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Dreading a Reply All nightmare? Don't forget Bcc.

There has been a lot talk about the problems with e-mail lately, including Microsoft offering to remove the Reply All button from Outlook and a focus on programs like Burn Note, KickNotes and OneShar that destroy e-mail after a certain period of time, a move that could be a problem for agencies that require archiving.

The biggest problem with e-mail slip-ups isn't in the sending, but in the reply. Users hit the Reply All button instead of Reply, writing something that gets them in trouble because they think they are having a private conversation. Or, people just hit Reply All to a mass e-mailing and bombard everyone with pointless messages. I have to admit I got burned a little bit recently myself, though not in the way you might think.

One day when I was under the weather, I wrote a mostly informative e-mail to a list of people, and I didn’t think to use the best tool we have at our disposal: the Bcc (blind carbon copy) field. Instead, I put everyone’s e-mail into the normal Cc (carbon copy) field. The topic was mildly controversial, but again, I wasn’t really seeking comment, just trying to keep a team informed about a topic.

Well, you can guess what happened. Someone on the list decided to let me know his opinion on the issue, which was fine, except he hit Reply All. Thus ensued a major discussion/debate with everyone chiming in and offering points and counterpoints. A lot of time and e-mail space was wasted.

I could have avoided that by simply using the Bcc field, one of the most underused tools in a sender’s arsenal. Some mail programs even hide the Bcc field by default (In Outlook 2010, for example, it's under the Options tab of a new e-mail). But if you use it correctly, you can put all the people you are writing to in there, and each one will seem to get an individual e-mail from you without knowing who else was on the list. If the message is to a group, you can say so at the top of the message. Whether recipients hit Reply or Reply All doesn’t matter. Problem solved.

Bcc isn’t for all uses, of course. With many work-related e-mails sent out to a group of people, you want everyone to know who else got the message. And you should avoid any situation where one user (hidden in the Bcc field) would be able to eavesdrop on another’s messages. But for broad announcements — say, a new HR service is available, or you need a headcount for an upcoming meeting — using Bcc can avoid the Reply All clutter, while preventing people from attaching their opinions to a Reply All response.

There are a few disadvantages to the Bcc field. The biggest one is that you can’t go into your own sent mail folder and see who was in the Bcc field. So if you forget who you sent the mail to, you are out of luck. But that’s a small price to pay, and if you set up send groups, then that won’t matter as much.

Under the right circumstances, you can protect yourself, others and everyone’s inboxes by using the Bcc field. You’ll rest a little bit easier.

Posted by John Breeden II on Feb 04, 2013 at 9:39 AM


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