SMS: A Growing Key to Retailer-Consumer Relationships

By Steve French, Global VP of Product Management & Marketing, OpenMarket for Total Retail

Before diving into this article, take a moment to examine your surroundings. Readers will find themselves in slightly different places, but more likely than not a mobile phone is within your immediate reach — you may even be reading this article on a phone. According to Pew Research, at least 90 percent of U.S. adults own a mobile phone, and 29 percent describe their phones as “something they can’t live without.”

Knowing how valuable mobile phones are in our society, it’s surprising that the majority of retailers have yet to incorporate mobile communication in their “retailer to consumer” strategy, specifically through SMS (i.e., text messaging). Text messaging is the most widely used feature on mobile devices, with 97 percent of the U.S. adult population using it at least once a day. Retailers that use text messaging can capitalize on a ubiquitous communication channel and the chance to engage with consumers in real time.

Mobile is the New Normal

For better or worse, our world is more connected than ever. In fact, 44 percent of the U.S. adult population admits to sleeping with their mobile phones to avoid missing any calls, messages and notifications while they sleep. Our current relationship with mobile devices is strong, but it’s expected to become deeper as even more tech-savvy generations come of age. Currently, more than 85 percent of millennials own smartphones, and 64 percent of them prefer SMS to voice for customer service.    

As mobile continues to shift the customer engagement paradigm, the pressure is on retailers to embrace this new normal. Without proper communication techniques, outreach from retailer to consumers is either cut short or ignored completely. To be successful, retailer-to-consumer communication needs to be highly personal, meaningful and engaging.

Text Messaging Isn’t New, and That’s OK

Although it’s not the newest technology, text messaging is an extremely powerful communication tool for retailers. What makes the technology so attractive is its ubiquity — it works on every phone, on every network and nearly every human is a trained user. People are even accustomed to look for text messaging. Pew Research notes that 67 percent of U.S. adults admit to checking their phones even when it isn’t alerting them to do so.

Many have said SMS is on its way out, but the numbers say otherwise. U.S. consumers send more than 6 billion texts each day, and 90 percent of all texts are read within three minutes. Already a popular communication tool, the consumer fixation with text messages is only expected to increase as more millennials join the marketplace. Currently, millennials exchange an average of 67 texts per day. The channel for communication is well established for retailers. Better yet, research from the Harris Poll shows 77 percent of millennials look favorably on companies that offer text messaging communications.

Text Messaging is the Key to ‘Retailer to Consumer’ Strategy

Even though text messaging is a powerful communication tool, it’s not always appropriate for all vertical markets or use cases — e.g., advertising, product discovery. When used for these purposes, messages are often considered by consumers to be spam. When a consumer receives spam , the retailer-consumer relationship is adversely affected and the retailer’s reputation is often tarnished. When used responsibly, text messages are an invaluable tool for retailers that want to not only engage customers, but also profoundly enhance their overall experience with a brand.

Responsible messaging revolves around sending texts that are relevant to the situation. For example, when a consumer makes an online purchase. Immediately after submitting her order online, the customer will receive a text message from the retailer confirming the order, which may also include product tracking information. Then, after some time, the retailer will send the customer another text message informing her that the product is ready for pickup or has been delivered.

Another example is when retailers provide a text-enabled toll-free number for customer support, which can improve customers’ experiences while lowering retailers’ call-center costs. The key is to keep messages contextual, personal and timely, and allow the consumer to engage with your brand how and when they desire.

As mobile activity continues to grow and become more advanced, SMS has remained a key component in how consumers communicate with each other and now with brands. Text messaging is often the consumer’s preferred means of communication, most notably for tech-savvy millennials. Retailers that incorporate text messaging into their consumer engagement strategies have the ability to create ongoing conversations and strengthen brand loyalty; those that don’t risk missing out on a valuable engagement opportunity.

Steve French is the global vice president of product management and marketing of OpenMarket, an enterprise mobile engagement company.