Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Email Address Etiquette

Correctly using To, CC & BCC

What's the Difference? | Putting it into Practice | Group Lists
Respecting Privacy | Other Email Issues

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Proper Email Address Etiquette

Few things are as irritating as receiving a message with your email address listed along with those of people you don't know.

Not only is this poor etiquette, but it also invites misuse by any of the recipients (or anyone they might forward the message to).

The incorrect display of email addresses threatens your privacy and has caused some organizations to fail.

To:, CC: and BCC: What’s the Difference?

The To: is the default setting and works fine when sending an email to only one person.

CC: (carbon copy) and BCC: (blind carbon copy) provide additional options for privacy as well as to indicate whether the addressee is required to perform any action items mentioned in the email message.

Origins

The term comes from the days when correspondence was typed out on a typewriter. The typist would insert carbon paper between the top copy and the one or two carbon copies that were used for filing since there was no electronic version to refer to.

The best quality copy would be the top copy with a degradation as more carbon copies were produced.

Use “To:” For Private Messages

If you are sending the message to only one address then the To: option should be used.

Use “BCC:” for Lists

If you are sending the message to multiple addresses then the BCC: option should be used so that each person sees only their own address.

The only exception is when everybody already knows everyone else's email address such as a message to close family members or between members of an executive committee within an organization.

Use “CC:” Only in Special Cases

The CC: option is just as visible as addresses in the To: option. Everybody will see the addresses included there. The main difference is intent.

In most cases you'll use the CC: option when you want to keep someone in the loop but no action is required assuming that all parties know that email address. See the example below.

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Putting it into Practice

Choosing the correct placement of outgoing email addresses depends upon your relationship with the addresses and their relationship with each other.

Some email programs fail to display either of those options by default, forcing users to search the settings to enable their display within the composition window of their email program.

Use BCC: for Group Emails

Unless you are certain that every recipient knows the address of every other person and that no one will forward the email to someone that doesn't, use BCC.

Much like you wouldn't appreciate your employer providing your home address and phone number to someone you didn't know or want to have that information, accidental exposure of people's email address can be upsetting.

I suggest that you always use BCC to ensure privacy for everyone.

BCC: Reveals Only Each Recipient's Own Email Address

Blind Carbon Copy (BCC:) hide everyone's name and email address from all the recipients.

If your email program requires at least one To: address, enter your own since it is already revealed as sender. This will also let you see the same sent message as your recipients see it.

Use General Group Descriptions Instead

You may wish to indicate the general nature of the address list at the beginning of your message so that recipients have an idea of who the other recipients are (if necessary).

Using a generic phrase such as "forwarded to the production team" lets people know who has received the message without revealing names or address information.

Use CC: to Inform

Carbon Copy will reveal the address(es) listed but is used in place of the To: to indicate that the message is sent to those persons for information purposes only.

It should not be used if the other recipients may not know the address.

An Example

This sample message will illustrate the use and the effect of these various addressing options in a message:

To: John Doe, General Manager <john_doe@jones.com>
CC: Mary Smith, Division Manager <mary_smith@jones.com>
BCC: Sam Jones, CEO <sam_jones@jones.com>

Subject: sales figures

Last year sales increased by 15% and costs decreased 5%.

Jim White, Sales Manager <jim_white@jones.com>
  

In this example,

Individual Privacy in a Group Message

In a much more likely scenario where a large group is blind carbon copied you can appreciate the result — a message free of a long list of addresses and the preservation of individual privacy.

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Creating and Maintaining Group Lists

When sending message to large groups of people on a frequent basis it is useful to set up a "group" address to save you the effort of selecting all the recipients each time you send a message to the group.

Create a Group List

Your email program will have the ability to do this using a "Group" function in the address book.

Dealing with Larger Groups

Because many ISPs restrict you to 50 or fewer addresses, you should probably seek another method for disseminating information to larger groups. There are several companies that provide these services:

If you prefer to use your own domain for lists and need help, Islandhosting.com is a local hosting company with a lot of expertise. They've been around (as Islandnet.com) since the late 1990s. Highly recommended.

BCC: the Group

Use the Blind Carbon Copy (BCC:) addressing option to select the group address when you want to send a message to the whole group.

Everyone will receive the message listed with that group address, yet no addresses will appear on each message except that of the sender and possibly each recipient only in their own message.

Don't Add People Without Permission

The way you add subscribers to your list makes a big difference.

Not everyone wants to receive your latest joke or to know about your big sale on Friday. Limit the number and frequency of your posts.

Let People Opt-IN

Use opt-in not opt-out. Opt-in is more ethical because it places the onus on a potential subscriber to get onto your list.

Many lists now ensure that a person really has opted-in by sending a confirming message in reply to any request to get onto their list. If no confirming reply is received the address is removed automatically from the list.

Allow for Unsubscribing

You should always provide some way for people to opt-out with each message. The most common is to reply to the message with UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject line.

Don't Unsubscribe from Spam

Unscrupulous list owners (spammers) may also include an unsubscribe option in their messages.

Unless you're certain the sender is legitimate, don't use any unsubscribe options.

Spammers only use the unsubscribe option to confirm your email address before selling it to other spammers.

Increase Trust in Your List

This is where companies that specialize in group email can help. These legitimate companies can be trusted to deal with the removal of your email address from a list without compromising your privacy.

Business Communications

Using email for business is critical and you want to do it right.

Avoid sarcasm or witty remarks. It is easier to offend someone via email than in person because the lack of your tone of voice and facial expressions mean your humour can be misunderstood.

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Respecting Privacy

When people provide you with their email address — either directly or by sending you a message — there is the implicit expectation that you will not reveal it to others without their permission.

What's the Big Deal?

Just as you wouldn't appreciate your place of employment giving out personal contact information to anyone that asks, many people feel the same way about their email address.

Without a legitimate need to know, the only ethical solution is to:

  1. ask the person to provide their own email address; then
  2. send it to the other person with a note explaining the circumstances.

It is then up to that person whether they wish to reply.

Privacy and Spam

In fact, privacy has become a serious issue on the Internet and this concern will continue to grow as people realize the commercial value of their private information and as they fight a losing battle against spam (unsolicited and unwanted emails).

Depending upon where the recipient lives, there can be very serious repercussions, notably in Europe and California.

Labelled as a Spammer?

Spam is an issue of consent, not content.

Be sure the person you're sending to has a reason to expect your messages or they're likely to treat your message as spam.

Some jurisdictions have severe penalties for senders of unsolicited mail.

You should also be sure that each person will find your mail appropriate, and not a waste of their time.

Spam is Out of Control

The volume of spam has become so large compared to legitimate mail that it threatened the future of email. We spend up to 80 percent of our Internet bills to pay for spam!

There is more information about this issue on spam: unsolicited emails and mailing lists.

Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation

If you're in Canada (or doing business in Canada) you need to comply with Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation.

It requires informed consent.

Understand the difference between implied and express consent. More here…

PIPEDA/PIPA

Businesses that collect personal information are also required to meet the requirements of other federal and provincial privacy legislation including PIPEDA and BC's PIPA.

Canada's previous attempts at privacy legislation were flawed.

We still have no working privacy laws that take into account the digital world.

We need to Demand Privacy.

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Other Email Issues

Email issues are dealt with elsewhere on this site.

Related Resources

On this site:

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Updated: December 20, 2023