In this article:
- What is a short code?
- How do short codes work?
- Choosing the right type of short code
- Benefits of short code texting
- The best ways to use short code texting
- How to get an SMS short code and start texting with customers
- How much do SMS short codes cost?
- Getting started with SMS short codes
- Frequently asked questions
Be honest — have you ever texted in a vote for your favorite singer on American Idol or signed up to get texts and a discount from your favorite store? If you said yes, you probably used a short code to do it!
In the business world, if you’re looking to create quick yet memorable connections with your customers on a regular basis but don’t want to break the bank to do it, then short code texting could be the answer. It’s an easy method for sending A2P (Application-to-Person) SMS messages that provides an affordable way to scale global delivery of marketing and other customer engagement communications.
Explore the guide below to learn more about the power of short code texting.
What is a short code?
A short code, or SMS short code, is an abbreviated phone number that usually consists of only five to six digits and allow organizations to send and receive high volumes of SMS and MMS mobile messages within short periods of time.
Also referred to as “short numbers” or “campaign short codes,” the numbers are both carrier- and country-specific. Thanks to the global accessibility of SMS messaging, short codes are a great choice for fast bulk outreach to a worldwide customer base. And they’re easy to use for opt-in to SMS marketing campaigns by texting a “keyword” to that shortened number.
The concept behind short code messaging is to make communication between businesses and customers easier, while also increasing security and deliverability in many countries through oversight by major mobile carriers. They were developed in the United States in 2003 and popularized that same year on American Idol, when at-home viewers were prompted to text in their votes using short codes for the first time. (Remember?)
How do short codes work?
Both obtaining and using a short code requires approval from a country’s wireless carrier services before that number is allowed to send any messages on their networks. This control improves the industry’s ability to verify safe use of consumer data and reduces the amount of spam bombarding our phones. Aggregators like Sinch further enhance safety by monitoring the content sent over short codes.
Once approved, people can use your short code to opt in to SMS marketing campaigns by texting a “keyword” — usually a simple word or phrase — to that shortened number. The idea is that the reduced number of digits in the phone number makes it easier to remember and simplifies the opt-in process overall. Using SMS and short codes offers an alternative to other common campaign opt-in flows via websites and app downloads.
Choosing the right type of short code
Short codes have evolved over the years thanks to customer demands and changing regulations. Here are the different types of short codes available today.
Vanity short codes
When opting for a dedicated short code, a company may choose to apply to lease a customized and unique number — a vanity short code. Selecting your number to reflect your company name or marketing campaign is a great way to strengthen your brand. For example, if you're were running a James Bond themed campaign, you might use the vanity short code "007007".
Random short codes
Random short codes are the opposite of vanity short codes. A random number sequence is selected by the organization leasing and monitoring short codes, then assigned to the next company applying for a new code. Therefore, these codes can’t be reviewed in advance.
Shared short codes
Historically, shared short codes allowed various businesses to all share one short code through a service provider who would then send messages on each company’s behalf. Sharing the codes this way also translated to cost savings. For example, if a cosmetics company and perfumer both use the same short code to message their respective audience, "Text MMMMM to 151515" that’s a shared short code.
The drawback was that they were highly vulnerable to spam and fraud. Many multinational organizations have cracked down on short codes over the years, and American wireless carriers officially updated their guidelines in 2021 to ban the use of shared short codes in an effort to better protect consumers.
Businesses currently using shared short codes can now choose to move to dedicated short codes, 10DLC, or Toll-Free Numbers (TFN). Sinch offers all three services and recently detailed the ins and outs of each in this blog post on SMS short codes, long codes, and toll-free numbers.
Other short codes
There are two other short code types, identified by cost:
- Premium short codes allow a customer to cover any charges incurred by sending or receiving a text using a unique short code by billing those costs to their mobile cell plan. These are mostly used by charities and for donations through a very limited number of approved vendors.
- Standard-rate Free-to-end-user (FTEU) short codes ensure that any costs associated with sending or receiving short code messages will be covered by the owner of the number, remaining free to the end user.
Benefits of short code texting
There are many ways your company can benefit from using a short code:
- Shorter numbers are easier for customers to remember.
- An SMS-based outreach strategy means your customers don’t have to download a new app or learn a new tool to receive your messages.
- They reach large audiences quickly and directly for relatively low costs, making communication more scalable.
- A dedicated short code is great for branding.
- Messages are delivered quickly and securely, allowing you to provide around-the-clock customer service through automated responses.
- They feature delivery receipts — that means easier campaign performance tracking!
- Short codes build customer trust by reflecting your company’s commitment to the strict rules and regulations necessary to use it.
- They also provide the most reliable MMS deliverability.
The best ways to use short code texting
Let’s look at a few examples of how short code texting can help your team start conversations with customers and take engagement to the next level.
SMS keyword campaigns
One budget-friendly method for increasing subscriber opt-ins is to use specific keywords across several campaigns on a single short code to build consistent messaging. Using the same keywords in multiple campaigns makes it easier for consumers to actively engage with your outreach.
Global Mobile, a company focused on building infrastructure for local mobile marketing, partnered with Sinch to use two-way SMS and branded short codes to create Text2Vote, a streamlined mobile voting platform.
By registering with the keyword “2VOTE,” users could safely and securely vote in elections without having to physically go to a polling location or mail in a hard-copy ballot. Used for state party elections in Colorado, Utah, and Michigan, 90% of their registered users preferred the ease of text over mail voting.
Automated SMS reminders help customers remember and keep their appointments. They save time and money — and reduce no-shows — by sending appointment details such as date, time, and location.
Connecting consumers with quick and easy labor to assist with everyday projects is the goal of the internationally successful company TaskRabbit. After years of relying on email for all communications, they switched over to Sinch SMS for scheduling, appointment reminders, arrival updates, communication notifications, and more.
Through Sinch, TaskRabbit has sent over 36 million text messages with a 96% open rate. Not bad, right?
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a well-established security measure used to protect personal information when people log into their online accounts for anything from banking to business software to Gmail. To execute it, many use a one-time passcode sent by SMS — easy, secure, and UX-friendly!
Promotional marketing campaigns
Short codes are a great way to boost sales and customer engagement by sending your subscribers personalized content and offers, like a coupon or QR code.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, Sinch partnered with Mental Health America to create the world’s first texting switchboard, #TextforHumanity. The concept was simple: Users in the United States could register through a simple short code and keyword, JOIN. Once signed up, they could send a positive text message to the local number, and the switchboard delivered it to a stranger somewhere in the world. Senders could also receive similar messages from other anonymous users.
Within the campaign’s first four months, over 80,000 messages were exchanged!
Automatic responses can be triggered by a program like Sinch SMS Short Code API to help companies save time and give customers the instant answers and support they’re looking for.
SMS notification campaigns
When promoting an upcoming event or a limited-time offer, you can reach millions of people with a quick SMS message using short code texting. Delivering timely information right in the palm of their hands is a sure-shot way to get them to engage with your campaign.
How to get an SMS short code and start texting with customers
The obtention process and messaging delivery rates for short codes vary drastically by country due to rules and regulations. Sinch’s U.S. SMS compliance guide is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the best practices of SMS texting for businesses.
In the U.S., the CTIA tracks numbers in a national Short Code Registry. There are several steps you need to take to get a short code and start using it — and Sinch makes it easy! We take care of the entire short code lease process, including the complicated applications involved, and we help you choose and set up any virtual number your business needs.
Getting a short code:
Step 1. Visit the CTIA’s Short Code Registry to review the short codes currently available.
Step 2. Select the number you’d like to use.
Step 3. Pay the leasing fees. You can lease for three, six, or 12 months.
Step 4. Submit a short code application to the Short Code Registry. The review and decision process usually only takes a few business days.
Once you’ve leased a short code and received approval from the CTIA to use it, you need to get approval from the national cell phone carriers for all the outreach campaigns that will use your short code. This process is known as provisioning.
Using your short code and getting campaign approval:
Step 1. Partner with an SMS aggregator like Sinch to host the short code.
Step 2. Once hosted, the short code is connected to the various national cell service carriers.
Step 3. With the assistance of your aggregator, complete and submit a campaign brief application for every marketing campaign you plan that will use the short code.
Step 4. Aggregators will review your application and test the short code. The review process is complex and may take anywhere from three to six weeks.
After each campaign is approved and messages are sent to your contact list, the interesting part begins — time to start engaging with your customers and deepening your relationships through two-way, personalized mobile messaging conversations!
How about short code text messaging compliance
When using short codes, your company is required to follow carrier compliance requirements, industry standards, and applicable laws — and you don't want to mess with these:
Using a short code sender ID is mandatory in the U.S., Canada, and many parts of Latin America. The number used to send the message and the identity of the sender must be clear at all times.
- In some countries, customers need to opt-in to receiving messages before companies can send messages to them.
- In order to comply with local regulations, certain keywords must be supported in some countries, e.g. STOP, INFO, or HELP.
- U.S. guidelines require messages to clarify the opt-out process, including the time frame for processing those opt-out requests. Once a subscriber opts out, they can no longer receive any further messages unless they choose to opt back in.
- In many countries, people can sign up for do-not-contact or do-not-disturb registries. Businesses need to respect the registries to avoid service suspensions or fines.
- The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) oversees the leasing and security of all short codes in the United States. Violating the standards set out in their Short Code Monitoring Handbook could result in a CTIA short code audit, which could lead to a fine or ban.
How much do SMS short codes cost?
The cost of leasing a short code depends on the type of code you choose and the length of your lease. The pricing structure is pretty straightforward.
Dedicated short codes, including vanity short codes, are leased from CTIA at a rate of $1,000 per month. Random short codes lease for $500 per month. Businesses may purchase up to 20 short codes at a time.
Getting started with SMS short codes
Short code texting is a simple, yet powerful strategy for improving customer engagement. To optimize your use of these mighty little numbers, explore our guide to increasing customer loyalty with mobile messaging — and learn how Sinch can help you implement short codes to help your business grow!
Frequently asked questions
Who can use SMS short codes?
Businesses of all shapes and sizes use short codes for in order to reach their target audience. From Airbnb to Twitter to brick-and-mortar retail shops, SMS short codes are perfect for product discounts, passwords, text-to-win sweepstakes and much more.
2. What’s the difference between short codes and other texting codes?
Until recently, the traditional ten-digit local phone numbers, known as long codes, were used for person-to-person communication. However, in 2021, the CTIA introduced a new industry standard, officially identifying them as 10DLC for A2P business messaging. With this change, businesses can now utilize these numbers for texting campaigns, albeit at increased fees set by T-Mobile and AT&T since March 1, 2022.
In contrast, short codes were specifically designed for handling bulk A2P text messages and do not support voice calls. These codes have more bandwidth on wireless networks, enabling faster delivery of large quantities of SMS messages.