#39: Is There a Science Behind Good SMS Marketing?

SMS is a tough and sensitive channel to plan around - is there a formula for the ecommerce brands that get it right?

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#39: Is There a Science Behind Good SMS Marketing?

Since I’ve been in marketing, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with SMS.

Perhaps it was the months of unsolicited political campaign blasts in the heat of the 2020 election that made my phone as usable as a finely designed brick.

Perhaps it was the moment when a dentist app I signed up for and changed my mind on sent me six straight messages begging me to take a discount in some sort of hyper-apocalyptic abandoned cart move.

Perhaps it was the time a shoe brand woke me up at 2 am for a flash sale - during the middle of a pandemic where the last thing I was looking for was an alternative to nice house slippers.

But it was something I was also regularly delighted by.

Besides SMS being a normal part of my day job, the pandemic introduced me to a numerous brands with creative SMS flows, some DTC brands that had even moved entirely to SMS for order and fulfillment.

When I wanted to get in front of the line for Olipop’s new Orange Cream soda flavor, I had to do via SMS. I had even had a delivery problem with a coffee box I got from Taika that was entirely resolved through SMS.

It’s clear to that there are many, many brands doing this well. But it’s also an interesting conundrum.

Why do we love and hate some SMS marketing?

What is it about humans that makes us especially sensitive to SMS?

More importantly, is there a special formula for SMS-crushing brands?

In the past couple weeks, I gravitated more towards unpacking the function of SMS as a channel. It’s something people in marketing obsess over, but one of those channels that also has a somewhat corrosive stigma carried over from years of spam alerts and feeble regulations.

Through crowdsourcing different brands from Twitter, looking at SMS campaigns from over fifty brands, and talking to some DTC practitioners who have worked with SMS, I started to get a closer understanding of what makes SMS tick - and my own thoughts on what makes a good SMS marketing strategy.

Why Do We Gravitate to SMS?

When I wrote a few weeks back about the science of billboards, the core problem I explored was why we tend to ignore signs.

The author I read at the time talked about different ways to make sure we were in a position to be fully present, waiting, and not on the way to other tasks.

In some ways, SMS has the exact opposite problem. The phone is the task.

Consider these stats from Pew Research:

  • 67% of mobile phone users find themselves constantly checking their phone for notifications, even if it hasn’t rung or vibrated

  • 44% of phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed to make sure they didn’t miss anything in the night

  • Around 90% of text messages open within the first three minutes

  • Most people pick up their phone 58 times a day. A day.

In short, we’re obsessed with our phone.

We have animalistic instincts to check, pre-built habits and triggers to use it at certain times of the day, and almost see it as a lifeline to the outside world.

In that same survey above, 30% of respondents found their mobile phone was something they could not imagine living without.

You might be saying “holy shit!” but this is more or less stating the obvious. Most of us probably know we have an unhealthy obsession with your phone - but what challenge does this pose for marketers?

For one, SMS tends to be the one channel where content becomes difficult. You can’t put as much visual appeal as a landing page or useful information as an email, so it’s the channel where you have to do the most with the least information.

Two, it also happens to be the channel where you’re competing with almost every other carnal distraction. Outbound messaging, apps, phone calls, alerts, reminders, games, you name it. We also rely on it for emotionally-heavy moments: It could be the primary way for your crush to get in touch with you. Who wants marketing to get in the way of that?

Luckily, despite these challenges, there are reasons humans do gravitate towards SMS.

One is the present bias, our tendency to give stronger weight to payoffs closer to the present. In a study by Wilmer and Sherman in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers suggested that mobile device use can indeed make it harder to delay gratification. The study found members who were heavy mobile users would rather accept small rewards vs. more substantial but delayed rewards.

When we send an email, we don’t expect to receive one back immediately. When we sign up for a form or send something via mail, we’re not as concerned about the sense of turnaround. SMS is different. Despite how good we may or may not be at texting others (I plead the fifth), we generally expect immediate responses.

The other is the idea of anthropomorphism, our innate desire to attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.

A brand SMS is largely sent from an automated platform like Postscript or Yotpo - but when sent to a phone, most people attribute it to a single person. It’s what we’re used to with text messaging, right? Texts from real people?

Even if a brand slips in, our mind has ingrained the behavior of texting back, as if we’re texting a real person.

SMS marketing falls into this sweet spot - you’ve found a channel where people naturally associate a channel with immediacy, urgency and human-like tendencies. It explains why it works a bit better than email for one. We know brands pummel email with useless offers. But it also gets to why that one stat about high SMS open rates doesn’t seem so absurd - in an average sample, 90% of people opening an SMS within three minutes feels fairly normal.

But, as you might imagine, activating SMS as a channel alone isn’t going to get you the work. There is still a fine line between good and bad SMS. What does make an SMS memorable?

What Makes an SMS Memorable?

A couple weeks back, I reached out to Lisa Popovici, the founder of conversational SMS marketing and cart abandonment tool Cartloop. I asked her a high-level question: what do her brand’s happiest customers love about SMS?

She mentioned a few patterns that she’s seen from feedback: because Cartloop prompts real conversations, brands get real feedback from their customers. They can see how shoppers feel about their brand and products, make their customers feel human, and establish more personal relationships than they could on adjacent channels.

On the Cartloop website, they show a fun side by side comparison of how they distinguish from traditional platforms - and it’s largely influenced by the idea of personification we discussed earlier.

If brands come in through SMS, not having the same level of tact as other people interact with can be off-putting.

I also talked to Lillie Sun, who provided some more color for the SMS marketing she does for Three Ships Beauty, a beauty company that focuses on effective and affordable natural skincare products. (For context, I got to know a bit about their creative SMS work when they launched a poll via SMS in March for a new lip scrub flavor using short codes. I voted for Pina Colada and the winner was Vanilla. Which probably makes sense, I don’t really know much about lip scrub.)

Lillie mentioned that a large part of their SMS marketing is focused on driving customer confidence in a purchase. Many of their products have clear key words (CLEANSER, TONER etc.) that can be messaged by the customer to learn more about how to use the product. Echoing Lisa, Lillie also mentioned the human aspect of SMS as a big draw with the quote: “When you text back a customer, it almost feels like they’re getting a message from a friend!”

In some ways, the concept of assigning a real person to respond to SMS messages gets into the spirit of invisible marketing: it’s the messaging we don’t see but that drives our association towards a decision or company. An actual conversation, one that drives the same positive associations you have with texting a friend to a brand, is durable. Your friendship retention is hopefully strong, right?

When I started to look at more text messages from brands on Fantastic Texts, I noticed more patterns.

Almost every brand featured had some variation of the following:

  • A name. Whether it was the name of the brand or the name of someone at the company, there was a way to identify where it was coming from.

  • A clear call to action. This could’ve been a discount link, a prompt to share a keyword response, onboarding series or anything else related to the product.

  • Emojis and images. Traditional things that you would find in a text message, almost humanizing the brand and separating them from traditional spam (political solicitations etc.)

But as I looked closer at the ones I genuinely enjoyed, I did find that those who focused more on invisible marketing won my eye.

Some examples:

  • Slumberkins prompting an emoji response to how you were feeling

  • Judy giving you information about how to prepare for a flood in your home

  • Maev asking you for dog pictures to share on their Instagram

Yes, at the end of the day, all those prompts ultimately tied to what the brand was selling. But the texts itself felt more informative and that it was pulling more out of you than just your money.

The core of this is that these were mostly functional ideas. Lillie above talked about the fact that Three Ships was focused on helping customers, solving common customer problems. It shows that there are ways to think about customer problems beyond sales.

Some brands like skincare brand Blume, didn’t even prompt a product-related ask. Blume just sent you a QR code that you could use for coffee, but ultimately sparking positive associations with the brand that go beyond just buying their product.

Another fun example I loved is Hydrant.

Because let’s face it, you can’t compete with solid pun execution.

Final Thoughts

As I was thinking through what the future of SMS marketing looked like, I picked the brain of my friend Kristen LaFrance, Head of Resilient Retail at Shopify and someone who spends much of her time thinking creativity about retail and DTC. Naturally, she had a lot of thoughts about SMS as a channel with three really interesting insights that had me mulling over more:

  • The barrier between brand and customer will get smaller and smaller until it feels like you’re walking down Main Street, meeting retailers, and buying directly from them. SMS allows for this kind of extremely 1-1 commerce.

  • There will be higher staffing on SMS to allow for even deeper interactions - from back and forth questions, questions, to even more dynamic video and image sharing.

  • Brands will have to spend more time figuring out where SMS sits in the customer journey, and whether it should even be part of the sales channel. A lot of legacy brands are basically using SMS as an extension of email, which doesn’t fully use the utility of that channel.

This brought me down two lines of thought, one a bit more extreme than the other.

The first is the idea that SMS is evolving to basically mimic human interaction. We’ve already learned from the people I chatted with before that real people are getting staffed to respond to SMS, but I do think there’s a larger impetus on even the promotional conversations feeling less brand heavy.

I don’t think discounts will necessarily go away, but it does open the question of how many brands will experiment with non-sales content: How many brands will dare to send cute dogs, daily inspirations, or serve other needs of their community with no clear revenue impact that mean everything for engagement and retention?

It does again bring up the idea of invisible marketing. How can we basically have a regular conversation with a human being via text and make them feel good about the brand without the explicit sell? It’s a unique challenge overall in marketing, but the barrier to it feels much less aggressive with SMS.

The second is the more extreme one: that the world will eventually conform to a SmartHouse like state, where humans won’t live in our phones but essentially live in our digital psyche. Which, yes, will probably destroy the need for SMS.

SMS is the medium that still harbors the extremes.

When it hurts you, you never want to hear from a brand again.

When it inspires you, you wonder why brands even spend money on anything else.

When it really delights you, it might feel just as good as getting that text from a crush.

Oh hey, thanks for reading!

Fun plug: I’m hosting a conversation with my friend Amir Hajizamani on the cultural impact of TikTok this Sunday. Open to anyone, it’s a salon with the Interintellect community. If you want to explore others, there are so many amazing ones happening regularly, check it out here.

Until next time,


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