Mailing Lists

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Updated March 23, 2023

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Mailing lists are a broadcast form of communication based on email. Generally, one email address broadcasts information to all members of the group, and replies are then threaded under the same subject. Some mailing lists keep historical records, giving new members access to past discussions.

Mailing List Advantages

  • Grouping. Mailing lists can be used to cluster individuals under one shared topic or group. For example, this may include grouping all members of a team, a project, a department, the board of directors, the entire company, or specific interests.

  • Broadcasting. By sending to dedicated email addresses, you easily broadcast the information once to specific groups who may need access to the same information, without having to manage individual member access. For example, you could share your quarterly sales report with a sales team list and executives at the same time.

  • Sharing documents. Depending on the service provider that you use, you can share other types of artifacts with a mailing list. For example, Google Calendar supports sending invitations to mailing groups with a shared address. You can also manage access to specific shared documents or drives using group mailing lists.

  • Permission control. Mailing lists allow for specific posting and replying permissions. This feature can be handy when you want to create an asynchronous channel to update large groups on a regular basis without the risk of never-ending replies. Putting the mailing list addresses in the Bcc line will ensure that replies only go to the original author.

  • Focus. Mailing lists can usually be configured to provide daily digests or to filter specific information to certain recipients. This can help recipients manage how frequently they get notifications or email in their inbox, which helps them maintain focus.

Mailing List Risks and Pitfalls

  • Management at scale. Mailing lists can become unmanageable when there are too many people and discussions start branching out, or topics beyond the original intention start popping up. If access to large mailing lists isn’t managed, you will inevitably find yourself in the middle of one of those dreaded Reply All moments.

  • Closed. Membership isn’t usually transparent, leading to less control over and visibility into who has access to what information.

  • Spam and noise. Mailing lists can easily become spam vectors because they make it easy to contact many people at once. Similarly, when mailing lists are overused, people can start tuning them out, and they lose their effectiveness in broadcasting important information.

  • Bimodal. Since they are email-based, email lists are subject to the ambiguity of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. They can become sources of interruption if you don’t properly manage the expectation about the immediacy of replies.

  • Potential for harm. Mailing lists are built to give quick access to a wide group of people, which means harmful or toxic messages can be quickly and widely transmitted.

When to Use Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are best used in your communication architecture for:

  • Asynchronous, uni-directional broadcasting of information, such as announcements, updates to company policy, and other timely information.

  • Communication with specific groups of people in your company

  • Regular digests of predictable information

Tips for Mailing Lists

  • Best practices include ensuring that the information you share to an email list group is on-topic and actionable or informative so you can keep recipients engaged. If the information you share is valuable and respectful of the attention it gets, you can increase the engagement on what you share.

  • Consider sharing broadcast-based messages with a small group of people for review before you send, so they can point out any ambiguous or confusing messaging. If you have marketing experts in your company, they can be the source of valuable feedback on internal communications.

  • As a recipient, consider replying privately to controversial or sensitive questions to prevent putting the original author in an uncomfortable position in front of a wide audience.

  • If you disagree with a specific message sent to the list, or have feedback for the sender, it is best to move to a channel that can carry tone, like phone or video, to resolve any conflict and converge on a clearer understanding.

Knowledge Bases and Wikis

A knowledge base (or wiki) stores structured and unstructured information online. Both are asynchronous and support rich text formatting and the embedding of different kinds of media like images, videos, or audio. Knowledge bases require that specific individuals be responsible for maintaining specific articles or documents, whereas wikis allow and expect for anyone with access to be able to add and modify anything posted. Examples of knowledge base or wiki tools include Confluence, ZenDesk, and Notion.

Knowledge Base and Wiki Advantages

  • Easy contribution. Wikis are designed for easy contribution, which makes them excellent resources for shared knowledge. Onboarding materials, collaborative processes, or instructions on how to use specific systems are examples where office wikis can be better than knowledge bases.

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