SMS terms you need to know before launch

We’re going to stick with SMS campaigns on today’s show and talk through the different terms, definitions and service providers in the space. This is a follow-on to the last episode where we talked through the different types of SMS campaigns. Now, we’re going deeper with broadcast messaging and mobile donations.

If you’re thinking about doing an SMS campaign or are new to the space, this background will be helpful. It’s a little dry if you’re just listening for fast-paced, thrilling messaging chat (that’s a joke). When I was selling SMS campaigns, these questions came up a lot. I hope it can be a reference to some people looking for answers.

Let’s jump in.

Long Codes and Short Codes: We touched on this last episode. If you’re doing SMS campaigns in any manner, you need a phone number to send and receive messages. As an organization or business you can choose between a long code and a short code.

A short code is a 5-6 or 6 digit number, that was created specifically to do high volume SMS campaigns. The carriers created this entire system to license short codes, approve campaigns and keep an eye on everything so their customers are not getting spammed. This is the way the MAN wants you to do it and most legitimate companies doing SMS will use a short code.

They are expensive and they take a little while to set up. The big advantages is that you can get more data around deliverability, send messages a lot faster and the organization has some protections about not being shut down.

There is one vendor for short codes in the US – CSCA – You can go there to see if your number is available and reserve it or lease it. You can only lease a short code you can’t own it.

Withing short codes there are vanity numbers and random numbers.

Vanity means that the organization chooses the number and the lease is $1,000 per month. Random means that a number is randomly assigned and the cost is $500 per month to lease. There will usually be a setup fee and to launch a new short code it will take 8-12 weeks for the carriers to turn it on. I’m also going to bring up a shared short code. We’ll talk about this more when we get into the vendor breakdown. For most organizations the shared short code is the way to go. There is no cost and no wait time, but other organizations are using the short code.

A long code is another option for SMS campaigns. Long codes are meant more for the 1 on 1 campaigns or small businesses like a reminder from the dentist. Long codes are just phone numbers and then connect to APIs to send or receive SMS.
Long codes are cheap and fast. The downside is sending messages through them is really slow. With a short code you could send a million messages in an hour or two. With a long code it would just be impossible. So they are good for 1 on 1 messaging type stuff. So when your uber is arriving they would send a text from a longcode. They actually probably have thousands of long codes in different area codes so it seems, like it’s the driver texting.

On an upcoming show I’ll give all my opinions, but a big question from companies that want to do SMS – should we do a long code or short code? How about random or vanity? The short answer.. Big brands should get their own vanity code. If you have a special use case you might want your own random code. For instance clinical trials might require their own number, but they don’t care what it is. Most companies should pick a vendor that provides shared short code – my opinion.

If you’re a small business or doing 1 on 1 messaging, it’s OK to start with a longcode, but as you prove out the channel, think about leveling up to a short code.

Finally on this, if you’re going to do real world calls to action, get a short code. Billboards, flyers, events you don’t want to be telling people to message in, to a 10 digit number.

Let’s talk about the different players in the space. Obviously, we have the phone companies – Verizon ATT etc. They deliver the messages directly to the user. Below them there is this layer called an aggregator. We’ll dig in a bit there, but for an overview, they can be thought of like a hosting company for SMS. So they way you need to host a website, you can host your short code with the aggregator. Horrible terms, I know. Below them on the stack you’ll probably have a platform. This would be where you loging to manage campaigns. Finally there is the company that is creating the messages.

We don’t need to talk about the carriers other than there is an interesting insight that the short code system is completely separate from the P2P texting system. That’s a little surprising. They aren’t even related from the way that I understand it.

The aggregators are this middle-layer business. The carriers want to let businesses do SMS, but they are huge companies and networks – they don’t want to just open an API so that anyone can connect to them. They built this layer of businesses called aggregators. The aggregators connect to the carriers and then platforms or businesses connect to the aggregators. It’s actually 1000x more complicated than this.

No aggregator connects to all of the carriers directly, but they connect to at least 1 or more than one. For the carriers they don’t connect to, they have deals to trade traffic with the other aggregators. OK who cares.

The aggregators host the shortcodes. So if you lease a short code, you’ll want to provision it with the aggregator so that you can start sending messages. This is the setup that takes the 2-3 month process. In reality, you’ll only work directly with an aggregator if the messaging volume is large. An organization should be doing at least a half a million messages per month before an aggregator will even return your calls. If you do start a relationship with an aggregator, you’ll sign an agreement that includes a short code hosting cost, minimum payment per month that includes a specific message amount and a cost per message on top of that.

I wasn’t in the business then, but aggregators feel very 2005-ish. You need to be a big company to work with them and they are a part of the infrastructure. Once aggregators became established, people started building platforms to actually execute the campaigns.

A really dumbed down version of a platform or ASP would be something like mailchimp for SMS. A business could license mailchimp or they could build their own software and connect to their own email server. It’s the same with SMS, you could build your own software and connect to an aggregator, or you can sign up with a platform.

In my opinion the platform route has a lot of advantages. They’ll offer a lot of flexibility with short code options. They will help you get your own short code if you choose or they may offer a shared short code. A platform will have multiple customers and the platform can pay for the short code once, and then include short code use to their customers. It’s definitely a benefit.

Platforms range in price from almost free – $10 or $50 per month all the way to thousands or tens of thousands per month. There are some vertical specific platforms and more agnostic ones. Basically if you’re searching for a platform, you should set a budget and talk to a number of vendors, watch demo’s etc. I would recommend looking for

Shared Short code option
Setup, training and strategy help
Some level of connection or integration with other systems – like CRM or email
Keywords, webform and upload capabilities.

There are many more things that will become clearer as we discuss messaging strategy soon.

Just a few more types of vendors in this space. There is a company called Twilio. The best way to think of them might be a platform. Twilio is basically an aggregator, but they are very flexible and modern, where the aggregators are older feeling businesses. Twilio is a product created for developers to build apps for phone and SMS. They do short codes, but one of their major contributions has been introducing long codes as a flexible option.

The aggregators are for big businesses, and contracts. The platforms completely abstract the infrastructure. Twilio is for companies that want to build their own logic or platforms that connect to or send SMS. Again to use Uber as an example, they build into their system that when the driver is two minutes away, trigger a text. They could never use an ASP because it’s uber’s logic, they can’t code that into another system. They use the Twilio API to simply trigger a message.

Last week we talk about text donations. All that is really happening there is that there are just a few aggregators that can set up short codes in a certain way – to be premium SMS channels. The biggest such aggregator is the Mobile Giving Foundation. They have shared short codes or you can get your own. The MGF requires that organizations connect with a special type of ASP to help launch and manage mobile donation campaigns.

There are a lot of intricacies, but to sum everything up. If you are in product or operations you’ll probably want to check out Twilio to incorporate texting into your product. If you’re in marketing or a comparable field you’ll want to find a platform that can do what you want it to do.

Let’s talk about some terms that you’ll come across.

We talked about short codes and long codes. If you know what they are, you are way ahead of the game. Keywords are also important. A big value of SMS is that you can tell people to text in and they will. As an organization you have this one short code and you want to be able to source people as they are texting in. In a call to action you’ll say text KEYWORD to SHORTCODE – so text JOIN to 12345. This allows the ASP Application to know where the person heard to message in, and most ASPs can respond with a different message based on a different keyword.

Also, a keyword is needed to make the call to action make sense. Maybe it just caught on and it sounds right, but there should be something that we’re asking the user to send in. It’s weird to simply say text in to 12345 – telling people what to text where, just feels better.

MO – mobile originated. This is a message that is coming from a mobile phone.
MT – mobile terminated. This is a message being sent from a mobile phone.

Opt-in – there is a formally defined opt in process, but essentially opt in means the user is subscribed to messaging from this organization on this short code. A user has to give the opt in, in writing so that can be a text message in, or a webform – or I guess a paper form. It might be a violation, but it’s a regular practice that if someone says they want to opt in, that is fine too. Really they just need to agree to receive texts before they are texted.

Opt-out – There are some magic words required for SMS campaigns to unsubscribe people from the list. These words are STOP, CANCEL, END, UNSUBSCRIBE. The carriers require that when someone opts out, the organization needs to send a message confirming the opt out. This was actually part of a funny lawsuit a few years ago. I think someone sued Facebook because they opted out, but then Facebook sent a text confirming the opt out. Even though that’s what the carriers require. Facebook won the lawsuit.

Double Opt-in: When someone opts in, it’s the business’s responsibility to confirm it’s the person that owns the handset that is opting in. If the user texts in, that’s fine. We know that the text was sent from the phone. But if the number is entered into a website there is no connection to the phone. I could be entering an enemy’s phone number in every webform that I find. The double opt in serves as a check, to make sure that a confirmation is received from the phone that is opting in.

Generally, when the first opt in happens, the system will trigger a double opt in message that asks the user to reply YES to confirm the opt in. The user is in a pending state, not fully opted in until they confirm.

This double opt in can really hurt the opt in rates, so it’s in a gray area. Some people skip it, and are just sure to make it really clear that the user can opt out in the first messages that are sent to them.

Character Limit – texts are limited to 160 character and that’s including spaces. This can sometimes be confusing because tweets are 140 characters. The limit can be an issue. Messages have to be concise and texts cost money, so the answer isn’t always as easy as just sending 2 messages.

OK, that’s a lot of detail. Just thinking through all of this for the first time in a while I could probably add 100 things to the list, but this is enough info to be dangerous.

We’ll get more interesting on the next episode and I’m going to talk about the two biggest benefits to adding the SMS channel to an organization.

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