Bringing mailing lists to the masses

We'll make running your list easier, new companies say -- just take our ads.

Published March 25, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

"One's mailbox is one's real portal -- e-mail is still the killer app." So says Craig Newmark, and he should know: As the soft-spoken proprietor (or "list owner" or "list mom") of Craig's List, he serves up e-mail daily to 7,600 subscribers on 17 mailing lists about the San Francisco Bay Area.

Where words like "portal" and "killer app" swarm, companies with business plans are rarely far behind. So it should not be surprising to discover that a host of new firms are looking to commercialize your in box -- to put ads on your e-mail and introduce direct marketing into your mailing lists and e-mail communities.

A number of fledgling startups, such as Topica, Onelist and eGroups are working to harness the power of mailing lists -- enabling marketers to insert their ads into even the smallest mailing-list communities. At the same time, these companies are working from a benevolent belief that they can enable community-building with easy-to-use tools that allow even the newest of newbies to become a "list mom." Let a thousand ad-riddled communities bloom!

"Mailing lists were one of the last areas that hadn't been exploited -- though I'm sure there are other areas that we haven't thought of yet, and marketers will soon flock there too," says Scott Paterson, senior partner at the eScribe mailing list archiving service. "There's potential for a lot more growth, and a lot of interest in direct advertising."

Mailing lists are one of the Internet's oldest communications methods, and one of the most simple -- all you need is a collection of e-mail addresses united by a common purpose and one forwarding address. A mailing list can be the weekly newsletter that CNET sends out to half a million readers -- or just a group of five or 10 relatives who keep up via e-mail. The number of mailing lists online is generally estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, sending millions upon millions of e-mails flying through the ether every day.

But despite their online ubiquity, mailing lists have typically been plagued by technical hurdles. Mailing list programs like majordomo or listserv required potential list operators to learn a series of arcane e-mail-based commands and to set up a server to run the list. As Mark Fletcher, CEO of Onelist, puts it, "If you wanted to run a mailing list, you had to be a nerd."

Getting members on and off the list could be equally difficult. And to top it all off, you had to know where to find those mailing lists in the first place -- a daunting task, since the best mailing lists were scattered across the Net and were rarely listed in directories. Even the mailing list software that did attempt a Web-based interface, such as Lyris, was too expensive or technically advanced for average people.

Enter Onelist, eGroups, Topica and a host of smaller mailing list services (often called listhosts) that have launched in the last year. Each of these startup companies offers comparable services: free mailing list tools and hosting in a Web interface, enabling just about anyone to set up a community-cum-mailing list in the space of just a few minutes, along with enormous directories of mailing lists you can join.

Month-old Topica, for example, allows members to set up and monitor their mailing lists through a series of easy Web-based tools. List owners can determine whether their new communities will be moderated or archived, can remove individual list members with the click of a button, create headers and footers, and so on. You can even import an already existing mailing list into the Topica service. List members, in turn, can find and track mailing lists via the Topica Web site, search mailing list archives and easily get on and off new lists. Think of it as a Dejanews or Hotmail-type service for mailing lists.

Explains Topica CEO Ariel Poler, "We started Topica because I participate in mailing lists and it became clear that the infrastructure was very primitive -- there was an opportunity to make life easier for owners and subscribers. Our focus is not on helping to create new lists, though we allow it, but helping existing owners and subscribers have a better experience."

Onelist and eGroups, both launched in the early months of 1998, offer similar services; although both offer further community functions, such as Onelist's file sharing service or eGroups' calendar and instant messaging systems. Other Web-based mailing list services, such as and eScribe, focus primarily on archiving material for previously existing mailing lists -- turning mailing lists into information databases.

"We give all this power -- the power of creating a list -- to everybody. We allow them to define what type of community they want," explains Fletcher. "With communities, the more the merrier."

Beyond such utopian visions, more, merrier mailing lists also means more profit for these mailing list services. Visitors to the Web sites are, not surprisingly, faced with banner ads; but more significantly, every e-mail on every mailing list that operates through Onelist or eGroups has an ad tacked to the bottom (although Topica does not currently include e-mail ads, it plans to do so soon). The ads are tailored, supposedly, to coordinate with both the mailing lists' topics and the individual members' personal profiles (which members provide when they sign up). Considering the volume of e-mail involved, the potential for direct marketing is staggering.

Says CEO Martin Roscheisen of eGroups, "Our offering is highly targeted. We have 120,000 highly subject-specific affinity groups; we know which people are interested in which groups and we can target across those lists, who they are (through their zip codes) and what they are interested in." Venture capitalists apparently believe in the potential profits: According to a recent Red Herring article, the top three contenders in this field are backed by big money from such Silicon Valley heavyweights as August Capital, Sequoia Capital and CMGI.

But even though the ads may be "targeted," not everyone is excited about the idea of turning their e-mail-based communities into marketing venues. Veteran list owners, who run the biggest mailing lists, are notoriously picky about what they will and won't allow in their communities. eScribe decided to leave ads out of e-mail after hearing list owners' complaints, as Paterson explains: "We find that list owners really don't like to have anything inserted into their mailings -- although they have no problem with banner advertisements appearing in their list archives on the eScribe Web site." Even eGroups allows list owners to pay $4.95 a month to keep the solicitations off their lists, and Topica promises that the e-mail ads will be an "opt-in" option for list owners.

Accepting someone else's ads also eliminates the possibility of profiting off your own content. One list owner who is concerned about these services is Randy Cassingham, author of the This Is True humor list, which goes out to 158,000 members every week. He has been selling ads on his mailing list for several years, which -- along with books based on his content -- are his sole source of income. Once you sign on to an ad-supported list host, "you're basically now an advertising vehicle for someone else," explains Cassingham. "Someone else is getting what may have been your profits -- and, depending on the ad, you don't have control over what is being advertised."

Arguably, many list owners may not care about profits, especially since the average size of lists on these services is between 30-40 members -- not exactly independently viable commercial ventures. But there's also the issue of archiving content. Since most of these mailing list services will permanently archive every flame war, diatribe and emoticon that passes through the lists, your quick-fingered retorts on a private list can be archived for all eternity -- even visible to members of the general public, if the list owner's whims dictate.

Information-based mailing lists may make valuable databases, but even more mailing-list discussions are casual and off the cuff. As a dubious Craig Newmark explains, "Mailing lists are a bottoms-up, unpolished way of communicating. They have a casual atmosphere, which encourages you to say what you're thinking. No matter how smart we are, now and then we say something we regret." Would that unpolished spontaneity be lost if people knew their words were being archived?

The archiving of content also brings up issues of intellectual property. Says Cassingham, "I'm one of the people who wants to keep very tight control of my content -- I consider it long-term-value intellectual property. Every year I put my columns in a book. If the online archive is easily available, why would they need to buy my book?"

Topica even claims rights to the content that passes through the service -- as the terms of service put it, Topica is granted license and redistribution rights to "any material you transmit through Topica's Service, including subscriber lists or content." Poler explains that Topica is just trying to protect itself from copyright infringement claims, and promises that it will be rewritten to be less harsh. But it still brings up troubling questions about who owns the contents of a mailing list published by a commercial service. What if your flame wars were to be licensed to other Web sites for the amusement of the masses? It may be a far stretch, but it's a possibility, especially when a company is amassing such vast amounts of content.

Perhaps the biggest concern of all is that these mailing list services will unwittingly assist spammers -- making it easier to both grab e-mail addresses from mailing lists, and to import e-mail addresses into a mailing list for the purpose of spamming. Most of the major list hosting services have prominent anti-spam policies and have put e-mail verification in place; nonetheless, Fletcher says they still have problems with "list owners" who set up Onelist accounts in order to send spam.

The directories of mailing lists surely make it easier both to start and find good mailing lists than ever before -- but perhaps it's too easy. How many millions of mailing lists does the world need? If you were to scroll through the directories of mailing lists in these services, there's an awful lot of repetition -- such as the 1,000 genealogy lists in OneList -- and an awful lot of "communities" that are simply new places for porn enthusiasts to swap smutty snapshots. The truly valuable lists -- like This Is True or Craig's Lists -- could be lost in the wash of Leonardo di Caprio fan clubs, "AflirtsDream2" mailing lists and baseball team newsletters. It's difficult to determine from a brief description just how interested in a particular list you might be.

Still, despite the questions that these services raise, they seem to be making many list owners ecstatic. Vince Sabio, a professional "list mom" who hosts a dozen mailing lists, including his own 60,000 member-strong HumourNet list, is thrilled by the new list hosting services.

"I routinely have people asking me how to set up a mailing list, and I used to have a long piece of stationery that I sent them explaining how to do it. Now I just point them to Topica," he says. He is moving most of his lists to Topica himself, and has even joined its team of list-owner advisors in order to turn his own wish-list items into a reality.

At the very least, the list host services have taken great leaps toward making list ownership more egalitarian, rather than a privilege for the technically savvy. As Sabio waxes rhapsodic, "We're really all working toward this greater good -- this concept of a faster, better, more effective means of communicating over the Net. From a long-term list owner perspective, that's really a beautiful thing."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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