How to Create and Manage iOS Email Distribution Lists

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It may surprise you to find that iOS doesn’t support email distribution lists. You might think that since you can mail to group in the OS X Mail application, and your groups have all synced to your iOS device, then you should be able to mail to that same group in iOS Mail as well, but you can’t. Luckily, there are ways around this particular omission.

Distribution in the Cloud

Most cloud-based distribution solutions will create a shared, semi-public list for a group to use. Google, Yahoo and MSN each has its own “Groups” offering that provide a single email address solution. Send an email to that one email address (e.g. groupname@googlegroups.com), and all registered members of the group will eventually get the message.  “Eventually” being the key word, since members may have changed their settings to receive one daily or weekly digest, instead of just each message as it arrives.  Plus these groups are an opt-in solution, and each member can opt out at any time, so there’s no way of making sure recipients get email when you want them to.

There Are Two Apps for That

There are two pretty good apps that help close the feature gap on managing distribution lists in iOS Mail: MerckTech‘s iEDL and Javid Alimohideen‘s Mail2Group.  The simpler of the two is iEDL ($1.99), which allows you to create lists using information from your address book or by manually enter email addresses. When you want to send a message to the list, select the group from within iEDL and it’ll launch directly into the iOS Mail app. Mail2Group ($1.99) has the same features and more. With Mail2Group, you can also copy groups, manually arrange the order of addresses within a group, and send up to six photos. The problem with both apps is that they don’t work when using the iOS SDK mail interface from within third-party apps.

A DIY Distribution List

The cheapest and most direct way to create a distribution list in iOS it to add a new contact and paste several comma delimited email addresses into just a single email field for the contact.  Sounds easy enough, but it does involve a lot of typing, making it much easier to create and maintain on a Mac, and then sync to your iOS device.  The process is the same on both platforms, however:

  1. Create a new e-mail and manually add all recipients in the To: field. This is easier than typing in the addresses in full, since they should already be in your address book and will auto-complete.
  2. Select all of the e-mail addresses and copy them into a plain text editor.
  3. Delete all of the “Full Names” and <brackets>, leaving just the simple email@domain.com addresses, separated by commas (no spaces).
  4. Copy the entire list as a single line of text.
  5. Create a new contact and paste the entire list into one e-mail address entry for this new contact.
  6. Save the new contact. That contact is now effectively a distribution list.

If you performed the above steps on your Mac, be sure to sync using MobileMe (if you’re a subscriber), Google or iTunes to get the new contact on each of your iOS devices.  Now your distribution list is accessible to Mail app as well as any third-party app that has Mail access built-in. You may find that some third-party apps require the use of semi-colons or spaces instead of commas. To get around this, simply create a separate one line e-mail in your distribution list contact for each format. For example, you could comma separate the “Home” address, semi-colon the “Work” address, and use spaces for “Mobile.”

Any other tips for making the most out of distribution lists on the iPhone?

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