Email Lists and Message Boards- Where's the Middle Ground?

It seems to me that most of the many-to-many communication tools came from two very established origins:

  1. Email lists (AKA Listservs)- These are email-based groups where members receive email as an inherent part of participation. One message sent to an email address shared by the group is sent to everyone in the group. While the volume of emails can be cumbersome, email lists are effective in “pushing�? information to members- they only need to check email to participate.
  2. Message Boards (AKA UBBs)- These resources are much more web-based where members visit a web site to participate (post and read messages posted by other visitors). While email notifications are usually offered, the default is for members to proactively visit the site to keep up with the discussion- email is not implied. The site pulls the members to a single location (a web site) to participate.

Each of these has their place in my book. However, I think that the future of these tools in business situations is a combination of the most powerful aspects of each.

The Power of Implied Email:

On email lists- email is implied. If you’re going to be a member- you’re going to get email. While it’s also a liability, I think this is a huge strength. In situations where members are new to the concept of online communication, implied email list subscriptions can be a powerful tool. There is virtually no learning curve- they can use (and start to see community-style value) in a tool they know well- email.

As a community manager- I asked members what they thought of being automatically subscribed to get email as a part of being a member. They said “You know, I’m busy, and if you don’t put it in front of my face, I’m not gonna use it.�? This was an eye opener to me- and something I believe is essential in understanding how non-technical people may view online communication tools.

The Power of a Message Board:

Message boards provide a place. They give the group a single location that helps them manage the discussions and their options. They provide a home for the group to interact- to view profiles, post and view messages, to instant message, to feel like a group. Message boards provide a back-up, a place that contains everything and makes it searchable and bookmarkable (not sure if that’s a word). The power is in the place.

Looking for Middle Ground:

I think organizations that have people (customers and/or employees) who aren’t high-tech, but could benefit from many-to-many online communications need this “middle ground�? technology. They need a way to provide a simple interface (implied email) to “push�? the value and they need a “place�? (message board) that helps them manage it.

I’ve been surprised that there aren’t more tools out there (that I’ve seen) that combine these strengths. Sure, most tools provide email notifications, but members have to proactively subscribe. Even fewer message boards allow replies by email. Yahoo! Groups is an obvious (and very successful) exception- though meant for the broad market and Web Crossing as close as I've seen.

I’m betting that message boards are going to move quickly out of geekdom and into the tools that the average person uses. But, to do it effectively, I think they need to incorporate some of the valuable aspects of email lists.