Hi, My Name is Bill, and I'm an Email Addict

Yesterday, I had a growing sense of anxiety. Today, full-blown rage. In the last hour, I've left messages every 5 minutes with my IT guy, who's been out of town at a conference. I just yelled at my wife. After swearing off coffee a month ago, I just poured myself a cup.

That's right... my email is down. My name is Bill, and I'm an email addict.

For me, having my email down is like being Tom Hanks in Castaway without the weight-loss benefit. Yesterday, I wasn't sure what was happening, because I was receiving email, but it was all spam. I realized today that the spam I was receiving was coming in from an old email address, and I was receiving nothing from my main address.

Yesterday, before I was aware of the problem, it was as if a large black hole was opening beneath my feet. Where the hell is everyone? Did everyone take a vacation? I started to check the Web to see if there was some big conference I had missed out on that everyone was at.

Around noon yesterday I started opening and closing my email browser every few minutes just to see if that would somehow coax the email along, like some coke addict searching for a lost rock in the Burbor carpet. And while I was waiting on a ton of business-related emails, the thing I missed most was my private email discussion lists.

Which brings me to what I REALLY wanted to write about this week: A few days ago I was talking to a technology vendor, who--rightly--asked me about what newsletters I read and where I get most of my information. The vendor was thinking about starting their own newsletter, and wanted to get an idea of the frequency and topics that would attract someone like me. I had to tell them that while I subscribe to just about every industry newsletter, I usually just scan them quickly for any relevant headlines.

Where I get most of my info (and gauge the buzz on something)--the thing I really pay attention to--are the private, members only email discussion lists I belong to.

What makes a good email discussion list? Without a doubt, it is the quality of the people on the list, and the quantity and quality of their posts. The trick is to create an environment where people feel safe in posting (i.e. That their posts will remain confidential), and create a method by which the list isn't dominated with a few posters and a majority of lurkers.

In a second I'm going to talk about the secrets of putting a good list together using examples from a list I recently helped start myself, but first, let's start with some historical context:

Email discussion lists have been around since the advent of email itself. I subscribe to a number of them, including some pretty arcane ones (for instance, I'm on an active list that is dedicated to the Irish Bagpipe, called the Uilleann Pipe--you can't get much more niche than that!). In fact, a narrow niche subject is really necessary for a good discussion list: niches attract fanatics, and fanatics love to chat about what they are fanatical about.

In the online marketing space, there have been a number of great lists: Adam Boettiger's I-advertising List has been around for years, and The Oldtimer's List, founded by MediaPost columnist Tom Hespos, was--and is--an important voice in the online community.

Recently, I--along with Nick Friese of MediaPost and Nick Johnson of Revenue Science--decided to start our own private discussion list, The One Hundred Club. We looked at what had been done right and what had been done wrong in the past in creating the ground rules for our list. Here is what we decided the ingredients were for creating an outstanding and active discussion list:

1. Exclusivity: The key to the success of any list is exclusivity. Not just anyone can get in. This is what made The Oldtimer's so successful. On the "Oldtimer's List" you had to have been in the industry for at least 5 years, and you had to be "cool." In "The One Hundred Club"--or the OHC, as it is now referred to as--we purposefully limited membership to 100 of the top minds, and cut off membership at that point. Everyone on the list was nominated by someone else on the list.

2. Privacy: This is a key ingredient. A good discussion list needs to be like a confessional. In order to generate interesting and useful posts, people need to know that what they post won't be held against them, or pop up somewhere unexpectedly. On the OHC, privacy is a strict rule: like Las Vegas, what's said there stays there. In fact, it is the only "rule" of the list that can get you permanently banned if you break it.

3. Keeping the List Fresh: One of the biggest issues with all lists is that the ratio of active posters to lurkers is very lopsided. A few voices take over the discussion, the rest lurk, and pretty soon, you have a boring list. To counteract this, The OHC instituted a "no-lurker" policy. Every 3 months we purge the list of anyone who has not posted during the last quarter. Members who are purged are replaced by people on the waiting list. This lights a fire under folks to post or be purged, and it provides an organic way of growing the list. In any quarter where we have 100% participation, we increase the membership enrollment by a few people, guaranteeing that new voices and new perspectives are added to the conversation regularly, and at the same time guaranteeing a very active discussion with high participation.

The benefits of a well-run discussion list are too numerous to mention here, but they include the ultimate in industry networking: these are people you get to know intimately. Focus group opportunities also abound, as well as recruiting possibilities. But watch out: they are also HIGHLY ADDICTIVE.

Which reminds me: my email just got fixed... gotta go!