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Mailing-List Management

I recently took on a new job: Webmaster for my local Rotary Club. The most pressing need has been finding an easy way to set up and manage a mailing list for members. Currently, the club officers use a humongous personal distribution list (DL) in Outlook, but keeping it up to date is a nightmare. So I've been exploring list-management solutions for use with Exchange Server. My goals are simple: provide a way for members to communicate via email, with as much automation (i.e., as little work for me) as possible. Spam protection and security are important because many Rotarians are fairly nontechnical. Low cost is also desirable.

First, the obvious approach: build a query-based distribution group (DG). This solution is easily accomplished by creating an organization unit (OU) for the club, then creating an Active Directory (AD) contact for each member and supplying the correct external SMTP address for each contact. No third-party software is necessary and I can easily use a script to create the contacts. However, this solution requires me to do all the administrative work of maintaining the contacts (e.g., adding and removing members, updating email addresses)—a grim prospect for a 125-member club. And although it isn't a problem in my case, if I were using this approach in a business setting, it would be hard to comply with the US CAN-SPAM law, which requires a variety of opt-out procedures that I'd have to implement manually.

Second, I thought about outsourcing the problem. Services such as Topica and Yahoo! Groups offer mailing-list services that provide friendly front ends that make it easy for end users to subscribe or unsubscribe. Some services offer both free, advertisement-supported lists and advertisement-free lists that you have to pay for; others are strictly pay-to-play. These services have the advantage of low administrative overhead, but I didn't think my target audience would react well to ads and I didn't think the ongoing cost of the ad-free solutions would fly well with the board of directors.

Next stop: commercial solutions. GFI Software's GFI MailEssentials for Exchange/SMTP, for example, includes a list server. ReddFish intergalactic's Ikakura has been around for a while. Lyris Technologies' ListManager is probably the best-known Windows-based list server. Such solutions are probably the best bet for commercial use, but none of them fell within my limited budget, and I really didn't need all the features they offered.

The final option I came up with was a Linux or UNIX-based solution such as the venerable Majordomo or LISTSERV packages. However, I don't have any dedicated UNIX servers (I just have a bunch of virtual machines), and these programs have a reputation—deserved or otherwise—for being somewhat finicky. With three young sons, the last thing I want is one more finicky thing to manage.

In the end, I went with the solution that offered the best balance between automation and cost: the query-based DG and AD contacts. For now, I have to manage members manually, but by year's end we'll have moved to Rotary International's new membership database, which can provide feeds of all the information I need to automatically update the DL. Of course, my situation involves a nonprofit with a relatively small and static membership set. If I were using this solution in a commercial environment, I'd probably want to use a product such as Imanami's WebDir to ease the hassle of managing contact data. For a full-fledged public list server, one of the commercial or hosted solutions would probably make more sense.

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