SMS Marketing: The Ultimate Guide for Ecommerce

Mike Arsenault
November 16, 2022
minute read

The world of marketing has changed. One-way communication with customers through a single marketing channel is no longer enough.

Customers want to communicate with brands through multiple points of contact. Even more, customers expect to receive marketing messages through multiple channels.

Think about it: people split their time between multiple devices and digital environments—mobile devices, laptop and desktop computers, TV, and so on—and it’s inconvenient if they must switch to a different device to make a purchase or learn more about your products. That puts you at high risk of losing them. 

That’s why SMS marketing is so important.

SMS marketing is a type of digital marketing that uses text messaging to communicate with customers or potential customers. SMS marketing campaigns are often used to send promotional messages, alerts, reminders, and other types of information to a targeted audience. The messages are typically sent through SMS (Short Message Service) or MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), which are types of text messaging that can be sent from one cell phone to another.

Text messaging enables you to reach customers where they are at almost any given moment, and gives consumers a way to learn about your brand and access your online store when they’re most interested in your products.

If you’re not using SMS marketing yet, it’s time to start. This article will give you all the foundational knowledge you need to kick start your SMS marketing program.

What is SMS Marketing?

What is SMS Marketing?

SMS marketing is the practice of sending marketing messages to customers via text message. SMS marketing actually has 2 types of messages you can send, SMS and MMS. 

  • SMS (Short Messaging Service): Contains just text and clickable links, as well as emojis. 
  • MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service): Contain pictures or gifs in addition to text and clickable links. Though, this additional content usually costs a little extra. (More on this later.)

Without getting too into the weeds of telecom technology, SMS messaging uses cellular networks to send text-based messages to mobile phones, and while there are 2 different types of messages, it all falls under the umbrella of SMS marketing

There are other messaging services, such as iMessage. However, SMS is the most universal text messaging service. Almost any mobile phone is capable of sending and receiving SMS messages.

That’s why SMS is the best messaging service to use for marketing, and part of what makes text messaging so efficient for marketing.

The Benefits of SMS Marketing

SMS has several advantages over other marketing channels, which directly translate into increased revenue. This is what you can expect to get from your SMS marketing efforts.

High Open Rates

SMS open rates are incredibly high. 90% of SMS messages are opening within 3 minutes of receipt, and total open rates for all timeframes are 99%.

Open rates for SMS messages are so high that you can almost count on your messages being opened.

However, opening a message is actually the beginning, from a marketing perspective. People need to click through once they’ve opened a message.

The good news is that SMS marketing delivers on this metric, too. SMS click-through rates come in at between 5% and 10%, which is significantly higher than email, which averages 2% to 3% click-through rates.

Don’t replace your email marketing with SMS just yet, we’ll talk about that soon. Just know that SMS marketing is incredibly effective for getting people to read your messages and take action.

More Personal than Email

SMS Messages Are More Personal

Although SMS and email marketing offer similar personalization capabilities—using the recipient’s name, triggering messages based on customer behavior, and two–way communication—SMS messages tend to feel more personal because most people use text messaging for casual conversation.

SMS might be technologically similar to email, but it’s social and psychologically more personal for consumers. This opens up a range of options for more conversational tones and message content.

True 2-Way Conversations

Since we’re comparing SMS to email, it’s just as easy to automate SMS replies as it is to automate email responses, maybe easier. However, SMS has an edge when it comes to real-time conversations.

People are more likely to respond to a text message than an email, and SMS responses arrive almost immediately.

Also, customers can reply with specific keywords that trigger specific responses. This mimics the experience of a two-way conversation much better than email, because the customer has much more influence over the conversation.

The two-way nature of SMS also makes it more capable for the other end of the sales process: customer service. Customers can use keywords to request information and get immediate answers, which solves simple customer service problems and frees up customer service staff to address more serious issues.

Low Effort Extension of Email Marketing Strategies

First, one of the things that makes SMS so easy to integrate into your email marketing strategy is that many of the things you do with SMS marketing are the same things you do in email marketing, so you don’t even need to do any brainstorming to come with messages to send.

Promotions, order updates, abandoned cart reminders, and other email marketing campaigns can be mirrored as SMS messages.

Of course, the content must be adapted to fit the media, but many of your SMS marketing campaigns run side-by-side with the equivalent email campaign, and the vast majority of people don’t even mind getting both an SMS message and an email that have the same information.

Also, since people check their text messages more often than their email, your SMS messages often serve as a quick reminder that they have an email waiting in their inbox, which directs attention to your emails, where you can deliver more robust and compelling content.

Clearly, you can also run SMS marketing campaigns that stand on their own. However, using your email marketing strategy as a framework for your SMS marketing strategy is a perfect way to start getting SMS subscribers and initiate your SMS marketing with relatively little effort.

Relatively Low Costs

Unfortunately, SMS isn’t quite as inexpensive as email. However, it’s still relatively low cost. SMS messages can be sent for less than a penny.

SMS marketing is also impressively cost efficient. Given the incredibly high open and click-through rates in SMS marketing, the text marketing ROI can be excellent. SMS marketing campaigns have achieved ROI numbers as high as 600%.

If you’re accustomed to email marketing prices, the upfront expenses of SMS marketing may come with a bit of sticker shock, but the returns will be worth it. Here’s how it works.

How Does SMS Generate Revenue?

From an ecommerce perspective, SMS marketing works much the same as email marketing: SMS leverages contact opportunities to help customers move through the buying cycle and make it as convenient as possible to make a purchase.

These are the contact opportunities that SMS is especially well-suited to exploit.

Short-Term Promotions

SMS is perfect for short-term promotions, because people read their text messages almost immediately. There’s virtually no chance that someone will open an SMS promotion after the promotion has ended.

SMS works for any short-term promotion, and you can send an SMS campaign in tandem with an email campaign for these promotions.

However, SMS is especially useful for promotions with very short timelines such as limited-stock sales or one-day sales. In these cases, SMS can actually deliver a better customer experience than email.

Clicking through on a promotion in an SMS message is incredibly simple and convenient, and it’s unlikely that a customer will click on a promotion link in an SMS message, only to find that everything is sold out or the sale has already ended. Whereas many customers won’t even see your promotion email until it’s too late.

Therefore, SMS marketing can turn your short-term promotions into fast infusions of revenue, which helps you get the most from holidays and other events or quickly clear out old stock.

Event and Order Updates

Event and order updates may not directly generate revenue. However, SMS updates deliver a better customer experience than email updates alone, and in some instances can contribute to revenue.

Obviously, transactional email updates are important, but—similar to email for short-term promotions—they don’t help if people open them after the event has started. Whereas SMS updates benefit from the immediate nature of text messaging to ensure that customers always get updates in a timely manner.

In the case of order updates, SMS updates are especially useful if you allow customers to make changes to their orders before they ship or offer other in-process order services. Text updates are immediate enough that customers won’t miss their window for these sorts of services.

This helps minimize returns and lost revenue from people missing events. It may not be direct revenue generation, but it protects your revenue streams from common leaks.

Abandoned Cart Messages

Abandoned cart emails are one of the highest ROI emails you can send. Given that SMS marketing messages deliver higher open and click-through rates than email, abandoned cart text messages can be just as valuable, maybe even more valuable.

SMS messages are especially effective as abandoned cart reminders because it’s incredibly convenient to click through and complete a purchase from a text message. At the very least, the SMS message serves as a simple reminder that most people will see, without ever opening their email client.

If you’re running abandoned cart email campaigns, you should pair that with abandoned cart SMS messages. It’s a revenue-boosting one-two punch.

Product Launches

It might seem like SMS messages might not be all that great for product launches, since it’s mostly short-form text-only media. It’s not as easy to show product images and detailed product information in a text message.

However, the high click-through rates in SMS marketing really shine here.

Typical product launch emails have enough information in the email for the customer to decide if they’re interested in the product or not. Many people will decide they’re not interested.

Conversely, an SMS message will only have a very brief description of the product and a short link to the product page. The customer must click-through to see the product.

If you craft your short product description to pique curiosity, many people will click to see the newly-launched product. At that point, the customer is only one, maybe two, clicks away from making a purchase when they decide whether or not they're interested in the launch product.

Being on the product page when they make that decision makes it easier to go through with the purchase. However, even if they decide not to purchase the product you’ve recently launched, they have access to all the other products on your ecommerce store.

The bottom line is that product launch SMS messages get more people to your website, where they’re more likely to complete a purchase than they would be if they never left their email client.

Customer Service

Email is and will always be a core part of your customer service infrastructure because it’s the best way to solve many customer service challenges, especially issues that require manual intervention from customer service staff.

However, text messaging is an incredibly effective customer service channel. As we mentioned earlier, it’s relatively simple to automate text exchanges. A surprising number of customer service issues can be handled through automated text messages, using keywords.

You may have experienced this automated SMS customer service yourself.

Many companies have a customer service number where customers can text their order or account number to get information or make changes to orders, account information, subscription settings, and other things simply by sending a few text messages. If you’ve used this sort of SMS customer service, you know how convenient it can be.

Of course, you can’t automate everything, but an SMS system can always connect customers to a live employee or redirect customers to other customer service channels where necessary.

SMS can’t do everything, but it does give customers an additional channel to contact your customer service team and can serve as a filter that passes only the most complex customer service issues to your customer service staff.

9 SMS Marketing Examples

These are some examples of well-crafted SMS messages for the most common SMS marketing campaigns. Put a pin in these SMS marketing examples, as they illustrate many of the best practices we cover in the next section.

Welcome Offers

SMS Welcome Offers

This welcome message is excellent because the recipient immediately knows who the message is from, what to do, and what they get for doing it. The best part is that all of this happens in a super compact message.

New Product Release

New Product Release

Simple and to the point, a quick message saying you have something new is enough to grab attention and spark interest to click through.

Flash Sales

This flash sale message also leverages the immediate nature of SMS messaging to help people take advantage of extremely short duration flash sales.

Order Confirmation and Shipping Updates

SMS Order Confirmation & Shipping

Short and sweet, exactly how order confirmations and updates should be. The customer immediately knows the status of their order, who the shipment is from, and when it will arrive.

They even get extra points for including a call-to-action in an order status update. This is smart because the order status page is likely on the company’s website, where the customer might click around and make another purchase.

Abandoned Cart Reminders

SMS Abandoned Cart Reminders

There are two standout features in this abandoned cart message.

First, the message incentivizes the customer to complete their purchase with a discount, which is a great incentive to include in an abandoned cart campaign.

Additionally, the message builds urgency by reminding the customer that the abandoned cart will expire.

As a bonus point, the copy uses just a couple words to create a very conversational tone, which is ideal for SMS messaging.

Thank You Offers

Repeat purchases are your most valuable purchases. This is a great example of just how simple a than you offer can be; 2 sentences. Boom. Done. 

We recommend sending a clickable link to claim the discount or using a dynamic discount code, but the simplicity of this message is on point.

New Content Updates

SMS Content Updates

Communication with your audience is more than just generating sales, it’s an opportunity to educate and offer enriching content. In this case, Patagonia is using SMS to spread the word on their new content series, “Working Knowledge.” 

Clicking directly to the content from a phone makes it easy (and more likely) for people to browse the content.

Podcast Promotion

SMS Podcast Promotion

Podcasts can not only help build your community, they can establish your brand as subject matter experts. The beauty of teasing out new episodes via SMS is that you can link directly to Apple Podcasts where people can easily hit subscribe and listen on the spot. When people subscribe, they’ll get regular reminders when you have new content, which keeps your brand top of mind. Huge win.

Repurposed Email Newsletter

SMS Newsletter

SMS Marketing isn't just about driving sales. It's also an opportunity to connect with customers to drive brand interaction.

In this example, the team at Western Rise gave SMS subscribers the ability to explore content snippets from their most recent newsletter.

10 SMS Marketing Best Practices

You may have noticed a few common trends in the examples above. That’s because they all follow some core SMS marketing best practices. It’s important to note that some best practices are wise to follow for improving your SMS marketing performance. Others are required for compliance with various communication regulations.

In either case, these best practices will help you generate the most revenue with your SMS marketing campaigns.

1. Get Permission

This is one of the best practices that’s required for compliance with regulations from the FCC and other regulatory organizations. It’s possible to get fined for sending marketing text messages to customers without their permission.

However, it’s also good for your SMS marketing performance.

Just like email, people can report SMS messages as spam. Therefore, sending messages to people without first getting permission to text them can get you a lot of spam complaints, which can cause deliverability issues.

Since you have to pay to send text messages, causing yourself deliverability issues is a sure way to hurt your marketing revenue generation.

However, people are far less likely to click on a link in a text message they didn’t ask for. Therefore, the best practice is to use a double SMS opt-in similar to an email double opt-in.

Ask permission to text people first when you collect their phone number. Then send a confirmation message and ask new subscribers to reply with a keyword to confirm they want to receive text messages from your brand.

If a new subscriber does not reply to your text message or replies with something other than the confirmation keyword, do not send them messages.

This will greatly reduce your unsubscribe rate, and it will increase your open and click-through rates because only the most interested customers will opt-in to receive text messages.

Using a double SMS opt-in also helps protect you from violating any regulations related to getting permission from customers to send text messages.

This double SMS opt-in process is relatively easy to automate. It’s a simple, low-effort way to maximize SMS marketing performance and stay compliant with regulations.

2. Make it Easy to Opt-Out

If you’ve ever received SMS marketing messages, you may have noticed that many of them include opt-out instructions at the end of the message. In many places, it’s required that you make it easy to opt-out of future text messages.

Not every regulatory organization requires that you include opt-out instructions at the end of a text exchange. However, including these instructions at the end of the final text message in every conversation does satisfy easy opt-out requirements for almost all SMS marketing regulations.

Even so, making it easy to opt-out of your SMS marketing messages is a better customer experience. If people feel like you’re making it difficult to unsubscribe, they get suspicious.

Unfortunately, putting your opt-out instructions anywhere other than in your text messages makes it seem like you’re making it difficult to unsubscribe, even if you make them readily available on your website or somewhere else.

It might seem redundant, and it does eat up some of your SMS character count. However, putting opt-out instructions at the end of the final text message in each conversation is the best way to ensure compliance and appear most forthcoming to your customers.

3. Keep Things Conversational

Text messaging is an inherently conversational communication channel. So be conversational.

Conversational SMS

You can be even more casual in your SMS copy than in your email copy, even if your email copy is already that way.

Obviously, clear communication is still the first priority. However, you can and should be a bit more relaxed with your grammar. Don’t be afraid to use special characters where you can do it without compromising clear communication. Even common text message abbreviations are fine, so long as it fits with your brand voice.

Lastly, in the spirit of being conversational, you should leverage the two-way conversation power of SMS whenever you can. Not every SMS marketing campaign will benefit from prompting customers to reply, but it’s a very powerful tool when used in the right context.

4. Beware of Your Character Count

The character limit for a single SMS message is 160 characters. Messages longer than 160 characters get split into two or more messages. The recipient will receive one message, but on the sending side it’s counted and billed as 2 messages. Here’s an example:

SMS Character Count Limits

The recipient got only one message, but since the character count is 278, it could count as 2 SMS messages for the sender. 

Many SMS carriers charge for each 160 character message, and people don’t really like reading super long text messages. So sticking to the 160 character limit is best from a customer experience standpoint, as well as for keeping your costs down.

Also, some mobile communication providers will flag phone numbers for sending spam if they send too many messages in a short period of time. Sending two or three text messages to all of your SMS subscribers could easily trigger these SMS spam detection systems.

Therefore, it’s best to limit your marketing texts to 160 characters or less. That way you’re not blasting people’s phones or risking your SMS deliverability.

Yes, it can be tricky, but it’s worth the work to be very space efficient with your messages.

5. Adhere to State by State Quiet Hours

Most states have regulations about when businesses are allowed to send SMS messages. Unfortunately, they’re not all the same.

However, if you restrict your SMS messaging times to business hours (8AM to 5PM), you’ll be within quiet hours for almost all localities. Just remember that you have to send messages during business hours in the time zone where the recipient is located.

The simplest solution is to automate your send times using the recipient’s area code. Otherwise, it’s easy to make a simple mistake and end up violating quiet hours.

6. Understand Cost Differences (SMS vs MMS vs SMS with Emojis)

SMS (Short Message Service) messages are text only.

MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) messages can contain text, images, GIFs, video, audio, and attached data files. Consumers often use MMS, because it’s common to send data other than text in peer-to-peer conversation.

Additionally, MMS messages have a character limit of 1600 characters. However, we don’t recommend using MMS messages to exploit the character count. People prefer short text messages.

SMS with emojis is exactly what it sounds like: it’s an SMS message that can contain emojis.

In most cases, SMS is the least expensive. SMS messages can cost less than a penny. Even on the high end, it’s rarely more than a few cents to send an SMS message.

MMS messages are the most expensive. In some cases, sending an MMS message costs four or five times as much as sending an SMS message. This might be just a few cents, but those pennies add up quickly when you’re sending hundreds or thousands of MMS messages.

Pricing gets trickier when you get to SMS with emojis. Many SMS carriers convert SMS messages with emojis to MMS messages, because the emojis are treated as images. However, some SMS providers can send certain emojis in a standard SMS message.

Treating SMS messages with emojis as MMS messages is the most common practice, though.

So it’s best to stick with sending SMS messages with just text and plan on paying MMS messaging rates if you use emojis to avoid any budget overruns. Avoid sending messages longer than 160 characters, even if you’re sending an MMS message.

This will keep your SMS costs under control and deliver the best customer experience.

7. Use a Strong Call-to-Action

A call-to-action is important in email marketing, and it’s important in SMS marketing. Even if you’re not sending a clickable link, it’s still important to include a CTA in your text messages.

The whole purpose of marketing is to get customers and prospective customers to take action, and you can get them to do anything for you if you don’t ask.

Also, since your character count is limited, keep your CTA concise and direct. As a general rule, your call-to-action in an SMS message shouldn’t be much longer than a CTA that would fit on a button in an email—three to six words is ideal, and do your best to keep it less than eight.

8. Keep Your Links Short

Standard links take up a ton of space. SMS platforms use branded link shorteners to create short links that take up far fewer characters. That way your link doesn’t eat up all your message space.

These short links also look much more tidy in an SMS message, which improves your subscriber experience, and the branding ensures that the link is indeed coming from your company.

9. Preface Each Message with Your Brand Name

You may have noticed in the examples above that some of them just state the brand name at the start of the message.

This might seem like an awkward start, but it’s incredibly important that people know who the message is from. Almost no customer will remember your business phone number (sorry, it’s true).

So you need to tell people who’s texting them, otherwise their initial reaction will be suspicion, because spam text messages are quite common.

At worst, people might block your number or report your messages as spam if they can’t quickly identify the sender. At best, people will be confused until they realize that the message is from a brand they know.

10. Provide a VCF (Virtual Contact File)

The surest way to avoid any confusion and get your messages noticed right away is to send a contact card in your welcome journey. Much like requesting the customer add your email to their address book, you can do the same with SMS and provide a contact card with a branded logo as the contact image. That way whenever you send a message, they immediately know it’s from you.

Time to start texting

To sum up: the overarching strategy for driving revenue with your SMS marketing is to use your email marketing strategy as a framework for building out your first SMS marketing campaigns. Then expand into SMS-specific marketing campaigns and SMS customer service.

It’s the fastest way to get ROI from your text marketing by using all the marketing work you’ve already done in building your email marketing campaigns and leveraging SMS to support the marketing infrastructure you already have in place.

Get to texting.

Choosing a Phone Number

Phone numbers for SMS marketing aren’t exactly the same as personal phone numbers. An SMS number may look the same as a personal phone number, but there are a few more things to consider when you provision an SMS number.

Before you get an SMS number from your SMS carrier, it’s mandatory to understand the SMS number types. Here are the tradeoffs for short codes, long codes, and toll-free numbers.

SMS Short Codes

SMS short codes are 5 or 6-digit numbers that are almost exclusively used for SMS marketing and similar texting activities.

SMS short codes can be relatively affordable, as far as SMS numbers go. Short codes can handle high volumes of SMS messages, and short code spam filters are tuned to avoid blocking advertising messaging.

The main limitation of short codes is that they can only be used for SMS messaging. You can’t make or receive calls from an SMS short code.

SMS Long Codes

SMS long codes are very similar to standard 10-digit phone numbers. SMS long codes are usable for both SMS messaging and two-way voice calls. The difference between a personal long code and an SMS long code is that an SMS long code can be A2P enabled so you can send messages using software.

Long codes can be useful for businesses with a physical retail space because you can get an area code that matches your geographic location, which makes the number more familiar to your local customers.

Unfortunately, SMS long codes have a lower SMS send rate than an SMS short code. Sending too many messages too fast from a long code can cause SMS deliverability issues.

Toll-Free Numbers

In some aspects, toll-free numbers are a bit of a hybrid between SMS short codes and long codes, but there are also things which are unique to toll-free numbers. Toll-free numbers are 10-digit phone numbers, but they have a dedicated toll-free prefix, rather than an area code.

As the name suggests, any call made to or received from a toll-free number is free for the customer. If you own the toll-free number, you pay all the costs associated with SMS messages and phone calls, regardless of whether you are the caller/sender or the recipient.

Toll-free numbers are capable of handling higher volumes of text messages than long codes, but toll-free numbers don’t have as much SMS message throughput as short codes.

What to do now

We believe in the power of SMS so much that we’ve created an SMS platform that integrates seamlessly with email. Interested in learning more?

Schedule a free strategy session and I’ll walk you through it.

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Frequently Asked Questions


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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