SMS Marketing 101: 6 Essentials for Getting Started

A text message with good news can change your whole day for the better. Imagine it’s a Tuesday. You’re drowning with work, and you’re already thinking about all the errands you have to run this weekend. Checking your email is the last thing on your mind. 

Then your phone buzzes. Your favorite stationery company is holding a flash sale, and SMS subscribers get early access starting tomorrow.

Suddenly, your day gets a whole lot better. You needed more notepads and envelopes, and now you get first dibs on a major sale—all because you gave the company your phone number.

Giving your phone number to a business feels like a big commitment. We expect to see marketing materials in our emails, but for many people, texting is a more private channel of communication. We get emails from brands, but we get texts from people. SMS marketing changes that.

SMS marketing is the practice of promoting your brand through text messages or SMS, which stands for “Short Message Service.” (All SMS messages are texts. Most—but not all—texts are SMS. Here’s a great article explaining the nuances if you’re still confused.) 

People spend more time on their phones than ever, especially thanks to the pandemic. All that screen time makes SMS marketing an effective channel to promote sales, send transactional emails, and keep your audience updated on your business. 

If you’re new to SMS marketing, don’t worry. Here are 6 basic principles for getting started!

1. Get permission.

There are lots of rules regarding SMS marketing and what kinds of messages you can send to people. The most important rule is this: you must have explicit permission to text someone before you can add them to your list.

SimpleTexting has a great article that covers the regulations surrounding SMS marketing. Basically, your audience members must opt in to your SMS list, and you need to be upfront about the kinds of messages you plan on sending. 

Are you promising exclusive discounts, early access to new products, or weekly tips and tricks? Or is your SMS campaign mainly for transactional purposes, like tracking shipping or reminding customers of upcoming appointments? When you invite your audience to join your SMS list, make it clear what kinds of texts you’ll be sending. 

Your first text to any recipient should be a confirmation text that tells your audience who you are, why you’re texting them, and how they can opt out. You also need to include that message and data rates may apply.

For a more in-depth explanation of the laws surrounding SMS marketing, see SimpleTexting.

2. Be brief.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in SMS marketing is the character limit. SMS messages are limited to 160 characters. This includes links, symbols, and emojis.

160 characters isn’t much—about 20–40 words. Keeping your messages under the character limit means you’ll have to get creative. Try these tips for shortening your messages:

  • Use contractions when possible.
  • Try a URL shortener like Bitly or TinyURL to reduce the characters in your links.
  • Swap “USD” or “EUR” for $ and € symbols, respectively.
  • Check if any symbols you’re using count as more than one character. See this article from Messente for a list of symbols that reduce your character count.

Write your message without worrying about the character limit. Then go through your message word by word and cut anything that isn’t strictly necessary. Rinse and repeat until your message is under the 160-character limit.

3. Include a clear call to action.

Why are you sending text messages to your audience? What do you want your audience to do once they receive your message? 

When you’ve answered those questions, you can create a clear call to action (CTA). A CTA is the obvious “next step” for your audience, like making a purchase, joining an email list, reading your blog, or scheduling an appointment. 

Your audience should know exactly what you want them to do after reading your message. If you’re promoting a flash sale, include a link to your online store. If you want readers to watch your latest YouTube video, send them a link to the video. Make it as easy as possible for your audience to take action.

4. Use dynamic typography.

The grammatical “rules” of texting are different from more formal channels like email or print. You can get away with breaking traditional rules on SMS, especially when it comes to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

Your SMS should find a balance between readability and excitement. If you type your SMS messages just like your emails, you run the risk of being too boring. But if you spam your audience with emojis, capital letters, and text abbreviations, they won’t be able to read your message.

Here are some ways to liven up your SMS marketing:

  • Use a headline in ALL CAPS to get your reader’s attention.
  • Try breaking your message into 1- or 2-line paragraphs.
  • Emphasize important words with capitalization. (“Click NOW to get your 20%-off code.”)
  • Experiment with simple text abbreviations. (Think “thx” for “thanks,” “TYSM” for “thank you so much,” or “ICYMI” for “in case you missed it.”) Abbreviations will help your text messages feel like they’re coming from a real person—but don’t go overboard. 

Do some research on your target audience’s age range. See what kind of text messages they respond to best, and try to cater to their preferences.

5. Play with emojis.

Emojis are eye-catching, playful, and expressive. You can often communicate more with a single emoji than several words. People expect to see emojis in their text messages, so you can use them without fear of being seen as “unprofessional.”

However, you should use emojis in conjunction with words, rather than replacing words. Your message should still make sense if the emojis were removed. Think of emojis like sprinkles on a cupcake. They enhance the experience, but they aren’t essential.

A word of caution: emojis may take up more than one character, so don’t be surprised if you have to cut a few words to fit your emojis.

6. Make it easy to unsubscribe.

The last thing you want to do is annoy your audience by sending them unwanted texts. Make the unsubscribe option easy and obvious, so you only send SMS marketing to people who want to hear from you.

You’ve probably received texts from a business that include a phrase like “Reply STOP to stop receiving these messages.” This simple sentence makes it easy and clear for disinterested audience members to unsubscribe. Consider changing the wording to fit your brand voice, but don’t overcomplicate it. 

Not only is having an easy unsubscribe option in compliance with laws surrounding SMS marketing, it’s a considerate gesture. You’re telling your audience that their experience is more important than your marketing.


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