Distribution List Limitations and Workarounds

Distribution Lists were created to make it simple to send email to a group of people without having to search through the contacts folder to add each contact.  Although this adds a convenience factor to sending mass email, it has some limitations. I will describe these Outlook distribution list limitations and provide some workarounds.

Limitation # 1

Distribution Lists have a size limitation.  This is the biggest gripe I hear regarding distribution lists.  A distribution list is not limited by the number of email addresses contained in it, but by a byte size factor.  This technical detail makes it difficult to determine how many contacts can be added to each list.  If the email addresses are shorter, then you may get one or more then a list with long emails.  Most users should find that their list will max out at around 120 entries.   The good news (if you can call it good) is that this can be overcome.  I will discuss the solution after the second limitation.

Limitation # 2

By default, a distribution list does not contain all the same data that a contact card would have.  This causes limitations on the fields that you can pull from a distribution list.  Using the Send Individually add-in as an example, it is not possible to substitute by anything other than Full Name with a distribution list.  This limitation is due to a distribution list not containing a property for the name’s individual parts like a contact file does. You may also see this type of limitation with doing a mail merge with a distribution list.

Solution #1  (Fixes Limitation #1)

I mentioned that the distribution list is not limited by the number of email addresses, but by the byte size of the distribution list.  This works in our favor because it allows us to do list nesting.  What I mean by list nesting is that you can add multiple distribution lists to another distribution list, just like you would contacts to a distribution list.  This creates a list of lists.  The master list would then be limited to approximately 120 distribution lists.   This situation grows exponentially but provides a way to create a large distribution list, made up of smaller distribution lists.

Solution #2 (Fixes Limitation #1 and Limitation #2)

A feature that is greatly overlooked within Outlook is the categories.  Categories provide a lot of functionality for organizing email related items.  You can even sort your contacts by category.  So now, you can assign a category (or multiple categories) to each contact.  The category could be your pseudo distribution list.  When you want to send an email to that category of contacts you would follow the below steps:

  1. In the Navigation Pane, select “Contacts”
  2. Change your view to sort “By Category”
  3. Select the Category that you want to send an email to. (you do not need to select the contacts, just the category header)
  4. In the main menu, select Actions…Create…New Message to Contact
  5. Click Ok
  6. You will see the names added to the “TO:” field of the email.  Complete the email as you normally would and send it.

Not only does this solve the size limitation, but in the example above with Send Individually, you can now select the contacts to send to and gain full Substitution capabilities.  This is because you are using actual contacts and not a distribution list.   This opens up substitution to items like First and Last name, making the email more personable.