Shared inbox versus distribution list: which to choose?

Anyone who owns or operates a business, be it partially or completely digital, understands the importance of great communication. Whether promoting new products, sharing discounts with customers, or establishing relationships with other businesses, constant and quick communication is key to your success. And in 2022, email is the backbone of rapid and convenient communication for any business.

The chances are that if you run a business of your own, you’ve probably got one or more internal teams that need to collaborate and remain in touch regularly. That’s where email comes in: it connects your internal teams regardless of their physical locations and keeps them on the same page at all times.

There are multiple ways to leverage email solutions so your communication efforts are faster and more efficient. To that end, let’s cover what distribution lists and shared inboxes are, the differences between them, and why using a shared inbox is preferable to using a distribution list.

Shared inbox vs distribution list

Defining distribution lists  

Sometimes called "contact groups," distribution lists are common email application features that enable you to group multiple email recipients so you can address them as one recipient. This feature has been in use since the late 1980s and is still an important email solution many businesses use to help win the favor of customers, which is especially important in today’s world where the high cost of living has made it harder for businesses to stay afloat.

Typically, finance, customer support, and human resources teams maintain this list of multiple recipients. For example, if your human resources team is in charge of maintaining a distribution list, their single recipient address may look something like "" or "" Whenever someone sends an email to a distribution list email, the email they send is automatically copied and sent to each inbox that the distribution list defines.

Although distribution lists can define multiple inboxes as a single recipient, a person who sends an email to a distribution list is technically contacting each personal email address that is part of that list. Therefore, each recipient that belongs to a distribution list receives a copy of the original message that a person sent. And when they respond to the copy of the email they receive, their response is sent from their email address.

It’s important to note that since each team member who belongs to a distribution list replies from their address, there is no way to send emails from the actual distribution list email address. Furthermore, when a distribution list email address receives a message that is later deleted, that deleted email only goes away for the team member who removed the message in the first place.

When should you use a distribution list?  

Distribution lists exist primarily to facilitate one-way communication. Since these lists don’t perform as well when communicating with external recipients, such as business contacts or customers, they are mostly used for sharing important company announcements or news with employees. That said, distribution lists can come in handy for certain customer communications since they allow all team members who belong to a distribution list to receive copies of incoming customer messages.

It’s also a good idea to use distribution lists if you want to deliver information without encouraging further dialogue. You may, for instance, use distribution lists to contact specific recipients that you need to update often or send regular marketing materials, such as newsletters. The easiest and most common way to establish a distribution list is with the help of email providers like Outlook or Gmail. Another option is to segment lists of email recipients via a marketing software tool.

The pitfalls of distribution lists  

The biggest issue with using a distribution list is that it’s inefficient for maintaining external email communications.

For one, inboxes can quickly become cluttered, considering that every team member on a distribution list receives a copy of an email. It can severely limit the amount of available disk space a company has if it’s using a hosting solution. Plus, the more emails sent to a distribution list email address, the more cluttered an inbox becomes: everyone included on the list will wind up sorting through and deleting the same copies of a single email.

What’s more, distribution lists mitigate a strong sense of collaboration. If someone who is included on a distribution list responds to a copy of an email they receive, they have to either forward or CC that email to their colleagues to keep them in the loop. Otherwise, that person needs to set up a time for an internal discussion to update everyone about the communication.

Finally, distribution lists muddle a sense of accountability and ownership. They make it difficult for anyone to declare a single owner of an email sent to a distribution list email address. This often results in customers receiving multiple (and sometimes different) replies from multiple team members on the list.

In short, customer-facing internal teams are at a disadvantage when using distribution lists due to a lack of visibility, collaboration, and overall accountability. These teams should strongly consider using a shared inbox solution to manage their communications better.

Defining shared inboxes  

Shared inbox software is a collaborative tool that allows internal business teams to facilitate efficient discussion and work better. If you need to work around unforeseen technical problems or employee absences while storing information in one place, a shared inbox software solution is exactly the tool for the job.

Unlike expensive and difficult-to-implement solutions like help desk software, shared inboxes prioritize simplicity and ease of use. They exist as a unified inbox for an entire team and grant each member visibility into what’s going on communication-wise at any time. With shared inboxes, internal teams have a much easier time making their recipients feel like they’re receiving tailored responses to their messages, which is rarely the case with help desk software.

The power of using shared inboxes over distribution lists  

The tailored responses that shared inboxes allow for are particularly important for certain industries.

For example, imagine that a health care provider needs a simple and powerful patient communication tool to establish and maintain patient relationships. A distribution list would fail to achieve this kind of communication; shared inboxes provide the exact capacity for accountability and the ownership necessary for patient communication. If a patient were to send an email to a shared inbox address, their email would be forwarded to a team’s shared inbox, after which a designated team member could personally handle that message on behalf of the rest of their team.

The additional benefits of shared inbox software solutions are numerous. Arguably most important is the centralized management they offer: internal teams can effortlessly manage multiple addresses and be granted access to different shared inboxes that exist in one place. Team members don’t need to worry about logging into separate email accounts or going back and forth between computer screens to access a different inbox and respond to messages.

This centralized management also enables a greater sense of ownership and accountability. Internal teams can use shared inboxes to assign new messages to designated team members, which helps people avoid sending duplicate responses or forgetting to respond to emails altogether. These assignments become exponentially easier to manage, considering that the best shared inbox software solutions allow you to use rule workflows to automatically assign incoming messages to different people depending on the message content or subject line.

If you’re still not convinced that shared inboxes are superior solutions to distribution lists, consider the improved collaboration they enable between private discussions with internal team members. High-quality shared inbox software solutions enable team members to talk to one other through internal comments linked to an original email, rather than forcing them to CC or forward a message to maintain internal communication. Private, internal discussions also save teams a significant amount of time and ultimately make the entire communication process much smoother.

Finally, on the topic of privacy, it’s worth noting that shared inbox solutions go a long way toward protecting sensitive data. Shared inboxes use access rights and various permissions to ensure that only authorized people can access private data. Some shared inboxes even allow team members to hide potentially sensitive internal discussions by granting only a handful of employees visibility into those discussions.

Whereas distribution lists often lead to clutter, confusion, a lack of ownership and accountability, and inefficiency, shared inbox software solutions provide the opposite. It’s nearly guaranteed that if your internal team adopts a shared inbox software solution, they’ll immediately improve how they collaborate with their colleagues.

Making the switch

If you're part of an internal team that constantly sends duplicate messages to recipients and has trouble holding specific team members accountable when it comes to replying to messages or collaborating efficiently, it's worth considering a shared inbox software solution. Shared inboxes, as opposed to distribution lists, can help internal teams stay organized and send out replies promptly. If you haven't tried a shared inbox for your teams yet, give Zoho TeamInbox a shot. It is all that you need to have an organized inbox, that every member in the team can access and enhance team productivity. 

Author bio: Gary Stevens is the CTO of Hosting Canada, a website that provides expert reviews on hosting services and helps readers build online businesses and blogs.


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