Update: This review was written in 2000 and is long obsolete. It is superseded by the article Free Mailing List Hosts Review: Yahoo! Groups. ListBot is now defunct, and eGroups has been bought by Yahoo! and renamed.
A few people who have read my article on How to Start Your Own Newsletter have asked me to give a review of some of the free mailing list services available.
Having used Microsoft's ListBot since 1998 as well as Onelist (now called eGroups after a merger), I guess I do have some opinions which you may find useful in deciding where you want to host your newsletter or ezine. Just a disclaimer - neither of these services are my sponsors, and the reviews result from my personal experiences which may differ from yours.
By the way, URLs for these services can be found on the Free Mailing List Hosting Services page at http://www.thefreecountry.com/webmaster/mailinglists.shtml
Without a doubt, eGroups wins hands-down against Listbot in a feature comparison. eGroups has support for calendars, file attachments, the ability to send to your group without having to log into their web server, the ability for group members to send and receive files, and a whole lot of other features. ListBot is just a simple mailing list service. You send to the list from their website. Period.
When you create your list, eGroups allows you to import up to 40 names in your email list without requiring those names to confirm via email. This is of limited utility - it is useful if you're transferring a small list there from another server. For most lists, it's probably too small to be of much use. ListBot always requires confirmation from the subscribers.
eGroups also allow customization of the footer appended to every email message. You must accept the default provided by ListBot. At the time of this writing, the latter consists only of instructions how to unsubscribe and a one line advertisement telling people to start their own list at ListBot.
ListBot has a limitation of 100KB per message, but this is not really a problem. You're not seriously going to send newsletters anywhere near that size anyway. Who has the time to read such a long message?
Both services allow your subscribers to sign up for or leave the list either via a web interface on your site, or by sending email to the list server. Both also allow you to download your entire list to your own computer (important feature - you should always back up your mailing list subscribers in case the service goes down permanently). Neither has any limitations on the number of subscribers.
eGroups actually helps you promote your list by listing it in their mailing list directory. You might be surprised to know that it actually works. For example, a year or so ago, I created a list for thefreecountry.com there as an experiment. I already had such a list hosted at ListBot, and merely created the one at eGroups (at that time OneList) just to test out the procedure. Before I could delete the list, I found out that a few people had signed up for it. Note that I never publicized this list myself - my website, at that time, pointed to the ListBot version.
At the date of this writing, ListBot does not have any directory of mailing lists it hosts, although a directory is said to be in the works. Note though that their service has been around for many years now, so it makes you wonder if this directory is ever going to materialize.
The free mailing list services naturally support themselves through advertising. Everytime you send out a newsletter through them, they'll either affix or append an advertisement.
When ListBot first started out, it used to add an advertisement at the beginning of the newsletter. However, in recent history, it actually does not add any advertisement at all, although their site warns that this is likely to change. For the time being then, Listbot has this advantage over eGroups. I suppose if you want to suppress their advertisements, you can always pay them their $99 a year to get their Listbot Gold service.
In the past, eGroups added its advertisements at the end of your message. However, with the recent changes at eGroups (including its takeover by Yahoo), it has started adding the advertisements to the beginning of the newsletter. While this is probably a good business policy for them, the danger of this method is that your subscribers may think they are receiving spam when they first open up their email. I rather they see my "thesitewizard newsletter" banner and be reassured it's what they signed up for.
Of late, ListBot has been rather unreliable, with long delays in the delivery of my newsletters. There are also long delays before sending a confirmation notice to people who subscribed, and hiccups such as repeatedly sending confirmation notices multiple times a day. ListBot newsletters also appear to be blocked by a free email service called Bigfoot (which tends to be over-zealous in blocking legitimate email) so while Bigfoot users may be able to subscribe and confirm their subscriptions, they will not receive your newsletter.
With ListBot's server having trouble coping with the load lately, I wonder how many subscriptions have been lost whenever it is down. Since they seldom disclose useful information to their users (don't believe their "Status" page - even their technical support says it cannot track some aspects of their service), it's not easy to determine anything.
On the other hand, eGroups has, so far, always delivered my newsletters promptly. They have also been continually updating their services and also send me notices of their downtime before it happens.
Like all the respectable mailing list hosting services, both eGroups and ListBot send out confirmation notices to your subscribers, requiring them to confirm their subscriptions. However, when I experimented with eGroups' mailing list service for thesitewizard newsletter, here's the confirmation request I got:
We received your request to join the thesitewizard group at eGroups, home to free, easy-to-use email groups. To become a member of the thesitewizard group, you must first confirm your eGroups account...
[...instructions on how to confirm followed...]
Contrast this with ListBot's notice for the same group:
Thank you for your request to join thesitewizard.com! YOU MUST REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE TO JOIN THE LIST. Simply reply with a blank message to join. The list owner has included the following welcome message:
What's the problem here? Well, neither is a problem for seasoned subscribers of newsletters. However, if someone is joining a mailing list for the first time, eGroup's confirmation notice might confuse him: "What's this eGroups? I didn't ask to join a mailing list on 'easy-to-use email groups'. More spam!" Or, at best, his confusion might be simply, "I didn't know that thesitewizard belongs to the eGroups company" (it doesn't).
ListBot's confirmation notice at least gives some prominence to my welcome message, which, since it mentions the website and the contents of the newsletter, would remind the user that this is a mailing list he/she signed up for, and is not spam to be deleted.
To be fair, eGroups does send my welcome message. However, it comes only after the person confirms the subscription. Too late, I think.
Neither option appears to be perfect. As with all free services (or even budget solutions), you probably have to be satisfied with a trade-off.
I guess if you are willing to put up with eGroups' misleading confirmation request, it may be the more reliable solution (at the time of this writing). To avoid misunderstanding on the part of your visitors, you should probably be sure to mention that your list is hosted at eGroups and that they will receive a confirmation notice from them. Note that eGroups has recently become part of the Yahoo group, so I don't know if there will be any changes in the future.
On the other hand, ListBot's service is currently advertising-free, so it's almost like using a paid service without paying a cent. I don't know how long this will last though - I can't imagine Microsoft continuing to provide a public service like this without trying to earn a cent. In fact, by the time you read this, this may have already changed (so don't count on it). Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, there appears to be some reliability problems.
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