While all this Twittering and Facebooking has gotten plenty of attention, the basic bread and butter of any small business is the care and feeding of its e-mail lists to connect its customers, suppliers and partners. The better you are at doing e-mail lists and sending out regular and informative communications, the more business you will have.
You have three basic choices when it comes to list servers: the free, the cheap, and the pricey. While price alone is a good way to decide, there are some other reasons and I will talk about them here. I have picked one provider for each price point: Yahoo Groups (free), Mailman hosted by EMWD.com for $4 a month and iContact, which has plans starting at $10 a month. All three have one big advantage over doing e-mail with Outlook or some other desktop client – they automatically handle bounces, when e-mail addresses go bad. They also avoid the accidental reply-to-everyone mistake. These are probably the two biggest reasons to use a list service.
For all three choices, you need to assemble all your e-mail addresses that you want to start your list with. You can export these from your client e-mail program into a text file, and then bring up the file in a word processor program to clean it up. You can then cut and paste the names into your list program at the appropriate time.
I like Yahoo Groups for community and smaller lists of say a few dozen people, but it has two big drawbacks: First is a problem with setting up large lists quickly. Yahoo only lets you add 10 people a day to your list without asking them to opt-in. A second issue is that the Web list management interface is a bit obscure to figure out, especially for those recipients who want to use them but lack a Yahoo ID.
Mailman is a more professional program and gives you all sorts of control over features. There are many other e-mail list software products, this is just one that I have been using for many years. I recommend the provider EMWD.com. You can have fairly large lists of several thousand addresses without too much trouble, unlike Yahoo Groups. You need to obtain an account for a one-time fee of $10, and this will give you access to its Web-based control panels. This is more complex than Yahoo, but you have more control over things such as the header (what e-mail address is used in the "from" field) and footer (what information goes in the bottom of each message, and can be used to promote your company or products). As I said, each list only costs $4 a month to operate. You might want to check and see if your own Internet provider offers more competitive pricing on Mailman hosting.
But this may not be enough for your purposes. If you want to add Web links in your e-mails and track who clicks on which link, such as for promotional purposes, then you want iContact. The cheapest plan is $10 a month for up to 500 names. If you have 2500 names, the fee increases to $30 a month.
The advantage of iContact is that you can send out very snazzy e-mails, with pictures, color, and links to Web sites. The downside is that setting up a list takes some work.
Good luck with your mailing lists. Next week we'll talk about some of the tactics that you can use to work with regular e-mail blasts, things that I have learned after more than a decade of experience.
David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com and DigitialLanding.com and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.