Microsoft 365 groups vs distribution lists – an in-depth comparison

[Update]: This post was updated on July 31, 2020.

Office 365 Groups have been rebranded to Microsoft 365 Groups. The rebranding doesn’t change their functionality, but you may come across both names in various sources.

In the on-premises Exchange Server, there are three basic group types: distribution groups (a.k.a. distribution lists), dynamic distribution lists, and security groups. Microsoft 365 introduced another type: Microsoft 365 Group (a.k.a. Office 365 Group). After a quick look, you can see that those Microsoft 365 Groups can be used for the same purpose as distribution lists. The thing is, on numerous occasions, you can see that distribution lists are becoming obsolete while Microsoft 365 Groups are a recommended and continually improved feature. So how are distribution groups different from Microsoft 365 groups? I’ll explain shortly in the article below.

Distribution Lists vs O365 Groups

Learn how to manage distribution lists in Microsoft 365

The quickest way to tell the difference between Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists is to say that Microsoft 365 Groups are distribution lists plus more. For a simple comparison, take a look at the table below. If you want a more in-depth comparison, see the sections below the table.

A quick comparison between Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists

The table below shows a brief comparison between Office 365 Groups and distribution lists:

Office 365 Groups vs distribution lists

Distribution listMicrosoft 365 Group
FunctionalitiesEnables users to send emails to all members of a group.In addition to the distribution list’s feature, integrates with SharePoint, Viva Engage, Team, Planner, OneNote, and PowerBI.
PowerShell managementYes, sample cmdlet: Set-DistributionGroup.Yes, sample cmdlet: Set-UnifiedGroup.
EAC managementYes.Yes.
Can send emails to all members of a listYes, both for internal and external senders.Yes, both for internal and external senders.
Shared inboxNo, emails are only distributed to members.Yes.
Defining access typeNot available.The option is available.
Document libraryNot available.Set up automatically in SharePoint.
Shared calendarNot available.Set up automatically.
Required licenseAny AAD subscription (including free.)Free AAD subscription is enough for most Microsoft 365 Groups' features. For a full list of available features visit this article.
Restore a deleted groupNot available.Microsoft 365 Group can be restored for up to 30 days after deletion.
Dynamic membershipPossible with dynamic distribution groups.Requires Azure AD premium subscription.

As I mentioned before, Microsoft 365 Groups are distribution lists “plus more”. Before I specify what does “plus more” incorporate, I will quickly describe the similarities between the two groups.

Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists – similarities

Distribution lists are known to both Microsoft 365 admins and even the oldest Exchange on-premises experts – there are even some stories with distribution lists as the main character, like Bedlam DL3. DLs have been around for a while, and the idea behind them is quite simple. They allow users to write or forward their messages to a group of users, whether it is a single department, members of the same office, or the whole company. For those who work most of their day in Outlook, it is a feature used so much that they do not think about it.

Another similarity is that both distribution lists and Microsoft 365 Groups are managed the same way. Although the cmdlets used to work on them are a bit different, their attributes are quite similar and in most cases. In fact, if you changed the New-DistributionGroup cmdlet to New-UnifiedGroup while leaving the same parameters, the code will most likely be executed with no issues.

Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists also look very alike from the EAC point of view – they both use the same wizard to create them. But that is as far as the similarities go.

Differences between Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists

The most important reason to use Microsoft 365 Groups is enhancing collaboration. While distribution lists have the same purpose, Microsoft 365 Groups go a few steps further.

The first difference is that Microsoft 365 Groups have a shared mailbox and calendar. This means that emails are not only distributed to all members of the list – they are stored in a separate mailbox. The shared calendar gives the functionality previously reserved for public folders.

But the differences mentioned above fall into the category of Outlook and OWA features. Microsoft 365 can do more than that. Depending on what functionalities you need, a group can be created along with an associated SharePoint library, OneNote notebook, Microsoft Teams, Viva Engage community, Planner, and PowerBI.

You can see another set of differences in EAC. Despite the similarities to a distribution list, a Microsoft 365 Group has two additional fields: Privacy and Subscribe members.

Additional options available for Microsoft 365 Groups

Privacy, (or –AccessType in PowerShell) defines the type of a group. Anyone can see the content and conversations of a Public group. What is more, anyone can join such a group, without approval from a group owner. Private groups are different: only members can see the content of those groups and joining such a group requires approval from a group owner. This is a clear improvement over distribution lists, as the only way to limit access to groups was to change role assignment policy not to include MyDistributionGroups and MyDistributionGroupMembership roles.

Subscribe members – Subscribing a group is not the same as joining the group. If you subscribe to a Microsoft 365 Group, it is like saying “I want to know everything that happens there.” The Subscribe members option makes subscriptions of new members automatic. This option is risky, as it greatly increases the number of notifications users will receive, especially if Microsoft 365 Groups are used a lot. While this is a good way to be up to date, too many notifications can greatly reduce performance – as they tend to distract users. Fortunately, users can change their subscription settings, which overrides the automatic subscription option.

As you can see, Microsoft 365 Groups and distribution lists are very similar only at first sight. Although both kinds of groups can be used for the same purpose – sending emails to many recipients – Microsoft 365 Groups offer much more possibilities which can improve collaboration in a Microsoft 365 organization.

Differences between Microsoft 365 Groups and Office 365 Groups

There is no difference between a Microsoft 365 Group and an Office 365 Group. Microsoft 365 Group is the new, rebranded name for the same entity in your Microsoft 365 tenant. So, if you read an article on Office 365 Groups, there’s a good chance that it’s still up to date, even though the name of the group has changed.

See also:

Tools for Microsoft 365

28 thoughts on “Microsoft 365 groups vs distribution lists – an in-depth comparison

  1. Hi,
    We have a M365 group that we are using within Outlook. However, it appears when 1 user opens an email and reads it, it does not propogate across for the other user to see it’s been read. Is this normal behaviour? Thanks.

    • Hi Brandon,
      Unfortunately, this is normal behavior – Microsoft 365 groups maintain a per-user read status.

  2. @Adam the 32-bit Aardvark czy CodeTwo 365 wspiera stopki w przypadku send As M365 Groups? Mail wysłany z takiej grupy przechodzi przez connector jednak stopki brak. W dokumentacji nie doszukalem się informacji.

    • Takie wiadomości są wspierane tylko w trybie klienckim:
      Dodatkowo, można ustawić, żeby przy wysyłaniu ze skrzynki współdzielonej, wczytywały się stopki ustawione dla grupy, zamiast stopek ustawionych dla użytkownika, który wysyła daną wiadomość:

  3. Hi, @Adam the 32-bit Aardvark,
    Great article!
    Quick question:
    Can I add private Teams group to a Distribution list?
    Seems the Teams group id or email unavailable in the list of accounts when trying to add to a DL while rest of groups and DLs are visible to add.
    Thanks in advance!

    • When you create a group in MS Teams, it’s hidden by default. Try using Set-UnifiedGroup -HiddenFromExchangeClientsEnabled:$false and see if it makes the group available.

  4. I can no longer send an email to a DL from my Outlook Mobile app. It works fine on the PC.
    This started happening on 7/23/21, it had worked fine for 2 years before the 23rd.

    I get the following message immediately:
    A problem occurred during the delivery of your message as there is no suitable outbound connector to handle this kind of recipient email address type.

    • Has anything changed in the mail flow connector configuration?
      Is the address correct in the Mobile Outlook?
      What does the message tracing say about those emails sent from mobile to the DL?

    • Hi,
      To display a list with all distribution groups and their members, you can use a pretty simple script:
      $groups = Get-DistributionGroup
      foreach ($group in $groups) {Write-Host $group -ForegroundColor Cyan; Get-DistributionGroupMember $group.Name; Write-host ""}

      If you need to display members of dynamic distribution groups, you can use the method described in the following article: Display members of dynamic distribution groups with PowerShell

  5. We have received a notification that our DL is at 99% capacity and will be shut off at 100%. How can we clean it up, since it does not have a mailbox? This DL is used to just send out external emails automatically when a request is received. Should we change this to a Group?

    • Most of the time, such notifications are, in fact, phishing attempts, so be careful not to click any links. Distribution lists do not store any items – they only distribute them.
      There can be some items to be deleted if it is a mailbox. In such case, you can check if there is something to be deleted, using the following cmdlets:
      New-ComplianceSearch -name "Name" -ExchangeLocation | Start-ComplianceSearch;
      Get-ComplianceSearch "Name"

      If the search returns any results, you can delete them all with the New-ComplianceSearchAction cmdlet.
      Learn more about using *-ComplianceSearch cmdlets

  6. Hi,
    Thanks very useful blog !

    Could you help help me in renaming PrimarySMTP address of the Distribution list (Exchange online 2016 )

    As following command not works

    set-distributiongroup -identrity [email protected] -primarySmtpAddress ]

    Error: A parameter couldn’t be found name ‘primarySmtpAddress’


    • Hi Arun,
      Exchange Online or Exchange 2016?
      Run the following cmdlet to find out which permissions you need and make sure you are a member of the listed roles:
      Get-ManagementRoleEntry -identity *\set-distributiongroup -Parameters "*primarysmtpaddress"
      Mind that even when you get the right permissions, you will most probably see a warning that the SMTP address can’t be updated because “the mailbox is configured to use an email address policy”, so before changing the SMTP address, you will need to disable this option.

  7. Hello Office Team,

    Please add feature, so that we could add one group to the another individual group, it will help us to add people of one group in one go to the another group.

    For Example :

    Group B = Members are A, B, C

    Group C = Members Are D, E, F

    Group A = Main (Adding Group B & C), so it will have all the 6 members and if I delete members from any of the group B and C, it will automatically deleted from group A

    • Hello Amit,
      I’m afraid that we’re not responsible for developing new features for Office 365. Your best bet is to try reaching someone at Microsoft. The feature you are requesting, has already been mentioned here: Office 365 Uservoice, so you might want to upvote and comment that thread.

  8. Thanks – this is a helpful summary.
    Best use question: what would the argument be for keeping DLs AND using Groups?

    • The argument for keeping DLs is that sometimes you don’t need all those extra features. There are situations in which you simply want to send emails to a certain collection of contacts. Another thing is that not all Exchange Online subscriptions allow you to dynamically assign Office 365 group members, while dynamic distribution lists work well and get the job done in every Exchange Online subscription plan.

  9. If I create a Team using an Outlook Distribution List and then later the Distribution List on Outlook is update to add new members or delete members…. Will it also update my Team that I created by updating members that were added or deleted automatically?

    • Hi Sarah,
      I’m not entirely sure if I know what you mean.
      Distribution Lists (DL) and Teams are two separate things. You can upgrade a DL to an Office 365 Group (which automatically creates a Microsoft Team), but it will not be treated as a standard DL any more. And all the changes you perform on Office 365 Group are automatically reflected in Teams.
      If that does not answer your question, I’m afraid I will need you to rephrase your problem.

  10. You might want to note that “Send As” and “Send on Behalf” are not available for O365 Groups.

    • Hi Mark,
      I have just tested it, and the Add-RecipientPermission cmdlet successfully allows me to send as a specified Office 365 Group. Have you run into any issues while configuring “Send As” permissions?
      The trick in Outlook on the Web is to add the From field from the More options menu, delete your own address and finally – enter the O365 Group. After that, it should simply appear as one of the options in the From dropdown.

  11. as an admin i can prevent users from creating a distribution list groups using Default Role Assignment Policy and clear the check boxes of Distribution groups

    but how can i control or prevent the users from creating 365 groups ?

  12. Regarding the ‘Can send emails to all members of a list’ row of the table in your article, please note the advice on Microsoft’s ‘Configure Office 365 Groups with on-premises Exchange hybrid’ web page which describes a Known Issue with delivery of external mail to a group can fail if you’ve enabled centralized mail flow.

    • Thank you for the mention!
      The configuration of Office 365 Groups in hybrid environment deserves a separate article. I will add it to my to-do list.

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