Higher Logic Blog

Online Community SmackDown: Forums vs. Listservs

Written by Paul Schneider | March 15, 2011 at 12:11 PM

When Associations Have to Choose, It's Their Members That Lose.

There has been a debate brewing for several years over whether forums or listserv are more effective in engaging members of an association. In the past, the discussion has even been framed as listservs vs. private member communities. However, this is not an accurate way to help associations make member engagement technology decisions. Online community software designed for mid-sized and large associations should have both forum and listserv functionality built-in to allow organizations to engage members in their private community using the methods that their members are most comfortable with.

Ironically, many who are strongly anti-forum or anti-listserv,  regardless of specific organizational goals or member preferences, work for software companies where their product is missing the feature they are opposed to. The following is a common sense discussion of why association executives should not dismiss forums or listservs in their member engagement strategy.

What Are the Major Differences Between an Online Forum and a Listserv?

At first, the differences may seem minor, but the limitations that membership managers face are significant when one or the other is missing from their community toolkit.

  Online Forums LISTSERVs
Access Online behind the members-only login Email client or mobile phone
Email Capabilities Notifications with web links Post and reply via email
Searchable? Yes No
Digests/ Summaries? No Yes

What Does the Data Tell Us?

Important data from the latest Marketing General Association Benchmarking Report reveals that, despite all of the new tools, sites and functionality available to members and associations today, association executives still view listservs as providing the most value.

"While Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are the most commonly used social media tools, they are not necessarily considered the most effective in reaching membership goals by association executives. In fact, the most effective social networking tools are considered to be those that are basically housed within the association itself, namely the association listserv (50%) and/or a private association social network (39%)."

Smart associations don't drop their listserv when they launch an online member community. They integrate their listserv with their online community and port the historical data into the new system to seed the discussion in their forums and maintain a usable archive of past activity.

Do Your Members Prefer a Listserv or an Online Forum?

You'll often hear that email is dead or that younger members prefer online forums to listservs. In reality, broad generalizations can't be made about which channel your members will prefer. Are your members away from a computer all day? Are they busy medical professionals whose online access mainly comes through their phone? Are they accustomed to using one or the other? All of these are important questions which can only be answered by your specific organization.

Why Can't Associations Have One System That Does Both?

The value of having forums synched with listservs in your private member community is profound. Users get the best of both worlds. Since integrated listservs and forums are merely an extension of one another, it is rare that an organization would not benefit from using both.

Listservs foster communication since members don't have to do anything more than open their email to participate in the discussion. They also promote online community adoption since all listserv activity shows up in your online community forums. However, listservs are hard to search across, so having them synched with forums enables members to find information across the all discussions, blogs, wikis, and file libraries from within your private member community. Members derive significant value when they can participate in discussions at all levels of the organization - chapters, committees and general membership - and access their membership information all in one place.

In addition, listservs offer a great way to market some of the new features of your online community to your members. If members value the discussions and are using your listservs, send notifications and reminders through the lists highlighting the additional features they can take advantage of in the online community. We continue to see organizations increase member engagement with their new private member communities. Sometimes initial online community success, stems from something as simple as having a good way to remind members of the value that the online community can offer.

Having your listservs synch with your online member community also establishes an active communication channel that membership marketers can use to promote important organizational messages. If you think about it from a member engagement strategy perspective, what membership manager wouldn't want an email going out to the membership daily that they can use to highlight helpful content or marketing messages?

So before you turn off your listservs to accommodate new member community software, remember that you are not limited to choosing either forums or listservs. Take a moment to review you member engagement strategy, talk to your members, and look at your options. You may be surprised by the member-centric technology that is available to you.