11 June 2007

Managing E-mail Lists

[I need to set up an e-mail distribution list that doesn't reveal list members.] Now I'm having a problem with my list being too large. When I send out a message most of the recipients don't get it. I get a system administrator message saying my e mail was "truncated" or didn't even go through... - Virginia

There are four common ways mass e-mails are distributed.

  1. Mailing list managers

  2. Group E-mail Alias

  3. Unassisted in a regular e-mail client

  4. Desktop mass-mailing software

Mailing List Managers

Mailing list managers are the best choice for fluid memberships, or member lists over two dozen or so people. Mailing list managers typically reside on or near an e-mail server, taking incoming messages and redistributing them to everyone on the mailing list. Other features available in more popular packages are automatic bounce detection (to remove invalid e-mail addresses from the list automatically), subscription management, and moderation.

Mailing list managers allow you to take a hand-off approach to mass e-mail distribution. All you have to do is send a single e-mail to the manager, and it will figure out the rest. Users who want to be removed from the list can often do so without any interaction from another human. Better still, many mailing list managers will maintain an archive of list activity. Past newsletters and announcements can be preserved with no additional effort on the part of the sender.

GNU Mailman is a very popular choice in mailing list managers. It provides all of the features one typically needs and more. The biggest drawback of Mailman is the invasiveness of its install. It is not practical or even possible to install Mailman on most low-end web hosting accounts. If this isn't a problem, Mailman is an easy choice.

Another option is phplist. phplist requires no more than your average PHP-based web application to run. Most web hosting accounts, even cheap ones, have what is required to support phplist. Unlike Mailman, phplist is not a group mailing list manager. Its intended for one way communication only. For people only interested in sending newsletters and announcements, phplist can get the job done without the complication of Mailman.

Group E-mail Aliases

Group e-mail aliases allow a single e-mail to a single address to be sent to multiple recipients. This is where the similarity with mailing list managers ends. Group aliases must be managed manually by an e-mail server administrator or user-accessible control panel. Aliases don't work well for large numbers of users, and typically have no access control available. Anyone can send any e-mail to an alias group, and each member e-mail address will receive a copy.

As far as user-generated e-mails are concerned, there is really no need to use a group alias. An unassisted desktop e-mail client can get the job done just as well.

Desktop E-mail Clients

Doing things the hard (easy?) way by dumping large numbers of e-mail addresses into a standard desktop e-mail client is likely the most popular way of dealing with mass mailing list. This solution is cheap, easy, and effective... until you break a few dozen recipients, that is. Large amounts of e-mail being forced through your mail server without the intelligent batching and throttling of a good list manager can be a disaster. If SMTP server recipient limits don't trip things up, an angry mail administrator with a choking server or spam detection and prevention mechanisms might.

If a desktop e-mail client is to be used unassisted for mass mailings, be sure to respect recipients privacy. Listing several recipients in the To or CC fields is only acceptable in small group settings, when each recipient is already aware of the e-mail addresses and participation of the others. The easiest way around this is to address mass mails to yourself, and BCC all other recipients.

Desktop Mass Mailing Software

Desktop mass mailing software is often the tool of choice for spammers. This shouldn't deter you should you have legitimate needs. That said, if you are running a legitimate e-mail list, you'll probably be better off with one of the two previous solutions. Mass mailing software will yield better results than an e-mail client alone, but is still a stop-gap measure with most of the disadvantages that come with using anything but a server-based mailing list manager.

All things considered, just get a decent mailing list manager. Everyone stands a very good chance of getting either Mailman or phplist up and running. There is little excuse for not using a decent mailing list manager. If you have to run with something else until you've got a real mailing list manager set up, so be it. But make sure your temporary solution doesn't become a permanent one.

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