A community of technology community managers, leaders, and builders.

The problem(s) with email lists (and how I'm helping solve them)

@jonobacon asked me to expand on this bit of discussion from Use of Discourse for the Community, and share what my partner and I are up to with GroupBuzz.

Hopefully, this is a bit more of a personal story about problems that you can relate to, vs. a sales pitch for GroupBuzz.

Quickly, I’m new to the CLS community, and I’ve been following along here since Jono first announced this forum. I’ve been enjoying following along with the discussions here so far, and I’m psyched for my first CLS in a couple of weeks. :smile: You can find out a bit more about me from my intro, here.

While I have a background in technology and web development, my career took a shift when I started getting involved in coworking, and the related elements of community building. Unlike many coworking spaces - who lease some commercial space, set up desks, and start charging for monthly memberships - Indy Hall started in 2006 from my own personal efforts to build a community of creative professionals in Philadelphia, something that we were lacking pretty severely in 2005/06. We built a club before we built a clubhouse, and that action (and mindset) has proven even more valuable as we’ve grown.

We used an email discussion list - Google Groups at the time - so that our “club” could talk in between meetups and gatherings, to let each other know about things going on, to ask questions and help each other out. Google Groups was pretty confusing for less technical people, and the fact that it required a Google address was a a non-starter for some people in our community. At the time, Google Groups was also having major issues with spam, and we were forced to make the decision to manually moderate every message on our list in order to keep the spam out.

When we opened the coworking space a year later, we had a lot more conversation going on and it we wanted a bit more control over who was getting important messages.

We actually switched to Basecamp (now Basecamp Classic), of all things! We didn’t really use any of the features other than messaging. Even though it was a bit clunky to check a couple of boxes so that everyone got an email notification about a new message, people generally had a much easier time understanding how to use it than Google Groups. People really loved the built in member directory, too.

Basecamp worked surprisingly well for us when we had 20 members. It even worked pretty well when we were 75-100 members. But it started to get pretty gnarly, fast. Basecamp’s email notifications did allow reply-from-email, but their formatting was…excessive. The footer of every message included the names of EVERY recipient.

Worse, as the membership grew and the list got more activity, we noticed a much bigger problem: people started tuning out posts to our list. Members would find out about events too late (or not at all). Conversations would happen out of band from people who would definitely have something contribute. It got to the point that we’d worry about busy days on the list because we knew that it would drive some people to create a filter or unsubscribe.

Not because they didn’t want to know what was going on in the community, but because they couldn’t handle the amount of email coming from the list. They always told us “I WANT to follow the list, but it’s just too much email, I can’t deal with it.”

Meanwhile, we know that without email, “forums” and other similar setups are out of sight, out of mind. A forum needs to have a pretty high level of activity before members start building the habit of “check back here often to see something new”.

I spent quite a bit of time researching other platforms - every email list tool & every forum platform I could find. I don’t think I need to tell this community how frustrating this search is. Everything is a copy of everything else’s sucky “features”, and none of them actually solve the problems that are inherent to groups having discussions online. Discourse was the first contender that I saw that actually thought about problems besides getting messages to people, but after a few months of testing with our community, it turned out to have the same problems as forums (mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind).

We had been using Basecamp like a Forum that behaved a bit more like an email list, but what I really wanted was an email list that behaved a bit more like a forum

Oh, and Basecamp had ONE feature that made it hard to leave:

This little link was buried down below the giant wall-o-names, but it made it possible for our members to unsubscribe from a single message instead of the entire list. We did our best to teach members about this feature when introducing them to the list, and it actually helped curb our overall unsubscribe issue a fair bit.

But this was backwards. We really wanted to be respectful of our members’ inboxes, so that they could know about new topics being discussed without feeling all of the overwhelm of getting every message*. What if we had a mailing list where threads were opt-IN by default, not opt-OUT?

Last spring, I was catching up with my friend Brady Pauly at our annual bootstrapped product biz conference here in Philadelphia. I remembered that Brad had been working on a fix for the problems he’d found and experienced with email lists. I nearly begged him to show me what he had built, and he finally let me see it. He was calling it GroupBuzz.

GroupBuzz was “email-first”, so once invited, you didn’t NEED to log into anything in order to start new threads, reply, etc. The emails behaved just like the lists that people are used to.

But the web UI that Brad had built wasn’t an afterthought, either. Every message easily linked back into the web, and you could fully interact with the list from there as well. The “archive” of this list felt more like a forum than a rudimentary backup of the discussion.

The only thing missing was the out-in/opt-out workflow that I had sketched out. I explained how I thought this could work to Brad, and he got it instantly.

We rolled a beta out to Indy Hall. First, about 20 people who were willing to “bang on things and see what breaks”. Then the rest of our list (~200 people at the time). Even though it was a little rough around some edges, our members quickly fell in love with it.

After a couple of iterations, our emails looked like this:

Note the “+ Follow” button in the top right. That’s where our magic begins :smile:

By default, all new members are set on our “Inbox Saver” mode. This means that they get an email any time a new thread is started - but that’s the last email they get about that thread. UNLESS they click that little follow link, which subscribes them to that thread’s comments.

We also auto-follow a thread once you reply to it.

Once you’re following a thread, that button turns into a “Mute” button:

Even though Gmail has a “mute” feature, it’s hidden (keyboard shortcut only) and most people don’t know about it. I’ve also found that with some discussion lists, certain threads don’t properly mute. Who the heck knows why!

Our mute button is “first class”, doesn’t require any special plugins or teaching people a keyboard shortcut. It’s prominently displayed in every message, so it’s always handy.

And people love it. Best of all, those members who used to “tune out” started telling how much less overwhelming GroupBuzz made it to feel like they were a part of the list. Winning those people back was a HUGE win for us.

Wanna use GroupBuzz like a “normal” list? Can do!

For list mods, and people who are used to/less protective of their inbox, we have a “Classic Email List” mode. This means that by default, you get every message from every thread in your inbox…but we still give you that handy mute button.

"Stay out of my inbox!" Okay, you can do that too.

About 10% of all active GroupBuzz users choose to opt out of email threads entirely, only getting notifications about something specific to them. We’ve talked to a good number of them, and they tell us that they really like just using GroupBuzz from the web, and leave it open in a tab or have a habit for checking on some regular basis.

Finally, why do all digests suck so much?

Most digests aren’t really that useful. All they do is tell you “stuff happened”, without any context. Threads get broken. It’s nearly impossible to see what actually happened.

Our digests are a work in progress, but we’ve focused on solving a few of the key problems:

  • What belongs in the digest email’s subject? - What do you call the subject of a digest email so that it entices people to open it? Even our first version of our digest subjects totally sucked.

  • What the heck do you show? The latest post? That often leaves the reader confused about the context.

This post is getting long, so I’ll link you to the blog post that I wrote when we introduced our new Digests.

Since we launched to Indy Hall last year, Brad and I have partnered to translate more of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years as a community builder into great software for other communities and community builders.

We’ve also built out the web UI even more to include:

  • Full search-ability (discussions and members).

  • Mentions. (which sends an email to someone ONLY if they weren’t already going to get that message based on their subscription settings)

  • A member directory, visible to all active members. And member profile pages, too.

Friendly on mobile, Accesible too!

Cuz “Mobile Rules Everything Around Me”. Our emails all reformat nicely for mobile view, and the web app is responsive too.

We also had the benefit of one of our community members being legally blind AND an accessibility consultant. It turns out that many forums and email lists are barely usable through screen readers. Austin has given us some very helpful feedback for making sure that GroupBuzz plays nicely with screen readers.

Best of all, these tools are already helping other communities around the world solve the same problems that we had. :slight_smile:

Questions? Sympathies? Ideas? Praise? I’m psyched to hear what you think!

Cool stuff! Is there any interactive public demo available that people can try out?

@downey not yet, unfortunately. That’s definitely something we plan to do, but it’s a tricky thing to demo because the real “feeling” of GroupBuzz is tough to get when GroupBuzz is static. You really need to experience a real community coursing through it’s veins :smile:

I use the Indy Hall community itself during our personalized demos (like I do in most of our screenshots). I plan to do a screencast version of that pretty soon!

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Cool. The screenshots look interesting, a video would be even more insightful. :smile:

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This is a cool idea. Any plans to offer free discussion forums for non-profit orgs/projects? Or any plans to open source some version of the code so people can self-host?

@nslater - right now our leading cost is that we outsource email for deliverability (and cuz running a mail server sucks), but those costs also make it next to impossible to give away GroupBuzz accounts.

It’s obvious to us that there are mutual benefits to being able to support/sponsor certain communities, so it’s something we’re thinking about but don’t have specific plans for yet. :smile:

Thanks to for being the kind sponsor for this forum!