Text-Message Marketing

Text-Message Marketing

Mobile text messaging, the same 160-character dispatches first popularized by nimble-fingered teenagers, may be the closest thing in the information-overloaded digital marketing world to a guaranteed read.

The use of text messaging, also called SMS (for short message service), has exploded in this country. Some 3.5 billion text messages are sent and received every day, according to CTIA, the wireless industry trade group. That is more than the number of cellphone calls and a threefold jump from 2007, with some of the biggest increases occurring in people over the age of 30.

Thanks to regulatory quirks, however, SMS is still a relatively uncluttered and spam-free marketing channel. It’s also the one form of communication that many people are tethered to 24/7. Which helps explain why, at a time when in-boxes fill with hundreds of never-opened e-mail messages from direct marketers, 97 percent of all SMS marketing messages are opened (83 percent within one hour), according to the latest cell-carrier research.

“I like to think of it as the certified mail of digital communications,” said Jeff Lee, president of Distributive Networks, a text-messaging application and consulting firm based in Washington. “When you want to be sure people see something, send it by text.”

Mr. Lee’s company worked with the Obama campaign on its use of SMS in August 2008 to announce Joe Biden as its pick for vice president. An estimated 2.9 million people registered to receive the text. (They were supposed to be first to get the news, but CNN beat the release by two-and-a-half hours.) The promotion generated millions of new mobile phone numbers, which the campaign then used to send out more texts drumming up donations and volunteers.

A year later, in part inspired by the publicity over those efforts, sports teams are using SMS to increase ticket sales, health clubs are using it to hand out trial gym passes, and a luxury home-design chain plans to use it to enhance the shopping experience for those in the market for a bidet.

Let’s review the rules for getting started:

1. Don’t even think about doing it the illegal way.

While SMS is less plagued by spam than e-mail, it’s not without its bottom feeders. Spammers using automated dialers can hack into the nation’s SMS infrastructure through the Web and blast out millions of texts to random cellphone numbers. If you were considering hiring one of these firms to do your marketing, don’t. Not only might it expose you to stiffened penalties pending in Congress for text spam, but the vast majority of the messages will never even get through, or through for long, before the cellphone carriers cut you off.

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