Effective Marketing with SMS


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Remember SMS marketing? It was the channel that was going to let marketers reach most any customer at most any time. No Smartphone required. No apps to develop. It was the Everyman channel – capable of reaching virtually every one of the 327 million mobile phones in the US – 88 percent of the adult population.

American Idol trained millions how to text to a shortcode. The major airlines taught us about the convenience of real-time messages (flight updates). The Red Cross allowed us to make effortless donations to those in need.

Yet it remains the least-used arrow in the marketer’s quiver. Why the hesitation to draw the bow? Reviewing some key tenants of direct marketing: targeting, timing, and trust, might give us some clues.

Targeting is difficult in a SMS only world. If the opt-in was through a mobile originated campaign (e.g., Text CLICKERS to 67463) the marketer knows nothing more the subscriber’s mobile number. Their geographic targeting options are limited to the subscriber’s area code, which due to relocation or company-issued mobile numbers, may or may not reveal the subscriber’s current place of residence. Targeting for relevancy can be even more difficult (if not impossible) unless the keyword itself can provides clues to the subscriber’s specific area(s) of interest.

Timing is always a tricky thing with SMS marketing. The “always-on” nature of a mobile telephone means that your message can arrive in the middle of a meeting, in the middle of dinner, the middle of a movie or in the middle of church services. And if the phone is set to emit a tone upon the message’s arrival, some mild irritation is sure to follow.

The possibility of being interrupted by an ill-timed, untargeted (unwelcome) marketing message is clearly the driving factor behind low mobile opt-in rates.

Simply translated, there’s a lack of trust. Unlike other direct channels, your message is delivered whether the subscriber wants to read it or not – there’s no need to check her inbox, walk to her mailbox, or answer her telephone.

Trust requires a relationship. And a relationship requires an exchange of information. As any mobile marketer knows, an initial mobile opt-in requires a standard confirmation message that lets the subscriber know how often they might be contacted, and that they can opt-out (by texting STOP) at any time. As a marketer, it’s a no-win situation. If he says it’s 4 messages per month, it might be insufficient to the subscriber’s needs. If he says 15 messages per month, it might be overwhelming to other subscribers. One size never fits all.

So what’s the SMS marketer to do? The obvious answer is to understand each subscriber’s preferences. How often does he or she want to be contacted? What subject matter is of greatest interest? What time of day is most preferred? And all of this requires collecting information.

It’s technically straightforward to collect this data – simply send the subscriber a series of mobile-terminated messages and ask them to respond with their answers. Unfortunately, it’s not practical to ask more than 2 or 3 questions in this manner before the subscriber stops responding.

As a better option, we can tear a page out of the email best-practices playbook. Instead of a series of questions, ask the subscriber to text a single piece of data — his email address — and then follow-up with an email invitation to visit your on-line preference center. The subscriber can then specify when, how frequently, and even what subject matter he would like to receive via SMS communications.

Once the information is gathered, use it. Does he want a message everyday? Send him one. Only on Wednesdays at 5PM? Schedule it. She prefers theatre instead of concerts? Don’t cross that line.

While the technology currently available to the modern marketer is both fascinating and powerful, and the ability to reach virtually anyone on their mobile phone at virtually any time is a marketer’s dream come true, good relationships ultimately come down to good communication, respect and trust. So gather to your customer’s preferences, respect their choices and be rewarded by the trust you create.

Dan Smith
Dan manages Practices Communications at Epsilon, and was previously the CMO at both Outsell Corp & ClickSquared. Prior to joining ClickSquared, Dan was the VP of channel development at Unica where he managed Unica's MSP partnerships throughout the Americas. Before its acquisition by Unica, Dan was the CMO at MarketSoft.


  1. Excellent tips Dan!

    Let’s take advantage of the technology, out of it formulate tactics and integrate it as soon as possible in your marketing campaign. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of trying. You won’t be successful unless you try.

  2. Thanks Philip. I agree. When 90% of your messages will be opened within 3 minutes of being sent, and 99% opened overall, it’s not a channel marketers can afford to ignore!


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