Have you ever received a text from a five-digit phone number? Or maybe it was six-digits long? If so, that business was using short code texting to reach you. Short code texting is commonly used among businesses to reach customers at high volume, but it isn’t the only way to do so. In this blog post, you’ll learn all about short code messaging, including how it works, why it’s used and how toll-free texting is the alternative that can help strengthen your relationship with customers.

What is a short code?

A short code, or SMS short code, is a four-, five- or six-digit telephone number that’s used only for texting. In most cases, businesses use short codes to send or receive one-way communications (such as marketing messages, two-factor authentication and alerts) to reach a high-volume of customers.

How do SMS short codes work?

There are generally two ways that an SMS short code is used. One, to send programmatic mass texts or two, to provide consumers with information about a product or service by using a keyword.

1. Short code texting for automated messages

Short codes have many applications when it comes to automated messaging on a large scale. Businesses use them for things like:
  • Marketing and promotional messages
  • Reminders (appointments, prescription refills, etc.)
  • Notifications
  • Password resets
  • Order confirmations and tracking information
It’s important to note that in these scenarios, short code messaging doesn’t allow for two-way communications. If a customer were to reply to the message with a question there would be no one on the other end to answer.

2. Using an SMS short code with keywords

Keywords are commonly associated with an SMS short code, and they can be used a few different ways. Keywords can allow customers to opt-in to text messaging from a business, where the customer will text a keyword to an advertised short code number. This is common for text message promotions or when subscribing to a text marketing list. For example, a business may display an advertisement like the following: Text FALL20 to 555-43 to get 20% off your next order! Keywords can also be used for contests in TV or radio. A listener or viewer can text a keyword to an advertised short code number to take a poll or cast a vote, for example: To vote for Maya, text MAYA to 555-43. Lastly, keywords can offer consumers a self-guided tool to answer common questions or to gather information. The business sets up a pre-written response (also known as an auto-reply text) that triggers when a specific keyword is texted to the SMS short code. For example: Text the word OOPS to 555-43 if we messed up your order. Just follow the instructions when prompted and we’ll make it right!

How do you text a short code number?

Texting an SMS short code works like texting a normal 10-digit phone number.
  1. Start a new text message. Open your iMessage app, Messages app or any messaging app you use to text.
  2. Enter the short code in the same area you’d enter a regular phone number. You can enter the 5-digit phone number or 6-digit phone number here. Short codes can also sometimes be 4-digits long.
  3. Write your text. If you’re texting a keyword (i.e., JOIN) to subscribe to a text marketing list or to enter a contest, you’d enter the keyword in the body of the text where you would normally compose your message.
  4. Send the text. Once you send your text, you’ll likely receive an auto-reply message from the business with a confirmation.
Keep in mind that when sending a text to a short code number for contests or to redeem discounts, you may be subscribing to the business’s marketing list. If you don’t want to receive texts from them, you can unsubscribe. The business should provide you with a specific keyword to unsubscribe, but if they don’t, texting the word STOP generally works.

How do I get an SMS short code?

You’ll have to go through The Short Code Registry and lease one directly from them or you can go through a third-party provider, like an SMS aggregator, that can handle the set-up process for you.

Can I buy a short code?

No, you cannot buy an SMS short code for your business. You can only lease them.

The pros and cons of short code texting

Short codes are a well-established technology, and they’re great at what they do best (high-volume texting), but there are a few downsides that businesses should take into consideration.

The pros of using an SMS short code

  • High throughput. Short codes let businesses reach lots of customers at any given time with the ability to send up to 100 texts per second.
  • Brand recognition. Consumers may come to associate a short code with a brand, like Twitter’s short code 40404.

The cons of using an SMS short code

  • Expensive. The cost of leasing a short code can be high, anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a month plus messaging fees.
  • Long approval time. Every cellular network has to approve the short code, which means it can take months before you’re up and running.
  • Long contracts. Companies can be held to contracts for long periods, which can be inconvenient if you only need a short code for a brief time.
  • Interrupts the customer experience. Giving customers two phone numbers to reach you–one to call and one to text–can be confusing. For example, radio stations that use short codes often run into problems with listeners trying to call the short code number they’ve been instructed to use for texting.
  • One-way messaging. Generally, consumers can’t have a two-way conversation with a business using a short code, so if they text back with a question, the short code won’t recognize it. A majority of consumers don’t like this: Three out of four say they feel frustrated when they can’t reply to a company’s text message (2019 State of Texting).
short code texting example

An example showing how short codes can hurt the customer experience.

Toll-free texting: An alternative to SMS short codes

A convenient alternative to short code texting is to allow customers to reach you on an existing toll-free phone number. By promoting “Text or call” on your existing business line, you give customers a choice to have a real conversation with you on the channel they prefer. Toll-free SMS lets businesses enjoy the same benefits that an SMS short code offers.
  • High-throughput. Send up to 1,000 texts per second.
  • Brand recognition. Customers can text you on the same phone number they’ve come to associate with your business.
  • Keywords. Businesses can use keywords on their toll-free number just as they would on a short code.
Other benefits to texting on a toll-free number:
  • Inexpensive. Toll-free numbers cost only $2 per month plus messaging fees.
  • Fast approval time. Phone numbers can be approved and activated on the same day.
  • Better customer experience. Customers can call or text on the same number.
  • Two-way messaging. If a customer has a question, your business can reply to their text and engage in a back-and-forth conversation.
short code texting alternative using toll-free phone number

An example showing how using a two-way texting option like toll-free texting improves the customer experience.

Your customers want to engage with businesses on a single phone number just as they would with friends and family. There’s a real-time, back-and-forth exchange with another person, and if they need to hop on a phone call, they just call the same number they’re using to text. Using short codes limits the opportunity to build relationships with customers: There’s no one on the other end of the text when they want to reach you.

Start texting on your toll-free phone number with Zipwhip

Learn more about the benefits of using your toll-free number for texting with a free trial of Zipwhip. For more information and tips about how to use business texting, including common use cases, etiquette and templates, download our free e-book:  The Ultimate Guide to Texting Your Customers.

Reach customers where they’re at

Emails and phone calls just don’t cut it anymore. Today’s consumers prefer the ease and speed of texting.
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