Thinking about your members: bulletin boards/forums versus email discussion groups

Associations and other organizations often have a debate on how they can best provide membership resource sharing capabilities through their site – allowing members to utilize a bulletin board or forum that exists on the web site, or to use an email discussion group. 
It’s not a simple decision, because there are upsides and downsides to either choice.  In addition, bulletin boards can allow for posts to be emailed to interested participants (if they so choose to have them sent) and email discussion groups can have web-based archives for easy review and search through the browser.  Even the most sophisticated bulletin boards – we tend to call them social media, but their original practicality was as a bulletin board, such as Facebook and LinkedIn – use email to notify users of content if the user chooses to allow it.
There is no one right answer.  There is no one wrong answer.  Some organizations can use both a bulletin board and an email discussion group for maximum utility of both, some organizations can use both and fail at both.  The key is in understanding the audience for whichever choice you make, and the content that the audience is wanting to share and receive.
This means that organizations need to assess those two items first – audience and content – before determining the final leg, which is delivery.
So first of all, about your audience:
  • Size.  The bigger the number of participants, the more cost is likely to be involved in either venue, but particularly with email.
  • Web site use.  How often do they come to your website?
  • Online prowess.  Email lists tend to be a lot easier to use than bulletin boards, but both can provide technological issues for participants, which also means the providing host as well.  Is your audience going to be able to navigate through all the options that can make a bulletin board so useful?
  • Online access.  Does your audience usually access through desktop or mobile? 
  • Self Starters?  Do you have active members that will take the lead with questions or issues for discussion?  Or will staff likely be the instigators of content?
 Now, about that content:
  • Volume – how much content daily would be added?
  • Shareability – Is this for public, or for members only?  Or is it for subsets of membership depending on the content?
  • Media formats – are you going to allow graphics, PDFs, documents, video to be shared?
  • Immediacy or reference – what’s the real intent of the content – to provide immediate information about current activity for those who need to know, or more reference material for research by your audience?
As you can see, you really should define your expectations of content in order to determine whether a bulletin board forum, or an email forum, would work best.  You haven’t even gotten to the point of looking at the specific software and hosting you may use for this.  But large files, such as video or powerpoint presentations, do not lend themselves to direct emailing, and if visual representation is important to “pitch” the file to the audience, it may be problematic to do it by email.  On the other hand, if that content needs to be visible in front of as many members of your audience as possible, then email might be the best way to deliver it.
You look at as many factors as you feel are important to and about your audience, and you weigh those factors. 
The reality is, you may find that you need both a bulletin board/forum and an email discussion list, or that you may need neither.  It REALLY depends on your membership and the information you expect them to share.  The further you can lay it out, the better chance you’ll have of matching format and software and useability effectively with your membership’s needs.
For many organizations, there is no perfect solution, simply because there are too many options and audience and content needs are diverse.   Don’t let that stop you from trying to add benefit to your association’s audience through these options.