The Only Guide You'll Need to SMS Marketing

Simple steps to actually pulling it off

Answer me this: Where’s your cell phone? I’d bet it’s nearby, at least within eyeshot. Mine is right next to my computer (albeit face down so I can focus).

In a world riddled with disruption and distractions, our phones are one of the few direct channels that can snag and keep our attention. We love our mobile devices, and businesses know it.

Today’s teenagers are receiving smartphones earlier than their older counterparts—most at age 12. For those currently between ages 18 and 24, the average age to receive a phone was 16. (That’s me ????????‍♀) For those 25 to 34, the average was 20.

Cell phones are deeply ingrained in our society and economy. We use them to shop, connect, navigate, teach, and entertain ourselves and our families. Despite the rise in messaging apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, the vast majority of smartphone users (94%) are still sending texts.

On top of that, 80% of people use texting for business—to chat with clients, vendors, coworkers, and customers.

Today’s consumers are accustomed to using smartphones and texts for a variety of purposes, both personal and professional. This trend has allowed businesses to reach their audiences in new and direct ways—with SMS marketing.

The use of SMS marketing grew almost 200% between 2015 and 2017 and continues to rise in popularity and effectiveness. This isn’t surprising, given that the average person responds to text messages within 90 seconds.

As a marketer or business owner, SMS marketing presents a unique opportunity to reach your audience in real-time, through a channel that promises near-immediate attention and personal engagement. Keep reading to learn how to get started with SMS marketing.

What is SMS marketing?

Short message service (SMS) marketing is the process of marketing your products or services through permission-based text messages that consumers receive on their mobile devices. To receive updates, discounts, reminders, and alerts, consumers are typically required to opt-in using a distinct shortcode.

This process is similar to subscribing to an email list. When consumers text an organization’s 5-digit shortcode, their phone numbers are stored in an SMS marketing software used by the organization to issue messages.

The goal of SMS marketing is three-fold:

  1. To build a database of engaged customers who are easily identifiable since they have to intentionally opt into your marketing messages.
  2. To send reminders, discounts, and updates that convert, retain, and re-engage customers.
  3. To reach consumers with marketing messages that have little to no interruption or require push-notification applications — such as social media or email.

SMS Marketing and Email Marketing

SMS marketing meets consumers where they are … whether that’s commuting to work, lounging on the couch, at the gym, or walking their dog. In this case, it’s about reach—when coupled with email marketing efforts, SMS can extend reach campaigns to prospective customers while they’re on the go.

1. Opt-In

SMS marketing requires a clear, intentional opt-in. This means that it’s safe to assume those consumers who join an SMS subscriber list are already interested in hearing more from the organization. This is similar to email marketing opt-ins, which also require consumers to submit their email addresses before correspondence. 

2. Engagement

People like receiving texts. In fact, more than 75% of consumers admit they’d read a text message quicker than an email. 

SMS messages can also have help to increase open and response rates to marketing campaigns when combined with email. Open rates typically hover around 90% for texts and 20% for emails. As for responses, we see 45% vs. 6%, respectively. Combining both together gives marketers a greater chance of having their voices heard when intending to reach their target audiences. 

Bear in mind, however, that response and click-through rates depend on more factors than just the medium. Strong message copy and calls-to-action contribute to these statistics, too.

3. Deliverability

Like email marketing, SMS messages are sent directly to consumers with incredibly easy delivery. 

One great thing about SMS is that if there is ever a worry about email ending up in a spam folder, you can bypass this worry by sending messages directly to their smartphone. 

Only about 10% of SMS messages are spam, and SMS marketing messages can’t get dumped into a spam folder—although recipients can manually block phone numbers.

Finally, over 80% of people keep their SMS notifications turned on, allowing SMS marketing messages to be seen almost immediately. So if it’s an urgent message for things like a short sale or a localized event, SMS messaging can be a great option to send nearly immediate updates. 

4. Message Length

The consumer attention span is shortening, and it’s getting more difficult than ever to snag the interest of customers and shoppers. This is where the 160-character limit for SMS marketing messages (depending on your SMS software) comes in handy.

While Email marketing messages can be incredibly effective to showcase beautiful images of products in action or inlay custom HTML, SMS really shines when you intend to send short-and-sweet messages that get straight to the point. Want to highlight a huge discount? Send SMS to ensure information about that discount is the only information your target audience receives. 

5. Prevalence and Accessibility

As previously mentioned, SMS is an incredibly effective way to expand your reach to users wherever they are across the globe. And this makes sense. Text messaging requires no account setup, third-party downloads, or additional registrations. All you need is a phone number.

This ease of setup has resulted in a vast reach. In the U.S., over 90% of people have a cellphone, with 72% of that group owning a smartphone—and either device can receive SMS messaging.

What is important to remember is that, while SMS messaging is an incredibly powerful marketing platform, it gains even more strength when paired with other efforts like email. Where email is a bigger revenue-driver and long-term marketing channel. SMS has more urgency, like with flash sales and important reminders.

Let’s explore the different types of SMS marketing messages you may send your audience, urgent or not.

Types of SMS Marketing Campaigns

Not all SMS marketing message is created equal. Depending on who you’re texting and what you’re asking them to do, the type of SMS marketing will vary.

There’s more to SMS marketing than simply sending messages. Let’s review some types of SMS marketing as categorized by two strategies below.

On-Demand SMS

The first SMS marketing strategy is On-Demand SMS. These are universal SMS messages sent to segments of your audience based on your marketing or promotional schedule, such as general discounts, company alerts, or holiday promotions. On-Demand SMS marketing isn’t based on subscriber activity.

Discounts and Special Offers

Discounts, sales, and promotions engage your audience with urgency. They typically offer a dollar amount or percentage off full-price products or services or a promotional deal like “Buy One, Get One Free.” These messages should always be time-sensitive and include a strong call-to-action (CTA) that encourages recipients to visit your website.

Alerts and News

Alerts and news keep your audience up-to-date with company and product information. These SMS marketing messages could notify customers about store hours, new product arrivals, special events, or simple holiday greetings. You can also offer recipients more information if they respond to your message.

Competitions and Contests

Competitions, contests, and text-to-win campaigns are common ways that businesses use SMS marketing to engage both new and current subscribers. To enter, consumers must text your shortcode with the required entry information, such as a photo of them using your products. In these SMS messages, be sure to include whether or not you’ll be adding those who entered into your subscriber list.

Behavioral SMS

The second SMS marketing strategy is Behavioral SMS. These are triggered SMS messages sent according to subscriber activity, such as making a reservation, abandoning a shopping cart, or requesting customer service. (For reference, On-Demand SMS is to bulk email as Behavioral SMS is to triggered email.)

Personalized Discounts

Personalized discounts are discounts, sales, and promotions customized for each recipient, either in the timing and/or the discount code. They’re typically sent following subscribers’ recent browsing or purchase activities to re-engage them. These messages can be effective because recipients feel as if they’re receiving a unique discount opportunity—like a special, private sale. Make these messages time-sensitive to create urgency.


Reminders are helpful for subscriptions, special events, reservations, and appointments. These SMS marketing messages are sent based on subscriber activity on your website (e.g. buying a ticket, making a reservation, etc.). They’re also effective to send when subscribers are at similar events or nearby your stores to remind them to consider an additional, relevant purchase. Customers rely on text reminders, so be sure your messages are time-sensitive and sent with enough notice to change or cancel any reservations or appointments if necessary. (These can also help you cut down on last-minute cancellations and no-shows.)

Product or Loyalty Program Updates

Some updates are only relevant to certain customers, such as back-in-stock updates of certain products or loyalty program updates with new points or rewards. These messages can make customers feel special and valued, especially because they’re being delivered right on their phones. Send these types of updates following behavior like customer purchases or restocking a products on customers’ wish lists.

7 Steps for building your SMS Marketing Database

You can’t deploy SMS marketing tactics if you have no audience to text. Regardless of how your business applies the SMS marketing strategies above, here are some ways to grow—and keep—your subscriber database.

1. Set up your phone number.

Your digital number can either be shortcode (XXXXX) or phone number length (XXX-XXX-XXXX). Many organizations opt for shortcode as it’s easier for consumers to type in and remember, and it stands out from the typical phone number.

Popular SMS marketing software includes Wunderkind, EZTexting, SimpleTexting, and SendInBlue.

2. Get permission.

This is an SMS marketing non-negotiable. According to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), written consent is a requirement. If you text people without their consent, your messages will be considered spam and you may face legal consequences.

In this case, written consent can be in the form of an opt-in text message or filling out an online form. Both count in the eyes of the TCPA.

How can you get your audience to intentionally opt in? Consider these strategies:

  • Advertise your SMS program as you would an email newsletter. Publish your shortcode and ask customers to text a simple word like “YES” or “JOIN” to be added to your list.
  • Encourage customers to sign up for an account or join your loyalty program, and ask for their phone number in the process. Don’t forget to include that you will be sending marketing material if they give you their phone number.
  • Request a phone number during in-store or online purchases. Include a disclaimer about your SMS program so that those who aren’t interested in joining can opt out.
  • Include a simple sign-up form on your website promoting your SMS program.
  • Offer special discounts or promotions only accessible via SMS.

3. Send a clear confirmation text.

The first text subscribers get from you is arguably the most important. It’s their first impression of your SMS marketing program and may dictate if they stick around or not. Here’s what you should include in your confirmation text:

  • The name of your business or organization. This tells recipients who’s texting them.
  • The purpose of your SMS marketing campaign. This tells tells recipients what to expect from your text messages (e.g. updates, promotions, or contests)
  • The frequency with which you’ll send text messages.
  • A notice about text message and data rates (e.g. “msg & data rates may apply”). Unlimited texting has become increasingly common, but this is still important to include for those subscribers who don’t use that.
  • Instructions for how to opt-out of your SMS marketing list.
  • Instructions for how to receive help or access your customer service team. For example, subscribers can text the word “HELP” to trigger a customer service sequence with a support email or phone number.

4. Keep messaging concise and personal.

The typical length of an SMS marketing message is around 160 characters. To keep your audience engaged, avoid exceeding that length. The brevity of SMS messages is what can set this strategy apart from email marketing—and what makes it so successful.

Moreover, always personalize your text messages with your organization name. We’ll discuss this more in the following section.

5. Speak to your persona(s).

As you would with any other marketing material, consider your target audience when developing your SMS marketing copy. It may be tempting to save space in your messages, but avoid industry jargon or text language (i.e. “ur”, “2day,” or “gr8”).

Not only is it bad form when representing your brand, but you can’t guarantee that every recipient will understand your message—and you don’t want to lose subscribers from poorly-written texts.

Exceptions to the text language rule would be using common shortcode like “msg” and “txt” or using numbers in place of words (i.e. 2 instead of two).

6. Pay attention to time and frequency.

The timing of your SMS messages is arguably just as important as the content. Although people tend to always have their phones nearby, that doesn’t quite guarantee they’re always ready to engage with your texts or respond to your CTAs.

As a rule of thumb, the TCPA stipulates that you only send text messages between 8:00am and 9:00pm according to the time zone in which your recipient lives. Here’s a more specific breakdown of when to send your SMS marketing messages based on the campaign type:

  • For general marketing messages like discounts and updates, send mid-morning (10:30am) or mid-afternoon (2:30pm). Avoid sending these at the top of the hour to help your messages stand out.
  • For time-sensitive messages like flash sales and special promotions, send two days before the sale. To be courteous, send reminders on the day of the sale as well as the final day, too.
  • For seasonal and special messages like holidays, events, and new product launches, prepare to send multiple SMS messages. To build adequate buzz around your event, send the following:
    • Introductory message at least one month before
    • Reminder message with necessary information two weeks before
    • Brief reminder message three to five days before
    • Final push message one day before

The frequency of your SMS marketing messages is also important. Research shows the optimal amount of SMS messages to send is around 10 per month. Start with four to five each month to test how engaged your audience is, and go from there.

Also, it’s advised to never send more than one text per day. (The only exception would be if you’re set up automatic appointment confirmation and reminder texts, and someone has made or changed multiple appointments in one day.)

7. Always offer an opt-out.

According to the TCPA, your subscribers must always have an option to opt-out of receiving your messages. Choose opt-out words like “STOP,” “QUIT,” or “END” to make this process simple for subscribers. Hopefully, your audience won’t choose this option, but at least they know it’s there if they need it.

SMS Marketing Examples: How Brands are Using SMS

Here are six SMS marketing examples that correspond to the types of SMS marketing I outlined above.

1. General Discounts and Special Offers

This example includes two discounts sent by Dress Up, an online clothing retailer. The texts identify the sender, mention the special offers, and include both CTA links and special codes.


As exciting as these texts are, however, they could be even better. For one, neither text includes opt-out instructions or the message and data rates disclaimer. While subscribers may be familiar with the opt-out code from previous texts, it’s always best to include it in every message.

Another way these discount texts could be improved is with personalization—neither one greets the recipient with their name. This would make these promotional texts stand out and feel much more personal, which could be the deciding factor for whether the subscriber shops the sale or not.

2. Alerts and News

This example is a live alert sent from CNN. It mentions the organization (CNN), the specific update (breaking news), and instructions on how to opt-out.


The one place CNN could improve this text message alert is by providing a link to a corresponding story or live stream. The goal of this CTA is to essentially drive television viewing traffic—an action that not all recipients may be able to do from their phones. As urgent as this alert is, it’s probably not accessible for all subscribers. Recipients should be able to engage with your text messages from their mobile devices.

3. Personalized Discounts

This SMS marketing example was sent from the fictional online store Basic Piece. It’s sent as both a shipping confirmation and a personalized discount to encourage the recipient to return to the site and continue shopping. This is a commonly-used tactic by online businesses—the text shipping confirmation provides a courtesy to shoppers while also engaging them with a hard-to-miss discount.


I have a few critiques for this text message. First, the recipient’s first name is missing. If Basic Piece took the time to send a personalized message following the recipient’s purchase activity, it could’ve also included their first name. Also, a customized promotional code would help this discount feel even more special.

Secondly, the text would likely attract more traffic if it included a link to the Basic Piece website. By including this, recipients would find themselves back on the website with a single click.

Lastly, this text should include the proper opt-out and data rates disclaimers. If they didn’t fit, Basic Piece could always follow up with a second, short text with the information.

4. Product or Loyalty Program Updates

This is another real SMS marketing example I received from a smoothie bar I frequent in my hometown. Now, these messages are sent from Square on behalf of Life Bar, but they do a great job of identifying the vendor and providing a relevant CTA link.

The texts also include the proper customer service, opt-out, and data rates disclaimers.

One thing I’d change about this example, especially as a customer, is the lack of detail about the reward. I believe the text would have more urgency if it mentioned at least one example of an award I could redeem. Attaching a link is helpful, but the more information you can include in the text message itself, the more value you can provide your recipients.


Regardless of whether you feel you are doing SMS marketing the right or the wrong way, the most important thing is to begin testing this strategy as soon as possible. Each new campaign you launch will help give you the data you need to begin pulling together learnings to help create texts that convince each recipient to go online and complete a purchase. Once you do, you’ll be tapping into a new channel that reaches your customers on the one device they refuse to leave home without.


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Elliott Moore

Elliott Moore is Wunderkind’s Senior Marketing Manager, overseeing content, PR, partner marketing, and social media. Elliott brings over 5 years of MarTech experience working for firms in New York, San Francisco, and Helsinki, working across product, sales, and content teams to bring the most actionable marketing experiences to his clients. A resident of Brooklyn, Elliott spends his free time running, visiting local shops, or testing new IPAs with friends.