Over the past several weeks, a local private school has begun heavily posting their marketing messages on the area’s community listservs. The Kingsbury Center, (5000 14th St NW), has sent multiple posts to the Brightwood, Greater Grant Circle, Petworth, Crestwood and many other listservs promoting the school, its website and encouraging residents to learn more and enroll at the private school. The emails started on or about May 8th, and have been posted every day since then by their marketing coordinator, Jennifer Henderson.
The community listservs were set up to enable residents to communicate en masse with each other without lengthy email chains. Each listserv was set up independently, and some have strict rules while others are pretty loose; some are moderated, some require approval to subscribe, some don’t enforce either condition. In the 13 years I’ve lived in Petworth and used the listservs, one of the consistent themes has been a desire to limit the amount businesses and organizations utilize the listservs for self-promotion and marketing.
It’s generally been acceptable to post about sales or special new classes on an ad hoc basis — that is, not every day. Having local businesses and organizations be able to reach out to the local community via the listservs is a huge benefit to both the community and the organization. Whether it’s yoga classes, the farmer’s markets or even yours truly promoting a survey, surely the listservs are a great way to connect for organizations. However, the daily posts from Kingsbury got me thinking about how much is too much and what is the appropriate way the listservs should be used?
I reached out to Ms. Henderson at Kingsbury earlier this week to politely ask them to slow down their daily posts, since the posts were clearly only for marketing purposes and not focused on community events, news or information. The terse reply I received was that the school has “received a great response thus far,” and “tremendous feedback from members of the community.”
Ms. Henderson said, "We will continue to communicate with our local community using the listserv platforms that are made available to everyone.”
But are they available to everyone?
Should businesses and organizations have carte blanche to post and repost marketing? Some listservs, like Northern Corner, Chevy Chase and Brightwood restrict access and require approval to join or post. Likewise, the Petworth listserv is restricted, with the About Us message stating:
This list is for members of Petworth Action Committee and other residents of the Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to share concerns and make announcements.
To get some varied perspectives, I reached out to several residents, ANC commissioners and businesses in the area to get their thoughts. Ultimately, the community itself must weigh in and decide what is appropriate or not for the listservs they use.
How much is too much? Is it spam or a community benefit?
"I'd think it'd be best for listserv moderators to be clear about the goals of the list and have fairly enforced, clear rules," said Zach Teutsch, Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4C. "I can see how moderators of different lists could feel differently. That'd be fine as long as people signing up knew what the deal was. Generally, I think the best practice, absent a clear rule for or against business promotion on a list is to do so rarely and offer people the opportunity to join a specific-purpose list/newsletter dedicated to the business.”
Russ Breckenridge, an active resident and moderator of the Southwest Petworth listserv, said he hasn’t seen any issues related to businesses over-advertising on their listserv. “In my mind, this is a neighborhood resource to be used by all. If the business or organization is local and would like to communicate specials, sales or community activities, I personally don't have an issue with it. However, if someone from the neighborhood raised a concern or I felt it was getting out of hand, I'd raise it for discussion among all members of the SWP listserv. Ultimately, the listserv members should dictate the policy.”
Joe Martin, who moderates the Greater Grant Circle listserv and is also an ANC 4C commissioner, said the most common complaint he receives about the Greater Grant Circle list is “too many repeat notices from people peddling their own businesses or organization. Daily postings or multiple postings each week is too much. I fully appreciate the desire and need to promote a school or projects. Unfortunately, too many postings often mean people automatically delete a message that comes from someone who posts excessively.”
I reached out to a local non-profit in the area that infrequently posts to the listservs, but who I know monitors them for community updates. Shakira Gantt, the executive assistant with the Georgia Avenue Family Support Collaborative, told me she believes the listservs are an important tool to communicate with neighbors, share local happenings, express concerns, ask questions and promote area businesses.
“In these times, online communication seems to be the way to go in terms of reaching a broad audience,” Ms. Gantt said. “Saying that, it can be abused by ‘spamming’ the listservs constantly with emails. There has to be a balance, particularly when business are using the community listervs. We want to keep the community informed but we also don't want to alienate people with a barrage of repeated solicitations. I live and work in Petworth so the listservs help me stay aware about what's happening in the area.”
"The listservs are critical for me to get the word out about events and I try to never post more than 3 or 4 times a month,” said Julie Eisenberg, owner of Lighthouse Yoga. “I have a lot of people who tell me that they look for my posts, in part because they don't particularly want to get our newsletter and just want the ‘headlines,’ so to speak. Brightwood and now 16th Street Heights listservs don't allow small, local businesses to post, and I frequently hear from neighbors on those listservs that they wish they had known about some of our events, particularly kids programs but also workshops."
"Personally I like to see small businesses post so I know what's going on," Julie said. "I got my solar panels that way and have gone to lots of classes and events that I've found on the Petworth list serve. I don't think any business or organization should be posting more than once a week, though. It's not a marketing platform — it’s a way to share info that neighbors might be interested in."
While the Kingsbury school, which helps students and adults with learning disabilities like ADHD, may be a benefit to their clients, does that make it appropriate to use the listservs for marketing on a daily basis?
I received no reply from Kingsbury's head of school and CEO Dr. Charles Clark, but did receive an email on Thursday from Tracie Thomas, Dr. Clark's special assistant and the school's External Communications Liaison, "We certainly value our community, recognizing that one person’s enthusiasm may be another’s SPAM, and will use the listserv judiciously in the future."
Hopefully the impression Ms. Henderson gave in her responses, that Kingsbury sees the community listservs as a public resource they can take advantage of for their own needs, doesn't stay that way and that they follow Ms. Thomas' recommendation to be judicious in their communications.
What do you think about businesses and organizations posting on a consistent or regular basis to the local listservs?