Unpopular opinion: SMS marketing is killing our souls
Admit it: when it comes to joining a brand’s text subscriber list, you take the discount and run.
You sign up for the price break. But when the text messages start flooding in, you quickly unsubscribe.
Most of us have been there. And most of us aren’t at fault.
The reality is that texting with a brand is nowhere near as fun as texting with a buddy. Branded texts are often cold, transactional, and downright annoying.
In this first installment of Wix’s “Unpopular Opinions” blog series, Product Manager at inkFrog Josh Greenway explains why current SMS practices are bad for business. Keep reading for tips on how to turn text text messaging into a more effective eCommerce marketing tool that doesn’t just yield sales, but fosters positive sentiment towards your brand.
Just because everyone texts doesn’t mean retailers should too
The attractions of mobile marketing are obvious. A third of U.S. consumers buy on their phones at least weekly—that’s more than on any other type of device, according to research from Pew.
In addition, text messaging is by far the most popular cell phone activity. In 2021, Americans exchanged 2 trillion messages, according to CTIA, a wireless industry consortium. And because people have text conversations with friends and family, colleagues and PTA committee members, they tend to prioritize reading incoming messages.
Hence why you’ve probably seen the statistics that SMS messages have an open rate of 98%, and most messages are read within five minutes. But these are numbers that erroneously lead marketers to believe they can open the promotional floodgates, according to Greenway.
In reality, just 29% of shoppers say that SMS is their preferred mode of communication with brands, compared with 56% who prefer talking to brands over email, according to consumer research by Klaviyo.
The misconception stems from the fact that like email, sending an SMS message is so cheap that marketing initiatives can seem wildly effective, even if most customers ultimately unsubscribe in irritation, Greenway says.
“If you’re OK with churning and burning leads, then why fix what isn’t broken?” jokes Greenway.
There’s a fine line between too generic and too personal
For many, promotions feel out of place in a text message queue, Greenway says. Consumers use texting to maintain their most intimate relationships, get work done, and coordinate the logistics of their daily lives; generic invitations to check out a sale or to do some holiday shopping are a jarring contrast.
“Getting marketing text messages where I keep asynchronous contact with people who are close to me is not convenient at all,” says Greenway. “It interferes with my intended use of that space on my phone.”
But retailers can also stumble if they try too hard to get personal. AI-generated recommendations disguised as one-to-one picks from a human expert can miss the mark, and the experience can quickly deteriorate if recipients respond with questions too complex for an auto-responder to handle.
Greenway recalls experimenting with an AI-powered customer service chatbot that was disguised as a human being.
“People hated it so much,” he says. “They preferred to know they were just speaking with a bot.”
When it comes to SMS, Greenway says it’s better to be upfront and label communications as being from a robot assistant avatar, while including customer service links that make it easy to connect to live humans.
“The veneer of ‘human’ is very thin on these robots. You can break it instantly,” Greenway says. “You might punch in a typo or an accidental word and confuse the living daylights out of it, and then it immediately feels like a robot experience. You may have had a different intention or mindset a fraction of a second ago—versus landing in an experience that begins with ‘Hey, I’m not a person, but I can get you to a person’ where you know that you’re engaging with a text-based robot.”
Email + SMS + apps = marketing echo chamber
Another reason SMS messages often miss the mark: they simply mirror email campaigns, Greenway says.
If recipients have downloaded a store’s mobile app, they may even receive the same message three times across email, text, and app notifications (although the advantage of apps is that they tend to give users a greater degree of control over the type and frequency of notifications they receive, Greenway noted).
Customers who start to find messages irritating may not stop at unsubscribing from a brand’s list. If they’re exhausted from being bombarded by the same marketing offers, they may reconsider returning to an eCommerce site at all. Instead, they may seek out a brand’s products on third-party channels, which serve as a buffer and limit a seller’s interaction with them. They may even end up turning to a competitor, Greenway warns.
“SMS Is the first thing I unsubscribe from and it arguably desensitizes me to other messaging I get,” said Greenway. “If you’re not doing anything to throttle [messaging], and people still want your product, they will go to a competitor or to a less annoying source.”
Intentional SMS marketing can save the day
A better path forward is to integrate SMS holistically into your marketing strategy.
As you plan your communications, Greenway advises taking into account all the ways that you currently message shoppers directly. That way, you can track total overall message volume and ensure that each service is adequately differentiated.
“Some level of consumer control and the ability to opt in to certain types of messaging is a crucial thing to offer,” says Greenway. “Let them say, ‘I do want order updates, and I want SMS for that, but don’t send me email for that.’”
Key interview takeaways
01. Put SMS subscribers in control
To ensure SMS subscribers stay engaged, consider creating multiple subscription options centered on timely, focused events or situations. The content should justify priority status in the text message queue. Among the scenarios to consider:
Shipping and status updates - Transactional messages with information about order fulfillment are timely and ultra-relevant.
Inventory alerts - If shoppers are tracking a particular item, letting them know it’s back in stock or almost gone can be helpful to act on immediately.
New product signups - If customers eagerly anticipate your next release, sending SMS alerts once the latest version drops can be a compelling use of SMS.
Limited-time offers - If you run flash sales, daily deals, or even “12 Days of Christmas” style holiday promotions, an SMS service can help shoppers stay on top of the latest offer.
Store specials - Use phone GPS capabilities to locate store shoppers and alert them to deals as they browse the aisles.
Feedback and surveys - Collect valuable customer information by inviting SMS subscribers to give input.
Insider offers - VIP experiences, limited-edition items, or other offerings to reward customer loyalty are more exclusive if they’re not broadcast on the public eCommerce site.
For example, Wix merchant Kandy Cocktail offers live and virtual mixology classes and specialty events in Southern California, in addition to selling garnishes and toppers directly online. The company’s text-message service alerts subscribers to upcoming events in the area, adding value versus pushing a promotion.
02. Heed SMS-specific privacy rules
SMS marketing comes with its own set of regulations and best practices intended to prevent spam and fraud; the latest messaging interfaces feature easily-accessible buttons and tools for blocking senders and reporting spam. Consult expert sources to ensure your program is in compliance. (Wix merchants can access a network of expert development partners.)
Beyond satisfying legal requirements, consider offering customer-facing controls that allow recipients to sign up for—and to switch off—SMS services to suit their changing needs, preferences, and online behaviors. That way, they can finetune how and what they want to receive.
03. SMS marketing doesn’t have to be terrible
Despite its reputation as a moneymaker, eCommerce SMS marketing as it currently exists leaves much to be desired, thanks to content that’s repetitive, impersonal, and off-putting. But with a deliberate and thoughtful approach, you can leverage SMS’ unique strengths to enhance your overall messaging and earn customer trust.
Allison is the editor-in-chief at Wix, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.