Personal Distribution Lists

Personal distribution lists (DLs) are one Outlook feature in which what you see isn't necessarily what the recipients get. Many Exchange Server users expect personal DLs to work like Global Address List (GAL) DLs, which put only the DL name, not the names of all the individual recipients, in the To box. However, Outlook always expands a personal DL when you send the message, which probably isn't what you want. Even non-Exchange users frequently ask how to make Outlook put only the name of a personal DL in the To box.

If you have a personal DL named Customers that holds 100 names, for example, and you put "Customers" in the To box, each recipient will see 100 names in the To box. Some of your customers might not be keen on their names and email addresses being publicized in this fashion. Having 100 recipients on a message also makes a messy printout.

One way to avoid the problem of recipients being seen when you send to a personal DL is to put the DL name in the Bcc box instead of the To box. You still should put an address in the To box because many spam filters reject messages with no explicit To recipient. So, send the message to yourself. (This technique has the added benefit of sending you a copy of the message so that you can see exactly what the intended recipients got.) If you think that addressing the message to yourself looks odd, you can create an Outlook contact in which the Full Name is the display name you want to show in the To box but the email address is your address.

Another common frustration is that DLs can hold a maximum of about 130 addresses. The Microsoft article "OL: (CW) Problem Adding a Large Number of Items to a Distribution List" ( ) explains that the limit relates to the maximum size of an Exchange property store (about 8KB). The exact number of DL members thus depends on how much information Outlook is saving for each member.

One workaround is to use nested DLs--one master personal DL whose members consist of other DLs. Nested DLs are a nightmare to maintain, however. When you need to remove a member, you quickly find that there is no easy way to search all the child DLs to find out which one contains the address you need to delete.

In general, I find that maintaining DLs is more trouble than it's worth, except for very small DLs whose membership rarely changes. An alternative to personal DLs is to use Outlook categories--creating an Outlook contact for and assigning the same category to each person you want to include on a particular DL. When you want to send a message to that group of people, display your Contacts folder in the By Category view, and select everyone in that category. Choose Actions, New Message to Contact to create a message whose To box contains the email address of each person in the category. You can then copy and paste those addresses to the Bcc box and put your own address in the To box. The potential disadvantage of this method is that contacts who have two or three email addresses will receive the message two or three times. Depending on your situation, this result might be a useful feature or something you need to correct by deleting the extra addresses.

Do you have any gripes about personal DLs or other ideas for making them do a better job for you? Drop me a line at [email protected]

Regarding "Introducing Business Contact Manager," April 8, 2003, , Microsoft's initial list of product editions was incorrect. BCM won't be available as a standalone product. Microsoft will include it only in the Small Business and Professional editions of Office 2003.

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