Short Codes vs Long Codes vs Toll-Free for SMS Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Mike Arsenault
January 12, 2023
minute read

The first choices you make when starting with SMS marketing are largely technical and logistical. It’s tricky to develop a complete SMS marketing strategy before you have an SMS number for sending messages, an SMS carrier, and other similar pieces in place.

One of these first pieces—getting an SMS number—might not seem like a complex choice. It makes sense, when you think about it, since you probably send SMS messages from your mobile phone, using your personal phone number all the time.

However, there’s more to consider when selecting a number type for SMS marketing. Each phone number type has different characteristics and capabilities which impact your SMS marketing costs and scalability.

This guide will help you choose a number for SMS marketing. We recommend bookmarking this page for future reference as this post will be updated as the technological landscape changes.

Why number types matter for SMS marketing

The most obvious difference between short codes, long codes, and toll-free numbers is how they look to SMS recipients. This alone is important in SMS marketing because having a recognizable or memorable SMS number is more important in some marketing contexts than others.

There are other differences, though. Each number type has different limitations on how many SMS messages can be sent in a certain time, different regulations from the FCC, and different costs.

It’s important to select the SMS number type that’s the best fit for your SMS marketing activities. If you only plan on sending high volumes of one-way promotional messages to subscribers, you’ll be better served by a different type of SMS number than if you want to have two-way conversations focused on customer service.

You’ll have to do a little strategic planning to better understand your marketing needs. Just be careful you don’t get too deep into your marketing strategy before you’ve chosen an SMS marketing number type.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a number type that’s perfect for everything, and your marketing strategy must work within the limits of your SMS infrastructure. Get a high-level view of your strategic SMS marketing plans, then select one of the SMS number types.

What are short codes?

Short codes are five or six-digit SMS phone numbers that are primarily used for one-to-many SMS and MMS message broadcasts. Short codes are A2P (Application to Person) enabled by default, which means you can send short code SMS messages using an app.

Additionally, short codes have a high message throughput rate. Short codes send SMS messages at 100 MPS (Message segments Per Second). This high throughput is ideal for sending SMS marketing broadcasts to many subscribers.

Since short codes are designed to send high message volumes, carriers vet and pre-approve short codes and subject short code SMS messages to less spam filtering. That way you’re less likely to have deliverability issues related to spam filtering.

The most notable limitation of short codes is that they cannot be used for voice calls. This isn’t much of an issue if you only need to send SMS messages from your short code. However, you will need a separate phone number for phone calls.

There are two options when it comes to short codes: shared short codes and dedicated short codes.

Shared short codes are used simultaneously by multiple companies. They’re less expensive—$1,000 to $1,500 to set up and $5,500 to $11,000 per year to keep the number. Shared short codes are also easier to provision than dedicated short codes.

Using the same short code as another company might seem like a problem since SMS messages from a shared short code look the same to recipients. However, you’ve likely received SMS messages from shared SMS short codes without even noticing.

Dedicated short codes are used by just one company. Dedicated short codes can be randomly assigned or customized to make them unique. The downside is that dedicated short codes are more expensive—as much as $4,500 to set up and $16,500 each year to retain the number. Additionally, dedicated short codes take longer to provision than shared short codes.

What are long codes?

Long codes are ordinary 10-digit phone numbers that start with an area code. Long codes are designed for two-way, P2P (Person to Person) communication. However, long codes can be A2P enabled for use with chatbots and other automation tools.

A2P-enabled long codes function similarly to SMS short codes, the messages simply come from a phone number with a format that may be more familiar to some recipients.

This can be useful for SMS marketing, especially if your subscribers are concentrated in a certain region because your number can have an area code your subscribers recognize.

Long code numbers are also fully functional phone numbers, so you can make and receive calls from the same number you use to send SMS marketing messages.

The tradeoff with SMS long codes is that not all SMS providers offer long codes. You may still be able to use a long code with a carrier that doesn’t provide long codes. You just have to get a phone number from your internet or phone service provider.

Long codes also have lower SMS throughput rates than short codes. Long code phone numbers are typically limited to 10 SMS messages per minute (or one message every six seconds). Sending more messages than this can cause deliverability issues from SMS spam filters.

What are toll-free numbers?

Toll-free numbers are 10-digit numbers that start with a three-digit prefix which identifies them as toll-free phone numbers. Toll-free prefixes such as 800 and 833 look like area codes but are unique to toll-free numbers.

In terms of capabilities, toll-free numbers are a bit of a hybrid between short codes and long codes.

Toll-free numbers have higher SMS throughput rates than long code numbers but lower than short codes. Toll-free numbers are also capable of voice calls.

The owner of a toll-free number always pays the fees for sending SMS messages and receiving phone calls to toll-free numbers. Calling, sending, or receiving messages from a toll-free number is free for the customer.

Toll-free numbers can be more expensive for SMS marketing if you have a lot of two-way interaction with your customers because you’re covering long distance charges.

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How to choose the right number type for SMS marketing

The type of number you use for SMS marketing depends on your marketing needs. The big factors that influence which number type is best are SMS message volume and two-way conversation requirements.

There are a few other things to consider, as well. Here’s the breakdown of which type of number will work best for your business.

Short codes

An SMS short code is most likely the best choice if you…

  • Plan on sending SMS broadcasts to many subscribers.
  • Only need basic two-way conversation capabilities. If your two-way marketing communication can be automated, a short code will likely meet your needs.
  • Do not need to send SMS messages from a specific area code.

SMS short codes tend to be a good fit for ecommerce businesses.

Promotional SMS broadcasts are powerful in ecommerce marketing. Ecommerce businesses can serve customers all over the world and therefore benefit less from having a number with an area code. Both provisioning a short code and sending lots of text messages from a short code are reasonably affordable.

Long codes

A long code is a good option if you…

  • Plan on sending lower volumes of text messages spread out over longer periods.
  • Need comprehensive two-way conversation capabilities, including voice communication. If your two-way marketing communication cannot be mostly (or entirely) automated, a long code is probably a good fit.
  • Can benefit from sending messages from a specific area code.

In most cases, businesses with a strong retail presence benefit most from using a long code.

A local area code is more recognizable to local customers. Retail businesses typically conduct more business via phone calls. It also makes sense to use the same phone number for voice and text communication.

However, a retail business may opt to get a short code if they also have a strong ecommerce presence or rely heavily on SMS broadcasts in their SMS marketing.

Toll-free numbers

A toll-free number might be right if you…

  • Plan on sending relatively high volumes of SMS messages, but not always in concentrated bursts to many subscribers at once.
  • Need customers to be able to call or text your business without paying for the text or phone call.
  • Want one phone number for both SMS messaging and voice calls, with relatively high SMS message throughput.

The primary purpose of toll-free numbers is for businesses that use a marketing strategy that requires customers to call or text. A toll-free number removes the barrier of calling costs for customers.

However, covering the cost of incoming calls and texts can be expensive. Many businesses, especially ecommerce businesses, find that it’s more cost-efficient to adjust their marketing strategy to work with a short code.

On to building your SMS strategy

Ultimately, these selection guidelines are just guidelines. There are details about your business that only you know which can impact which number type is the best fit.

Businesses commonly find that an SMS short code meets their SMS marketing needs. All three types of numbers can work for SMS marketing, but short codes are designed for texting. So they’re usually a good fit for any business that needs a number for SMS marketing.

The important thing is that you make an informed choice, get your SMS number, and start building your SMS marketing strategy.

What to do now

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Mike Arsenault

Founder & CEO

For the last 10 years, Mike has worked with brands like Moosejaw, Hydroflask, Peak Design, Triumph, Hearst & Guthy Renker to provide the strategy & technology with which they use email to drive revenue growth. He's also the Founder of Rejoiner, a SaaS marketing platform built for ecommerce businesses.

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