Don’t Call It A Comeback: Why SMS Marketing Is Built for the Pandemic and Beyond

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Alex Song

SMS (short message service) marketing — also known as text message marketing — has been hailed for its succinctness and higher performance while being blamed for everything from sore thumbs to the decline of quality conversations. Even with its downsides, though, SMS marketing has proven to be a simple and powerful tool that brands are utilizing more than ever during the pandemic to communicate with receptive customers. With higher open rates than email, as well as the potential for immediate results and positive customer reception when utilized tactfully, SMS marketing is positioning itself in the current moment to have serious staying power, even long after the COVID-19 crisis is behind us.

Validation of the Channel

The first-ever text message was sent on December 3, 1992, by software engineer Neil Papworth, to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis, who received the message on his husky Orbitel 901 cell phone. It read simply, “Merry Christmas.” Fast forward to today, and there are about 6 billion SMS messages sent every day in the United States, and over 2.2 trillion are sent each year. According to Portio Research, 8.6 trillion text messages are sent globally each year. And love it or hate it, e-commerce brands are flocking to this marketing channel in a big way. Why?

First is the availability of the audience. Studies show that, on average, it takes 90 seconds for someone to respond to a text message as compared to the 90 minutes it takes for someone to respond to email. This, in addition to the fact that most customers carry their phones at all times, makes SMS a highly reliable way to reach them.

In addition, there has also been an exponential rise in smartphone usage and messaging apps (e.g., Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, Slack, and Snapchat). Now that messaging platforms and comprehensive carrier plans are more widely available, text messaging has become less sacred and more accepted as an engagement channel between businesses and their customers. And though text messages aren’t the most glamorous or elaborate form of communication, their simplicity and compatibility with every mobile device are major reasons for their popularity.

Delay in Adoption

More and more customers expect brands to engage with them directly and personally, and SMS would naturally facilitate the high-touch, targeted experience customers want. Over 65% of the world regularly uses text messaging, yet only about 40% of marketers use SMS. So, why haven’t companies broadly adopted text messaging as they’ve done with email?

One of the main hurdles is compliance as many more strict regulations protect SMS compared to email. Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), businesses may not call or send a text message without the party’s prior consent. Violations from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can be as high as $1,500 per willful violation and if companies aren’t careful, penalties stack up fast. With that, however, these compliance laws have also safeguarded SMS-based channels from becoming diluted and abused.

Why SMS Marketing Will Still Be Around Post-Pandemic

Today’s marketers have quickly learned that the key to successful communications and positive engagement is allowing customers to feel as if they can regulate the messages they receive from businesses. As email inboxes and Instagram feeds become cluttered with direct-to-consumer brands urging people to get 20% off a new mattress or cookware set, brands are in search of new places to talk to customers where they aren’t yet sick of hearing from brands. In fact, more than 75% of consumers say they prefer to receive promotions via text messages than seeing ads while browsing the Internet and social media channels. Enter SMS marketing, a supposedly intrusive channel that actually proves to be less so than email and paid social ads because customers must deliberately consent to receive texts.

For example, Loverboy prompted e-commerce orders via text alerts to soft launch a new wine-based spritz. According to the company, Loverboy received 1500 orders in the first day, resulting in almost 50% of inventory being sold before the product was officially launched. Giant Eagle Grocery started texting customers in March with information related to COVID. Since then, the company has reported that more than 10,000 customers have used text to communicate with the store about curbside pickup or delivery.

As brands continue to engage customers during the current pandemic and beyond, it’s best to embrace the advantages of the channel, especially surrounding their simplicity and customer service enhancements. By making text messages clear and concise, brands can be direct and to the point when other channels are filled with COVID-19 noise. But it’s best to stick to the basics — no special flowery language or frills are needed to make your point via SMS, so keep it simple. SMS is also effective at enhancing customer service efforts. Many DTC brands are trying to acquire new customers with the promise that their text-based customer service will make it easier for customers to buy and ask questions about products. As a result, more and more brands are using texting to answer more complicated customer questions that require a human response. An interesting example of this is Anomalie, a custom wedding dress brand that primarily communicates with customers via text message about design confirmation and fabric approval, sent and received over 100,000 texts in one month alone.

Text messaging has already proven itself to be a popular communications tool across the world. As we look beyond COVID-19, a new crop of brands will continue to accelerate the adoption of this channel as a means for cultivating direct relationships with customers. It’s taken almost 30 years for SMS to hit its stride, but it’s peaking at just the right time.


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