Get your message across with these e-mail list services

You've added a hot new product or spankin' new service to your offerings, and you want your customers to know about it. Or perhaps you want to make sure your customers don't forget you as they keep an ever-closer watch on their dollars. Either way, e-mail is the best way to stay in touch.

You've added a hot new product or spankin' new service to your offerings, and you want your customers to know about it. Or perhaps you want to make sure your customers don't forget you as they keep an ever-closer watch on their dollars.

Either way, e-mail is the best way to stay in touch. Businesses frequently put links or buttons on their Web sites that take customers to a simple survey, then sign them up to an e-mail mailing list. Those businesses reach out to these "opt-in" customers, so called because the customer decides whether to accept your electronic newsletters, regular sale messages, and new product notices. (For some first-rate advice about the creative side of e-mail publishing, check out "8 Secrets of Winning E-mail Newsletters" on ZDNet.)

But managing these e-mails sent to opt-in subscribers means more than just banging out 100 addresses and sending messages with Outlook. You'll want to easily add and remove people from the list, connect the list with your Web site so you can collect basic demographic data, and make sure that invalid addresses are removed from the list. To do this, you need a mail list management tool.

Until about two weeks ago, some 90,000 users were relying on ListBot, a free mail list hosting service owned by Microsoft. Then Microsoft announced it was pulling the plug, giving small businesses until August 6 to scramble for a new solution.

I was thinking of these businesses, as well as all those that don't yet have an e-mail list, but want one, when I started searching for ListBot substitutes. There are scads of e-mail list hosting services and software programs, including the venerable (but expensive) Listserv. But there are other e-mail list services that fit the needs of smaller shops--ones that are affordable yet powerful, but not so complicated that they scare away tech-starved small business owners. I found three that fit the bill.

Stay free

Free e-mail list management got knocked to the canvas when Microsoft gave up on ListBot. But that doesn't mean the free deal is down for the count. There are still freebie services out there suitable for some small businesses.

Take Topica. After Yahoo! purchased eGroups (which morphed into Yahoo Groups, and is now unsuitable for small biz), Topica is the best remaining freebie service. But don't bother unless you operate a non-profit with more moxie than money, or a small business owner tighter with a buck than Scrooge McDuck.

The main reason why I'm not a believer in free list management from Topica is that your e-mail messages are plastered with advertisements, both for other lists and for advertisers who have paid Topica. Although you can specify that those advertisements be text-only (as opposed to graphical ads in HTML format), you have no control over where they appear in your message, and little control over what kinds of advertisers appear. That's unacceptable to most businesses.

On the plus side, Topica's chock full of administrative options that make it easy to manage your e-mail list. You can send mail either via the Topica Web site, or through your preferred e-mail client--with the latter you can attach a file (your monthly sales brochure, for instance) to outbound messages. Topica also generates the HTML code needed to put a subscription button on your Web site; lets you import lists from other services (but not from e-mail client address books); and it protects you against list bombing by requiring subscription requests.

Unfortunately, Topica doesn't include any demographic features, so there's no way to poll preferences or collect information that might make it easier to sell customers on your business. If you want those kinds of features, you have to head to a full-service application service provider (ASP) to host your e-mail publishing efforts. I'll name my small business favorite in the next section.

Have it hosted

ListBot's loss is List Builder's gain. Microsoft axed the former (which is free) because it's shoving users toward the latter (which charges a monthly fee).

List Builder, one of the e-marketing services offered by Microsoft's bCentral site, is a hosted e-mail list manager aimed at small and mid-sized businesses. For a monthly fee you get tools to help you create, maintain, and grow your e-mail marketing and sales.

When you sign up for bCentral's Traffic Builder US$20 per month package (or US$180 annually), the included List Builder lets you pump out as many as 1,000 messages a month. For US$30 a month (US$270 a year), you can swamp your list with up to 10,000 messages a month. Other pricing plans are available, including on-the-fly increases to your monthly message limit.

I think Traffic Builder is the right buy for most super-small businesses and sole proprietorships. List Builder handles all the scut work of managing the list, so you can concentrate on the creative part of the process: creating the newsletter content and design, or producing product pitches. You can import addresses from an existing list or e-mail client address books, add one of three different types of sign-up buttons on your Web site (List Builder spits out the necessary HTML code), and send either HTML or text messages. Builder also provides the basics for producing and analyzing demographic surveys, so you can ask customers a bit about themselves, then use that info to target the e-mail or newsletters you regularly publish.

For business owners who detest the idea of forking over money every month, there's another option: specialized software cheap enough for small business. I tackle that next.

Rather than pay every month for List Builder or suffer the ad indignities of Topica, you can pay the piper just once and run your e-mail list with software such as Group Mail.

This shareware program comes in three editions: Free, Pro, and Plus. The first is a free download, and comes with one big limitation: you can send to only 100 recipients at a time, so you may have to break up your newsletter list into several, separate lists, making management a bit of a hassle. The Pro and Plus versions cost $50 and $150, respectively. They offer advanced features such as direct sending (which cuts your ISP's mail server out of the loop--handy when the provider forbids mass mailings, as many do) and background sending, and do not limit the number of recipients. For most small businesses, the lower-priced Group Mail Pro is the best buy.

Trade-offs, of course, are inevitable. Software-based list management usually doesn't include conveniences found at e-mail publishing ASPs, such as automated additions and removals to and from lists. (A plug-in for Group Mail Pro and Plus adds this feature, but it's confusing to the list neophyte.) Also, low-end list management programs like Group Mail do not provide demographic features or reporting tools that help you analyze subscriptions. And software that relies on your ISP's mail server to handle the outbound load (which can be substantial) is asking for trouble--if your ISP clamps down on traffic, your list is dead. For that reason, Group Mail Free is suitable only for businesses with very small lists (under 100) that e-mail infrequently.

Unless you're the do-it-yourself type with time on your hands, I recommend an ASP like List Builder as the right replacement for ListBot, and the smart move for anyone venturing into e-mail publishing for the first time.