Two-Way SMS with Customers: The New Way Brands Build Real Conversational Relationships
Consumers have shifted to shopping more and more on mobile devices, and that trend is on its way up. It's why you have to make sure your brand is part of the SMS marketing game in ecommerce.
Sure, you can automate texting customers when their order has shipped, when it is out for delivery, and when it has arrived. That’s a great start in your SMS journey.
But because SMS is such a sensitive channel, some brands have found success by connecting with customers in a more personalized way. Like real conversations.
Two-way SMS is how you accomplish this. That’s because two-way text messaging is exactly what it sounds like.
In this article (click to jump to a specific section):
What is two-way SMS messaging?
Two-way text messaging is the ability to hold a conversation with your customers over SMS—the same way you would with anyone else.
To date, the most popular type of SMS for ecommerce brands is one-way SMS where the brand texts the customer (usually through an automated SMS nurture stream) personalized and relevant information. That information is typically:
Shipping and delivery information
Sale, discounts, or VIP information
Abandoned cart information
While that kind of information is helpful, two-way SMS conversations are more about building a community, about building loyalty, and about delivering on your brand’s promise.
What's the problem with one-way SMS messaging for customer communication?
There is a time and place for one-way communication, in which you choose not to receive incoming SMS messages. But there are a lot of issues when you rely solely on a one-way SMS plan.
1. Customers can’t reply to you.
One of the biggest reasons to open the door for incoming SMS messages is that doing so matches their expectations for the SMS channel. What if your customers have a question? What if they are trying to text back some really important information—say, an address change?
You won’t get that information, nor will you necessarily look to the customer as though you didn’t get it. They’re expecting the natural rhythm of a real-time text message conversation, so it won’t leave a good impression if you don’t respond.
From a technology standpoint, because this is how every other type of SMS communication works, there’s no reason for them to think you didn’t receive it. Again—their expectation with the SMS channel is to engage in SMS conversations with whoever is texting them—your brand included. This leads us to another massive issue with one-way SMS.
2. It is frustrating and primitive.
The point of SMS messaging for ecommerce customers is to make things easier for them, not more difficult. You can get them the information they need in the place they already are (on their phone).
Until you ignore the fact that SMS messaging is two-way. Customers expect that there will be someone—even a robot—on the other end of that text. You expect that you can tell them something or ask them something.
And if that information doesn’t go through or isn’t responded to? You can bet the customer will be frustrated.
While it’s helpful that Old Navy sets up an auto-responder for inbound texts, imagine the delight if a customer actually got the information they needed as a response.
Sure, having one-way SMS might make things more convenient from an awareness of information standpoint. Yet, it's primitive to think that you could implement such technology without acknowledging and solving for the way customers currently use this channel in their lives.
3. It doesn’t deliver on your brand promise.
One-way SMS messaging is typically focused on transactional messages or on conversion metrics. Few, if any, use SMS messaging as a way to capture customer engagement via top-of-the-funnel leads, or as a way to continue engaging your customers, or as a way to really prove out your brand’s value and dedication to your mission.
And that’s because you can’t really do that effectively with one-way SMS. Sure, you can send customers through to an SMS nurture stream—but people respond more to SMS than they do to email. And if you don't respond? Or haven't accounted for their response? Well...now you’re back to #2 on this list.
Don’t worry—we’ve got plenty of SMS marketing examples from brands delivering on brand promise with two-way SMS messaging.
Using two-way SMS in a business
The benefits of two-way SMS ecommerce messaging are multifold, but perhaps one of the biggest is this: there are still a lot of brands who aren't taking full advantage.
Imagine going back in time—Outlander-style—to 2011. Facebook ad costs are low. The Great Recession is leveling off. You put a few bucks behind some ads and see a massive spike in sales—and notice that pretty much no one else is doing this.
The Great Jones Case Study
That’s what two-way SMS marketing is right now for ecommerce brands. There is one brand that comes to mind, and their strategy has received coverage from publications like TechCrunch, Modern Retail, and more: Great Jones.
They put their number on a banner across their entire site:
It’s one of the main CTAs on their Instagram account:
And this text line, unlike so many others out there, is not one-way. Customers can text back. And the Great Jones crew will jump into action.
“We don’t have a large team doing this,” co-founder Sierra Tishgart told TechCrunch. “This is very much an experiment for us. Gaby is answering the questions. We’re on our own text thread with seven of us in the office contributing, but it’s really going to be relying on Gaby’s (Great Jones’ Customer Experience Manager) expertise [and] a large database of recipes.”
Why invest in something so high touch? It's “a natural extension of the brand,” explains Tishgart.
“We really want this to feel like that you are in the middle of making pasta and your sauce isn’t landing—how would you look for help there? I would text somebody. We really realized that is just the fastest, most immediate, and natural form of communication.”
The Summersalt Case Study
Summersalt is another use case of a brand that has hopped into the two-way SMS messaging game. They actually combine more of an automated approach with customized responses based on a customer’s reply.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Summersalt opened up a free text message hotline—which they called a “Joycast”—that will allow people to reach out if they need something to lift their mood.
In response, someone from Summersalt’s “customer happiness” team will send over a 10-minute meditation video, self-care ideas, or a puppy GIF.
If the team gets a text or an email from someone that suggests a more serious mental health emergency, a team member will flag it and direct that person to an organization that can provide the help they need, such as the National Institutes of Mental Health.
This new line is run by 17 customer experience employees who worked remotely before the pandemic, and the team plans to keep the line open indefinitely.
Getting started with compliant two-way SMS in your ecommerce business
Feeling inspired? Ready to get your own two-way SMS strategy up and running? Great! But before we get into how brands can get started with two-way SMS, first we must issue a word of warning that comes with texting customers in general.
This law says that you must have a customer’s permission to text them. You also must stop texting them once they’ve asked you to—or face a potential penalty of $500 to $1,500 per text you sent.
That said, to get started with SMS and stay compliant with TCPA rules, here is what you can do:
2. If you use Shopify, go ahead and allow for customers to check out with their phone number and to submit their number after purchase in order to receive delivery updates. This will help to set a precedent with any customers that your brand does provide information via text—and that when you do, the information you send is important and useful.
3. Launch an acquisition strategy to collect phone numbers for SMS marketing campaigns. You can do this many ways—including launching a banner or popup on your site and sending an email to existing contacts.
The parameters of the campaign can vary, too. Maybe you are giving folks the opportunity to get 10% off their order—or to sign up for a VP program and secret drops. Whatever it is, make sure it aligns well with your brand.
4. Launch a hotline or some kind of helpful two-way SMS messaging line. Here, offer recipes, advice, funny dog GIFs—whatever it is that aligns with your brand, and that your customer experience reps can feasibly help deliver. You may want to also prepare material for those reps to make sure they answer in an on-brand manner—and that they have resources available for potential questions or tricky situations.
5. Make sure that for any of this, you use tools like Postscript that automatically detect any type of unsubscribe message (N, no, stop, quit, etc.) and remove those users from your SMS list. This will help you stay compliant without losing any sleep.
Two-Way SMS Messaging FAQs
Here are some common questions we've received from brands who are looking into an SMS marketing strategy.
How do you chat with customers over SMS?
How you chat with customers over SMS will depend on the tool you use. For some, the messages will go straight to your phone, which can be convenient. However, make sure that whatever tool you use, you are capturing the conversational data in a CRM. This will help you measure the success of the program as well as customer lifetime loyalty—ultimately impacting your CAC:LTV.
How does SMS chat not only improve customer satisfaction and customer experience, but also increase loyalty?
SMS chat, especially delivered using two-way SMS messaging technology, improves customer satisfaction and customer experience—and thus, increases loyalty—by building upon a brand’s positioning and delivering on their values. It allows customers to easily get in contact with the brand, and for the brand to deliver desired information to customers (and prospects)—whether that is delivery notifications via SMS or a hotline that texts personalized recipes.
What are SMS short codes and long codes?
Short codes are five or six-digit phone numbers used for business SMS. They make your brand's SMS marketing more recognizable and simplify the opt-in process for subscribers. They also provide the highest and most reliable throughput of messages per second, which helps your business avoid sending delays for SMS campaigns going to a large list of subscribers at the same time.
Long codes refer to full phone numbers, which is an option for brands that don't want the added expense that comes with using a dedicated short code. These codes are 10 digits.
Brands using Postscript for SMS marketing can use a type of 10-digit long codes known as toll-free numbers (TFNs). These numbers feature a 3-digit code—typically 800 or 888—that allows consumers to reach brands without incurring long-distance fees. They also go through a verification process to ensure carriers don't block any messages sent through them. (Side note: Postscript manages the verification process for you, but not all SMS platforms do this.)
The downside to toll-free numbers is that they have lower throughput compared to short codes—especially for MMS messages (texts that are sent with pictures or GIFs). But because there is no cost associated with using a TFN, it is a good option for brands that are just getting started with SMS and don't have very large lists.
Check out this help article for more on the differences between dedicated short codes and toll-free numbers.
What tools and technology do you need to chat with customers over SMS?
There are a variety of tools and technologies you can use to chat with customers over SMS. Here are a couple of common two-way SMS service options.
Building an SMS system in Twilio
Pros: It’s affordable
Cons: There is no built-in compliance, nor a native CRM. You will have to build all automation and opt-in forms from scratch, and it requires engineering resources to build and maintain (which begins to make the “affordable” pro less so).
Outside of Twilio, you could also use Vonage Nexmo or Messagebird, but beware: all these services provide is an API. In order to go the DIY route, you’ll essentially need to build your own code and platform. This means you’ll not only need to figure out compliance, automation, and opt-ins on your own, but also build out a UI/UX, a connection to customer data for your ecommerce store, or integrations with popular CRMs like Zendesk, Gorgias or Kustomer.
In other words, you’ll spending a lot of time and money on something that shouldn’t be a core competency for your business. Your goal is to make sales, win customer loyalty, and grow the business—not build a new SaaS technology from scratch.
Using an SMS platform like Postscript
Most brands are way better off using a purpose-built platform created specifically for SMS marketing. That's exactly what Postscript offers.
Postscript that has compliance built-in, easily and seamlessly integrates with your Shopify store through a robust API, has a native CRM, and even offers in-app reporting and analytics. No engineering required.
What really makes tools like Postscript a perfect option for brands just getting started with SMS is that these solutions enable ecommerce SMS marketing and messaging out-of-the-box—which is a just fancy term for something you can set up in 10 minutes or less.
That setup time includes:
Full compliance with un-subscription options
Prewritten terms and services language
Pre-built phone number capture campaigns and nurture streams
A native CRM for all the numbers you collect
An analytics dashboard to make sure you are getting the ROI you need (and more).
You don’t have to pay anyone to set any of that up. It is already done—and ready for you to customize, whether you decide to go the route of one-way SMS messaging, up the ante to two-way SMS messaging (recommended), or do both.
A final word of warning, this time not about TCPA. Because the SMS marketing world is new, there are tools and services out there that appear cheap, but that can really put you in a bind. For instance: mass texting platforms. These aren’t as DIY as the Twilio example, and they appear to be less costly in comparison to a lot of options out there.
However, the name should raise a red flag. As we’ve already discussed, TCPA is strict. Mass texting platforms are an easy way to wind up with a large fine. Be careful out there—and respect your customers' and prospects' data and privacy!
Also, make sure you aren’t adding a significant workload to your own plate with developers and engineering. Postscript can help, and the trial is free.
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