Why an email list is the most important tool for community groups

Tips and tricks on getting off on the right foot.

When starting a new community group or campaign of any type, one of the first things to get right is group communication. Despite dozens of tech tools claiming to help streamline this process, in my experience, nothing beats an email list. Why?

Quite simply it’s because email is the single largest common denominator that is inclusive of the widest range of people. While not everyone has an email account (especially older people), it is a prerequisite for newer, fancier tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams or Loomio. These more complex tools work great when everyone is at the same workplace, or at a high level of tech competency, but work far less well for ad-hoc community groups. Email doesn’t require installing anything new, or remembering to check other apps, and is widely understood and used by everyone with a basic competency in IT. As a result, it is the least likely tool to create an ‘information rift’ in your group between those who just use email, and those who have the apps.

The ‘default’ method most groups use is mass email ‘to’ or ‘cc’ lines (or worse, bcc). In fact, one symptom of a group organisation system not everyone is using is that these emails persist despite having a ‘proper’ system. Email is simple, quick, easy to understand, far more intuitive than knowing what thread in what app to check, and has a vast range of clients on every platform imaginable. As a result, a sensible group admin should harness this existing competency and familiarity and work with it.

The main problem with the ‘mass cc’ method is that there is never a clear contact list for the group, meaning new people miss messages due to people replying to old group messages. I’m sure we’ve all been in the frustrating position of trying to leave or join one of these mass threads, or seeing people repeatedly miss new members out. People should be actively consenting to joining lists, and instantly able to leave, for both our personal mental health and GDPR reasons.

A secondary problem is that this mess creates a lack of transparency. I’m a firm believer that groups are as good as their record keeping and minutes1. There’s no greater waste of a community group’s time and energy than going over the same discussions every meeting. An email list acts as a de facto archive, allowing both new and existing members to refer back to previous discussions.

There’s a bunch of other benefits of course: email digest options; ease of searching for messages as they are from a consistent sender; and ability to prefix emails with a list name so people can see why they’ve got them, for example. But these all pale into comparison with this main two problems.

At the start of a new group when you have a handful of members and you meet regularly, these are less of an issue, and it can seem like an unnecessary time sink to properly discuss group communication. I’ve found through being involved in dozens of groups though that not having these discussions from day one can be utterly toxic further down the line, preventing groups from being open, transparent, and well organised. In fact, having this discussion at the outset can be one of the best things you can do to figure out what kind of group you are and how you want to communicate.

Are there some downsides to this method? Of course. The rest of this article discusses some tips for mitigating these.

Setting up stress-free email

The main resistance to suggesting an email list apart from the initial effort cost is that most people find the volume of emails they get to be way too high. I’ve never quite understood this given the ‘mass cc’ default approach mentioned above. My best guess is either that people feel implementing an email list will somehow increase the amount of emails they receive, or a general resistance to any tech infrastructure. Older people I’ve worked with especially find their inbox to be almost unusable due to the amount of spam they receive. I think this is why sometimes the Slacks of the world seem like a good option: a clean slate. Give it a few months though and even with the best will, it’ll just be another pile of notifications to ignore.

The problem needs fixing at the root. Email organisation is pretty simple and a few steps can drastically reduce your cognitive load and make checking email feel like less of a chore. Here’s what I do:

  1. Turn off all notifications for email everywhere. Really. Countless studies have shown that real time notifications are a ‘toxic source of stress’ 2. While youre at it, try turning it off for social media for a few days. I think the sense of calm is immediately palpable. On Android you can swipe directly on push notifications to see settings to silence them.
  2. Unsubscribe religiously from email lists or mailouts you don’t want to be on, by scrolling to the bottom and clicking ‘unsubscribe’. If it doesn’t have one, use your provider’s ‘mark as spam’ option if it has one. It takes a little while to make a dent, but eventually this makes a huge difference to unwanted incoming mail.
  3. Filter anything you don’t want to pay active attention to into folders. This can sound a little intimidating but it’s very simple when you get into the swing of it. This includes things like event invites, marketing emails you do want but don’t want to read instantly, and yes, email lists. Gmail has very powerful filters for doing this. For example if you click the checkbox by an email and go to ‘filter messages like these’ in the ‘…’ dropdown, you can add ‘from:yourgroupname@googlegroups.com’, ‘skip inbox’ and ‘apply label’ to set up a custom label. It’s really that easy! you can then check once a week or whenever you have the headspace rather than getting every message.

In addition, I really reccomend using a basic ‘getting things done’ methodology3. A lot of people I know have thousands of unread messages. This can be a source of stress in itself. I think there’s little need for this with some planning and rigorous decision making. What I do is just be very strict about dealing with incoming mail.

Mine looks like this:

  1. Do I need to reply to this? If I don’t, then mark as read or delete it and forget about it.
  2. Is it something I can reply to in less than two minutes? If yes, then just reply now, don’t wait around (key to this is not checking email unless you’re willing to write a 2 minute reply).
  3. Is it something I need to reply to later? If yes, then I star it in Gmail and come back later (or the equivalent in your client).
  4. Is it something that will take a longer response? If yes, then I mark as read and put an entry in my diary for when I’ll deal with it, or add it to a todo list of emails to send.

It might sound a lot, but if you follow these steps your inbox volume will pretty quickly come down, as well as your perception of how much (or little) work you’re actually getting done.

Tips on group emails

With these steps taken, group emails will seem a lot less intimidating. They do raise their own challenges though. You don’t want to put off anyone from emailing if they have something to say (especially quieter members), but you also don’t want them to devolve into instant-message style chat.

Here’s some tips:

  1. Personally I think it’s best if each email covers exactly one topic that is stated in the ‘subject’ line. For example: minutes from a meeting, an article to read, arranging the next meeting, or a specific piece of research. I understand that this results in a higher number of emails but it makes it easier to decide which ones you don’t want to read at all. Having 50+ emails with the same title means that it’s very hard to tell apart what’s being discussed.
  2. Does the reply you’re sending need to go to the whole list or a smaller group? Have a think before replying just who is in the ‘to’ and ‘cc’ line. If you are the list admin, consider making the default response to go to the author of the email, not the list.
  3. Is it a document for discussion, such as an agenda or minutes? If so put it in a Google Doc or the like and share the link with the group. People can then put comments directly into the document rather than discussing via email.
  4. Still getting too much? Most email list software supports ‘digest’ mode that will email every message once a day. Alternatively you can turn off receiving emails entirely and just read all the emails a web forum if your email list provider supports it.

Email lists are by far the best method of communication for small groups, but require a little work on behalf of group members to be most effective. We spend an enormous about of time and energy sending emails nowadays. Taking a few minutes (or even an hour) to sort out your inbox will pay huge returns in workload and stress. Let us know if you have any other tips over on Twitter!

  1. The only reason historians and archivists know that some groups have existed at all is because they published minutes. 

  2. Psychologists warn constant email notifications are ‘toxic source of stress’, Daily Telegraph, 2016 

  3. A popular time management methodology, a Google or Youtube search has loads of takes on it such as this one