While the World Wide Web is the hands-down glamourpuss among the computer elite these days, one of the earliest forms of Internet communication - text-based Internet mailing lists - is getting a second look. The reason: Despite all the fanfare over Internet graphics, simple yet exquisitely efficient text communication still rules the Net.

Indeed, Internet mailing lists have grown steadily in popularity over the years due to a simple truth. Internet users are much more likely to check their e-mail everyday than use the Web everyday. Unlike the Web, the e-mail medium generally is lightning fast and very easy. And also unlike the Web, e-mail is much more personalized and fine-tuned to the needs of individuals sending and receiving messages.

Mailing lists can represent a gargantuan boon to supply houses looking to inform customers quickly about organizational changes, new staff, special deals and promotions.

One of the easiest ways to conceptualize a mailing list is to think of it as a radio station on the Web that "broadcasts" in text rather than in audio. Generally, anyone who signs up for a list can immediately begin broadcasting e-mail messages to everyone else on the list. The e-mail message is sent to a predesignated e-mail address, and the computer receiving that message automatically broadcasts it to everyone else who has signed up for the list.

A number of software packages are available that enable a business to establish a mailing list. Once you find the package best suited to your supply house, it's simply a matter of installing that package on your organization's computer and linking that computer to the Internet. Some organizations enable Net cruisers to sign up for their mailing lists directly from the company Web site. Others ask interested parties to sign up by sending an e-mail message - including a short activation command - to a predesignated e-mail address.

One caution: In keeping with Internet etiquette, you should invite potential subscribers to sign up for a mailing list, rather than begin sending to the list as if the e-mail message was any other piece of direct mail. As a group, Internet users generally turn a jaundiced eye to unsolicited e-mail.

Listing the advantages

One of the greatest advantages of a mailing list is cost. As most companies know, sending mail via the Internet is significantly less expensive than sending the same communications via the U.S. Postal Service.

Yet another advantage of mailing lists is that text-based communication can reach a wider audience. A number of people who have access to e-mail still do not have access to the Web, or they are intimidated by the Web, or they have trouble getting onto the Web on a regular basis. Offering a mailing list to this sector of Internet users includes these people who might otherwise be lost or overlooked.

Currently, mailing lists on the Net come in three flavors. Probably the most popular is the many-to-many discussion-based mailing list model delineated above. With this technology, every subscriber on a list can send and receive communications to every other subscriber on a list. A company marketing manager, for example, may use such a list to post a trial balloon on a policy change and invite discussion about the concept from all the members on the list. These members, in turn, post their reactions, which then are broadcast to every other subscriber on the list.

Somewhat less popular - the one-to-many broadcast model - enables a number of people to subscribe to a newsletter-type e-mail publication. With this model, the mailing list manager generates all of the editorial.

Highest up on the mailing list evolutionary scale is the moderated discussion list. With this list, subscribers still can post reactions to discussion. But a moderator steps in as list editor, deciding which reactions should be broadcast. A company executive might want to use such a list to solicit member reactions to a newly proposed policy but reserve the right to screen out overly negative or unconstructive criticism.

Some mailing list software packages now offer a powerful new function that enables the list manager to embed URL "hot links" in any e-mail sent out via the mailing lists. A supply house could use such "clickable" hot links, for example, to send e-mail to customers about a special promotion, and invite customers to "click" on an embedded hot link for more information.

In this sense, these URL-embedded mailing lists are like mobile Web pages that circulate the Net, enticing subscribers to "click back" to the home Web site for additional information. Huntsville, Ala.-based Revnet Systems, maker of Groupmaster mailing list software, offers the embedded hot links feature with its mailing list software.

Internally, mailing lists can be used to manage and advance projects around the office - or around the world. Indeed, it's one thing to send a carbon copy e-mail to interested parties and wait for the responses to come back disjointedly. It's quite another to be able to propose an idea and then enable everyone on a mailing list to broadcast responses to that idea for everyone else in the project group to see, analyze and comment upon further.

Listing potential dangers

Unfortunately, existing in the "anything goes" Web environment, mailing lists do pose some potential dangers to businesses. Trouble-causing hackers, for example, can theoretically subscribe (or "unsubscribe") anyone from a mailing list - although this practice is fairly rare.

More of a concern are the inevitable numbers of customers who subscribe to a mailing list only to decide some time later that they no longer desire to be on the list. Be forewarned: The best safeguard against such eventualities is to include clear and simple instructions on how to unsubscribe from your mailing list with every mailing that is sent out.

"Otherwise, a list owner will find they spend all of their time with people who don't have the foggiest notion how to get off the list," says Leonard A. Manion, CEO of Lebanon, MO.-based Quest Marketing Consultants.

Yet another danger inherent to mailing lists are "spam" marketers who steal mailing lists from unsecured Web sites and then use those lists to send junk e-mail promotions. Company executives responsible for Web site mailing lists will want to discuss such security concerns with company Web masters before launching a list.

But even with those caveats, increasing numbers of businesses and organizations in all industry categories are capitalizing on mailing lists as a ridiculously inexpensive way to reach a global audience. Apparently, the inherent benefits - the ability to reach people quickly, easily, repeatedly, intimately and relatively effortlessly - are too overwhelmingly positive to ignore.

Sidebar: Mailing list software: a sampling of packages

While scores of mailing list software packages are available, those below represent a sampling of what's on the market:

  • Groupmaster from Huntsville, Ala.-based Revnet Systems. Web: www.revnet.com; voice: 205/721-1420.

  • Listserv Classic from Landover, Md.-based L-Soft International. Web: www.lsoft.com; voice: 301/731-0440.

  • Liststar from Berkeley, Calif.-based Starnine. Web: www.starnine.com; voice: 510/649-4949.

  • Lyris from Oakland, Calif.-based Shelby Group Ltd. Web: www.lyris.com; voice: 800/768-2929.

  • Majordomo from Mountainview, Calif.-based Great Circle Associates. Web: www.greatcircle.com; voice: 800/2702562.