Explainer

SMS Marketing Explained

What is SMS?

SMS (Short Message Service) is also known as text messaging. It’s a service for sending short messages of up to 160 characters to mobile devices.  

SMS messages are sent through a phone’s native messaging app and, unlike push notifications, can reach any user who has opted in to receive them. Push notifications, on the other hand, require previous installation of an app and ask users to opt in to receive them. 

Virtually every mobile phone today has support for SMS text messages, but not every mobile phone supports push notifications. 

What is MMS?

MMS, or Multimedia Messaging Service, allows the inclusion of GIFs or photos to text messages to drive higher mobile engagement. Adding visuals can make text messages more appealing. For instance, industry average click-through rates for MMS are 15%+ higher than standard text messages.

Why SMS Marketing? 

SMS messages are a great way to communicate fast, convenient information to customers. 

Billions of people across the globe use SMS, and it is growing rapidly as a marketing channel due to its high engagement rates. Marketers can use SMS to reach users in an intimate way: via the lock screens of their mobile phones. 

The success of SMS messaging is simple: Consumers don’t let text messages go unread. They aren’t caught in spam filters, forgotten in an inbox or lost somewhere in the mail. Thus, the eyebrow-raising percentages. Studies have shown that 98% of SMS messages are opened, and 90% are read within three minutes. And 68% of consumers say they check their messages regularly throughout the day.

Customer Convenience

These high engagement rates are, in part, due to how convenient SMS is for customers:

  1. No app download required: There are no App Stores to scroll through to download an SMS message. SMS is native to all mobile devices. There’s no learning curve involved.
  2. Accessibility: With lock screen or badge notifications, SMS messages are quickly seen, and customers know where and how to act on them. 
  3. Real-time: Text messages can be scheduled and delivered in real time, which can be very important for customers who need instant information, like flight or order details.

SMS messaging is at its best when communication is concise and useful. For example, users can receive:

  • Alerts that an order was received or a package was delivered.
  • Notifications for activities on a credit card, or balance alerts.
  • Flight check-in, change and connection information — including the delivery of a mobile wallet boarding pass.

SMS messaging can also be used to drive actions, such as:

  • Promotional messages: Sales, reminders or links to purchase items left in a shopping cart.
  • Channel acquisition: Delivering loyalty cards, coupons or app download links.
  • Authentication: Providing seamless authentication and sign-in to accounts.

SMS Compliance 

TCPA and Other Compliance Considerations

Before implementing a successful SMS marketing strategy, it is worthwhile to note that SMS laws do exist. In the US, SMS is regulated under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, or TCPA. The TCPA was created to protect consumer privacy. Other countries have specific laws that regulate SMS as well. 

Curious about taking your SMS marketing strategy abroad? Read up on how to implement a successful international SMS strategy here

Opt-In / Opt-Out Management

So consumers aren’t spammed with unwanted SMS messages at all hours of the day, the TCPA requires companies to present an express opt-in to potential customers. Companies hoping to engage in SMS messaging must receive consent before further marketing can occur, or they will face significant fines.

Opt-in and opt-out records and reporting make it easy to manage compliance with applicable SMS regulations. Ideally, brands would work with a company like Airship to maintain an opt-in and opt-out database that:

  • Is segregated from campaign content
  • Tracks both opt-in and opt-out dates, as well as deactivated numbers, and maintains this information for four years. 
  • Supports data subject rights under GDPR

Brands should always consult with their legal / compliance departments to choose the best way to manage appropriate consent necessary to send SMS and MMS messages. 

For opt-ins, Airship technology supports:

  • Double opt-in via mobile phone opt-in
  • Double opt-in for non-mobile phone opt-in
  • Brand-managed opt-in via an API
  • Opt-in owned by a brand and uploaded to a provider via CSV

For opt-outs, Airship technology supports:

  • A mobile device-originated opt-out request: When a consumer texts the brand with a keyword like STOP. 
  • An opt-out via website or app: If a consumer changes their preferences in a Preference Center — or in some other way via the brand’s website or app.
  • A carrier deactivation handling: Mobile network operators (like AT&T, Verizon, etc.) provide a list of deactivated phone numbers on a daily basis. These numbers should be automatically uninstalled (and removed from the database entirely) so brands don’t inadvertently message the wrong person if that number gets reassigned.  

It is a best practice not to send messages to numbers that have opt-out dates associated with them. If a consumer opts out but then decides to opt in again, the “double opt-in” or “brand-managed opt-in” methods described above will register a new opt-in date.

How Does SMS Messaging Work?

Brands register a short code or long code to get started with SMS.

A short code is a phone number that’s only five to six digits long. Short codes are best suited for marketing messages and can be customized for a particular brand.

A long code is also a phone number — but this time, it’s ten digits long. One of the benefits of utilizing a long code is a shorter time to market for brands.

Some brands use shared short codes, which is not considered a best practice. Read more about why shared short codes can be problematic for brands and customers.

To dive into the nuts and bolts of it: Brands need some kind of interface for writing, targeting and sending messages. Or automated messages can be set up to be sent via an API. Brands can build this infrastructure in-house, or they can hire a vendor, such as Airship, to provide this service. 

SMS Vendors

Some brands are able to conduct an SMS marketing campaign in-house. For smaller brands that don’t have the capability or manpower to do so, there are many companies out there eager to help. 

SMS platform vendors vary in the features they offer. Some vendors only offer text messaging. Their features range from basic to robust. Other vendors, like Airship, offer full-featured, integrated SMS messaging — either standalone or as part of a multichannel customer engagement platform. 

Learn more about what it means to partner with a Tier 1 SMS vendor.

Full-featured platform vendors can provide capabilities such as:

Vendors with platforms that integrate SMS can also offer an automated channel selection that helps brands use SMS only when it is the clear best choice. This includes automated options for using it only as a “fall back” channel to less expensive channels like push notifications.

Content Is Key

Full implementation of an SMS campaign can take up to twelve weeks, so it’s best to plan ahead — and plan well. 

Before jumping into a new text messaging campaign, brands should think about the kind of content they want to present to capture and retain new customers. Here are some important factors to consider when creating SMS content

  • Message Type: Is your text message transactional or promotional? 
  • Audience: Identifying key customer groups and categorizing them according to characteristics or traits will help determine how many SMS variants are needed.
  • Personalization: This can be done by adding unique values through merge fields via CSV upload or with dynamic content.
  • Timing: Determining whether to send messages immediately or schedule them for later.
  • A/B Testing: You can use A/B testing to measure the success of each campaign and to tailor future SMS messages.

For a more thorough read, check out Airship’s blog post on SMS marketing and creating Dynamic Content.

User Activation

Once a campaign is up and running, users can then opt in to receive SMS notifications using keywords:

  1. Users typically text a keyword to join an SMS marketing program. The most common keyword brands use is JOIN.
  2. When users receive SMS messages, they can interact by clicking links or texting keywords back to the brand to trigger automated messaging. For example, a user could text the word “BALANCE” to their bank to get their current balance, or “SALE” to get the latest coupon.
  3. SMS messaging can even be triggered by location or time of day. These prompts spark action around simple decisions like what to do over the weekend or what to eat for lunch — and, in turn, lead to the most ambitious brands securing new customers or creating loyalty around unique, limited events or coupons.

To learn how to successfully engage with customers via SMS, read Airship’s blog post here.

SMS Marketing Strategies

SMS messages provide a direct path of communication to users, who are native to their mobile phones. Brands must be vigilant in providing value to users through this channel. Otherwise, it’s very easy for users to opt out.  

Messaging tactics need to be measured and tested. Strategies such as maximizing opt-in rates and ensuring new users are properly onboarded are a few routes to success. Other strategies include:

  • Only sending SMS messages that make sense for each user.
  • Using SMS messaging as a coordinated part of an overall customer engagement strategy — i.e. using push notifications, email and in-app messaging as complementary channels when they make the most sense.

Typical use cases:

  • Onboarding: Delivering transactional emails with CTAs to opt in to SMS for promotional messages. Allows for frictionless logins with account authentication via SMS.
  • Welcome series: Welcoming new SMS opt-ins with promotions and sales.
  • Crosschannel: Using SMS to drive the acquisition of new customers to a mobile app with a click to download a link.
  • Win back: Using in-app messaging and email to deliver special promotions to customers via SMS opt-in.
  • Transactional: Delivering mobile wallet coupons via SMS for easy downloading.
  • Loyalty: Continuing engagement by delivering mobile wallet loyalty cards via SMS.
  • Cross-sell & upsell: Driving SMS opt-ins via email receipts and upgrades or purchases of similar products.
  • Repurchase: Updating customers via SMS of sales and promotions of their favorite products to drive repurchases.

For more about SMS marketing, check out these resources:

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