How to Use Contact Categories as Distribution Lists in Outlook

An alternative to groups and distribution lists

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Outlook distribution lists are handy for sending email to a group of people quickly. They are also impossible to search, hard to administer, and a bit finicky to boot. Make categorized contacts instead for flexible email distribution lists using Outlook mail merge. 

Outlook lets you assign any number of categories to your contacts. You can then sort your address book by category—and, presto, there's your new elegant, versatile, and stable distribution list.

Instructions in this article apply to Outlook 2016, 2013, 2010, 2007.

Use Contact Categories as Distribution Lists in Outlook

To create a distribution or mailing list with categories in Outlook 2016, 2013, and 2010:

  1. Select People in Outlook, or you can open People by pressing Ctrl + 3.

    Outlook Contacts listed.
  2. Highlight all the contacts you want to add to your new distribution list. To add people not yet in your Outlook contacts, create them using Ctrl + N first. You can highlight multiple entries by holding down Shift + Ctrl while you select them using the mouse, or select a range by holding down Shift alone.

  3. Make sure the Home ribbon is selected and expanded.

    Multiple contacts are selected in Outlook.
  4. Select Categorize in the Tags section.

    Selecting categories in Outlook contacts.
  5. Select All Categories from the drop-down menu.

    Selecting all categories in Outlook contacts.
  6. Select New in the Color Categories window.

    Color categories is displayed in Outlook contacts.
  7. Enter the distribution list's desired name—Friends and Family List, for example— under Name.

    Creating a new category in Outlook.
  8. Choose None under Color or assign a color.

  9. Select OK.

    A new category is created titled friends in Outlook.
  10. Select OK again after you verify the new category is checked in the Color Categories window.

To add new members to the distribution list at any time:

  1. Go to People in Outlook.

  2. Highlight all the contacts you want to add to the list.

    Two contacts are highlighted in Outlook.
  3. Make sure the Home ribbon is expanded.

  4. Select Categorize in the ribbon's Tags section.

  5. Select the list's category. If the category does not appear in the menu, select All Categories from the menu, make sure the list's category is checked in the Name column and select OK.

    Choosing a contact category in Outlook.

Send a Message to Your Category Distribution List (Outlook 2016, 2013 only)

To compose a new message or meeting request to all members of the category-run distribution list:

  1. Go to Contacts in Outlook.

    Outlook Contacts listed.
  2. Select Search Contacts or press Ctrl + E.

    Searching Contacts in Outlook.
  3. Make sure the Search ribbon is expanded.

  4. Select Categorized in the Search ribbon's Refine section.

    Selecting a category to search in Outlook.
  5. Select the desired category from the menu that appears.

    Searching for a friends category in Outlook.
  6. Open the Home ribbon.

  7. Select Mail Merge in the Actions section.

    Selecting mail merge within Outlook.
  8. Make sure All contacts in current view is selected under Contacts.

  9. Typically, make sure ​Form Letters is selected under Document type, and Email is selected under Merge to in the Merge options section.

  10. Enter the subject for the email under Message subject line.

    Viewing the mail merge contact dialog in Outlook.
  11. Select OK.

  12. Compose the email's text in Word. You can use the tools in the Write & Insert Fields section of the Mailings ribbon to adapt greetings for each recipient and insert or use other address book fields. Preview Results lets you test what your fields and rules will produce in each recipient's email text.

    A mail merge letter in Word.
  13. Select Finish & Merge in the Mailings ribbon's Finish section.

    Finishing the mail merge in Word.
  14. Select Send Email Message from the menu that appears.

    Selecting to send the email message mail merge.
  15. Make sure the appropriate email address book field (typically Email) is selected under To for Message options.

    Mail merge to email dialog in Word.
  16. Select Plain text or HTML, which includes formatting, under Mail format. It is usually better to avoid Attachment for this selection. It delivers the message's text as a Word attachment, which recipients typically cannot read directly but have to open separately.

  17. Make sure All is selected under Send records.

  18. Select OK.

  19. If prompted, select Allow under A program is trying to access e-mail address information stored in Outlook.

You can close and discard or save the document in Word as you please.

Use Contact Categories as Distribution Lists in Outlook 2007

To create a distribution or mailing list with categories in Outlook 2007:

  1. Go to Contacts in Outlook.

  2. Highlight all contacts you want to add to your new distribution list. To add people not yet in your Outlook contacts, create them first using Ctrl + N.

  3. Select the Categorize toolbar button. You can also select Actions > Categorize from the menu.

  4. Select All Categories from the drop-down menu.

  5. Select New.

  6. Type the distribution list's desired name.

  7. Choose None from the Color drop-down menu.

  8. Select OK.

  9. Select OK again after you have verified the new category is checked.

To add new members later, assign to them to the appropriate category individually.

Send a Message to Your Category Distribution List in Outlook 2007

To compose a new message or meeting request to all members of the category-run distribution list:

  1. Go to Contacts in Outlook.

  2. Select View > Current View > By Category from the menu.

  3. Select the desired list category's heading.

  4. Select Actions > Create > New Message to Contact or Actions > Create > New Meeting Request to Contact from the menu.

  5. Select OK if Outlook notifies you that your action will apply to all items in the group.

  6. Select in the To field. Outlook puts all address in the To field. For list messages, it is usually better to have all addresses in the​ Bcc field to avoid revealing addresses. If appropriate, you can leave the addresses in the To field or move them to the Cc field. For contacts with multiple email addresses, Outlook inserts each. It is best to delete the unneeded addresses.

  7. Press Ctrl + A.

  8. Press Ctrl + X.

  9. Make sure the ​Bcc field is visible.

  10. Select in the Bcc ​field.

  11. Press Ctrl + V.

  12. Type your email address in the To field.

  13. Continue composing the message or meeting request.