The Virtual Activist

A Training Course

Part 2B: Using Email for Outreach, Organizing, and Advocacy -- Mailing Lists

Creating your email list

Email is a simple yet powerful tool that your organization can use to communicate with your supporters. It is fast, effective and highly affordable. You may already be in the habit of sending individual, personally composed email messages as part of the normal course of daily business. This discussion is about email lists, the practice of collecting large numbers of email addresses and storing them in a software program so that you can send electronic "mass mailings" to your supporters.

We're going to begin by reviewing the features available in the email software you are already using to send and receive individual messages, the email list services that are available through commercial Web sites, and the mailing list software that you can install and use in-house if your organization maintains its own "server." (A "server" is a computer that is connected to the Internet and used to host one or more Web sites.) We will also be reviewing the different ways you can set up and use email lists to communicate with your members, supporters, volunteers, and the media.

Using your regular email software

The simplest way to create and use email lists is to do it in-house using your regular email software. The most common products you might use are Qualcomm's Eudora, Microsoft Outlook, or Netscape Mail. This option is a good choice if your list has no more than a couple of hundred subscribers at most.

There are two common ways you send email with Eudora, Outlook, and other consumer software products. One is a personal note, addressed to an individual or to a small group of people. When you send an individual message, you type the recipient's email address in the "To" field, and you might also type a second recipient's address in the "Cc" field.

The other way -- which is useful for email activism -- is to use the address book feature in your email software program. This is a very useful tool for individual activists and for organizations in which the staff has little technical expertise. All email software programs have a feature that lets you set up an address book, and most will let you store hundreds or even thousands of names in the address book. Many people use this function to store the individual email address of friends and acquaintances. But it is also possible to use this function to create a simple announcement-only mailing list, which you can then use to distribute messages to a large number of people.

For example, if your organization periodically sends out press releases, you can set up a personalized address book, labeled "Media," that includes a list of the email addresses of all the reporters you know who are interested in the issues your organization is working on. Using the address book feature makes it possible to send the press release to all of the reporters at once, rather than emailing the message individually to each reporter. (See the example below.)

If you plan to use your address book to create an email list, you will need to know how to send email without disclosing the recipients' addresses. So if you haven't already been introduced to the "Bcc" field, it's time to get acquainted. ("Bcc" is an acronym for "blind carbon copy." Along with "Cc" for "carbon copy" the term has its origins in the days when typists made copies of documents by placing carbon-coated paper between sheets of regular paper before typing.)

At the top of every email message, you'll (usually) see a header with these fields:


NOTE: In some email software, "Bcc" is not included in the default setting of the header display. In some versions of AOL's software, for example, you will have to open the address book and select "Blind Copy." If you don't see it, check the "Help" file or the User Manual that came with the software, or contact the company's support service by phone or email.

To send a press release to your "Media" address book, type "Media" in the "Bcc" field of the message header and put your own email address in the "To" field. That way, all of the reporters will receive the message, but only your email address will be disclosed. (And you'll get a copy of whatever you send, since your address will be in the "To" field.)

CAUTION: ALWAYS use the "Bcc" field if you are creating an email list in your address book. If you type the address book's name in the "To" or "Cc" field, all of the addresses will appear in the "To" field when the message is sent! There are two problems with this. First, some people prefer not to disclose their email address, and if the list has a lot of addresses the header will be long. This is annoying to some people because they have to scroll through screens full of addresses before they see the message.

Do you like seeing something like the following when you open an email message?

From: "Jane Doe" < >
To: James King < >, Alan Williams < >,
Dave Garrison < >, "Jennifer Reilly" < >,
"George Kelly" < >, "Thomas Jones" < >,
Gina Rogers < >, Dan Stevens < >,
Vincent Davis < >, Ron Butler < >,
"Marc Smith" < >, Tony Altura
< >, "Jeffrey Carr" < >,
"Michael Milton" < >,
Peter Boyd < >, "Susan Smith" < >

In contrast, here's what you'll see when you use the "Bcc" field to distribute a long list of names:

Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2000 09:07:38 -0700
From: Audrie Krause
Subject: NetAction Urges Consumer Protection For Software Buyers

Most Web email services, like YahooMail and HotMail, also offer address books as part of their free service. These can also be used to store large numbers of email addresses. If you use a Web email service, be sure to check if there is a limit to the number of email addresses that can be stored in the address book.

NOTE: NetAction uses and recommends Eudora. It's easy to use, less vulnerable to virus attacks than Microsoft Outlook, and can be downloaded for free from Eudora's Web site.

Another important issue to deal with is backing up the email addresses that you have stored in your address book. A fatal crash of your computer's hard drive could wipe out months or years of collected addresses, so be sure to back up these names. If your organization has a network administrator, make arrangements to have this information backed up regularly. If not, copy the address book onto a floppy or zip disk regularly, or buy and use a commercial backup software product, such as Retrospect Express by Dantz. If you are using a Web email service, learn how to back up your data, also.

Other email list software options

There are also some email list software products and services specifically for managing mailing lists. The two main types that you might use are Web-based Application Service Provider (ASP) services, and commercial list software for mail servers. These options are useful for lists with hundreds or thousands of names. Another alternative is eBase software, which we discuss in Part 4.

Application Service Providers (ASP)

ASPs are commercial Internet companies that offer email list services over the Web, usually at no cost to the user. Application Service Providers that you might be familiar with are Topica, eGroups, and ListBot from Microsoft.

These services let you to set up an email list without having to install special list software, which we will discuss in the next section. The advantage of ASPs is that they automatically handle all the subscribing and unsubscribing for you. That means people will be able to join and leave the list without extra work on your part. This is particularly useful if you aren't going to individually review and approve every new subscriber.

ASPs may be a good choice for individual activists who want to set up email discussion lists, and for organizations in which a staff with limited technical expertise needs to manage multiple or large lists. You don't need much technical experience to manage lists that are set up through these services, you have more choices about how the list works, and you have access to technical support if you need it.

Another advantage of these services is that they automatically store all the messages on a Web site. (This is called an archive.) An archive is useful if you want to have a record of everything that has ever been posted to the list. You might want such a record so that new subscribers can read messages posted before they joined the list, or so that people can read the messages without having to subscribe to the list.

But there are also some important disadvantages to consider. Under the user agreements, if you use their services the ASPs will own your lists, any of your work that's posted to your lists, and the content of your list archive. This gives the ASP the right to do anything it wants with this information.

Also, because these services are free, the companies that offer them add a small advertisement header or footer to each message, similar to the ones you see if you get email from someone who uses YahooMail or HotMail for Internet service. While some people would rather not use a service with advertising, others consider it a reasonable price to pay for a free service. Here is an example of the type of advertisement you would see if you subscribed to an email list operated by Topica:

T O P I C A The Email You Want.
Newsletters, Tips and Discussions on Your Favorite Topics

Another downside of using one of these services is that you can't customize the list with your organization's domain name to indicate that the message was sent by your organization. (A domain name is what appears after the "www" on a Web site address. For example, "" is the domain name of The Sierra Club.) Messages sent through an ASP list might have a header that looks like this:

Subject: Support H.R. 2502!
Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 20:09:32 EDT

When you customize the list name to match your organization's domain name, the message will have a header that identifies your organization by its domain name. So it might look something like this:

Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 01:06:27 -0600 (MDT)
From: Audrie Krause
Subject: NetAction Notes No. 58

If you are thinking of using a service like Topica, eGroups or ListBot, you'll need to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. If you decide to go ahead, be sure to ask how you can keep a backup of your email subscriber list. Like the database of your members' addresses and phone numbers, your email subscriber list is a valuable asset.

Commercial in-house email list software

Another way to set up a list is to install commercial list software on your organization's "server" computer. Some of these commercial products are free, and others have to be purchased. Commercial list software is not very user-friendly. So this is only a good option if your organization runs its own in-house mail server, has a dedicated high bandwidth Internet connection, and employs a network administrator.

Three common software packages for handling email lists are:

All three offer free versions of their software package, though more advanced features require purchasing a license.

NOTE: NetAction uses and recommends Majordomo list software if your organization has the hardware and technical expertise to operate it. Once the software has been installed and configured the way you want it -- which is the part that requires technical expertise -- anyone with basic computer skills can easily manage the list. Also, the process by which people subscribe or unsubscribe is simple enough that most people don't need help from the list manager.

Techniques for using email lists

If you use a Web-based list service or a commercial list software product, you'll have some decisions to make about how the list will operate. In the following section, we will be reviewing several techniques to set up and use email lists so they serve your organization's needs.

Annoucement-only email lists

This configuration provides one-way communication from the list owner to the list subscribers. This configuration is good for distributing electronic newsletters, action alerts, and other information quickly, cheaply and easily to a large number of people. When you configure a list for announcements only, you need a password in order to post messages. Since you determine who knows the password, you determine who can post messages to the list. You can limit posting privileges to one individual, or several people in your organization.

If you set up your own list using the address book and "Bcc" features in your regular email software, you are in effect creating an announcement-only list. That's because you will be the only person with access to the list and the ability to post to it, and your address is the only address that recipients can reply to since the others won't be visible.

The main advantage of an announcement-only list is that the owner has complete control of the content and the frequency of postings. This makes it a good choice if you want to distribute electronic action alerts, press releases, or newsletters. The main disadvantage is that subscribers cannot just hit "reply" to comment to the whole list about something that was posted.

If you're using commercial list software, you can configure the list so that readers can't reply at all, or so that replies go back to the list's owner. One way to be certain that any replies get back to you is to include a "mailto" hyperlink in the text so that readers who want to comment can do so without having to open a message form. A "mailto" hyperlink automatically opens a message form. Double click on the link below to see how it works, then delete the form to return to this lesson.



Creating a "mailto" hyperlink is very easy. All you have to do is type: mailto: followed (without any spaces) by the email address you want to link to. For practice, type a "mailto" using your own email address, then click on it to open a message form addressed to yourself. Type "testing" in the subject line, and "hello" in the message field, and send it off. The next time you check your email, you'll find a message from yourself with "testing" as the subject line.

Whether or not you use a "mailto" hyperlink, it is always a good idea to include the email address that readers can write to when you send out an action alert, press release, or other information to an email list.

Moderated email lists

A moderated email list allows for controlled two-way communication. Anyone who subscribes to a moderated list can post a message to the list, but the message is routed to the list owner, who gets to decide whether or not to post it. This gives the list owner nearly as much control over the content as the owner of an announcement-only list.

You can also set up a moderated discussion list by using the address book and "Bcc" features in your regular email software. You set it up exactly as you would an announcement-only list (using the "bcc" field). But when you send something out you include a brief note informing readers that their comments are welcome. Any replies are automatically directed to you since you sent the message. To distribute replies that you approve, simply copy and paste the reply text into a new email form and send out another email to the list you created with your address book and "Bcc" field.

The main advantage of a moderated list is that the moderator can make sure that comments from readers are relevant to the purpose of the list. The main disadvantage is that you'll have to read every reply you get from list subscribers in order to decide whether or not to post them. This can be time-consuming if the list is very active. Also, if you decide not to post someone's comment you may take some heat from the subscriber whose post is rejected. You can minimize such criticism by having a clearly articulated statement describing the purpose of the list.

Unmoderated email lists

An unmoderated list allows for open communication among all subscribers. Anyone who subscribes to an unmoderated list can post a message to the list for everyone else to see. This configuration gives your subscribers the most freedom to communicate. But it also gives you as the list owner the least amount of control over the content.

The main advantage of an unmoderated list is low maintenance for the list owner. If subscription is automatic, rather than by approval, you will be able to manage the list with minimal effort. The main disadvantage, of course, is that you'll have almost no control over the content. This list configuration is the most likely to be abused by subscribers -- and also by spammers -- since there is no way to stop someone from posting anything they want to the list.

You can exercise some control over an unmoderated list by requiring that all subscriptions be approved by the owner. This will allow you to screen out spammers, and also to remove a subscriber who becomes disruptive or impolite. With the exception of spammers, however, you should be cautious about removing subscribers because of concerns about the content of their posts. If the removal of a subscriber is perceived as censorship, it may generate more complaints than it resolves.

Open subscription process (anyone can participate)

An open subscription list allows anyone who is interested to subscribe. You won't have to approve any new subscribers. If you are configuring an "announcement only" list or a "moderated" list, as described above, you may want an open subscription process to avoid having to approve each new subscriber. Since you will control everything that gets posted, you won't have to worry about spammers sending junk email to your list. If you are configuring an "unmoderated" list, and have an open subscription, you are very likely to get spammers subscribing and then spamming the list with junk email.

Membership-only lists (subscription approval, password-protected Web sites)

When you set up a list to require subscription approval, all subscription requests are forwarded to you, or whoever you've designated as the list owner. If you want to allow the subscription, you'll reply to the message with the list password. If you don't want to allow it, you won't need to do anything.

If you set up a list with your own email software, you are in fact setting up a list that requires approval since you're the only one who can add new email addresses to your address book.

How should your organization operate its mailing list? Should it be announcement-only? Is a moderator necessary? What subscription process would be better? Consider your organization's needs and goals before deciding.

Signature files

A signature file (also known as sig or dot-sig file) at the end of an email message is an excellent way to provide contact information. If you include a complete URL, the signature file will also serve as a hyperlink to your Web site. Here is an example of a very basic signature file:

Audrie Krause, Executive Director
P.O. Box 6739
Santa Barbara, CA 93160
TELEPHONE: (415) 215-9392 FAX: (805) 681-0941
* * * WEB: * * *


It's also possible to include a sentence or two in the signature file that promotes an event or action that your organization is involved in. Here is an example of a signature file that contains a message:

A student-run non-profit organization providing free services
for the homeless and low-income communities.

570 University Hall, Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 643-6786


Most email browsers allow the user to set up a signature file that will automatically be tacked onto the end of every email message. If the signature file is the default, your browser should have a menu choice that lets you send a message without the signature in the event you don't want to include the identifying information. Some browsers also allow the user to set up an alternate signature so that you can include organizational contact information for your activist messages, and personal information for your personal correspondence.

If you plan to use a signature file, you should be aware that many Internet users consider it bad manners if your signature file is larger than your message. So if you frequently send short notes, remember to suppress the signature file.

TRY A PRACTICE ALERT: Get permission from two or three friends to temporarily subscribe their addresses, then create an address book email alert list. Draft a short action alert, and send it to your list.

Next: Part 2C: Tips for Effective Online Media