Which is Best? Email Listserv Software vs. Discussion Forum Software vs. Both

Community Strategy // You can help your customers become more successful with your products or services. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of listserv and forum software.

Joshua Paul
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Have you seen the Windows Phone commercial where the iPhone and Android fans rumble at a wedding?

If you put the commercial into a social business context, the fan boys (and girls) from each sides could easily be replaced by the advocates for online forums and listserv software.

While the fans of each of these technologies are a little less passionate and sure that their solution is the greatest innovation since the Internet than the mobile phone example, advocates and detractors on either side of the online customer forum vs. listserv software debate have a long history.

As with any technology debate, people with an interest on one side are some of the most vocal players in the debate. At an “educational” session at a recent conference that I attended, I heard an online community software company that does not include a listserv feature, try to convince the audience that email listservs represent old technology and are for companies stuck in the 80’s.

On the flip side, I recently fielded a call from a 40,000 member association that had thriving listservs and dropped them to go exclusively with online discussion forums. It wasn’t long before they saw a big drop in engagement and customer satisfaction. Now, the executive director swears by listserv software and wants it back as soon as possible.

There are strong voices on both sides of this customer engagement question. There is also a less-talked-about segment of the population that uses a combined listserv/discussion forum solution.

In the following article, you’ll learn about the advantages and disadvantages of listserv and forum software. You’ll also find out why using an integrated platform is right for some organizations.

How Did Listservs Evolve?

Listservs have been around for quite some time. In fact, the story of LISTSERV begins in 1986 when Eric Thomas, an engineering student in Paris, developed a software program to automate the management of email lists.

Before this, all lists had to be administered manually, which was so cumbersome and time-consuming that it threatened the viability of group email communication altogether.

Eric Thomas’s email list management program turned out to be a huge success and became known as LISTSERV. (from LSOFT) Listservs became a primary way for multiple people or entire organizations, typically geographically dispersed, to communicate.

The History of Online Customer Forums

The modern forum originated from bulletin boards and is an evolution of the dial-up bulletin board system. From a technological standpoint, discussion forums or boards are web applications managing user-generated content in the form of discussion threads.

Early Internet forums could be described as a web version of an electronic mailing list or newsgroup (such as those that exist on Usenet); allowing people to post messages and comment on other messages.

The Yin and Yang of Listserv Software vs. Discussion Board Software

Each of these systems has their pros and their cons. For example, listservs tend to generate more communication because the user interacts with the listserv from their email, a place they already are every day and have a high degree of comfort with.

However, one problem with listservs is that if you ever want to go back and search across past discussions, it is a hard thing to do. Forums on the other hand do give you the ability to search across past discussions rather easily. However, they don’t tend to generate the same high volume of activity since users need to login to a site, spend time browsing the forums, and then respond online.

Should You Shut Down Your listserv?

About 3-4 years ago, there was a movement by many social media consultants and gurus to move people off of listservs because it was “old technology” to more “social” forums.

Many companies and organizations took the bait. They moved and saw their discussion traffic plummet. They found that people liked the listservs because they were convenient and easy to use.

People are busy. If you make something more complicated that it needs to be, like only being able to access the discussions by logging into an online portal, they tend to use it less.

Combined Listserv and Discussion Forum Software

These days, we speak to roughly one organization a week that moved from listservs, saw their social activity and discussions dwindle, and now want that functionality back, but with a twist.

Most organizations are looking for the convenience of listservs with the searching capability and other online community features of online forums. Integrating both of these features together can deliver a much more effective and accessible customer experience.

For daily discussions, the listservs are an easy way for customers or members to see what people are saying and participate in the discussion right from their email. However, when they want to reference a past discussion or search for an answer to a question in past discussions, the online forums can’t be beat.

For many organizations, offering combined forums and listservs to their customers or members is driving an increase in their online engagement and adoption by customers or members.

Listserv vs. Online Forum Takeaway

As you considering creating an online customer or member community, one of the top things that you can do to help your customers become more successful with your products, services, or membership is to help them ask questions and get answers from their peers. Make sure the method you provide for them to do that fosters communication. The solution could be a listserv, it may be a forum, but I am guessing it will be both.


Joshua Paul

Chief Executive Officer, Pipeline Ops

Josh has over 18 years of hands-on and executive marketing experience helping companies systematically increase revenue through measurable marketing and sales strategies. Prior to becoming CEO at Pipeline Ops, Josh held a variety of senior product management and marketing roles at technology companies. When he is not working, Josh enjoys building businesses, sailing, and spending time with his wife and children.

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