you send an announcement to 10,000 people and 2,500 respond, you can send something to those people and you're tracking behavior," Mr. Thames says.
"I've thought for years that e-mail is the true killer app, and I haven't seen anything to change my mind," says Mr. Audette. "It's more ubiquitous. It's easy. And e-mail was push before push was push."