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Email Productivity: The Psychology of BCC

Monday, January 30, 2012 by Slaughter Development

We all want to increase our email productivity. One area where we tend to create headaches for ourselves is in the use of blind carbon copy (BCC).

Considering how much time we spend each day in front of our computers, email productivity is crucially important. Let’s start with a quick refresher on the technology. BCC stands for “blind carbon copy.” It’s a system by which you can send a message to multiple people, while keeping the identities of these recipients under wraps. It’s just like the regular carbon copy (CC), except usually it appears below that box.

There are two common reasons to use BCC instead of CC. Both are ways to increase email productivity, but with different angles:

  • Protect Privacy - This is the typical rationale behind using this feature. You BCC people so that they don’t see each other’s contact information. The failure to do this correctly has caused many a minor PR disaster.
  • Proof of Correspondence - The other reason to bring out BCC is to show a third-party that a conversation happened. You might BCC your boss on a sensitive message to a customer, just to prove that you actually did it. Or, you might BCC someone to quietly keep them in the loop.

Again, both of these techniques are intended to improve email productivity. You could send multiples of individual emails, but this feature saves time. You could use regular carbon copy, but this way you don’t have to ensure that every party doesn’t mind having their name shared with the other parties.

In reality however, this isn’t so much about email productivity as it is about corporate secrecy. You are able to control who has access to information. Any time we are actively trying to keep data confidential, we run the risk of an unintentional leak.

That’s one of the reasons it’s often better to use an email marketing service than it is to dump all of your addresses on to the CC line. And if you want to increase email productivity where you would normally use BCC, try a different approach. Instead of covertly including a third-party in the blind carbon copy box, just forward the sent copy of the message. That way, you can add context and reduce the risk of muddying the conversation.

Ultimately, the practice of using blind carbon copy is like the practice of reading employee email. At first it might seem like a way to get ahead but it doesn’t actually increase email productivity. Instead it reduces the degree to which email is an intentional medium. We probably shouldn’t use BCC for anything. We should focus on coordinating with people who know they are part of the conversation.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

A Lesson from Six Months of Email - Every six months, I archive my Sent Items folder. This may sound geeky, but it’s one of the most productive and satisfying activities I do all year.
Read on »
Increase Email Marketing Productivity - Today’s post on The Methodology Blog comes from Lavon Temple of Delivra. She gives her perspective on the intersection of productivity and email marketing. Read on »
Reading Employee Email - A few weeks ago, I was casually discussing the topic of corporate email privacy with another professional. Although the standard policy on the topic is fairly well-known, I was shocked to learn how his company managed individual email accounts. Read on »
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2 Responses to “Email Productivity: The Psychology of BCC”

  1. John Uhri Says:

    I see two correct uses of BCCs. The first is training your dear aunt to use BCC when forwarding those humorous chain emails on to her entire address book. The chances of her using an email marketing service are NONE, but at least the BCC can save you from being emailed with every inane response from her knitting club friends.

    The second appropriate use of BCCs is when using email-to-apps. For example, I use Batchbook and Evernote. Both of these services provide an email address for adding email to my database. Since this is an administrative function, and never anything a client or partner needs to be aware of, I always put the email address of these services in a BCC.

    In the case where a third party needs to know about an email correspondence, I agree that a forwarded email is the better approach. First, you will never have the third party get themselves involved in the conversation with a careless “Reply to All”. Should they choose to step into the conversation, it is a better case to see it come as a reply from a forward. Second, adding the context for the third party is always important, especially when that person is busy and may not realize why I am sending them the email.

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Great thoughts, John!

    You’re right that the “dear aunt dilemma” is one where BCC seems best. But a better approach might be to get the dear aunt to move from a coordination medium like email to a social medium like Facebook. There, posts and conversations happen naturally between friends. And individuals can self-identify if they are in groups.

    Your second example seems fine too, although this is really a case in which it would be great if the email program just had a checkbox for “record in Evernote.” But for now, BCC works fine and since this is not a human recipient, there is no chance for error.

    Thanks again for contributing a comment!

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