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Short code texting: Unlock the power of SMS communication

Man replying to a short code text message on mobile phone
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Thank Ryan Seacrest and reality TV for familiarizing the masses with short code texting. Could your business benefit from this type of mass text messaging? 

When SMS short codes launched back in 2003, American Idol used the numbers to let viewers vote for contestants. It was the season featuring Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken — when the show had its highest-rated finale ever. The popularity of American Idol introduced millions of people to short code numbers.

Now short codes show up in consumers’ inboxes almost every day. But how can your business use short code messaging to reach customers and enhance their experiences with your brand? Let’s dive into the world of short codes to find out how they could fit into your communication strategy.

What is a short code?

Think of short codes like miniature phone numbers intended to support high volumes of SMS and MMS messages sent within a short time period. The numbers are usually five or six digits long, which is significantly shorter than the typical 10-digit phone number. That makes them recognizable and easier to remember. 

Consumers are very used to receiving messages from brands via short codes. These numbers have been around for more than 20 years, and short codes are considered the gold standard of messaging.

Short code numbers are country-specific, campaigns are mobile carrier-approved, and are meant to be used for a defined purpose. Their biggest advantage is allowing organizations to quickly and easily reach an audience with critical messages via two-way, A2P (Application-to-Person) SMS.

Short code text message example for a member alert

Short code messages are meant to make communication between businesses and customers easier.

Thanks to the global accessibility of SMS messaging, short codes are ideal for fast bulk outreach to a worldwide customer base. These numbers are also known for their security and reliable deliverability.

They’re often used for SMS marketing, keyword campaigns, and two-factor authentication (2FA), but there are many other creative ways to use short code texting for marketing and an improved customer experience.


Differences between short codes and long codes

10-digit long codes (10DLCs) and Toll-Free Numbers (TFNs) are both options for A2P messaging if you get carrier approval. 10DLCs became available for A2P messaging in 2021 and are a great choice for businesses looking for high message deliverability and cost-effective messaging. Unlike long codes, short codes are not voice enabled.

Another key difference between short codes and long codes is throughput and volume. Short codes can handle an impressive 400 messages per second (MPS) while long code throughput falls in the range of 30 to 75 MPS. Partly because of their ability to reach a wide audience in less time, short codes come with a higher cost.

Short code, 10DLC, and toll-free number text message side-by-side

Text message examples from short code, 10DLC, and toll-free numbers. 

Sometimes businesses choose to text-enable their existing, recognizable 10-digit number. On the other hand, bigger brands and high-volume senders often prefer using short codes for different defined purposes. Sinch offers all three services. We explain the ins and outs of each in this blog post on SMS short codes, long codes, and toll-free numbers.

How does short code texting work?

Here’s a common scenario for short code texting. Let’s say you want potential customers to opt in to receive promotional SMS messages. In this case, you’d launch what’s known as a “keyword campaign.” 

For instance, a company could prompt contacts to text the keyword “DISCOUNT” to the short code number 25554. The act of texting that keyword to the short code serves as an opt-in signal to receive promotional messages via SMS. 

Depending on how you automate the keyword campaign, the recipient may immediately receive a special offer such as a coupon code with a clear call to action and link to an online store.

Of course, you’ll need to provide recipients with a way to opt out of these short code messages if they choose. That’s also done with a keyword. Consumers are often prompted to text back “STOP” to a short code when they want to unsubscribe. 

Short code keywords are used for promotional, informational, and transactional customer communication. A shipping update text, for example, could prompt the recipient to reply with the keyword “HELP” if they have questions or need to contact customer support. 

The bottom line is that SMS keyword campaigns make it easy to initiate automated, two-way A2P messaging.

Types of short code numbers

You’ll have a few options when choosing the kind of short code that’s right for your business and the SMS or MMS campaign you plan to run. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of short codes.


Standard vs Free to End User short codes

This choice involves deciding who covers the cost of two-way texting with short codes.

The most common involves the application of standard messaging rates. Since many mobile customers in North America have unlimited texting as part of their plans, recipients are rarely charged.

A Free to End User (FTEU) short code number is less common. This is where the company leasing the short code covers the costs associated with sending and receiving messages. Rather than charges going to a consumer’s mobile plan, carriers waive that fee because the sender is already paying. Standard messaging rates apply in regions where FTEU is not available. Banking and emergency services are among the most likely to use FTEU short codes.


Shared vs dedicated short codes

Dedicated short codes are unique to one business while multiple organizations can use a shared short code. Sharing a number allows businesses to divide the costs associated with it. However, shared short codes are less common now because major mobile carriers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia stopped supporting them.

That’s because bad actors started spamming from shared short codes. Consumers reacted to this by making lots of spam complaints. That eventually lead to poor SMS deliverability and traffic blocking of shared short codes. Mobile carriers in the U.S. and Canada stopped supporting shared numbers in 2021. 10DLCs were introduced as an alternative to shared short codes in those markets.

While shared short codes are still available in some regions, dedicated short codes are considered more secure and provide more reliable message deliverability.


Vanity vs random short codes 

There are two types of dedicated short codes to choose from. One you can select and customize, and with the other, you get what you get.

Vanity short codes are a good way to make these abbreviated numbers even more memorable. You may choose a repeated numerical sequence, such as 456456. Or you may want to customize the number for branding purposes. For example, if you ran a James Bond-themed campaign, you could use the short code 007007.

Random or non-vanity short codes are just that – randomly generated five or six-digit numbers for A2P texting. Organizations that lease short codes will choose an available short code number and provide it to you. Non-vanity short codes are also more affordable.

7 benefits of SMS short codes 

Since dedicated short codes will cost you more than a 10DLC, you may want to know what the advantages are. These seven reasons explain why short codes may benefit your business.


1. Easier to remember 

Because they're shorter and customizable, short code numbers are easier to recall when someone needs to text you directly for the first time. This may happen if you’re advertising a short code in video ads, on social media, or with in-store signage, on menus, and billboards.


2. Speedy delivery 

Short codes messages are delivered to recipients as much as 10-times faster than other options for SMS communication. If timeliness and scalability are important, short codes offer the benefit of high throughput. That’s why short code texting is ideal for bulk SMS messaging. 


3. International reach 

Short codes are supported in many countries, which makes them an excellent way to connect with customers on a global scale. However, you should keep in mind that you’ll need a separate short code number for each country in which you plan to run campaigns.


4. Increased engagement 

According to the U.S. Short Code Registry, SMS short code campaigns get an open rate above 90%. The use of keywords also makes short code texting a fun way to interact with a brand. That’s why restaurants and food delivery services may choose to use keywords like “YUMMY”, for example. But these campaigns can also be used to help businesses run smoothly, such as using keywords to confirm or cancel appointments via text.


5. Automated replies  

Short code texting offers the benefit of two-way communication. It often does so with triggered, automated responses that improve operational efficiencies. Providing an option for opting in to SMS reminders allows many companies to use automation effectively. This type of automation could also help you deliver 24/7 customer support through an SMS chatbot.


6. Better deliverability 

Not only do short codes have higher throughput than long codes, but they also have higher delivery rates. Deliverability is better with short codes because of a strict carrier approval process, which means wireless carriers know exactly who’s texting their users and why. Conversely, sending a high volume of messages from a long code may increase your chances of being marked as potential spam.


7. Secure and trustworthy 

The stringent approval and vetting process for short codes and associated campaigns also makes them more trustworthy and secure. Short codes are tough to spoof, which helps prevent fraud. The fact that they're more expensive also means spammers and scammers may not have the budget for a short code number. 

When a brand uses a short code regularly, the number itself will become recognizable to recipients. That means people are more likely to feel comfortable engaging and responding.

How to use short code texting

There are multiple ways to take advantage of the opportunities short code texting provides. As mentioned, SMS keywords are an ideal way to obtain consent. However, it’s important to realize that short code numbers are approved for specific uses or campaigns.

You should think about whether it makes sense to use the same short code number for both marketing updates and account security notifications, for example. Using separate short codes can help you maintain compliance and clarity, as each type of message serves a different purpose. Just keep in mind that because short codes are leased, you'll only get to run an SMS campaign with that number for as long as you're paying the monthly fee.


1. Delivering discounts and deals

Let’s say you want to promote weekly deals via text messaging to customers who choose to opt in. You could use a short code with a keyword like “DEALS4U” to obtain consent and activate automated weekly promotions. 

But maybe you only want to run a shorter SMS campaign around the holiday shopping season. You could lease a short code for a few months and have shoppers opt in with a keyword like “HOLIDEALS” and stop leasing the number once your promotion ends.


2. 2FA and password resets 

Authentication and account access are two useful ways to use short codes. 

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. Some organizations use a one-time passcode sent by SMS, which is easy, secure, and UX-friendly. SMS short codes are also used to facilitate password resets. 


3. Reminders and notifications

SMS short codes can be used for one-to-one notifications, which would often be considered transactional messages.  

Industries that take advantage of this kind of customer communication include ecommerce businesses for order confirmations and shipping notifications, healthcare companies for appointment reminders, and financial institutions for fraud alerts. 

You can also use short codes for bulk SMS notifications. That could include event promotions or notifying customers about outages, closures, and changes to hours in operation. 

After years of relying on email for all communications, TaskRabbit switched to a multichannel approach with Sinch SMS for scheduling, appointment reminders, arrival updates, communication notifications, and more. Through Sinch, TaskRabbit sent over 36 million text messages with a 96% open rate. Not bad, right?


4. SMS drip campaigns 

An SMS drip campaign delivers messages to subscribers over a set schedule and usually centers around a certain topic or theme. For example, a wellness brand may use an SMS short code with an autoresponder to serve customers who want to subscribe to daily health tips. You could also use an SMS drip campaign for new customer onboarding. 


5. Customer surveys 

Short codes with autoresponders are a great way to collect data and information from your contacts. Let’s say you want to collect zero-party data from your customers to help you personalize their experience. You can ask them one question at a time and have them respond by text. This is also an effective way to collect customer feedback.


6. Contests and sweepstakes 

A text-to-win sweepstakes is a fun way to engage consumers through mobile messaging. Participants can easily enter by sending a keyword to your short code. This can be an effective way to convince customers to initially consent to receiving your texts when you get started with SMS marketing.


7. Voting 

As we explained with the American Idol story, voting is one of the first ways short codes were used to engage an audience. Today, short code voting is even used in real elections. 

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.


8. Community connection 

You can even use short code texting to create human connections. 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.

Short code compliance considerations 

SMS compliance can be a bit perplexing, but it’s important to follow any required rules and regulations as closely as possible. In North America, you’ll need to comply with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) as well as Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL). There’s also GDPR to keep in mind for any businesses sending mobile messages to consumers in the European Union.

In the United States, an authority on SMS compliance is the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), which is a trade organization for the wireless industry that publishes a Short Code Compliance Handbook. It also publishes a set of voluntary best practices for sending SMS and MMS through the wireless messaging ecosystem. Canada has the Canadian Telecommunications Association (CTA), which also sets industry standards.

The good news is that, while there are many different international guidelines for texting, the rules tend to be very similar, and they all boil down to obtaining consent while respecting the privacy and wishes of recipients. 

Here are several key considerations for short code compliances:

  1. Obtain consent: First and foremost, you will need permission to deliver SMS messages to people – whether it’s from a short code or long code. Different types of consent are needed for different types of business messaging (promotional, informational, and conversational). 

  1. Explain what consumers consent to: Recipients should understand exactly what they're subscribing to when opting in, so they know what to expect from your messages. Part of explaining consent includes clear and conspicuous calls to action. Recipients should know who they’re dealing with, what the program entails, details of any offer, and other pertinent information. 

  1. Provide a way to opt out: You should consistently remind recipients how to opt out of your messages. This is commonly done using a keyword like “STOP”, but there are other methods. You also must honor these requests as soon as possible. 

  1. Confirm and document opt-ins: Consider implementing a double opt-in process to ensure recipients truly want your texts. Be sure to properly document opt ins for at least 90 days to prove you obtained consent. 

  1. Avoid public URL shorteners: Mobile carriers discourage the use of free or third-party URL shorteners in SMS marketing and some block them completely. That’s because bad actors often abuse public link shorteners. Use a branded link shortener instead. 

  1. Comply with time-of-day restrictions: The TCPA has restrictions on when you can send SMS messages to consumers. There are “quiet hours” before 8am and after 9pm in each time zone. That just sounds like good manners to us. 

  1. Avoid forbidden content: Remember the acronym SHAFT and steer clear of that kind of content unless you obtain special approval as well as an age-gate to protect minors: 

    1. Sexually explicit material 

    2. Hate speech 

    3. Alcohol 

    4. Firearms 

    5. Tobacco 

Common questions about short codes  

Here are some frequently asked questions about short code texting.  You can also visit the U.S. Short Code Registry’s FAQ page for more information.


How much do short codes cost? 

In the United States, you pay a monthly fee to lease short code numbers. A vanity short code, which could be customized or memorable, will cost $1,000 per month. Random short code numbers are leased for $500 per month. Besides the cost of leasing short codes, you’ll also pay fractions of a cent for individual outbound and inbound (sent and received) messages.


Who can use short codes? 

While any business can lease a short code, there is an approval process that takes place first. In the U.S., you can apply for a number directly. Sinch can assist you in obtaining short codes for other countries. Once you have a number, your short code campaign will also need approval.


What is a short code campaign? 

The campaign defines the specific use case for short code texting. That may be for informational, conversational, or promotional purposes. SMS short code campaigns need mobile carrier approval, which partners can help you obtain.


How long does approval take? 

It may take several weeks to approve an application for a short code number. The approval process for campaigns can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Sinch can help expedite the mobile carrier approval process, but brands should plan accordingly.


Do all mobile carriers support short codes? 

While the majority of carriers support SMS short codes, it is primarily the major US carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, US Cellular) that support MMS short code texting. Keep in mind that you’ll also need approval from individual carriers before launching a campaign.


Is there a list of available short codes? 

The best place to view available short codes is through the US Short Code Registry’s website. They offer a Find a Short Code tool that allows you to search for and choose available numbers. You’ll need to create an account and can then add short code numbers to an online cart to start the application process.


How many short codes do I need? 

You may want to lease multiple short codes to facilitate different purposes and programs. So, the answer depends on your needs. Short code numbers are best for delivering high volumes of daily text messages. But different campaigns require different short codes.


Are there alternatives to short code texting? 

As mentioned, 10DLCs were introduced a few years ago to provide an alternative to shared short codes. While their throughput is lower, 10DLCs may meet your needs for SMS communication. If you plan to send a lower volume of messages per day, a 10DLC may be an appropriate, low-cost option. The approval process is also faster than with short codes and 10DLCs support multiple campaigns.

How to get started with short code texting 

While we’ve given you a lot to think about, the truth is, getting started with short code texting is very straightforward. Here are four simple steps: 

1. Find the right partner 

Before you dive into it, you’ll need an SMS aggregator to support the sending of SMS messages as well as an application to track and manage everything. Sinch is proud to be one of the Short Code Registry’s Premium partners. We’ll assist you with everything from campaign approval and optimization to following best practices and provisioning numbers for different counties.


2. Lease your short code sender ID 

Next, you’ll need to decide whether you’ll need a random short code or a vanity code. Then choose the number you want lease from the U.S. Short Code Registry’s list of available options. Remember that it could take a few weeks before the application is approved.


3. Develop your campaign 

Now it’s time to get creative. Work with Sinch to conceptualize and customize an SMS campaign that meets your goals and objectives. That could mean using SMS to streamline customer service, deliver text message notifications, or for promotional/marketing campaigns. This step includes defining your message flow, including how people opt in, opt out, request help, and more.


4. Obtain campaign approval 

Here’s where Sinch will go to work for you, submitting your campaign for carrier approval and working with you through the review process to make necessary adjustments. While many campaigns are not ready to be filed with carriers upon first presentation, we’re here to help ensure your short code campaign is complaint and gets approved. 

Now that you’re fully informed, it’s time to get started. Contact a Sinch expert today to learn more or check out our SMS pricing to compare your options.