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SMS Short Codes: What Are They & Do You Need to Be Using One?

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Table of Contents

The less your customer has to remember, the better.

That’s why so many SMS marketers like the idea of using an SMS short code. But beyond its memorability, running bulk SMS campaigns through a short code isn’t only advantageous—it may be completely necessary.

But what is an SMS short code, and why might you consider one for your next SMS text campaign? We’ve broken everything down from A to Z. Or...in the case of short codes, from 1 to 9.

A short code is defined as a brief five or six-digit phone number for commercial texting purposes. For commercial uses, an SMS short code is a handy way to build a high volume text message campaign. Just as you would want to create a memorable “1-800” number for customers calling in, an SMS short code makes it easy for users to opt in to your text message marketing.

How do you text an SMS short code?

If you’ve ever donated money to the Red Cross simply by sending a text message keyword to a brief number, you’ve used an SMS short code. You enter the short code as if it were any person’s phone number, enter the keyword, and send.

What are short codes for texting?

Short codes are typically designated for commercial use, allowing companies to send out mass SMS campaigns at higher rates than with longer codes.

The uses and benefits of SMS short codes

The short answer: Fewer digits provide more simplicity. However, there are many potential uses for SMS short codes that are ideal for text marketing campaigns, such as:

  • SMS and MMS capabilities. Whether you’re running a text message campaign or using MMS to showcase a specific product, short codes can handle both. Regulators permit SMS short codes to send out mass SMS at a much faster rate, often around 1500 messages per second (MPS).
  • Memorability. Using fewer numbers means your customers are more likely to remember your SMS short code when they hear it. It’s also easier to sign up for a campaign via short code. Some mass media advertisements (like television) have seen as high as 2.4% conversion rates when advertising a short code.
  • Quick blasts. You can use short codes to send messages to an entire customer base quickly. Plus, customers respond to text messages faster than they would an email. Average response times from a text message can be as little as 90 seconds. With long codes (traditional 10-digit phone numbers), sending out these “blasts” to subscribers can take a little bit longer, since the average MPS on long-codes is 25-100.

Also consider that a message from an SMS short code has to be read before it’s deleted, leading to incredible 98% engagement rates. Compare that to 20% of emails read on average, or just 12% of Facebook posts.

Using keywords and short codes to opt in

With dedicated short codes ready to go, you can create a simple marketing campaign that makes it easier for potential customers to opt in.

Take the example of the Red Cross:

Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief!

The SMS short code here? 90999. REDCROSS is the keyword that activates an opt-in.

Dedicated short codes like 90999 work because of memorability. It’s a five digit number, and only uses two different digits. And it works.

As the Red Cross realized the importance of text donations, it was able to ramp up donation efforts from Katrina, eventually receiving 8% of its direct contributions to Haitian earthquake relief from texts. It also built inroads into introducing a whole new generation to donating to the Red Cross.

From the customer’s perspective, this kind of donation is as low-friction as purchasing gum at the grocery counter. They simply have to text the appropriate number and the donation is automatically added to their phone bill.

Short codes can be advertised throughout all sorts of mediums, from social media to branded packaging.

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Eat Your Coffee includes shortcodes on its product packaging

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Outer Aisle leverages short codes within an Instagram story

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Olipop uses short codes within its emails to encourage opt-ins to its text-based promos

How to get short codes for text message marketing

There are a few ways to get a short code. All short codes are owned by the US Short Code Administration, a program run by the CTIA. Brands can either go directly to the Short Code Administration to start the leasing process, or they can lease through their SMS provider (like Postscript.) When you use your SMS provider, they often can do the entire process on your behalf, which is easier.

How long does it take to get a short code?

The process of getting a short code takes 4-8 weeks as of February 2021.

Since the approval process takes so long, you’ll want to make sure that you take your time with your application. Which SMS short code is really best for you? Can you live with the short code for a long time? Once the submissions begin, you’ll play the waiting game.

Shared short codes versus dedicated long codes

Shared short codes are codes that are used by an SMS provider for several brands at once. They were a good fit for brands who wanted the deliverability of short codes at an affordable price.

Until recently, shared short codes were used by several SMS providers, including Postscript. The popularity of SMS marketing paired with an increase in fraud on short codes led the major mobile carriers (including AT&T and TMobile) to move away from this practice — instead offering customers long codes or dedicated short codes. We have an in-depth post on our blog outlining this change.

If you see success with using the SMS channel and have a budget allotted, a dedicated short code can be worth the investment. Consider these advantages:

  • Brand control. A large brand-name retailer might want to control anything associated with its bulk SMS campaigns. Using a dedicated short code is the only way to guarantee that sort of control.
  • Reliability. When you have a dedicated short code, you’ll control whether your bulk SMS campaigns meet the rules of all the wireless carriers. You can continue to use the dedicated short code as long as it remains profitable.

Dedicated short codes can be anywhere from $950-$3,000 a month, depending on how you obtain your short code, whether or not it is a vanity short code (more below), and what provider you are using.

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Vanity short codes explained

A vanity short code is one that you select for yourself exclusively, rather than being assigned a short code by an SMS software provider or the Short Code Administration.

They don’t quite work like vanity license plates do. You won’t get to choose letters instead of numbers. But companies use vanity short codes when they want something memorable. For example, 33033 is more memorable than 31842.

However, some brands do use vanity short codes to match their numbers with the text pad. KMART, for example, used 56278. To them, that sort of memorability was worth the investment in a vanity short code.

SMS short code costs and what to expect from pricing

Pricing for these short codes typically run anywhere from $950 to $3,000, depending on a few factors:

  • The country in which you’re submitting your application
  • Setup fee, especially associated with the mass text software you’re going to use (with Postscript, there is no setup fee)

Additionally, you can expect both leases and service charges that can run in the four figures. This is a rough estimate of what you can expect:

  • Vanity numbers: Roughly 150% the price of a randomly-assigned number.
  • United States: A common quarterly cost is $3,000 for a randomly-assigned number, or $11,000 for the annual option.
  • Canada: Typically lower costs, especially for “self-leased” numbers.
  • UK: Higher (almost double) the quarterly costs for randomly-assigned numbers.

How much does it cost to send SMS messages directly? That depends on your provider. Here at Postscript, the cost of a single SMS starts at $0.01 after our latest price reduction.

Why are SMS short codes so expensive?

A bit soured by the expensive costs quoted above? There are a few reasons for this:

  • Market factors. Simply put, if the large brands are bidding up the prices on short codes and vanity short codes, that demand pushes up prices.
  • Commercial use. Businesses buy these codes, not individuals. 6-digit numbers and 5-digit numbers are simply more “commercial.” Many people associate long codes—7 digits and up—with personal texting, which sometimes can make bulk SMS a problem.
  • Capacity. Short codes send out bulk SMS at a higher rate, making them most effective to companies with large marketing budgets.
  • Toll-free messaging. Short codes have it, incentivizing customers to engage and opt in to bulk SMS campaigns with short codes.
  • Work. Between carrier approval and the regulations overseeing commercial MMS messages, there’s a surprising amount of red tape to cut through. That increases costs.

Of course, using a “long code” for SMS isn’t quite the same.

Short codes vs. long codes: what you need to know

Given the expenses, why use short codes at all? Simple. Short codes can send outgoing bulk SMS and MMS at 100 messages per second, making them more suited for commercial use. For large companies, SMS marketing simply won’t work without higher volume.

Dedicated SMS, of course, doesn’t require short codes. Long codes can also work on a more limited basis. Here are a few key differences that separate short codes from long codes:

  • Oversight. Short codes have to be vetted and approved by the carrier. But traditional 7-digit phone numbers are subject to almost no review. This means avoiding potential issues such as suspensions for heavy traffic.
  • Toll-free messaging only applies to an SMS short code, which makes it more appealing for a large number of users to join a dedicated SMS campaign.
  • Functionality. Surprisingly, long codes can win out here. Both short codes and long codes have functions like delivery receipts, but long codes are also voice-enabled for a more personalized approach.

When should you use short codes?

These are a few factors that might tell you whether you’re an ideal candidate for using short codes in your next mobile phone campaign:

  • When you have the budget and market capacity to justify securing a short code of your own
  • When you want more data, such as robust real-time analytics to measure the results of your campaign
  • When your capacity for text campaigns is so high that you don’t want to run afoul of major telecommunications carriers

When should you use long codes?

While short codes are the “gold standard” of SMS marketing because of their throughput and MMS capabilities, long codes are still an option for certain use cases.

Consider using a long code approach when the following apply:

  • When you have a small audience
  • When you need to grow your SMS text capacity but need a more flexible budget
  • When you want to create a larger marketing effort via a mobile phone campaign but only want to test the waters first
  • If you want to test SMS before buying a short code
  • If you can’t wait for the long approval process before getting started

As of February 2021, some previous limitations of long codes for marketing are being lifted. Mobile carriers are building separate “routes” on long codes to facilitate automated messaging with high throughput (25-100 MPS). This is called 10DLC and will be live on all major carriers by early 2021.

The risks of using long codes when you should be using short codes

Of course, those aren’t the only elements that should factor into your decision. When you don’t use a short code and have a person opt in to receive your texts, you may be sending bulk SMS without express permission. This can run into problems with the TCPA, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Fines can run in excess of $500-$1,500 per message, so it’s best if you learn the regulations sooner rather than later. Here are a few rules to keep in mind:

  • You have to collect numbers with the consent of the number owner
  • You have to fulfill the offer made to entice the text engagement
  • You have to mention the name of your company
  • You have to mention the frequency of messages recipients can expect
  • You have to disclose the potential fees and costs of carriers

This is just a sampling of the rules you’ll have to abide by. With SMS short code numbers, you’ll find that it’s easier to automate the compliance of all of these rules with existing software.

International short codes explained

Short codes are issued and approved by each country. This is why you’ll see similar short codes available in both the U.S. and Canada, for example. To secure a more international presence, companies have to take their applications to the organizations in each country that regulate mass communications. Once approved, your short code is exclusive to that country, and not an international phone number.

Do SMS marketing automation platforms work with both?

You can engage in SMS marketing with both short and long codes, up to 10 characters. But whether your SMS marketing automation platform uses both is up to the provider.

The key here is whether you remain TCPA-compliant. Depending on the type of marketing you want to engage in, your SMS marketing automation platform should have robust features for ensuring this compliance.

Start using short codes for your SMS marketing

Short codes are a great way to add to your SMS marketing capacity, run analytics on your campaigns, and engage with people on their terms.

Ready to engage an SMS marketing campaign with a shortcode? Sign up to get a short code for your ecommerce business with Postscript.

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Launch your first SMS marketing campaign in minutes. All you need to get started is your Shopify URL.

Author: Kaleigh Moore

Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer for ecommerce companies.