How to Successfully Upgrade from a Listserv to an Online Community

Community Strategy // Online communites can increase engagement for online and in-person events. Get 5 ways to transition from a listserv to an online community.

Joshua Paul
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There was a time when email listservs were the new kid on the block.

Short for “mailing list server,” your listserv has probably served your association or membership organization well over the last decade or two. You’ve been able to easily send out automated emails to segmented lists and your members have enjoyed reply-all options that allow them to easily communicate with the group.

During their heyday, listservs made a huge difference in member interaction and association communication. However, they’re now competing with new options that have additional opportunities for member engagement and membership value.

Many membership organizations that have used email listservs for years are now taking advantage of these new trends in online social behavior and mobile technology.

They’re gravitating away from traditional email listservs in favor of those increased engagement opportunities and membership value provided by full online community platforms. For these organizations, email listservs alone just aren’t cutting it anymore. Online communities provide additional options that work well for growing organizations (especially those with built-in listserv features – more on that later).

This change comes with measurable benefits. Communication can take place outside of just email. Members have more control and options over how they choose to engage – email, community discussion forum, mobile app, etc.

Your organization can provide quality content and information more seamlessly and, when members need to access those current or past conversations and content, they won’t have to worry about searching through their email archives. Your online community platform will have it automatically archived for them.

With all of these additional options for members, switching to an online community will ideally increase engagement both online and at in-person events, like conferences, ceremonies, or meetings.

The Importance of a Smooth Transition from an Email Listserv to an Online Community Platform

Yet, the change from a listserv to an online community is not without complications. In order to make it successful, organizations need to nail the transition.

People are, by nature, resistant to change. A difficult transition can lead to a dramatic drop in participation, angry members, and reduced engagement levels that could take years to re-build.

Since one of the biggest benefits of being a member in your organization is engaging with other members, this is a problem that needs to be avoided at all costs.

In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen to your membership organization, you need to take a few precautions and practice a little change management. Here are some tips that Socious has learned over the past 12 years of helping organizations transition from email listservs to full online community platforms.

Five Ways to Successfully Transition from a Listserv to an Online Community

Tip #1) Get a Core Group on Board

Identify who your advocates are so they can set an example and answer questions when other members have them.

By establishing a core group comprised of staff members, key volunteer leaders, or enthusiastic members, you can begin your online community with a built in network of support. As more hesitant members see your advocates contributing and interacting within the community, they’ll be more comfortable to follow their example.

Tip #2) Convert Historical Data

One of the big fears your organization and members might have in making the transition from listserv to online member community is access to old data (i.e. listserv discssions and announcements). To ease this worry, communicate that one of the main benefits to having an online community is the ability to archive everything.

Work with your old listserv vendor and your new online community platform provider to understand the export process for your existing data and formats that your online community software provider can import during the implementation process.

By importing your old data, your community doesn’t have to start from scratch. Instead, it will feel more familiar to your members and contain the valuable information contained in previous discussions.

Tip #3) Find Opportunities to Train Members

As with any transition, communication is key. Look for opportunities to educate members on how your new online member community will benefit them and how they can get the most out of it.

This doesn’t have to be intensive all-day training, but you might want to consider offering webinars, having a booth at your conference, or even holding a special conference session. Armed with the proper tools and knowledge to interact within your online community, members will be more interested in taking advantage of all your orgnization’s community has to offer.

Tip #4) Start Small When it Comes to Structure and Features

Change is more manageable when it comes in stages. Rather than revealing your entire online community at once, consider a slow roll-out to get your members more comfortable. Since a listserv is similar to a discussion board at its core, start there.

Take a few of the more popular discussions in your organization and see how they take off in the forums of your online community. This can help get people used to the technology and the new format. This apporach also concentrates the social activity to give your new online community a more active feel.

In addition to discussions, file libraries are also a great initial feature. That way, your members will immediately see all the information they value from your organization.

Tip #5) Select a Platform That Has Combined Email Listserv/Discussion Forums

With a platform that combines both the discussions forums of a private online community and an email listserv, community members can still exchanging ideas through their email inboxes, while being able to view and search archived discussions from the browser-based online community forums and mobile app.

By using online community software that also has an integrated built-in email listserv platform, your members can continue to engage in a familiar way. They’ll notice the change, but feel comforted by still being able to participate in the same way they always have. Merely clicking reply from their email without having to go through a special link or login can simplify the process and make your members feel more comfortable with the change.

Transition to Full Online Community Platform from a Listserv Takeaway

Practicing open communication throughout your transition from an email listserv to an online member community will help ease staff and community members’ fears and make the process more seamless.

If you highlight the features that are similar to their previous engagement opportunities, as well as the features that allow for further and more valuable engagement, they’ll be able to see the purpose behind the change.

You’ve worked hard to get to your current level of member engagement, so you don’t want to risk losing participation. By using these precautions, you can avoid an unfortunate member backlash and, instead, get back to the business of providing great engagement opportunities.


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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