Monday, January 29, 2007

Missionary e-mailing lists: Best practices for creating, maintaining and participating

 Most of us use either snail-mail and/or email to keep people up-to-date back home.  I think everyone on my team, for example, writes an update somewhere between once a week and once a quarter.  While blogging is changing this dynamic some what, I can still say things in an email to my friends and supporters that I won't write in a blog entry.

To that end, what are the best practices for using email for updating your supporters?  I'm going to riff on this DownloadSquad post on mailing list etiquette and suggest a few tips.

A.  Use a list-server.  A "list server" is a computer on the Internet that keeps all of your email address for you.  When I want to write an email to everyone on my list I send an email to a single address and then the list server sends it out to everyone on the list.  Here are the advantages:

  1. This is a safe and secure way to keep all your email addresses handy.  I've known a number of missionaries who have had to rebuild their entire contact list one-by-one because their computer died.  Can a list-server go down and lose your data?  Sure, but you're more likely to have a camel sit on your laptop, or in the case of one friend, have termites eat your hard-drive, than a modern data center lose your data.  Plus you can easily download the list as a text file for backup.
  2. You send one email to one address...period.  More and more services are putting limits on the number of addresses one can send "to" at a given time.  The number varies, but I know a number of people who have to send out their updates in batches, 10 addresses at a time.  This takes a lot of time and makes it harder for to send out updates.  When its difficult to send out updates you simply don't do them as often.

B. Send an introduction when you add someone to your list.  It's good practice to confirm with them that they were added.  It's also a nice touch to let them know from the beginning how they can "un-subscribe" to your newsletter.  It may be another few weeks or a month before you send your next update; don't keep them wondering.

C. Add a subject prefix.  This is a great idea and suggested on the DLS post.  On the subject line use a common subject for all of your updates like <kornball> Kosovo Konnection: January </kornball>.  That way when people see your newsletter in their inbox they'll immediately know its from you and they can quickly sort it or read it.

D. Make it easy to un-subscribe.  How does your best friend from 15 years ago tell you politely that your dumb newsletters are plugging up his inbox and that he no longer cares to hear news about East-Krasnaland or the lost people groups there-of?  I usually add a footer to give people instruction for unsubscribing from the list server.  This is another advantage of using a list server to do your mailing for you.  They can unsubscribe and you'll never be the wiser.  Most list-servers have settings that will allow you to know if your Aunt Grace dumped your missive, but sometimes its easier to be oblivious.

E. On a non-technical note, BE YOURSELF.  Every once in a while I read a prayer letter that sounds like its been snatched from A.W. Tozer or Oswald Chambers.  Guess what, you're probably not him!  Just be yourself (praise God & hallelujah).  When you're having a tough time (but resting in the arms of Jesus and trusting in his steadfast love) just say so.  In other words, cut the crap.  You don't have to bleed all over people to get your point across, but you don't have to smother them with a lot of psuedo-spiritual lingo either.

F.  Keep them short, but keep them regular.  When I'm on the field I try to write briefly but regularly, every two weeks or so.  I want them to be frequent enough that people know what's going on without overwhelming people.  If you're only writing every quarter you'll be forgotten by everyone but your relatives.  If you're scheduling a big outreach for Friday, shoot your list a note Thursday (deepening on your time-zone) and then a quick note on Saturday morning.

Check out the DownLoadSquad post for a few more.  It's really geared for mailing lists for hobbyists and special interest groups, but it has some good information for those of us who rely on email to communicate with the folks back home.


Beth said...

Great post! I was hoping you would mention those e-mails which visibly include the e-mail addresses of scadzillion people. I still get these regularly.

Jeff said...

Great addition Beth. It's really bad form to leave everyone's addresses visible. Not only is it visibly distracting, but it exposes addresses to the public that people might want kept private.

There are a couple of ways around this. A list server prevents it from happening. People can also just add their addresses in the BCC line and they'll be effectively invisible.

Thanks for the comment Beth.

J. Gary Ellison said...

Thanks so much for the helpful information. I note that you use FeedBurner; that's how I make sure I don't miss any of your posts. What list server do you recommend? My wife sends out frequent emails, but one wrong address seems to keep her Outlook Express from sending out the good ones. I have used Constant Contact one time, but it seems a bit much when wanting to send out a simple email. Your recommendation on a list server would be much appreciated. Thanks again for another great post!

Jeff said...

Gary, thanks for stopping by. I thought the answer to your question would be very simple but its not.
After spending a few minutes on Google and looking for examples for you, I came up blank.
I use the list server that comes with my email address and webhost. You may already have the capability if your church or organization maintains a website.

Another way to do it is to get an account with a provider that offers list servers as part of their packages. I've used for many years and been very happy with them. Their entry level package is $5 a month and it comes with a lot of other features as well (the ability to host two websites, among other things. [Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated in anyway, except as a satisfied customer] You might want to consider splitting the cost of something like this with someone else in your organization. One list server can maintain many, many lists, so this might be an option.
This isn't as clear an answer as i would have liked, and maybe I'll try to dig up some free alternatives later, but that's my best suggestion for the moment.

Thanks again for the kind words and for stopping by.

J. Gary Ellison said...

Thanks for the quick response, Jeff! And for the good place to start. Blessings!

J. Gary Ellison said...

I checked out, but you have to upgrade to their Flex package to get the list server; I believe that was $9/month if paid on a monthly basis. I found the following at
Download - LISTSERV Free Edition Email List Management software - L-Soft (listservfree.asp)

Abstract: LISTSERV Free Edition is a freeware version of LISTSERV Lite, limited to a maximum of 10 mailing lists with up to 500 subscribers each. It is available for people who want to run hobby or interest-based email lists and do not derive a profit, directly or indirectly, from using the software.

I haven't yet used it so I can't give a personal recommendation, but it looks promising.

J. Gary Ellison said...

ListServ's 115 page manual is a bit intimidating and there does not seem to be any upfront menu driven program to facilitate things. Sorry if my reflections were a bit premature.

J. Gary Ellison said...

Make that 225 pages!

Jeff said...

Gary, I believe that software is to be installed on a webserver. That is, if you had a website you could install it on the server and then use it to run your lists. But at that point you're back to where we started with a company like M6 or other provider.

I'm sorry I read M6's page wrong; you're right, you have to get their flex package.

If you find anything else please continue to comment here. it would be great if we could find a free alternative between the two of us.

Laura said...

Um, ok, I'm going to reveal my total ignorance and post a comment as well. I'm wondering if either of you ever came up with a good free list server? I use Hotmail and currently am deciding between Outlook and Windows Live Mail desktop for managing my mail. I now have Vista, thanks to a computer crash while in the US last month (and am about to painstakingly recreate my groups as you refered to). About 99% of your blog makes no sense at all to me but I am getting some good ideas out of it and would like to be more up to date. Thanks for any input! *About a more recent post - I don't even know what you mean when you say "if you're still using web-based blog posts, you have bigger problems." I don't expect you to take time to explain it all to me but can you point me to a helpful article? What do you use? I can't even think what to Google to get the info you refer to. Thanks! Laura

Jeff said...

Laura, thanks so much for your comment! I really appreciate it. Your comment is a reflection that I don't have a good handle on my "readership." It also helps me to know I need to be more clear in my writing.

I'm sorry to say that I haven't found a good open "list server". I'm a little surprised that this, but I've come up empty. I'm sure they're out there...maybe I haven't looked hard enough. Rebuilding your whole list is a real bummer :( I'm sorry that happened to you.

Your other comment was about blogging. When you're writing a post on blogger you basically have two options: 1) you can use Blogger's tool, which you use with your web browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox; 2) you can use a stand-alone program for writing and posting your blog entries. 3) you can post to your Blogger account through email, sending a post as an email to an address specified in your settings.

I chose to use a stand alone program. I've used a couple but right now I'm very happy with Windows Live Writer. Do a search on my blog and you'll see that I've mentioned it a couple of times. It's a great, (most of all FREE) program that lets you write your posts without being connected to the Internet.

I use a program like this because:
1. I don't always have electricity, which means I don't always have internet
2. I can write drafts of different posts and come back to them later. WLW handles this easily
3. It's WAY easier to add pictures and videos using WLW than Blogger's tool.

Hope that helps. Feel free to comment again or shoot me an email if I can be of more help.