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

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. Office 365 presents another type: Office 365 Group. After a quick look, you can see that those Office 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 Office 365 Groups are a recommended and a continually improved feature. So how are distribution groups different from Office 365 groups? I explain shortly in the article below.

Distribution Lists vs O365 Groups

The quickest way to explain the difference between Office 365 groups and distribution lists is to say that Office 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 Office 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 listOffice 365 Group
FunctionalitiesEnables users to send emails to all members of a group.In addition to the distribution list’s feature, integrates with SharePoint, Yammer, 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 Office 365 Groups' features. For a full list of available features visit this article.
Restore a deleted groupNot available.Office 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, Office 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.

Office 365 groups and distribution lists – similarities

Distribution lists are known to both Office 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 Office 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.

Office 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 Office 365 groups and distribution lists

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

The first difference is that Office 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. Office 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, Yammer, Planner, and PowerBI.

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

Additional options available for Office 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 an Office 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 Office 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, Office 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 – Office 365 groups offer much more possibilities which can improve collaboration in an Office 365 organization.

See also:

10 thoughts on “Office 365 groups vs distribution lists – an in-depth comparison

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 ?

  5. 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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