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For years organizations have relied on distribution groups to communicate and collaborate with groups of people both inside and outside the company. Now, however, Microsoft 365 Groups in Outlook offer a more powerful solution for collaboration.

Tip: If you're looking for information on using Outlook contact groups to send email to a list of people - such as a group of friends - see Create a contact group or distribution list in Outlook for PC.

What are Microsoft 365 Groups?

When you set up a Microsoft 365 Group in Outlook, you can choose a set of people that you wish to collaborate with and easily set up a collection of resources for those people to share. You don’t have to worry about manually assigning permissions to all those resources because adding members to the group automatically gives them the permissions they need to the tools your group provides.

Those additional resources include:

  • Shared inbox - Where the conversations you traditionally have in your distribution lists take place. This shared inbox is fully searchable so it creates a living archive of the group's messages. Newcomers to the group can search or scroll back through the history to get up to speed quickly on what's been posted in the group previously. See: Have a group conversation in Outlook.

    Tip: If your users still want the group messages to appear in their personal inbox, as they did with the distribution list, all they need to do is subscribe to the group by clicking the Membership button on the ribbon in Outlook.

  • Shared files library - Your group has a SharePoint files library where your users can store, share and collaborate on documents, workbooks, presentations, images or any other kind of file they need to work on. See: Share group files.

  • Shared calendar - Your group gets a shared calendar to post events related to the group. Each member who has subscribed to the group is automatically invited to events posted to the calendar so those events can also appear on their personal calendars if they wish. See: Schedule a meeting on a group calendar in Outlook.

  • Shared OneNote notebook - The group automatically has a shared OneNote notebook where group members can collect and collaborate on information. Many groups use the notebook to create a living wiki with frequently asked questions and other resources.

  • Guest access - You could add external contacts to distribution groups before, but all they got was email. With groups you can offer guests access to email conversations, files and even the shared OneNote notebook. See: Guest access in Microsoft 365 Groups.

  • Content is discoverable - Groups in Outlook are public by default which means that they are easy for other people in your organization to discover and join or review the materials in the group. If the content of the group is more sensitive you can switch the group to private, which hides the contents from non-members and requires the group owner to approve any requests to join.

  • Self-Service creation - IT doesn't have to get bogged down by requests from users to create groups. Users can create their own groups as needed. If you want to control which users in your organization can create groups see: Manage who can create Microsoft 365 Groups.

Those are just a few of the features that make groups a more powerful solution than distribution groups.

Administration of your groups

Microsoft 365 offers a number of useful tools and capabilities for more easily managing and administering your groups. For more information about each of these benefits, click the headings below.

Keeping your directory under control is a concern of every administrator. Here are some of the tools Microsoft 365 offers to help make that easier:

  • Naming policies - Naming policies allow you define what are, and are not, acceptable names for your groups. That prevents users from giving profane or prohibited names to groups. Additionally you can enforce company standard prefixes or suffixes to the group names.

    Dynamic membership - Dynamic membership allows you to set group membership by rule, which adds (or removes) group members based on metadata (such as department or role) in your active directory. See Using attributes to create advanced rules for more information on creating dynamic membership.

  • Hidden membership - If you have a reason to want the membership of your group to be confidential, for example if the members are students, you can hide the membership from outside parties.

  • Creation permissions - There may be some people in your organization that you don't want to be able to create new groups. There are several techniques for managing creation permissions in your directory. See Manage Microsoft 365 Group Creation.

  • Audit logs - You can have more confidence allowing your users to create groups and manage group membership because Microsoft 365 Groups audit logs let you track down who created or deleted a particular group or made changes to the membership of the group. See: Search the audit log in the Microsoft 365 Security & Compliance Center.

Delivery management gives you some methods to handle how messages should be sent or received by the group. Additionally there are tools to monitor the flow of those messages.

  • Send as or Send on Behalf of - These settings allow specified users to send emails as if they came from, or are on behalf of, the group.

  • Sender restrictions - These settings allow you to control who is allowed to send messages to the group. The group can be configured to allow email from outside parties, but you may want to restrict that to only specific outside parties.

  • External user support - By inviting guests to your group you can choose to have them included in the email conversations in the group. See: Guest access in Microsoft 365 Groups.

  • Transport rules - Transport rules work for groups just as they do for your Exchange server. The rules can look for messages that meet specific conditions and can then take action on those messages.

  • MailTips - MailTips are informative messages displayed to users while they're composing a message. They can help reduce NDRs by warning a user if their message is likely to go to outside parties, or exceed message quotas.

  • Multiple proxy addresses - A group can have aliases just like a user mailbox does. Additional proxy addresses can be handy for accepting messages sent to those other aliases or for making it easier to reach a group that has a long or hard to spell name. See: Multi-domain support for Microsoft 365 Groups - Admin help

  • Max Send/Receive size - These quotas can help reduce issues with the group receiving (or sending) extremely large messages in order to better manage storage and bandwidth requirements.

Microsoft 365 also gives you some tools to manage the kind of content that gets shared in your group.

  • Usage guidelines - You’ll be able to define usage guidelines for Microsoft 365 Groups—to educate your users about best practices that help keep their groups effective and educate them on internal content policies.

  • Data classification - You’ll be able to create a customizable data classification system for Microsoft 365 Groups that allows separation of groups by policy type (e.g., “unclassified,” “corporate confidential” or “top secret”). In this manner, your groups can exhibit the policies of other content in your organization. Extensible policy allows your organization to configure an endpoint that is called whenever a group is created or changed—and you can then implement your own policies for group creation or change.

Managing Change

Users are sometimes uncomfortable with change so it's important to communicate with the existing members of your distribution lists to let them know what to expect. Here is some of the information you should include in this message, along with some answers you may find helpful:

What are groups in Outlook?

Microsoft 365 groups in Outlook are a single collaboration solution for teams/groups that want a place to share discussions, files, calendars and notes in a unified way that is easy to find.  Probably the single-best feature is that the Inbox for the group maintains a history of the discussions, making it easy to search previous discussions.

Why are we making this change?

People have frequently requested the ability to search the messages posted to our distribution list in order to find information that's been discussed in the past. Upgrading the distribution list to a group means that people don't have to ask or answer the same questions over and over.

Also the new group will include a calendar for our group events, a shared files library and a OneNote Notebook where we can collaborate and gather information for future reference.

Do I need to do anything to join this group if I was already a member of the distribution list?

No, if you were already a member of the distribution list you'll automatically be a member of the new group.

How do I access the new group in Outlook? What about Outlook on the Web?

To access the new group in Outlook just go to the Groups category towards the bottom of the navigation pane on the left. If you use this group often consider pinning it as a favorite by right-clicking on it and choosing Show as favorite.

Additionally there are free mobile clients for Microsoft 365 Groups available on every mobile platform (iOS, Android, etc.) so you can easily access the group on the go.

Can't I still just email

Yes, of course. The same email alias you used for the distribution list will still work just fine for the group in Outlook.


Remember to tell them when this change is occurring and who they should contact if they have further questions.

Migrating your distribution lists

Ready to upgrade your distribution list to a group? See Migrate distribution lists to Microsoft 365 Groups - Admin help.

Which distribution lists cannot be upgraded to Microsoft 365 groups? 

You can upgrade only cloud-managed, simple, non-nested distribution lists to Microsoft 365 groups. See Can't upgrade distribution lists to Microsoft 365 groups - Exchange | Microsoft Learn 

What's Next?

Once you've upgraded your distribution group to a Microsoft 365 group there are a few follow-up tasks you may want to do in order to ensure it goes smoothly.

  • Follow-up with your users - Check in with them immediately after the upgrade is complete, and then again a few days later. Showing that you're listening and responsive to any questions they might have will go a long way towards making them happy and comfortable with the change.

  • Monitor the engagement reports - The Microsoft 365 Admin Portal has some good reports that can show you how many users are using the group, how often and what features they're using. Those reports can help you to design your follow-up and user training as well as highlight where your users are getting the most value from the new group. See: Activity Reports in the Microsoft 365 admin center.

  • Share your experience - Let other teams in your company know that you upgraded your distribution group and what steps you took to make it successful! Sharing that information can help those other teams follow your example and have a successful upgrade of their own.

See also

Have questions about Microsoft 365 Groups?

Visit the Microsoft 365 Groups Tech Community.

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This article was last updated on October 16th, 2020 as a result of your feedback. If you found that it guided you to helpful information, and especially if you didn't, please click the feedback controls below and leave us some constructive comments so we can continue to improve it. Thanks!

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