On the previous Solo episode we listed the different type of messaging apps. This episode we are going to dig a little deeper into SMS. It’s a little strange because it’s such a simple thing – a text is only 160 characters, can’t even have a picture and maybe it can have emoji… but in application there are a number of different ways that companies and organizations use SMS.
I worked with SMS campaigns for a long time and have a lot of opinions. As we do more episodes I’ll be more opinionated, but right now we are going to keep everything fact-based. Although I’m sure that a few opinions will creep in.
Just to reset, we are talking about SMS specifically for business or non-profit communications. So this is about SMS for B2C communications and what’s available. And in that world, there is this really horrible acronym(?) that people use called A2P. Is that an acronym? Initialism? I really don’t know. If we had a bigger budget I would get a producer to check that out.
Anyway, A2P stands for application 2 person. So that means that it’s software sending a message to a person, not two people talking.
Let’s start with the type of messaging that could be considered the standard in the space, and the best name for this is probably broadcast messaging. This can sort of be compared to email marketing where an organization builds a list of people and then the organization can send broadcast messages to that list.
It’s a little strange because this is simply SMS marketing messaging and then all of the other campaign types popped up. This broadcast approach was never really given an official name, like some of the other types of messaging. So again, this is like email marketing where you build a list and can then blast out text messages to that list.
There are a few parts that pop up regularly for broadcast messaging. One of the most critical is this idea of opt in. A user needs to opt in before they are actually on a list and can be broadcast to. Users can opt in by texting in or filling out a webform with their phone number. When you see the phrase Mssg&DataRatesMayApply and Text STOP2stop, this is all part of the opt in process.
The opt in/opt out process is actually pretty well defined and the guide is online. This guide is written by the CTIA – Cell Tele… and they oversee the short code ecosystem. That’s another characteristic of broadcast messaging campaigns. Short codes, which are basically 5-6 digit number that were created for A2P SMS campaigns are usually sending and receiving broadcast message campaigns.
We’ll get into a lot more detail on future episodes, but the rules and standards for broadcast SMS campaigns are pretty well defined. The carriers – ATT, Verizon, Sprint etc don’t want their customers getting SMS spam, so they created the CTIA to create and enforce rules for the channel among other things. It’s an established space, and there are very legitimate companies and vendors that can help to conceive, launch and manage broadcast campaigns.
When companies think about SMS they are most likely thinking about broadcast campaigns. We’ll go through a lot of this in great detail in future episodes. Moving on right now, or actually we’re going to take a step backwards.
Before there were SMS broadcast campaigns, there was this idea called PSMS – premium SMS. This also happened with short codes, but what made it Premium SMS is that these messages would add a charge on the user’s cell phone bill. It was a few dollar charge, not just the messaging charge. If you remember early American idol shows, viewers could text in to vote and really early on, that vote would cost money. There’s a chance this is an urban legend, and there really wasn’t a cost, but you get the idea.
I think this is like 2003, 04, 05 and SMS is just totally new. Nobody knew where it was going and it probably made a lot of sense to trigger charges on the phone bill. But it seems so weird in retrospect. What ended up happening is this shady layer of companies slid in. There was this whole ringtone and wallpaper phase where you might text in to pay for a ringtone or get a wallpaper. In this really scammy situation, the carriers would allow for recurring billing. These companies would launch where they text your horoscope. They would end up charging $10 per month and it was sort of a hidden charge on your phone bill. You don’t have to worry about this anymore – the whole process was called cramming and it’s not allowed in the US anymore.
I have a funny-ish story. My wife, when we were dating we lived in NYC. And I woke up at her house and a remember I was insanely hung over and just couldn’t move. She had like a 19 inch TV and just the basic channels because we weren’t in the nesting/Netflix phase of life yet. It was still party time. Anyways, I’m lying on her couch, can’t move and I flip through the 13 channels and on CSPAN some Congressional panel (I probably should know that) is debating cell phone cramming – they are talking about people getting ripped off an how it should be outlawed. I’m hungover, can’t move and just absolutely fascinated by the most boring shit ever. It’s the tech equivalent of tripping and staring at the wall.
Anyways cramming is illegal and all premium SMS is illegal in the US… except for mobile donations. And that’s a perfect segue, because mobile donations are the next type of SMS message.
We’ll probably do an entire episode on this, and I might even be able to get them as a guest… So I’m just going to do an overview right now. I think the full story is interesting, or at least as interesting as the CSPAN Congressional debate I guess.
When Hurricane Katrina happened a few guys took this premium SMS idea and decided to launch a product or campaign where people can text in and the charge on their phone bill is actually a donation. Back in those days, the carriers would take a percentage of the premium SMS charge and for the donations, the carriers would actually waive that fee. So the first campaign happened in 2005. It probably took a while to get everything organized, get the carriers on board and to officially launch. So in 2008 or so, the Mobile Giving Foundation became a thing.
So a non-profit, a 501c3 could apply to the MGF and get approved, and then the non profit could launch a mobile donation campaign. Basically the organization can select a keyword and a dollar amount. (We’ll get into a keyword later), but basically the call to action would be, text DONATE to 12345 to donate $5 to Katrina victims. The charge would be added to their mobile bill and then the funds would filter to the non-profit.
It was all tough and tricky and took a little bit to set up. But I worked for a company and we helped an organization launch a campaign in Nov or Dec 2008. Then the Haiti Earthquake happened in January 2009 and text donations really became a thing. It was craziness, I remember working all Saturday at this coffee shop called Blue Stove in Brooklyn and just being so jittery from so much coffee – but there were just so many non profits that wanted to launch these mobile donation campaigns.
But this isn’t a memoir. Mobile donations is the only and last type of premium SMS campaign in the US. It’s for non-profits only and it’s fairly rigid in that it can only be set dollar amounts - $5, $10 and potentially $25 dollars. The basic situation is for any innovation to happen, all of the carriers have to agree and it’s been hard to make that happen. So innovation is slow.
The next type of SMS is called Peer 2 Peer. This is pretty new, it’s maybe a year and a half old. The debut of P2P messaging happened with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I actually did an interview for the Chat Bubble Podcasts – Episode 5 from February – with Daniel Souweine who is the founder of Relay and he was the person at the Bernie campaign that managed P2P messaging. We should also mention that Hustle was the vendor for Bernie at that time and those are the two companies that I know do Peer to Peer campaigns.
Remember with broadcast campaigns people need to opt in and then you can message them. The CTIA oversees this and the entire short code system powers messaging and it’s also police-able. P2P Messaging is an attempt to get around this opt in requirement. So the P2P company makes software that powers an application on a phone. The Bernie campaign, for instance, would have volunteers install this app on their phone. From this app, the volunteers would text people, like just a list of numbers one at a time, directly for the Bernie campaign.
Because there is an actual person “texting” and I‘m using quotes, the opt in is not required. So if you’re Bernie and it’s the New Hampshire primary, you want to text all of your supporters and remind them to vote. Ideally, they have opted into your mobile program and you can just go into your SMS marketing program and press a button and everyone gets the message. But now let’s you didn’t opt anyone in to your mobile list. With P2P you can buy a list of phone numbers and then get a bunch of volunteers to text this list of numbers. You don’t need the opt in because it’s not an automated text, it’s coming from a person. The CTIA, shortcodes and potentially the law only outlaw the automated messaging.
It’s really interesting and a little risky. These campaigns don’t use short code messaging, so it’s coming from a regular number so the carriers would have a tough time policing it. It’s hard to tell what the carriers might think about this, but P2P definitely isn’t in the spirit of the rules.
It seems really powerful, but at the same time it might also be expensive, and you need people to actually push the buttons. That’s a good point the P2P company app actually allows the volunteers to send texts with very few clicks. It’s not like they are typing out every message. There are default messages set, but it’s also possible to have direct one on one conversation.
Last but not least is simple alerts, reminders and 2FA. So my dentist texts me appointment reminders and when I log into certain websites they send me a code to confirm that it’s actually me. I’m sure that when it’s all added up, these reminder texts dwarf all of the campaign type texting.
These reminders and alerts are kind of in their own space. Many times it’s a regular phone number sending the message and it’s not marketing necessarily. It’s a cool use, and fits the channel perfectly, but I don’t really have thoughts.
My last point is the difference between companies that do SMS and non-profits. My work with SMS has been mostly with NPOs, and I understand it might skew my view, but it seems to me that NPOs are way ahead of companies on this stuff. Obama was doing texting campaigns in 2008 and Haiti donations were in 2009. I could be wrong, but there haven’t been man interesting marketing campaigns via SMS for companies.
Don’t get me wrong, Uber probably sent 1 trillion text between 2011 and 2015, but telling me that my car is arriving isn’t as cool as Hillary telling me where to vote and asking me to confirm that I’ll do it. It might just be my vantage point, but I just haven’t seen that many interesting campaigns from companies.
Next time we do an overview like this we’ll get a little deeper. We might need to do an overview of all of the terms and players involved in mobile campaigns. All of these episodes seem like they’ll be really quick, but I guess I can talk a lot about this…..