I Am Begging You to Stop Treating SMS Like Email

Erin Blake
Published July 13, 2022

My colleagues and I talk a lot about how a customer’s relationship with a brand isn’t really all that different from the other relationships in their life. Customers go through a lot of the same stages when forming a relationship with a brand – from meeting to getting to know each other to defining the relationship to becoming exclusive and telling the whole world how much they love them – that they go through when dating. And just like when dating, they grant brands access to their lives at different levels the more they gain their trust. They may start out by checking out your brand’s Instagram. Maybe they’ll sign up to receive emails. Maybe they’ll even give you their real email address instead of one they created just for promotional emails or a masked one enabled by Apple! But the highest form of trust (and access)? Just like with dating, it’s getting their digits. So why are so many brands abusing that trust by treating text like an extension of email and clogging up their customers’ inboxes with incessant, irrelevant messages like that guy you went on 2 dates with who just can’t seem to take a hint?

Why SMS?

For starters, SMS is an extremely tempting channel. It provides a brand with direct, near-immediate access and attention. According to a recent survey by EZ Texting, 88% of respondents said they usually have their phone within reach, while 58% say they always have it that close. And with that kind of proximity, it follows that texts are getting read quickly: 79% read texts within 15 minutes of receiving them, and 72% respond within 15 minutes. So yeah. SMS is an extremely appealing channel for brands that want to reach their customers quickly. And there’s no doubt that it has a key role to play in your omnichannel CRM strategies.

However, it’s this same ubiquity in the average consumer’s lives that makes it all the more important that you treat this channel with care. Yes, brands get way more eyes on their SMS marketing campaigns, but with that comes a much higher opt-out rate. Postscript reports average unsubscribe rates for SMS marketing ranging between 0.9% and 3.1%, which is significantly higher than the average email unsubscribe rate of 0.17% as reported by Campaign Monitor. This is because text messages are much more intrusive than email (and because you don’t have to go hunting for an unsubscribe link) and so customers are much more trigger happy when it comes to unsubscribing.

So what’s a brand to do?

First of all, if you take nothing else away from this article, do me this one solid: please do not operate under the assumption that you can use texting as an extension of email. This is not the place for mass promotions and one-way communication. Texting should be a complement to your email strategy, but please for the sake of all of our notification screens, do not attempt to replicate your email campaigns in SMS format.

To make sure that you’re using SMS marketing in a way that differentiates your brand and doesn’t break the trust your customers have put in you, commit to really spending the time to figure out how to best use this direct line of communication with a highly-engaged audience across their connected experience with your brand.

Here are a couple of thought-starters on how to use text in a unique way and stand out from the competition who may be abusing this channel in their customer’s eyes:

  • Reserve it for timely communications only: The immediacy of texting makes it a perfect candidate for delivering messages that your customers absolutely need to see ASAP. For Airlines, that could mean day-of travel notifications like gate changes, delays or other flight updates that may get missed if they are sent via email. For retailers, it may mean alerting customers that a favorite item is back in stock or telling them about a time-sensitive sale that is just too good to miss.
  • Use it to enable customer support: Meet customers where they are and give them the option to text with a representative (be it AI or human), rather than making them call or log in for a live chat experience.
  • Deliver a truly 1:1 retail experience: Texting is perhaps the most conversational channel of them all, and yet many companies utilize it solely to send out mass promotional communications that are entirely one-sided. Stand out from the sea of sameness by taking a page out of the luxury playbook by utilizing texting as a platform to deliver a concierge-like experience. Follow up on an in-store visit with a pre-populated cart. Take abandoned browse or abandoned cart communications to the next level by asking if they have any questions about the product they had their eye on. Allow customers to text with a stylist or brand ambassador for personalized recommendations or cart building. The possibilities are truly endless.
  • Kill the cold call: Perhaps the only thing more disruptive than a text message is getting an actual phone call. Just ask anyone who has recently gone through the process of getting insurance quotes, which I did just a few months ago. I was immediately bombarded by phone calls and texts by every brand I submitted a quote form to – except for one. One brand instead sent me a text message and asked if I would like to schedule a call to review my quote. After receiving no fewer than 15 calls in a single day from 6 other companies, the relief I felt at a company that actually cared enough to put the ball in my court instead of interrupting my dinner was almost enough to get me to switch on the spot. (I’m still getting phone calls from the other brands that I continue to send right to voicemail, by the way.)
  • Spin up texting as a shopping channel: As conversational shopping experiences continue to evolve, savvy brands are looking to texting as the next frontier. Walmart is currently piloting Text to Shop, a conversational way to shop and check out entirely through conversational text messages. Powered by AI, Text to Shop remembers past orders to make shopping by text message easy and save time.

There are a lot of ways that you can use texting as an effective part of your comms strategy, and exactly none of them involve lifting your email strategy wholesale. Like all of your marketing channels, SMS will work harder for you if you define its distinct role in your overall ecosystem. With texting, we have the power to deliver a message right to our customer’s fingertips through a device that is almost always on them in a channel that has near-universal adoption of real-time push notifications. Your job is to ensure you treat that channel responsibly and to not abuse the trust they have put in your brand by providing such direct access. Approach texting with that mindset, and you’re already ten steps ahead of the majority of the competition.

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