One of the most basic ways to begin connecting your church to others via the Internet is through an email list, sometimes known as a listserv. Email is the most basic form of communication on the net, and pretty much continues to be used by most folks on a regular basis. Yet, it is amazing how many churches aren’t using this important means of communication in an effective way, often because they think that it may be too expensive.
Of course, the most basic way to do this is to create a mailing list in your e-mail program (often called an email client) and send emails to everyone on that list. While that is functional, especially for small groups of 10 or 20 people, the fact is that if often breaks down for big groups, and has some unintended consequences. Since this was one of the earliest form of spamming others, spam filters are particularly sensistive to e-mails with multiple addresses, and often blacklist those who send out lots of messages in this way. Additionally, these e-mails end up including the e-mail address of every recipient in the message, which is not a responsible way to handle personal information. Simply put, there are much more effective ways of handling e-mail lists than creating one in your copy of Outlook Express.
The first generation of programs created for handling e-mail lists was created by a company called Listserv, and this quickly became a common designation for programs designed to process e-mail messages and send them to a large list. In the old days, this required purchasing software and installing it on your own server, tasks the pretty much ensured that one would need a tech person to help.
As the notion of web based services has expanded, so have the possibilities for dealing with e-mail lists. There are any number of commercial services that allow one to create large e-mail lists with all sorts of formatting options for a fee, usually based on the list size. One of the most popular for church groups is Constant Contact, which is a service that allows for both e-mail marketing and surveys. The advantage of these services is that they generally have better support for HTML e-mails, allowing for a more polished appearance. These services also have user tracking tools that the free options don’t have.
If I were in a church that had more resources, I might think about using one of these services. However, the reality of my church and many out there is that a couple of hundred bucks a year for a service like those listed above is out of the question. That leaves us with considering the free alternatives.
There are two primary alternatives available that I have used: Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. Both are free services that require setting up an account. Both have the same basic functionality in managing lists and sending messages. The great thing about these services is the ease of use — you simply e-mail a message from whatever e-mail service you use to the group, and the group service blasts the e-mail to everyone. These services have the ability to limit who gets to send messages (moderated versus open groups) and have pretty much done everything that I have needed them to do.
Having said that, I prefer Google Groups for a single reason — their willingness to make make their advertising as unobtrusive as possible. We originally used Yahoo Groups, which was the first player to the table. But Yahoo inserted advertising in every message sent, which could be awkward at times depending on what we were sending. Google doesn’t insert any advertising in the email, choosing instead to limit advertising to the group web site. Of course, Google could change this anytime, but so far they have been good about keeping things clean and simple. Thus, we have standardized on Google Groups as the primary means of making contact via e-mail.
There are certainly limits to the free services, especially in regards to sending HTML e-mail, but all in all the services work well and are a great way of getting your congregation’s e-mail ministry started.