Making Online Groups and Bulk Email Work for You

300 million people are members of online groups -- but most are using them in a painfully inefficient way. Get expert views on how you can make these work best for you.

The volume of emails coming at us every day from our Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, and email lists can be frustrating and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are ways to eliminate this information overload and go back to enjoying your groups once again!

Online networks such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn get a lot of press, but they are relative newcomers to the world of online networks. There are more than 300 million users of older online group and message board systems such as Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, and Classmates.com. Yahoo Groups is the leader, with 108 million users in 8.7 million groups. These services offer users the ability to receive email notifications of group messages such as upcoming events, job postings, items for sale, and general announcements and discussions. They are particularly popular among alumni and professional organizations, sports teams, neighborhood associations, hobby groups, and parents' clubs.

Many people have told us that they have turned off notifications from these groups because they were getting too many emails. But this is a lot like not using the telephone because too many telemarketers call you. Eighty-four percent of American Internet users have used the Internet to interact with a group -- more than those that have used the Internet to read news, search for health information, or buy something. Online groups are where your peers are; they are the "social networks" for grownups.

The solution is fairly simple: consolidate your inboxes.

This is a fundamental tenet of email management and one of the basic principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. After all, it takes time to log into a site, scan the topics to find what’s interesting, click in and out of each message, log out, and then repeat the process over again for each of your groups -- assuming you can remember them all!

While there are some newer technologies that can help you manage all of your group communication, for many services, email is the only alternative to visiting their web site, i.e., having multiple inboxes. So let's take a look at how you can consolidate and manage your group email activity more effectively:

Step 1 -- Turn ON all your email notifications. Yup, you read it right -- turn everything on. New messages, friend requests, private messages, etc. -- you want it all. You’re going to learn how to process it hyper-efficiently, so don’t sweat it.

Step 2 -- Set up ONE folder for all your bulk mail and group notifications. Some people make the mistake of trying to create folders for each site, under the illusion that this somehow makes it more organized. Remember, we’re trying to consolidate inboxes here. Creating separate folders isn’t consolidation; it’s just more fragmentation, more inefficiency.

Step 3 -- Create an email rule to route all of the mail from your discussion groups and social networking into that folder. Now this may seem to violate the rule about not having more than one inbox, but there’s a difference here. You want to break things down into handling buckets; you are going to process these messages differently than you do the rest of your email. You don’t want all of those discussion messages, most of which you’re going to delete, getting in the way of essential business correspondence. If you don’t know how to set up an email rule, find a tutorial online.

Step 4 -- Separate the signal from the noise. Once, maybe twice, a day, you’re going to process these group messages. First, sort the folder by subject. Click on the first message and then scroll down using your scrollbar (not the arrow keys) until you find the first message with a subject line that sounds interesting to you. Press the shift key and click on the message just above the one you want to read, and then press Delete. It doesn’t take any longer to delete 100 messages than it does to delete just one or two, and it only takes a fraction of a second longer than it takes to scan through them. Do this all the way down the list. You should delete at least 85 percent of them on the first pass.

Step 5 -- Read and select. Now you’re down to a much more manageable reading list. If there are several messages under the same subject, read the first message. Is it interesting and relevant? If not, then delete ALL the other messages with the same subject. Don’t read them -- just delete them. If it’s interesting, now scan through the replies -- is there someone you respect who has replied? Read their response. Is it still interesting? Did they thoroughly answer the question, such that no additional information is needed, or has it turned into an open-ended discussion? If you don’t have value to add, delete the rest of the discussion and move on. This process should delete about 80 percent of what was left after the first pass.

Step 6 -- Read and reply. At this point you should only have a handful of discussion threads that are interesting, relevant and open-ended, i.e., appropriate and valuable for you to reply to. Now, read the whole thread -- read what everybody had to say. There’s no point repeating what someone else has already said, and you want to be able to respond to multiple points in a single post, not make multiple individual replies (see Walking the Talk… Virtually.)

Using this approach, you should be able to keep on top of the online groups most pertinent to you without feeling deluged. Just because of the nature of the system, you will end up spreading your presence around in proportion to the amount of value you have to contribute -- i.e., places where your participation isn’t worthwhile won’t make it through the filtering process.

You don’t have to be engaged on a daily basis in a group in order to be an active member. It’s far more important that when you do participate, you create value, and preferably within the context of your expertise and your business.

One solution to the email deluge is RSS ("Really Simple Syndication", as it has become known, although it was originally "RDF Site Summary"), the syndication technology used in most blogs, many news sources and a growing number of other content sources. Using an RSS reader such as Bloglines or Google Reader, you can manage some of your group communications and other content sources in a single inbox. For users of Microsoft Outlook, Outlook 2007 includes an RSS reader, so you can use a single tool for both RSS and email. However, while some sites, such as Xing and Yahoo! Groups, provide RSS feeds for their groups, many others do not.

Another solution is a startup called Grouply (disclosure: David Teten is on their Advisory Board). Grouply enables you to access all your online groups in one place and keep up with them in less time – 80 percent less, according to company research. As a Grouply user, you can receive a single "Smart Digest™" email each day that summarizes what’s going on across all your groups, highlighting what’s interesting to you and hiding what’s not. In a sense what Grouply has done is to consolidate your inboxes for your online groups.

On the Grouply website, you can search across all your groups at once and filter the results to find what you’re looking for fast. Grouply provides a cross-group event calendar and lets you browse among many useful lists such as the most active conversations, most popular messages, and classified ads across all your groups. If you belong to one or more high-volume job posting or Freecycle™ groups, you can ignore the bulk of the postings and instead have Grouply notify you only when something comes in that matches what you’re looking for.

Like RSS, Grouply also does not yet work with all online group platforms. So while these technologies may offer a better way of managing your group participation, you will have to decide whether the benefit of a better inbox for some of your communications outweighs the downside of having additional inboxes. And until more virtual groups catch up with the newer technology (or the technology catches up with them), you can expect to still be managing bulk email for a while.

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