Why BCC can be bad thing for large email distribution lists (and what to do about it)

If you work at a large company like I do, then you probably participate in at least a handful of email distribution lists. An email distribution list is a single email address (e.g. example@microsoft.com) which allows you to send a mail to one address which is then delivered to 1 or more people (potentially even thousands of people).

A common practice is to use inbox filtering rules (such as those offered by Microsoft Outlook) to route mail sent to these distribution lists into a subfolder in your inbox. This way when I’m interested in catching up on the latest discussions on a particular topic I can browse that subfolder instead of being constantly barraged with such messages in my main inbox.

So far so good, right? The problem that happens is when somebody decides to take a discussion “offline” by BCC’ing the distribution list. The intention is good, and goes something like this:

Original mail From:
Joe
To: Widgets Discussion
Hey everybody! I need help selling a Widget to my customer in North Dakota. Who can help? – Joe

Reply: From:
Steve
To: Joe
Bcc: Widgets Discussion
Hi Joe,
I can help, let’s take it offline. Bcc’ing Widgets Discussion. – Steve

Now when Joe replies he will only be replying to Steve, since there’s no need to involve the rest of the Widgets Discussion distribution list. This reduces “noise” for the rest of the Widgets Discussion recipients who don’t need to be involved with Joe and Steve’s ongoing sale discussion. Good, right? Yes, but the problem is that when Steve bcc’d the Widgets Discussion alias it broke inbox filtering rules. Inbox filtering rules such as these rely on knowing that the message was sent to the Widgets Discussion alias in order to route it to the appropriate inbox subfolder – but with a bcc you don’t get that information (that’s the whole purpose of a blind carbon copy). Now every one of the hundreds (thousands?) of people on the Widgets Discussion alias just got a message in their inboxes that they have to manage (e.g. delete) instead of just having that message land in the appropriate subfolder.

So what’s the alternative?

A much better alternative which allows for the inbox filtering rules to continue to operate and for Steve to take the discussion offline is for Steve to simply send two mails. So the conversation would go like this:

Original mail From:
Joe
To: Widgets Discussion
Hey everybody! I need help selling a Widget to my customer in North Dakota. Who can help? – Joe

Reply to all: From:
Steve
To: Joe; Widgets Discussion
Hi Joe,
I can help, let’s take it offline. I will email you separately. – Steve

Private reply : From:
Steve
To: Joe
Hi Joe,
I’d love to help. I’ve sold lots of Widgets in North Dakota. Do you have time on Thursday to meet? – Steve

Notice that the first reply was sent to everybody, and the second reply was sent only to Joe. This extra step takes a few extra seconds on behalf of Steve, but can save the hundreds or thousands of people on the Widgets Discussion from getting the “inbox spam” which occurs when the act of BCC’ing breaks your inbox filtering rules.

Think this could work for you or somebody you know? Please pass it along! Here’s an easy-to-remember URL: http://tinyurl.com/FightInboxSpam