Marketer’s Guide to SMS Part 1: Technical Details

SMS is not just about sending a lot of messages

In the third part of our series (part one and part two) we’re talking about one of the pillars of messaging and communications: SMS. SMS has an interesting place in our messaging world. It’s become so pervasive, so omnipresent in our culture, it’s easy to forget that SMS as we know it today is only a couple decades old. SMS is a fast and easy way to communicate with any mobile phone on the planet (all 7 billion+ of them). From simple chats with friends to financial transactions, SMS has come a long way from the first SMS (which said “Merry Christmas” if you’re curious).

In this Marketer’s Guide we’re going to cover more of the technical details of how SMS service works and fits into the bigger picture of marketing communications. Like the Marketer’s Guide to Messaging APIs, the technical detail is intended to give non-technical people a solid foundation on how SMS works.

TL;DR: What is SMS?

SMS stands for Short Message Service and was developed in the late 1980s for the new mobile phones that were just coming onto the market. The first SMS was sent in 1992 on the Vodafone network. Because SMS messages can only contain 160 characters they use a very tiny amount of data so SMS is a reliable way to send and receive messages when voice and data networks are under extreme strain. Which is why SMS is recommended during natural disasters and makes SMS perfect for sending messages that you want to make sure people see and read.

Basic SMS messages can contain only text, numbers, and a few select special characters. Later services like MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) allowed people to attach images and other multimedia content to text messages. MMS is often grouped in with SMS, but really it’s a completely different set of technologies.

Since its creation, SMS has excelled at rapid, concise communications. Its simplicity is what helps SMS stay the leading communication technology. People don’t only like SMS for personal messages, it’s also popular for alerts, updates, and marketing messages like loyalty programs. From teenagers texting to today’s banking and transactional 2-Way A2P messaging, SMS has forever changed how we communicate with peers and companies.

Short codes, long codes, and keywords

Long codes are what we think of as our phone number, for example in North America a 10 digit number starting with your area code. Long codes typically were connected to a single phone or person, but now a long code can be virtual and connected to apps like banking, parking, and shopping. Long codes aren’t the preferred way to connect people to apps (as in A2P APIs) for a variety of reasons from ease of use to control over spam to operators ensuring quality of service to customers.

On the other hand short codes are only 4-6 digits long and are used as a shortcut to connect people to applications. For example “Text ORDER to 74992 and Pizza Palace will send you the pizza you last ordered” uses the short code 74992 to send your order to the pizza order system. While long codes work regardless of carrier (a person on one carrier can’t have the same phone number as a person on another carrier, even in a different country), short codes are carrier specific. For the same short code to work on all carriers in a given country, the same short code must be reserved on all of the carriers. The more carriers a country has, the harder it becomes to get a specific short code that you’d like. In the example above 74992 spells “pizza”, that code might not be available on all the carriers you want to cover, and only in the US. If that short code isn’t available on all your local carriers; it’s back to the drawing board for your short code campaign. Your provider should reserve and coordinate getting short codes for all the carriers in your region. The best service providers have built relationships with providers to know how to efficiently navigate each carrier’s own procedures and rules. Without a good service provider, navigating the world of short code reservation could be very frustrating indeed.

This is why short codes are also country-specific. Not only are the carriers different in different countries, the rules are different in countries as well. Short codes are generally also registered to a company or business so there is accountability for what is sent (more on that in a bit). The next part of using a short code is allowing people send messages to the number and then have the application on the other end do something. The messages a person sends to a short code are called keywords.

Keywords are, like in the example above, a word that you can send to a number (usually a short code, but not always) for another thing to happen. Texting your bank’s mobile banking short code “ACCOUNT BALANCE” or “PAY BILLS” will give you a response or ask for more information. ACCOUNT BALANCE might just return your balance, PAY BILLS would probably ask who to pay and how much. The interaction between keywords and your bank (or the pizza place) is powered by A2P 2-Way SMS.

The most important thing to know about long and short codes are the regulations that each country (and mobile operator) have surrounding how they are used and managed. This topic gets into details that are beyond the scope of this post, but for now you need to know that many countries require marketing messages to use short codes and this is something your communications provider will help you with.

Speaking of commercial messages, for marketing’s sake we tend to group messages into two groups: commercial and transactional. Each kind of message not only has a different use case, but in many places have different rules to follow.

Commercial messages make offers

At its most simple definition, a commercial message makes an offer to a new or existing customer. From “Show this message to get a free muffin with your coffee” to product promotions or anything else you can sell. One of the most important parts of sending commercial messages is that you must have consent to send the message to someone. In virtually all jurisdictions mass spamming messages to people’s phones is against the law. Companies can be fined thousands of dollars per message for spamming people. American pizza chain Papa John’s faced fines of more than $250 million for spamming people with messages. Often countries start Do Not Call (DNC) lists that allow people to opt out from any commercial messages by default. Of course if a person gives you specific permission to send a message, that’s okay, but the point of DNC lists to protect consumers from spam and scams and give regulators ways to punish offenders.

Even with a person’s consent to send messages, in many countries you have to make sure you send messages only between certain times. Usually sending between 9 AM and 9 PM is okay (day time and work hours), but sending commercial messages at night, weekends, or holidays is often restricted or prohibited. Rules vary from country to country, so it’s essential to work with an SMS messaging provider who knows all the rules and laws around the world to stay out of trouble.

Scary legal stuff aside, if you have permission to send customers offers, SMS is a very effective way to get your offers in front of eyeballs. Time and again, studies show that SMS messages are opened, read, and acted on more than emails or other types of communications. An SMS gets people’s attention and that is half the battle in marketing.

Transactional messages inform customers

Transactional messages aren’t heavily regulated because a) the customer asks for the information (bank balance, order status, package tracking) and b) is already in an ongoing business relationship with you. If you are a bank and a customer asks for their balance or to pay bills, those are transactional messages. If you send the customer an offer for a new credit card, that’s a commercial message even though the person is already a customer.

Transactional messages are a great way to connect and engage with customers during the buying process and during support calls. Every transactional message is an opportunity to understand and help your customer. Don’t think of transactional messages as just fact-giving. These are people you’re connecting and communicating with. Answer the question sure, but then offer a link to a mobile survey for feedback or something that helps engage your customers.

It gets a little grey if you make an offer in the same conversation as a transaction (like offering a coupon for someone’s next order when they are checking on an order’s status), but by and large transactional messages do not have the same regulations that commercial messages do (like the time of day sending restrictions).

2-Way SMS connects and communicates

On the Infobip blog we’ve covered how 2-Way SMS is one of powerful SMS features to build customer loyalty and tips on launching 2-Way SMS campaigns anywhere in the world,  but we didn’t get into details of how 2-Way SMS works. If you read the previous part of the Marketer’s Guide series on Messaging APIs, you already know that APIs are essential to how 2-Way SMS works. Messaging APIs enables your app communicate to your users – it uses the power of the communications platform to connect people with your app. Here’s how 2-Way SMS fits in.

Two-way SMS has both technical (sending the messages) and administrative (agreements with service providers, MNOs, and regulators) hurdles to overcome. From the administrative side you need to register short codes and get agreements with all of the MNOs in your region (and if you want to support multiple regions, all those MNOs as well) and have contracts in place with a provider to help you send the SMS to customers. Typically, when you work with a reputable provider, they handle getting short codes and agreements set up for you. It’s essential that your provider knows not just the technical side of 2-Way SMS, but the administrative side as well. It’s the administrative side that can get companies in trouble and lead to fines and messages being blocked.

On the technical side, 2-Way SMS needs to ensure that when customers send a keyword to a short code (remember above) that those messages get through to the system correctly and if a reply is needed, it gets back to the right person. It sounds simple when if you think about sending one message between something like an appointment booking system and a patient, but 2-Way SMS rarely means having one conversation back and forth. Usually you have hundreds or thousands of messages going back and forth between customers and your backend systems. All those messages have to be managed, routed, and replied to correctly–even when those messages happen minutes, hours, or days apart (like a support request). Your service provider’s 2-Way SMS system is the key to making sure all of these parts work and sync together. Because 2-Way SMS is so complicated, and takes special agreements with MNOs in each region, most providers can only support 2-Way SMS in a few places. Providers with the most direct connections to operators and the most agreements in place can offer 2-Way SMS in dozens of countries. If you want to reach consumers on a global scale, launch worldwide 2-Way SMS campaigns and initiatives, it’s important to check if your provider can help you in more than one region in the world.

Future of SMS is integration

This is a pretty technical post. SMS might seem simple and straightforward when we use it to chat with friends (or even for two factor authentication or transactions), but the reality is SMS messaging technologies are a complex set of communications tools. Even when you do manage the infrastructure, like Infobip does, there are hundreds of details that can cause your SMS campaign to go sideways. Infobip makes things easy for you by managing many of the details and offering the Infobip Portal web interface. All of this makes the creation and management of a complex SMS, email, push and voice campaigns simple.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question about the future of SMS and how SMS fits into the larger messaging and communications world.

The most interesting thing about SMS today isn’t where it’s been, but where it’s going. Originally, SMS was designed as an easy way to send short messages between two people–and SMS has certainly excelled at that. At the same time as SMS was coming to the fore as a communications medium between individuals, email was cementing its position in the work world to connect groups.

But that did last long.

As people used email more and more, the backlash against email as the dominant communications tool for everything grew. In the midst of this backlash companies like Infobip designed ways for applications to start sending SMS messages instead of emails to customers. Like the first SMS (Merry Christmas), the first A2P messages that Infobip had sent were a holiday greeting to the people of Vodnjan, Croatia. With that came the era of SMS 2.0: the birth of A2P messaging.

SMS fills an essential role in marketing communications. When you want to make sure someone sees your message or confirm a mobile device or enable Two Factor Authentication (2FA), SMS is one of the best ways to get the job done. SMS won’t replace email for newsletters and other rich content, but dominates SMS the short, concise, and urgent messaging space. Perhaps the most important part to consider when thinking about SMS for marketing communications is that none of the facets of Omni Channel Communications (SMS, email, push, chat apps, and voice) are mutually exclusive. The most effective marketing communications strategies leverage the strengths of SMS and email and push and chat and voice to reach and engage customers most effectively.

Next in the series

With a foundation in SMS under your belt, now it’s time to move onto SMS marketing best practices. In the next post, we’ll continue the discussion of SMS but look at what you should and shouldn’t do to have successful SMS campaigns.

If you’d like to learn more about how Infobip powers today’s marketing communications…

Read the entire series:

Marketer’s Guide to Omni Channel Communications Marketer’s Guide to Messaging APIs Marketer’s Guide to SMS Part 2: Best Practices and Tips Marketer’s Guide to Email and Omni Channel Marketing Marketer’s Guide to Push: Tapping Into Better Customer Engagement Marketer’s Guide to cPaaS: Merging Communications Tools for Universal Messaging

Sep 16th, 2016
10 min read