The Medium is the Message: Best Practices Guide to SMS Marketing

Successfully integrate SMS marketing messages into your marketing strategy, and pick the best software to get the job done.
Article Outline

SMS (Short Messaging Services) is a daily communication channel for nearly 65% of the global population. Though many people have now grown up with SMS technology at their fingertips, it is only recently evolving as a key part of marketing and communication strategies for both B2B and B2C businesses. Widespread use of text messaging, coupled with modern technologies like marketing automation makes SMS marketing a smart and effective way to connect with leads and customers throughout the buyer’s journey.

Use this best practices guide to plan, build, improve and successfully implement your SMS marketing programs on an ongoing basis (or improve the efficiency and success of those you already run). Dive in for specific tips and more on:

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Ready to delight your customers with SMS marketing messages that excite and engage? Let’s go!

Key Advantages of SMS Marketing

There is no doubt that SMS messaging is an attractive communication channel for businesses across industries, from manufacturing to banking to software. In any of these sectors, and so many others, it’s safe to bet that much of your customer base is using SMS already. With the right planning and the right tools, SMS can bring advantages for your marketing, sales and customer service programs, because of its benefits in immediacy, personalization, universality and user experience.


SMS alerts are immediate. Users are conditioned to respond to their devices right away when they hear that chime, or see that screen light up. If you have the right strategies, content and timing in place, this immediately can work in your favor for automated SMS marketing.

For example, say you provide B2B products and services. You can use SMS to alert customers and prospects of upcoming events, like a webinar starting in an hour. The reminder can allow your new lead enough time to get to her desk for your demo, reschedule the call, or seek a webinar recording, if she has to miss a live session. In each case, the notification creates options for the recipient, and builds connectivity with the brand.


Used in connection with CRM and marketing automation, your text messages can make a big impact with personalization. One way to achieve this is to use customer data and geotargeting to deliver relevant messages that inspire immediate action. Personalized messages that use the recipient’s first name and reference a recent activity also are going to feel more personal, and therefore are more likely to be read and responded to. Ultimately, the personalization helps cement the bond between the brand and the SMS recipient.

Take this as a for instance: Retail businesses can use the known history of transactions and marketing engagement to segment buyers, and drive follow up purchases with a strategic suggestion or discount.


Nearly everyone on the planet with a mobile phone has SMS capability. That means using SMS can provide an advantage for building relationships at every stage of the buyer’s journey, wherever that buyer exists. This ubiquity allows businesses of all types to reach customers when internet connectivity is not available. A hospitality business might use SMS to remind customers how to get to a remote resort location, or alert the guest about an important change to their itinerary.


Ultimately, SMS offers an important channel for businesses that want to build better relationships with their customers and prospects. Used correctly, SMS marketing can be an important complement to other channels that are part of your overall strategy, and help you build engagement and grow your business. Any brand can use SMS as a direct relationship building channel. Try using SMS to offer exclusive pre-release access to a product, or deep discounts for loyal customers.

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Finding customers at exactly the right moment is one of the primary advantages of using SMS marketing software.

Creating Your SMS Marketing Plan

An effective SMS marketing plan has several important components, some of which you may already have in place, and some of which you may need to think about before moving too quickly and risking an SMS flop. It’s important to consider your plan ahead of time, so that you are prepared for all the possibilities, and therefore provide a great experience for the people you text. Remember, the subscriber controls the conversation, not the sender.

Here are few tips to get you started with your SMS marketing strategy:

  • Think about who would benefit most from your messages.
  • How can you provide an enhanced experience for that person / group?
  • Do you have the right tool to segment your messages and send at the right time?
  • What’s your approach to responding when someone texts back?
  • How are you going to make sure you stay compliant with regulations and guidelines around SMS marketing?

Think about approaching SMS marketing as one piece of your larger overall marketing strategy, and clearly identify when and where it will best enhance the experience of your leads and customers. The use of SMS should be prompted by your strategy, and not the other way around.

Getting Buy-in for Your SMS Marketing Plan

In order to get this SMS marketing idea off the ground, the first step is getting buy-in from your team. Building a proposal helps you get started, because it explains how SMS marketing can benefit your customers and business. Defining parameters like expected volume of messages and sending frequency, as well as success measures, will help you better define expectations.

Getting organizational buy-in is important for any project like this, because a new communications channel will always represent opportunity as well as some degree of risk. It’s essential to transparently describe possible options for how your SMS marketing program will be executed. Using this document or others that describe best practices can help you define your program’s parameters and obtain buy-in from your teams.

For some, talking about including SMS in your marketing programs may create a hostile backlash from customers and prospects, but SMS marketing is not necessarily a negative. When best practices are pursued, SMS can provide a unique opportunity to build brand affinity and lifetime customer relationships.

Today, many best practice parameters and compliance rules for SMS are well-defined, and partnering with your customers to set expectations and balance is a good path forward. After all, given the possibility of delivering improved brand experiences to customers through SMS, both you and your customers should want this to work perfectly. And you can do so.

Once your team is on-board, it’s time to start thinking more about what you want to accomplish with SMS marketing, and who you’ll contact. Defining the volume of SMS messages you intend to send at which frequency and on which topics will help you build a proposal that your team can succeed with.

Defining Your SMS Marketing Plan

It’s important to note that SMS messaging is not email. Not only do recipients have to explicitly opt-in to receive SMS (unlike email), but each send has a cost associated with it, and your ability to send graphics or long form messaging does not convey to SMS. You should not expect to scale SMS as you can email. Instead, use it when and where it matters.

As noted above, SMS is a great channel for bonding with customers or sending notifications, but keep in mind it’s likely that your recipients will both open and react to your message within a few minutes of receipt. Where an email message may be included in hundreds of other daily messages that can be ignored, SMS messages are much more immediate.

Because you intend for those who volunteer to receive your messages to enjoy the experience, stepping into the channel with a solid communication plan is the best way to ensure success. For example, some businesses use SMS as the first outreach channel for opted-in buyers, or as a supplemental channel to reinforce email messaging or to add a sense of urgency or exclusivity.

Building your SMS Marketing List

No company can get into SMS marketing without a list of people to text. So, it makes sense that building a list is one of the first tasks to consider once you’ve built your program’s parameters. Getting the first opt-ins for SMS requires you to adapt form fields to include a mobile phone number, and an additional module for explicit SMS opt-ins, including SMS definitions, rules, opt- out availability, and expectations, with an opt-in checkbox.

One best practice for building your SMS list includes adding an SMS opt-in on your forms as a default. This allows you to start building an SMS opt-in list while building or considering how, exactly, to execute an SMS marketing program. While it warms customers and prospects to the possibility of SMS messaging from your organization. Doing so also allows you to build separate lists of opted-in and opted-out (or not yet opted-in) customer lists. Having both will allow for simpler control when you initiate your SMS program.

To entice customers and prospects to opt-in to SMS, consider including an opt-in message in your email and landing page footers and lead gen forms. Here are some ideas for building your SMS list:

  • Run exclusive promotions and campaigns that are open only through SMS, for example access to special content or an insiders-only deal.
  • Alert B2B customers of software or product renewals or of critical product changes.
  • Offer exclusive access to brand influencers and events.
  • Create a unique shopping experience with tailored suggestions as they browse your site or store.

Setting Expectations for SMS Marketing

Once someone opts into your list, it’s really helpful to set expectations around your SMS interactions with them. Consider sending a one-time welcome text to explain how your company uses SMS, remind what they’ve signed up for, or to deliver a promised incentive.

Here are some ideas of what else you can include with your welcome message to set clear expectations and retain your SMS marketing list.

  • How often you send messages
  • What they will be about
  • Specific benefits of receiving SMS from your company
  • Opt-out process
  • Whether or not you reply to texts
  • How to get more information or help

When you start sending SMS, you should be able to track how many credits you’re planning to use to do so, and once completed, how many remain. Your program’s reporting should also include a record of how many intended recipient numbers were not SMS eligible, to allow you to clean your lists and optimize your outreach.

Relevant SMS Fees

As we have all likely seen, “message and data rates may apply” when sending text messages. Accordingly, when you’re ready to launch your SMS initiative, it’s important to understand that there are costs involved when sending SMS messages. Most SMS marketing vendors have created a pre-purchase credits model that simplify individualized costs and adapt to international sending and sending multiple messages.

We therefore recommend purchasing SMS credits from your provider at a reasonable level to allow yourself to scale your program as you need it to throughout the year. At Act-On, for example, we enable customers to send SMS around the world through a tiered credit model that aligns to the local cost of sending SMS messages. This credit model makes it easier on marketers to plan and create messages, knowing how many credits they currently have and expect to use when sending an SMS message.

Regulations for SMS Marketing

Successful implementation of your SMS marketing plan can only happen when following the appropriate regulations around SMS marketing. What’s the point of spending time and resources on planning and implementing great programs only to have them shut down as soon as you start sending?

While each global region and many nations have implemented some level of regulations around how, why, and how much SMS can be used to engage with recipients, there are also best practices that should govern how marketers use SMS. Ultimately, SMS messaging guidelines and relevant regulations are designed to ensure a positive experience for everyone.

Regulations on SMS messaging in the US require the following:

  • Express written consent to receive SMS marketing prior to receiving the first message
  • Predefining SMS messaging topics, messaging triggers, and frequency
  • Disclosure of any potential fees associated with any text messaging
  • Confirming enrollment and sharing data privacy, opt-out details and where to get help
  • No SMS before 8 am and after 9 pm in local times

Best practices suggest the following as well:

  • Sending a welcome message when recipients opt-in, including details on what they’ve signed up for, who you are, and how they got signed up
  • Providing clear examples of the type of content recipients should expect
  • Clearly informing recipients before changing messaging types and criteria
  • Sending SMS only within business hours, and not sending business content on weekends
  • Not sending blast messages with irrelevant content to a generic audience, with overgeneralized and inapplicable messages, no personalization or no actions to take

For more information on SMS marketing regulations, take a look at our complete and authoritative guide on the topic.

a man in an outside space listens to headphones and uses his smartphone to receive sms marketing messages
Since our phones are so important to our lives, they offer a great chance to win over customers and prospects with SMS marketing.

Implementing Your SMS Marketing Plan

Once you’ve defined the outreach strategy, it’s time to start executing your program. Whatever your plans for SMS marketing, there are a few first steps to ensure your program succeeds.

As a reminder, your SMS marketing plan should include:

  • Which audience segment to target
  • The position of the message in your communications workflow
  • Length of text and whether you’ll include a link
  • Personal and compelling messaging
  • Desired outcome and calls to action
  • Plan for responding

Start Small with SMS Marketing Messages

Make sure your messages are getting through with an incremental outreach program. There are some delicacies to doing SMS right, as we’ve discussed, and it’s advisable to do some initial testing before going full force into SMS marketing.

When you’re first getting started, you may want to limit the scope of your SMS topics and frequency. Try targeting opt-ins for a particular use case, like an event or a loyalty program. With that in mind, you can strategically place your opt-in forms where those particular buyers will see them, and where your incentives to opt-in speak to them. Be very clear about what they’re signing up for, and stick to that only.

With a smaller handful of opted-in customers, you can send relevant messaging with a measurable outcome. Something like a loyal customer discount or coupon, or a live event invite to meet the speakers, where you can assess a direct correlation between the messaging you sent and the outcomes. In both of these cases, you’re also building a deeper relationship with your recipients.

It’s also important to not try to do too much with your first SMS messages. Keep it simple, keep it under 160 characters so it doesn’t potentially spill into two messages. Keep it in a single time zone so you don’t risk pinging people when they aren’t expecting it. Include a shortened URL to an exclusive landing page with some kind of benefit, so you can track clicks. Track responses, and see how people are taking it.

You can include personalization in your earliest sends, addressing the messages to individual recipients. You can schedule it to be sent at a certain time – 11:30 am with a coupon for a lunchbox – testing the features and functionality of your marketing automation SMS sending solution.

Ultimately, you want to build positive relationships with your recipients, and you want to prove the viability of your program. Those first SMS adventures should be designed to demonstrate success and reach a milestone you’ve set to determine whether or not it worked. If it didn’t come out quite as expected, you will not have gone down the SMS path so far that you can’t back up and try it again. Give yourself the ability to test and win or test and fail, and explore the opportunity to iterate, improve, and hit your targets.

Your business is unlike any other, and your customers and buyers are going to have unique relationships with your brand. If you can successfully use SMS to bridge gaps, to build brand attachment and loyalty, and better engage your advocates and loyalists, that’s a great success.

Timing your SMS Marketing Messages

Once you’ve got your team’s buy-in and defined what and how you want to use SMS to build customer engagement, and after you have acquired the credits you need to get started, there are a few additional operational elements to define.

Regulatory requirements dictate no SMS marketing messaging is permitted in off work-day hours. You’re not allowed to and should not want to message people in the middle of the night or during dinner. Your best practices should define sending hours and your SMS delivery system should stop you from sending in off-hours.

For the most part, country codes and area codes can help define the time zones of your recipients, and automated marketing solutions can help with ensuring your SMS timing is scheduled appropriately.

In some cases, you may put into place SMS messaging based on an activity your recipient completes, like making a purchase at a point-of-sale in a physical store, or making an online order in the middle of the night, or registering for an event that triggers a receipt or confirmation SMS message. If your system sends an automatic confirmation, let your customer know to expect that text message in response to their purchase or reservation.

At Act-On, we send confirmation SMS messages to opted-in customers and prospects who register for our webinars one hour before they start. While our webinars are typically in the morning to allow for American and European registrants to attend, we can suppress the SMS message for any registrants that are in Asia or Australia, for example. And we can include links to access the recordings when they are available.

Responsiveness of your SMS Marketing Messages

While your SMS marketing program may be mostly outbound, there are occasions when you’ll want to do more than track opt-outs. It’s important to think about responsiveness when

building out your SMS marketing program, because users will have expectations, depending on the messaging you send, and how effectively you’ve set expectations.

Can your SMS marketing tool react beyond responding to ‘reply STOP to opt-out’ and removing the user from youst list? In some cases, your automated marketing solution can identify key terms – beyond STOP or Opt-Out – to generate the next component of an SMS conversation. If a brand texts about a furniture sale to opted-in customers, and the recipient responds with an “I need help with my product,” that message could generate an automatic response with customer support contact information.

Bi-directional SMS based on recipient responses has the potential to further enrich that customer’s experience with the brand. And unlike where an actual individual may actively respond to the messages, an automated solution for SMS can scale and adapt as the engagement grows.

Defining Metrics for your SMS Marketing

Marketing metrics help prioritize decisions, drive optimization of cross-channel programs, and allow marketers to build on successful efforts. And the same is true with SMS marketing programs, even where they are used for limited audiences.

Keep in mind that your intention with an SMS marketing program is to reinforce and enrich a known buyer’s relationship with your brand. Therefore, some of the measures that matter will be more qualitative, and may not show immediate results. For example, unlike email, open rates are not tracked with SMS. But you can track recipient responses (how many TACO responses did you get?), recipient click through rates where you include a URL, or numbers of customers that stick with your SMS marketing program over the long term.

SMS connects with an already highly engaged audience seeking benefit and value from your brand. Accordingly, recognizing when a known customer purchases more from you after your SMS message was sent can be an indicator of its effectiveness. Using SMS delivered coupons, or seeing an uptick in webinar attendance after SMS reminders are sent can be indicators of a program that’s working.

Marketing Automation and SMS

It is only possible to implement your SMS marketing plan at scale through automated SMS sending solutions. Automated solutions enable businesses to send SMS to opted-in recipients at the right time – whether triggered by a recipient’s recent activities, or a calendar event, or a purchase history – with the right message, delivering a personalized experience. Because automated systems send based on lists and tracking systems, they greatly reduce the likelihood of sending SMS to non-opted-in recipients, or exceeding the promised volume of messages within a prescribed period of time.

Integrating SMS into marketing automation platforms also enables better control over when recipients receive messages in a communications sequence and workflow, how messages can reiterate or reinforce critical messages also shared via email (or at an event, or through a website), and the degree of adaptation in those messages based on response data, replies, and other SMS-specific behaviors. In an automated solution, marketers can set trigger points for immediate follow up SMS messages, including thank you notes for purchases, resort check-ins, delivery schedules, and many other immediately meaningful notifications.

The fact that you can trigger, time, and send the entire flow of information to the right person at the right time is marketing automation. While it could all be managed by an individual waiting to register visitor activity and then sending a series of one-to-one personalized messages, that’s not scalable, the quality of the experience and lack of errors or missteps is defined by the marketing automation solution into which the outreach elements and messages are built.

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