I get a lot of questions regarding the best method for sending emails to multiple recipients. When should I use a distribution list and when should I use mail merge? Should I use a distribution list or mail merge for my mass marketing campaigns? With all the new spam compliance rules, my answer to this question has changed considerably over the past year.
Distribution lists and mail merges are both useful tools in Outlook, but for very different purposes so I’m going to focus on distribution lists in this Arrow-tip and cover mail merges and other mass mail tools in a later one.
If you have a group of less than 25 contacts that you need to email to regularly, go on and set up a distribution list. Distributions lists make a lot of sense when you are dealing with in-house groups like your direct reports or colleagues on a given project. A great external example would be people working together on an industry trade group committee or all the parents for students in a particular class at school. In these external examples, using a distribution list can be helpful in letting each of the participants know each other’s email addresses since they may or may not have them. But once a group gets much larger, things get a little sticky.
First of all, you may find that emails with very large distribution lists cause some performance issues with Outlook. They can really jam up your Outbox and if you are on Exchange Server they may even cause some problems at that level. Large distribution lists are also a potential trigger for spam filters. And most importantly, with groups that are that large, each of the participants may not want all the others to have their contact information so privacy becomes an issue. Even if you put the distribution list in the BCC or blind copy box, a really savvy user may still be able to see the other addresses – the only way to protect the privacy of your users for sure is to send separate emails with a mail merge.
Another problem with distribution lists is the whole Reply to all thing. I know some of you are nodding your heads for sure, but before you remove the Reply to all button from your Outlook toolbar, keep in mind that there are times when it is appropriate to reply to all. For example if you are trying to divide up work on a specific project, replying to all will let everyone know that you have already committed to take on a specific task. However, Reply to all is not appropriate when not everyone in the distribution list needs to be in the loop on the information being passed. Have you ever left your computer to go to a meeting and come back to find 10-20 emails all with the same subject line because several of the recipients got into a Reply to all conversation? It can be a bit annoying not to mention crowd your Inbox.
So, general rules of thumb for using a distribution list:
Be on the look out for Arrow-Tip #7 in the next day or so where I will discuss mail merges versus external mail programs like Constant Contact.