Web Informant #240, 16 March 2001:
Choosing a mailing list service provider


These days, you have plenty of choices when it comes to finding a provider who is willing to host your mailing list. Depending on the size of the list, whether you want to support one-way or two-way communication among your members, and numerous other features, you probably have several dozen vendors who range from completely free to charging you several hundred dollars a month for their services.

It sure is nice having all these choices, but with choice comes confusion. So let me try to clarify the options, and walk you through my own decision process on how these essays are distributed.

But before I get into that, I want to take a moment to recap the various technologies I have used over the five plus years:

For the past two years, I was a very satisfied customer of eGroups, but after the changeover to Yahoo I became concerned. I got spoiled at eGroups having direct contact with both senior management and technical staff: if I ever had a problem, I could get someone on the phone and get something quickly resolved. Getting someone on the phone at Yahoo HQ is impossible, and finding the right person even to respond via email isn't easy. Second, I wasn't happy with the way Yahoo decided to add their own footer to my messages. It was a small thing, but hey, this is my list and if I wanted to include advertisements I would have done so long ago. Finally, I began to see some signs of poor customer service when I read some of the postings on the various Yahoo-maintained discussion lists geared towards list owners.

So, off to the technology races once again. I decided, rather than do an extensive evaluation, I would look at places that I had good contacts with the principals involved. First, I looked at Yahoo's main competitor, Topica. I knew the CEO personally and had good relations with their technical people, and I had a test list setup for several years. But Topica didn't offer enough control over how the messages are sent, and they also include their own advertisements in the footer of each message.

Next, I looked at hosting providers who charge a small monthly fee for hosting lists. There are dozens of these operations now, and this list and another list that provide details including pricing and the underlying technologies used:

I examined two technologies: Lyris and L-Soft's Listserv. Both have been around long enough to be well tested and well developed. Both come from the command-line Unix world but have web interfaces to help you configure them. Lyris is used by Sparklist.com and Dundee.net: my list would cost $50 per month on Sparklist and about half that on Dundee. (There are plenty of other Lyris providers, those are just the two I chose because of my own contacts.)

To get a feel for the web interface of Lyris, you can go to Dundee's ordering page. There you can see the various parameters you'll need to specify to setup your list. These parameters include things like whether or not subscribers can post messages, how subscription requests are handled, and the like. The interface is a single page, with all the options presented fairly clearly.

Once you setup your list, you get access to other web pages to manage your list, to set up new subscribers, and to approve and post messages. While this sounds somewhat similar to what I was used to at eGroups, the actual interface was somewhat clunky and there are numerous pages to wade through and to understand. Still, Lyris-oriented lists are powerful and the prices are reasonable, and I know many people who are happy customers at both vendors.

L-Soft offers a hosting service for Listserv called Ease, in addition to selling the actual software. I liked this interface better, even though it initially seemed more cumbersome. This is because of Listserv's long heritage as a command-line mailing list processor, meaning that prior to the web, you sent the Listserv computer commands imbedded in the email text, and Listserv would respond accordingly. L-Soft's pricing is somewhat complex, but figure about $70 a month for my list, if I sent it during the weekends.

L-Soft's Ease has transformed Listserv with a thin panache of a web interface, but it is thin enough that you still need to make use of the command syntax. For example, when you go to the web configuration page, you are presented with a series of commands that looks like this:

Confidential= Yes
Validate= Yes,Confirm
Subscription= By_Owner
Notify= Yes
Send= Editor,Hold,confirm
Review= Owners
Reply-To= Sender,ignore
Errors-To= Owners
Sender= "David Strom's Web Informant "

Each one of these command lines does something important, and to really understand them you need to carefully read the documentation. Granted, once you setup your list to your satisfaction, you can probably forget about this syntax and these commands, and just send your mailings out into the world.

However, since this was an evaluation based on personalities and corporations, rather than actual technologies, I went another route, choosing to use Ezmlm and qmail, hosted on O'Reilly's servers, for a combination of reasons. First, I had real people who were experienced Unix and mailing list administrators that I could work with, so I wouldn't do anything stupid on my own, or so I hoped. Second, there wasn't any web interface, which I found strangely purifying, if that would be the right word, and I could focus on getting the mailing list content out. While having the web interface is nice, dealing with the various quirks in sending out each edition of Web Informant isn't as obvious as just composing an email message and sending it to the mailing server address. Finally, I like the folks at O'Reilly and welcomed the opportunity to work with them again.

So what do I recommend? I continue to use YahooGroups (as it now is called) for noncommercial purposes, such as to support non-profit organizations or social clubs. It still has the easiest interface and if you don't mind their corporate intrusions on your messages, it is fine. (Yahoo has an option to pay to remove much of the advertisements, but they still tack on their own bit in each message footer.) If you want the best email list processing service and can afford to pay for it, I would choose Listserv and the Ease hosting option at L-Soft. And if you are cost-conscious and don't mind wading through some web pages to set things up, the folks at Dundee have a very reasonable offering.

If you can try out the administrative interfaces before you become a customer, all the better: everyone has their own particular opinions on what kind of interface makes the most sense to them. And if you are new to mailing lists and want a great book to get started, then I recommend taking a look at Margaret Levine Young and John Levine's book called Poor Richard's Building Online Communities. It covers lots of good information on how to setup mailing lists, including explanations of some of the more arcane command syntax for Listserv, Majordomo and Listproc-based lists. The book goes into detail about other community-building tools, including newsgroups, IRC, and the legal issues over running your own mailing lists.

Self-promotions dep't

For those of you unfamiliar with O'Reilly, they are the leading book publisher of numerous guides to Internet technologies. They also run a network of web sites geared toward open-source developers, covering XML, Perl, Apache, and other technologies. You can browse their entire empire here.

My latest column for Sam Whitmore's Media Survey on the influence of weblogs can be reviewed here, care of Dave Winer.

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David Strom
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