Two-Way SMS with Customers: The New Way Brands Build Real Conversational Relationships

Two Way SMS Chat

Table of Contents

With more people on their phones now than ever before, and with more people looking for genuine connections through their phones than perhaps ever before, it’s time to talk about upping the SMS marketing game in ecommerce.

Sure, you can automate texting customers when their order has shipped, when it is out for delivery, and when it has arrived. That’s a great start.

But since SMS is such a sensitive channel, some brands have found success by connecting with customers in a more personalized way. Like real conversations.

Two-way SMS is how you accomplish this. That’s because two-way SMS is exactly what it sounds like.

What is two-way SMS messaging?

Two-way SMS is the ability to hold a conversation with your customers over SMS –– the same way you would with anyone else.

To date, the most popular type of SMS for ecommerce brands is one-way SMS where the brand texts the customer (usually through an automated SMS nurture stream) personalized and relevant information. That information is typically:

  • Shipping and delivery information
  • Sale, discounts or VIP information
  • Abandoned cart information
  • Birthday or other milestone information

While that kind of information is helpful, two-way SMS is more about building a community, about building loyalty, and about delivering on your brand’s promise.

OK, but what’s the issue with one-way SMS messaging for customer communication?

There are a lot of issues with one-way SMS messaging for ecommerce customers.

1. Customers can’t reply to you.

What if they have a question? What if they are trying to text back some really important information — say, an address change?

Your brand won’t get that information, nor will it necessarily look to the customer as though you didn’t get it. They’re expecting the natural rhythm of a real-time text message conversation, so it won’t leave a good impression if you don’t respond.

From a technology standpoint, since this is how every other type of SMS communication works, there’s no reason for them to think you didn’t receive it. This leads us to another massive issue with one-way SMS:

2. It is frustrating and primitive.

The point of SMS messaging for ecommerce customers is to make things easier for them, not more difficult. You can get them the information they need in the place they already are (on their phone). It’s a great idea!

Until you ignore the fact that SMS messaging is two-way. Customers expect that there will be someone –– even a robot –– on the other end of that text. You expect that you can tell them something or ask them something.

And if that information doesn’t go through or isn’t responded to? You can bet the customer will be frustrated.

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While it’s helpful that Old Navy sets up an auto-responder for inbound texts, imagine the delight if a customer actually got the information they needed as a response.

Sure, having one-way SMS might make things more convenient from an awareness of information standpoint. Yet, it's primitive to think that you could implement such technology without acknowledging and solving for the way customers currently use this channel in their lives.

3. It doesn’t deliver on your brand promise.

One-way SMS messaging is typically focused on operational messages or on conversion metrics. Few, if any, use SMS messaging as a way to capture customer engagement via top-of-the-funnel leads, or as a way to continue engaging your customers, or as a way to really prove out your brand’s value and dedication to your mission.

And that’s because you can’t really do that effectively with one-way SMS. Sure, you can send customers through to an SMS nurture stream — but people respond more to SMS than they do to email. And if you don't respond? Or haven't accounted for their response? Well...now you’re back to #2 on this list.

Don’t worry — we’ve got plenty of SMS marketing examples of brands delivering on brand promise with two-way SMS messaging here in a bit.

How can businesses use two-way SMS?

The benefits of two-way SMS ecommerce messaging are multifold, but perhaps one of the biggest is this: so few others are doing it.

Imagine being back in time — Outlander-style — to 2011. Facebook ad costs are low. The Great Recession is leveling off. You put a few bucks behind some ads and see a massive spike in sales — and notice that pretty much no one else is doing this.

Gold mine.

The Great Jones Case Study

That’s what two-way SMS marketing is right now for ecommerce brands. There is one brand that comes to mind, and their strategy has received coverage from publications like TechCrunch to Modern Retail and more: Great Jones.

They put the number on a banner across their entire site:

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It’s one of the main CTAs on their Instagram account:

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And this text line, unlike so many others out there, is not one-way. Customers can text back. And the Great Jones crew will jump into action.

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“We don’t have a large team doing this,” co-founder Sierra Tishgart told TechCrunch. “This is very much an experiment for us. Gaby is answering the questions. We’re on our own text thread with seven of us in the office contributing, but it’s really going to be relying on Gaby’s (Great Jones’ Customer Experience Manager) expertise [and] a large database of recipes.”

Why invest in something so high touch? It's “a natural extension of the brand,” explains Tishgart.

“We really want this to feel like that you are in the middle of making pasta and your sauce isn’t landing — how would you look for help there? I would text somebody. We really realized that is just the fastest, most immediate, and natural form of communication.”

The Summersalt Case Study

Summersalt is another use case of a brand that has hopped into the two-way SMS messaging game. They actually combine more of an automated approach with customized responses based on a customer’s reply.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Summersalt opened up a free text message hotline—which it’s calling a “Joycast”—that will allow people to reach out if they need something to lift their mood.

In response, someone from Summersalt’s “customer happiness” team will send over a 10-minute meditation video, self-care ideas, or a puppy GIF.

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If the team gets a text or an email from someone that suggests a more serious mental health emergency, a team member will flag it and direct that person to an organization that can provide the help they need, such as the National Institutes of Mental Health.

This new line is run by 17 customer experience employees who worked remotely before the pandemic, and the team plans to keep the line open indefinitely.

How ecommerce brands and retailers can get started with two way SMS

Before we get into how brands can get started with two-way SMS, first we must issue a word of warning that comes with texting customers in general.

You must comply with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) when texting customers. Otherwise, you might end up with a class-action lawsuit similar to Ralph Lauren and others.

The law says that you must have a customer’s permission to text them. You also must stop texting them once they’ve asked you to — or face a potential penalty of $500 to $1,500 per text you sent.

That said, to get started and follow TCPA, here is what you can do:

1. Update your Terms & Services on your site to include information about your text messaging policies and outlining a consumer’s rights. Visit this support article for a simple template you can use.

2. If you use Shopify, go ahead and allow for customers to checkout with their phone number and to add their number in after purchase to get delivery updates. This will help to set a precedent with any customers that you do text them, and that when you do, it is important information.

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3. Launch a campaign to collect numbers for SMS. You can do this either by launching a banner or pop-up on your site or through email to existing contacts.

What the campaign is can vary, too. Maybe you are allowing folks to get 10% off their order, or sign up for a VP program and secret drops. Whatever it is, make sure it aligns well with your brand.

4. Launch a hotline or some kind of helpful two-way SMS messaging line. Here, offer recipes, advice, funny dog gifs, whatever it is that aligns with your brand, and that your customer experience reps can help answer quickly. You may want to also prepare material for those reps to make sure they answer in on-brand ways, and have resources available for potential questions or tricky situations.

5. Make sure that for any of this, you use tools like Postscript that automatically detect any type of unsubscribe message (N, no, stop, quit, etc) and will remove those users from your stream. This will make sure you stay compliant without having to keep you up at night.

Building Your Own Two-Way SMS Application to Converse with Customers

You can correspond directly with customers 1:1 inside Postscript. This allows you to answer any questions, handle customer support, or close sales via chat. You can forward communications to your support email and manage everything in one place. Or even launch hotlines!

That said, some people prefer to build their own. So, we’ll cover one popular way you can do that: using Twilio.

Twilio

With Twilio, you will need to essentially build the system yourself — and use additional applications outside of Twilio to make it happen, like Zapier.

  • Pros: It’s affordable
  • Cons: There is no built-in compliance, nor a native CRM. You will have to build all automation and opt-in forms from scratch, and it requires engineering resources to build and maintain (which begins to really make the “affordable” pro less so).

Outside of Twilio, you could also use Vonage Nexmo or Messagebird, but beware: all these services provide is an API. In order to go the DIY route, you’ll need to build your own code and platform essentially. This means that you’ll need to figure out compliance, automation, and opt-ins on your own, but also build out a UI/UX, a connection to customer data for your ecommerce store or integrations with popular CRMs like Zendesk, Gorgias or Kustomer.

In other words, you’ll be rebuilding a wheel, spending a lot of money on something that shouldn’t be a core competency for your business. Your goal is to make sales, win customer loyalty, and grow the business, not build a new SaaS technology entirely.

What Are Your Other Options?

Use a tool like Postscript that has compliance built-in, integrates in a click with your Shopify store, or any website through an API, has a native CRM and even reporting and analytics. No engineering required.

Purpose-Built Ecommerce SMS Automation Platforms for Customer Conversations

All right — you’ve made it all the way to the end. It is clear that you are serious about setting up a two-way SMS messaging strategy for your brand.

That’s amazing! These kinds of strategies are newer to the industry, which means if you execute on them well, you have a better chance of getting press coverage and earning a leg up over competitors.

Just know one thing before you head off to get started: you don’t have to build this all on your own. Tools like Postscript enable ecommerce SMS marketing and messaging out-of-the-box, which is a fancy term for something you can set up in 10 minutes or less.

That setup time includes:

  • Full compliance with un-subscription options
  • Copy and paste terms and services language
  • Pre-built phone number capture campaigns and nurture streams
  • A native CRM for all the numbers you collect
  • An analytics dashboard to make sure you are getting the ROI you need (and more).

You don’t have to pay anyone to set any of that up. It is already done — and ready for you to customize, whether you decide to go the route of one-way SMS messaging, up the ante to two-way SMS messaging (recommended), or do both.

A final word of warning, this time not about TCPA. Because the SMS marketing world is new, there are tools and services out there that appear cheap, but that can really put you in a bind. For instance, mass texting platforms. These aren’t as DIY as the Twilio example, and appear really, really cheap in comparison to a lot of options out there.

However, the name should raise a red flag. As we’ve already discussed, TCPA is strict. Mass texting platforms are an easy way to wind up with a large fine. Be careful out there — and respect your customer’s and your prospect’s data and privacy!

And make sure you aren’t adding a significant workload to your own plate with developers and engineering. Postscript can help, and the trial is free.

Two-Way SMS Messaging FAQs

How do you chat with customers over SMS?

How you chat with customers over SMS will depend on the tool you use. For some, the messages will go straight to your phone, which can be convenient. However, make sure that whatever tool you use, you are capturing the conversational data in a CRM. This will help you to measure the success of the program, as well as customer lifetime loyalty — overall impacting your CAC:LTV.

What tools and technology do you need to chat with customers over SMS?

There are a variety of tools and technologies you can use to chat with customers over SMS. Postscript is a tool that allows a variety of conversational SMS messaging strategies for ecommerce brands, with built-in phone number capture campaigns and nurture streams. The tool also has metrics and reporting, as well as a CRM and ability for messaging customers individually from within the platform.

You could also create your own solution using Twilio or a variety of other applications.

How does SMS chat improve customer experience and increase loyalty?

SMS chat, especially two-way SMS messaging technology, improves customer experience and increases loyalty by building upon a brand’s positioning and delivering on their values. It allows customers to easily get in contact with the brand, and for the brand to deliver desired services to customers (and prospects) whether that is delivery notifications via SMS or a hotline that texts over personalized recipes.

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Corinne Watson
Author: Corinne Watson

Corinne Watson is a researcher and writer at Postscript. Prior to Postscript, she was on the team at fin-tech startup Skills Fund, then led partner content marketing at BigCommerce. When she’s not content-ing, she is cooking, gardening, or diving into a new book. Keep up with her on Twitter.