Bill McCloskey

Serial Entrepreneur
7 minutes reading time (1466 words)

How to Build an Email-based Community

"There is an old saying that Email was the first Social Network. But for all the discussions about building community, increasing Facebook Likes, driving people to your online “forum”, and building your Twitter following, nothing is said about one of the oldest technologies on the web, the simple Listserv."

There is an old saying that Email was the first Social Network. But for all the discussions about building community, increasing Facebook Likes, driving people to your online “forum”, and building your Twitter following, nothing is said about one of the oldest technologies on the web, the simple Listserv. For the last 12 years, I have built a vibrant community using just this simple tool. And in that 12 years, I am constantly amazed at how powerful the email channel is for building strong, engaged communities. 

So what is a Listserv? 

A listserv, like the old Mailman software, used to be the main way that communities were built at the dawn of the Internet era. You would “subscribe” to the list and you would post your comments to an email address. Once sent, the email goes out to everyone who is also subscribed, and any responses are also sent out to everyone on the list. It is the ultimate “push” channel with discussions going on in “real-time” and landing in your inbox as they happen. This gives a sense of urgency and immediacy to the posts that is missing when members are required to go to a website to view the latest discussions. 

So how do you begin to build your Email Community. In this article, I will outline exactly how I built Only Influencers into one of the top communities for email marketers using only a simple Listserv to do it. 

Step One: Take advantage of dissatisfaction and crank up the exclusivity. 

The first stage of building a vibrant community is to be actively involved in other communities. Build strong name recognition within that community and be aware of opportunities where you can syphon off some of the community’s like-minded contributors into your own community. As an example, my first listserv community was called The One Hundred Club. I had been actively involved with a community of Old-Timers in the internet advertising community and I was one of their top posters.  I had a high level of name recognition and had built a level of trust with the membership. My opportunity came when the ownership of that community changed hands. The new owner antagonized a number of the community members, including myself, so I launched The One Hundred Club, a private invitation only listserv limited to only 100 people. Within 24 hours of announcing, I had 100 of the top and most influential members of the old community who jumped ship and joined my much more exclusive “club”.  I was able to leverage both my own name recognition, the dissatisfaction with the direction of the old community, and the cache that comes with limiting the membership to a small core group. 

Laying the Tracks and Priming the Pump

Okay, so you have your community together. How do you get people to start posting and get actively engaged in your community? The method that worked for me, and which has worked for many closed communities from the Amish to the Scientologists: fear of expulsion.  I made a rule that you had to post something significant to the list at least once a month or be purged from the community. Because my community was limited to 100 people, the only way new members came on board is if someone else left. My members knew there was a waiting list of people ready to take their place, so the fear that they would be removed generated a lot of list content. Of course, this only works if you aren’t monetizing the list through membership fees. It is hard to force someone to post when they are paying you a monthly fee. So how do you make that transition from “free” to “paid”? Here is how: 

1. Wait 

That is right: you just wait. You wait until your community becomes an integral part of your members lives. In my case, I waited 7 years. After I launched The One Hundred Club, I became involved in the Email Industry when I founded eDataSource. The One Hundred Club, as a result, became The Inbox Insiders club. And over the years, it grew into a powerful insiders forum. Key to building it was, again, maintaining a high degree of exclusivity. When you are a community manager, your number one job is the “curation” of the members. It requires being incredibly selective on who you bring into your community. The Inbox Insiders was run like the movie Fight Club: the first rule of the Inbox Insiders was that you don’t talk about the Inbox Insiders. I kept it deliberately below the radar. Those who knew about it, heard about it only through word of mouth, like a secret society. Over the years, the Inbox Insiders became the email marketing industry’s go-to place for private, off the grid discussions about the future of the Email Industry. As a result, a lot of business got done as well, behind the scenes.  You buy from those you know, so the intimate setting of a listserv community brought folks together transactionally as well. By 2010, the list had become so valuable to the membership and so much business was getting done, that is was an easy value prop to pay $20 a month to keep it going. When I announced the change to the paid model, I had about a 95% conversion. And even those who left often came back after a month when they realized what they were missing by not being involved in the community. 

2. Find your “Opinionators” 

After you move to a paid model, you need another way of generating posts that does not include the threat of expulsion. 20% of your list will provide 80% of the content. So key to any successful community is your “loud mouths”, curmudgeons, and people who love expressing their opinions, regardless of the consequences. I call them my Opiononators. Opinionators drive the community because people either violently agree or violently disagree with the person’s opinion. It motivates them to respond. You know you have a good Opinionator when they become the person that the rest of the community complains about the most to you. These folks are Gold to the community manager. 

3. Keep the Rules simple and easy to follow. 

Many communities fail because of “over moderation”. You need to keep your community rules simple. Some communities ban vendors from participating (this is a huge mistake). Vendors have a vested interest in getting info out there and being helpful to other members. I have a simple “no pitching” rule, but I provide lots of methods for the vendors to promote themselves including a new “Friday Pitch” email thread where members can promote their latest products and services and I created a newsletter (this very one) to help them promote their webinars, speaking engagements, and press releases.  I also try and not get involved with the discussions, even when they are heated. I will occasionally  send a reminder to “be civil” but for the most part, I let the discussions go where they will. 

4. Give more back than you receive. 

Part of the success of Only Influencers is that I try to over deliver on what the member gets for their $20 a month. This includes being a mentor to some of the younger members, a sounding board for members that are dealing with a personal crises, being a middleman connecting members to each other, helping them find new jobs if they are laid off, and basically making myself available to the membership 24 hours a day. And a big part of that is your personal devotion to your membership. They expect me to only let the best people into the community, to be there for them in good times and bad, and to help them in their career and I take that responsibility dead serious. My members know that they can count on me to be there for them anytime they need it. They trust that I will keep everything they tell me confidential. It all comes down to trust. If your members trust you and know that you are dedicated to their personal success, your community will thrive, grow, and most importantly have a huge impact on the industry you work in. 

And finally remember this before heading down the path of community manager: the job of a community manger is more a “calling” then a job. You life WILL be subsumed by your members. And, personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 



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Thursday, 26 May 2022