The Best and Worst of SMS Campaigns

The Unique Trajectory of SMS

Having worked in the retail business for 20 years, I definitely qualify as someone who’s been around the block a few times. I’ve watched a lot of channels and buying models emerge over the past two decades, and these trends tend follow similar patterns, like long ramp up times. Take mobile, in the beginning there were some early adopters who built their sites so that they worked on cell phones, but it was a good three years before responsive web design took hold in the ecommerce space.

This contrasts with SMS, which has bucked all the trends. It’s adoption has been stunning. Retailers and consumers alike went from very cold to very hot on SMS inside of a year. But its accelerated trajectory makes sense for multiple reasons.

First, young people, and those like their parents who interact with them frequently, spend a lot of time using iMessage or WhatsApp. Nearly 100% of the GenZ generation owns a smartphone, and they spend four hours and fifteen minutes a day on them. Just about every social activity begins in an app on the phone, including shopping.

Second, SMS is taking off as a means to market to consumers and support sales transactions because the tech stacks make it easy to do so. We’ve seen an explosion in platforms — Klaviyo, Yotpo, Shopify among others — that offer multi-use capabilities. These platforms provide ecommerce stores with access to seamless sales transactions (shipping updates), marketing (sneak peak at new products) and loyalty building (soliciting feedback) functionality out of the box. As a result of all these use cases, SMS is becoming an important channel to buy products.

Evolution of Skeuomorphism

I gave a talk a few years ago, The Shopping Cart is Dead, in which I observed some of the trends that were laying the groundwork for SMS commerce. One of those trends was that the shopping cart is a skeuomorphic metaphor for the way we shop in real life. We put items in a cart, go to checkout and pay a cashier. The same is true for the way we organize data that we create on our PCs — files look like individual pieces of paper, which are stored in folders that look like manilla folders. Our desktops and online shopping experiences are filled with metaphors for real life behavior.

Mobile phones, on the other hand, have apps, not files and folders, to store user data. They lack the real-world metaphors that dominate the desktop world. This is more revolutionary than you may realize because it lays the groundwork for SMS commerce, especially for the generations of consumers whose experience of the digital world is largely mobile and icon based. These consumers don’t need real-world metaphors in order to buy from and have a relationship with a brand. If they buy something from a brand and receive shipping updates via text, they’re more open to buying from that brand again based on text-based marketing messages they receive.

Let me give you an example. I like candles, and I especially like ones from Otherland. When I first purchased from the brand I agreed to receive shipping updates via text (in other words, I said to the brand “it’s okay to communicate with me via the SMS channel”). Later on, I received a text message from Otherland announcing a new product and offering me the chance to buy it two weeks prior to its official launch. All that was required of me was text “Yes” and Otherland would ship me the new candle using my address and payment info they had on file. I didn’t need to click through to a website, add it to a shopping cart, and go through the checkout process.

Obviously there are many consumers, probably older, who prefer the traditional shopping cart and checkout process, but there’s a growing number like me who enjoy the convenience of simply texting “Yes.” More than that, I value the special relationship I have with the brand. And this is key. As a rule, SMS works when brands use it for more than just for asking recipients to buy something. It’s a channel that’s incredibly useful in building trust and cementing customer relationships.

I’ll give you another example. The DTC brand Buffy Sheets has a loyal base of customers who love the brand’s eucalyptus based products. Buffy enjoyed a brief moment of social media fame when it sent a late-night text to a subset of its customers, all of whom had opted-in to SMS messaging. The message was a light-hearted message (You up?). It was a huge hit among recipients, and nailed Buffy’s unique brand voice. More than that, it was a way to engage their customers without asking them to buy.

Conversely, SMS campaigns fail when consumers don’t have a prior SMS relationship with a brand and they receive text messages asking them to make a purchase. I occasionally buy deodorant from the DTC brand Native. This past Black Friday, Native randomly sent me a text offering 20% off, which I admit I found frustrating. It’s not like Native sends shipping updates as Otherland does, which means I don’t have an SMS-based relationship with them. A few weeks later I received a second promotional text and decided to unsubscribe.

And this is upshot: Brands can win customers and sales via the SMS channel, as long as they build trust beforehand. Building that trust isn’t that difficult — use SMS to inform your customers when their packages have been shipped, when they’ve been delivered and to solicit feedback and product reviews. These are the basic building blocks of customer loyalty. Once they’re in place, consumers will be open to receiving SMS-based marketing messages. Moreover, as the spending power GenZers grows, solid SMS chops will be table stakes for every online retailer.

Want to learn more about SMS marketing? Reach out to SD!


Phillip Jackson

A multi-instrumentalist, Phillip is an avid collector of vintage guitars, keyboards and amplifiers and has a home studio located in West Palm Beach.