Email Community Essentials: Tips from Two Award-Winning LISTSERV® List Owners

What does it take to have a top-notch opt-in email community? Libbye Miller and Robin Martinez, the respective list owners of BELG-L and KIDNEY-ONC – each list named a Grand Prize Winner in the 2011 LISTSERV Choice Awards – The Mailys – share some insights and best practices for subscriber impact and overall success.

Stay on topic

"I think one of the big reasons for our success is our insistence that the list stays specific to Belgians so the list isn't bloated with off-topic posts. Also, the list admins Judy, Kat and I try to rule the list with a good-humored but firm paw," says Miller.

Never fan the flames

"No matter how tempted you are, never take sides in a list dispute," Martinez advises. "It's your job as list owner to make sure discussion is productive, not destructive. If the dispute is not related to your list topic, politely and firmly cut off the conversation. This may require several posts from you. Remember, not everyone will have read your request before they respond to the ongoing problem. If the dispute is on topic, remind everyone of the need to be civil. Write personally and kindly to members who cross the line as you see it. Occasionally you may need to put a member on review. Your tact will go a long way here."

Set a supportive tone

"Our list is like a family. We share the joys of new puppies, the loss of dear old companions, and everything in between. And while we may occasionally squabble within our 'pack', the Belgian community is amazingly helpful and supportive in times of trouble," says Miller.

Build a sense of shared purpose and unity

"Whether patient, caregiver or health professional, all our members are colleagues in a single battle," says Martinez.

Take on difficult issues

"We also deal with end-of-life issues. That's always a hard thing to face, but emotional support makes it easier. We welcome rants and outcries," says Martinez. "Often KIDNEY-ONC is the only outlet for that kind of communication, although we do encourage members to express their feelings to their dear ones or to a counselor."

Give personal responses, not canned answers

In dealing with the challenges of a disease: "The same issues and questions arise repeatedly. It shows caring to put your answer into new words each time instead of referring people to a FAQ or repeating a previous post," Martinez notes. "When someone asks a question, there are always other members who need the answer and who are glad to see your freshly tailored response. When I refer people to the list archives, it is in addition to a personal response rather than in place of one."

What about oft-repeated technical and etiquette questions? "We include instructions for contacting a list admin on the bottom banner of each BELG-L post. One of the list admins walks the subscriber through the solution to their issue," says Miller. The personal touch helps create a more satisfying list experience.

Provide permanent, searchable message archives

"If I, or any other subscriber, need to see what's been said about a clinical trial, a drug, a doctor, or any other topic, even from long ago, we can easily find it," says Martinez. "That's not true of Facebook and Twitter. The information on the 'talk-based' social media is ephemeral; it can be valuable but may not be easy to locate again if you need it. Email also offers the immediacy of social media, so to me it's the best of both worlds."

Communicate cutting-edge, global information

"Subscribers were informed of the impending shortage of a commonly used medication, an important rule change for registering dogs in Europe, and a drive to raise money for bulletproof vests for police K-9s – and that was just this morning," says Miller.

"One of our list members reports regularly on his pursuit of photodynamic therapy (PDT) treatment in Guangzhou, China, and in Australia. He notes PDT has been successful for patients with other cancers, but he's one of the first with kidney cancer to try it. Unfortunately it's not working as well for him as everyone would like, but the firsthand experience is something you'll probably never read anywhere else," says Martinez.

Stick with the proven channel – email

"Lacking the mitigating factors of tone and inflection when communicating via email sometimes makes for misunderstandings. This is far outweighed by the opportunity to talk dogs with like-minded people all over the world. The easy flow of information and the ability to 'meet' so many new friends has truly changed our world," says Miller.

"My dream is of a time when everyone knows how to become a partner in their own healthcare rather than being a passive consumer," says Martinez. "All it takes is email and an active LISTSERV community to connect with. It's a shame for anyone to miss out since email is so readily available on cell phones, in public libraries, and on home and business computers."

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