Suggestions for Managing Mailing List Discussions

by Philip Bogdonoff



The following suggestions were written for individuals or groups conducting short-term (one to six months in duration) "conferences" via electronic mailing lists (either LISTSERV or Majordomo). Some of the suggestions may be useful for longer-term discussions, also.


Suggested preparatory steps:

- Invite a group of people to be "facilitators" or to become part of a "steering committee" that oversees the mailing list. Part of their responsibilities would be to help you do some of the behind the scenes leg-work. You can also ask them to help prepare one or more of the executive summaries or digests (see below).

- Prepare a number of items to post to the mailing list very soon after it starts, to establish guidelines and suggestions for using the mailing list (see sample "Guidelines" below), to set the tone of participation, and to spark discussion. (Often these guidelines are prepared in the form of questions and answers and called "FAQs" -- Frequently Asked Questions.)

- If you are going to moderate the mailing list and partition the discussion into separate focus areas, establish a set of subject field prefixes that you and others can use to indicate which focus area a message addresses.

For example,

           Subject:  ORGROLE: On the Role of Organizations
Subject: PRIVROLE: The Role of the Private Sector
Subject: GOVROLE: The Role of Government
Subject: IMPLICATIONS: Implications for Dev'g Countries

You could ask readers to use the prefixes when they send a message to help you do your sorting. You in turn could insure that any messages you forward or post to the whole mailing list would use the same prefixes. This is a simple technique to use to partition the discussion so that only those who are interested in the named focus area need read the those messages.


Important to do at the very beginning:

(Note: If most your mailing list participants already receive a lot of e-mail, you may need to limit how often you do some of the following suggestions.)

- Post reports regularly. Help people develop the habit of checking their e-mail daily by posting regular reports to the mailing list yourself, even if very brief ones. The brief reports will act as a "backbone" or "skeleton" to which others can add flesh. If people know there will always be something to read, they will have an incentive to log on and read their mail regularly. The more often they read the more they will feel a part of the discussion and the more likely they will be to contribute. (This suggestion is for encouraging those that don't already have so much e-mail that they must read it daily to keep up!).

- Invite people to post personal items -- their biographies, brief stories, what they hope to achieve by communicating on-line, what they hope to achieve at the conference, etc. These will help build community and lend a more personal flavor to the mailing list. This in turn creates an environment more conducive to discussion. Invite everyone publicly (i.e., by sending a message to the whole mailing list), and also by e-mailing notes to each individual on the mailing list privately. People like to read personal items and this will help you build and sustain the readership of the mailing list. (To the extent you can encourage an informal, relaxed atmosphere on the mailing list, you will increase participation in the discussions.)

- Invite readers to "sign in", i.e., announce that they are now subscribed to the mailing list by posting a message to that effect and giving their name, title, organization, etc.

- Use "behind-the-scenes" encouragement, especially at the very start, to get the discussion going, to keep key people involved, and later, if necessary, to remind people to be sensitive to others and to try to keep the tone of their responses positive.

- Ask people who are already on-line to encourage others to sign-on.

- "Seed" the discussion with some items you have prepared (ghost-written or commissioned) beforehand. Get the discussion/debate going early on so new readers will find interesting items to which they can respond.

- You may also want to fax the summaries and digests (or even some of the messages) to those who are not on-line (as an inducement to get on-line, or as a way to participate for those who will not be able to get on-line).


On-going and other suggestions:

- Give positive feedback to participants often. You can decide whether to do so publicly via the whole mailing list, or individually via private e-mail. A little appreciation will encourage people to continue participating.

- Subsidize some peoples' participation. Some in developing countries must pay the equivalent of US$1.00 to transmit or receive (!) 2000 characters. (2000 characters is about 1.5 screenfuls of text.) I.e., if you e-mail them a lengthy message, it may cost them $5 to $10 just to receive it. If you have people in this situation who you would like to participate in the discussion, you may have to subsidize their telecomm budget in order for them to do so. (Also see the suggestion for reducing costs below.)

- Prepare and post executive summaries of the each week's discussion. Those who don't have time to read everything will appreciate being able to stay abreast of what is happening. Also, you can use your editorial license in the summaries to highlight important points that may have been lost in the fray of the discussion and to help steer the discussion back on track, or invite people to address new topics. This can be a powerful, yet subtle tool for managing the discussion.

- Invite one or two people to prepare digests of the previous week's discussion (these would be longer than the executive summaries, and would attempt to weave together all the threads of the discussion). If you invite more than one person to prepare a summary, you will increase the likelihood of getting something you can post, and if you get more than one, so much the better -- different viewpoints will be represented. Have these digest be signed (give recognition to those who help.) These digests will also be useful if you decide to prepare a summary of the on-line discussion for those who attend the conference who may not have been able to get on-line.


A Note About "Conferencing" Software

Please note that there are better tools for conducting on-line conferences than mailing lists. Many on-line services offer private "forums" or "newsgroups" that can be used for sharing and dicussing information. The better electronic conferencing software enables multi-level discussions to be conducted on-line, with conversations organized by topic (sometimes called "threads"), with automatic archiving so that it is easy to refer to, call up, or quote previous messages. The software also minimizes message transmission and storage costs since only one message needs to be sent to each system using the software, and only one copy needs to be stored no matter how many readers may be on that system. The software keeps track of who has read the message and lets each reader know when they have "new or unread" messages. Some systems also allow you to attach e-mail addresses and fax numbers to the newsgroup, so that those who may not subscribe to the same on-line service, or who may not have e-mail, may also participate.


Suggestions to Overcome Mailing List Limitations

If you are already committed to using mailing lists, two two steps may be taken to overcome some of the limitations of the mailing list format:

  1. Establish at least one additional mailing list, to which you will only post the executive summaries and perhaps the digests. Thus, readers who do not have the time or patience to read all of the discussion will still be able to subscribe to something that will provide the gist of the discussion. A second list also will give them a choice and let them feel like they have some control over the amount of information they receive. For some, this will be very important.
  2. If you do have potential participants in countries for whom cost is an obstacle to their participation (as mentioned above), you may be able to save expenses by having a local system in that country subscribe to the mailing list and then locally re-distribute the messages or put the messages into a local forum/newsgroups. In this way the cost can be minimized and the readers in that country will have access to the discussion.

A Few Final Suggestions

  1. Ask people what they need to participate on-line and then be prepared to work with them to help meet their needs.
  2. Give people choices about how they can participate and the amount of information they receive.
  3. Balance participation between North/South, developed/developing, men/women, etc.

Sample "Guidelines for Posting"

Here is a sample "Guidelines for Posting" document that you can send to those who are new to using e-mail for discussions. Adapt as you wish:

Guidelines for Posting Messages to the
[name] Conference Mailing List

* Use a non-proportional (i.e., fixed-width) font and no more than 65 characters per line when you compose your messages. This is because mailing list e-mail does not support proportional fonts -- if you use proportional fonts your lines will be reformatted when you send your message, often to ill effect. (The Courier 10 font is recommended.) For the same reason, use spaces instead of tabs when you need to indent or prepare a table. Tabs are not treated the same on every computer system -- some systems replace them with 5 spaces, some with 8, some align them with local tab settings, etc.

* Make your subject field informative. Choose the words in your subject so that someone reading only the subject line has a good sense of what your message is about. Also, use keywords that someone using a search command weeks later might use to find your message again.

* If your message is a response to someone else's posting, it is very helpful if your subject field is the original subject line prefixed with "Re:" (many mail programs do this automatically if you "reply" to a message, but some do not. Check what yours does).

* If you reply to someone's message, excerpt a few lines (but only a few) of their message so that you keep the context of your reply present for other readers. Many mail programs allow you to easily include text from the original message and will prefix it with a special character, frequently the ">" symbol. Here is an example:

 >Can someone please provide an estimate of how much it will
 >cost to send a training team to Mozambique?

  Yes, when we sent a team from Washington, DC last August, it
  cost US$XXX.

* It is very helpful to keep each message focussed on only one topic. Send an additional message if you have an additional topic to discuss. It will help later when people want to refer to an earlier message if the messages are short and pertain to only one topic.

* If possible, provide a one- or two-line summary of your message at the very beginning so that readers pressed for time can quickly determine if they need to read your message.

* Messages that are short, well-organized, and to the point will be appreciated by all readers. Remember that most people will be reading in "screenfuls" that are about 23 lines in length. Try to put your main points -- like in a well-written newspaper article -- at the beginning of your message, within the first 23 lines. If you must write a lengthy message, consider breaking it into several postings, each of which can be read in two to five minutes.

* When you respond to someone's message, remember to respond to the idea, not necessarily to the personality or to how the message was phrased. Because the non-verbal cues of face-to-face conversation are missing in e-mail, it is very easy to misinterpret the tone of someone's message. Please try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

* If you absolutely must reply in a less-than-constructive manner to what someone has said, please do so privately. Do not reply to the whole mailing list unless you think it is absolutely necessary.

* Use "emoticons" (little icons formed from keyboard characters that are used to express emotions, and which usually are viewed by tilting your head 90 degrees to the left), such as the smiling face :-) or the frowning face :-( to indicate when you are saying something in jest or when you are unhappy, etc.


Copyright (c) 1995 Philip Bogdonoff.

Last updated: 17 July 1995.

To share your ideas or for more information, contact Philip Bogdonoff at