SMS Marketing and the Power of 160 Characters

In 1985, communications researcher Friedhelm Hillebrand discovered that the typical sentence or question almost always takes up fewer than 160 characters. A few years later, as chairman of non-voice services for the Global System for Mobile Communications, a group that created standards for mobile communications, he pushed for the short messaging service (SMS) standard, which limited text messages to 160 characters.

Tight bandwidth considerations were key in the early days of mobile communications, but the 160-character standard stuck. While it may seem too limiting in an era when data is being created and transmitted in huge amounts, its limitations turned out to have numerous advantages. Marketing professionals can make great use of SMS marketing and its 160-character restriction.

Making the Most of Your 160 Characters

One hundred and sixty characters may not seem like much, but its very brevity can be an advantage in marketing. Making the most of your 160-character "canvas" requires you to take steps that essentially force you to write a message that works great for marketing. Here's how to get the most from your SMS marketing messages:

• Start, rather than end with a call to action. In fact, your entire message may be a call to action: "Buy one drink, get one free with coupon code XXXXX." In just 50 characters, you offer value, tell the customer exactly how to get that value, and take up only two or three seconds of his time.

• Don't worry about sounding terse. Text messages are supposed to be brief and to the point, and recipients are used to messages that stick to the basic facts.

• Include short links if you need to send a message that won't fit in 160 characters. Use a link shortener that allows custom domains to create an easy-to-remember link for people who can't go to links directly from text messages.

• Proofread thoroughly. You can often think of ways to word things more concisely when you proofread. If you're having trouble squeezing everything in, ask someone else to give it a go. Sometimes looking at a message fresh lets a person see new ways of condensing a message.

One way to develop your skill at packing a lot of meaning into a few words is studying headlines and search results. Most web articles keep their headlines short, and keep the descriptions that show up in search results to 160 or fewer characters. That's because the descriptions you see under Google results stop at 160 characters.

Why Briefer Is Better

People expect brevity with text messages, and they expect SMS marketing messages to use as little of their time as possible. One reason people are less reluctant to opt into text marketing programs is that they know the messages will be brief, and that they can open them upon receipt, or wait. When a customer knows he might save money simply by reading an SMS marketing message, he knows the few seconds spent reading them are a good investment of time.

Not only are text messages short and sweet, they reach people very effectively. Most people are never without their phones. And while most Facebook news stories and tweets are ignored, and most emails go unopened, almost all text messages are opened, so SMS marketing has outstanding reach compared to other methods. It's a great use of 160 characters.

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