SMS Numbers: Toll Free vs Shortcodes vs Longcodes

November 15, 2022 Julio Romero

Reading time about 11min


SMS Numbers: Toll Free vs Shortcodes vs Longcodes

Text messaging has taken over the world. What was once a luxury is now an absolute necessity for everyone, making SMS advertising an important aspect of marketing for any kind of business—whether big or small.

But did you know that there are actually different kinds of SMS numbers you can use? Let’s find out more.

The question that many businesses ask themselves is whether to get a toll-free number or a shortcode, and there are pros and cons to each one. In this article, we will discuss these differences so you can make an informed decision about which one best fits your needs!

The Different Types of SMS Numbers

These are the three different types of phone numbers that are being used for messaging, and these are:

1. Toll-Free

The first one is a toll-free number because it does not have any charges associated with it when being used by your customers. Toll-free SMS Numbers are ideal for businesses who want their clients or potential clients to be able to easily contact them with no added costs involved in this process at all! These have 10-digits and typically start with the 8XX number format.

2. Shortcode

The second type of SMS Number available is called a Shortcode. The term SMS Shortcode refers to either the 5 or 6-digit phone number used for SMS marketing – which is something that you might already be familiar with even without knowing the term itself.

Depending on the company you are working with and the type of shortcode you are using, the price for using this SMS number can vary from $0 to $1,000 per month. We’ll discuss more about this price range later.

3. Longcode

The final type of SMS Number is a longcode, which is typically used for marketing campaigns on television or radio (where applicable). As its name suggests, longcodes take on a longer form than SMS Shortcodes – specifically, long codes are 10 digits long.

These aren’t available to anyone who wants them though because they require special permission from carriers before being allowed access so it can be difficult for businesses to get their hands on one unless there is some kind of partnership happening between them. In reality, toll free numbers fall under longcodes, too, though they differ in purpose and regulations.

The formats aren’t the only differences among the three. Let’s further discuss this below.


What is Longcode?

Longcodes are normally used to give people easy access to customer service (either by calling or messaging)—which is something that you cannot directly do with SMS Shortcodes.

However, you cannot use regular longcodes for SMS marketing because service providers do not allow it.

At the same time, Longcodes themselves are intrinsically limited because of the way they were set up. If you were to send an SMS or MMS using a Longcode number, it can only send one message per second.

As you can imagine, this becomes troublesome when you have time-sensitive information that you need to send out, or when you have hundreds or thousands of customers that you need to reach right away.

Right now, longcodes are only being used to send transactional messages, which include order updates and delivery information.

What is a Shortcode?

You must have sent words like “REDEEM” (to avail a discount) or “STOP” (to end a service) to a specific number for a restaurant or service provider—that specific phone number is a shortcode.

If you think about it, it is very likely that you still remember those digits even without having ordered from that restaurant in years. The reason for this could be one of many things like the digits themselves were intentionally made to be easy to remember. It’s also possible that you’ve been “exposed” to the digits so many times that it has already taken room in your subconscious mind.

These SMS codes are among the easiest ways to message your current or even potential customers. With the help of SMS shortcode, you can send messages and perform various tasks: making it a powerful tool to improve your sales, increase customer satisfaction (thereby increasing customer lifetime value), and strengthen your business relationships.

Compared to Longcodes, SMS Shortcodes can send up to a hundred message segments per second (100 MPS). This is important to businesses that want to send messages at a specific schedule.

Benefits of using SMS Shortcodes

Among the most common benefits of SMS shortcodes are:

  • No-fuss subscription – customers can opt-in or opt-out of subscribing to your campaigns
  • Easy tracking, easy organization – you can easily tell if your SMS marketing is working because of the volume of messages/responses you receive from your clients
  • Builds trust – customers can see and recognize the shortcodes easily, and they’ll know whether it’s from you or just another “spam” from untrusted sources
  • Easy to remember – 5 to 6 digits are definitely easier to memorize than full phone numbers or 10-digit SMS longcodes
  • Easily shareable – again, since it’s much shorter than long codes and phone numbers, you could easily include it in your marketing content
  • Easily get subscribers – get more SMS subscribers with the help of short sign-up keywords.

Types of SMS Shortcodes

Shortcodes are typically divided into two main categories: shared and dedicated. The latter is actually split into two subtypes, but we’ll get to that later.

Shared Shortcodes

Shared SMS or MMS shortcode is a phone number that is shared between various businesses, usually (although not necessarily) within the same geographic area. This is primarily done to reduce the costs of hosting and managing an A2P (application-to-person) messaging system or high-volume messaging system.

The only upside to using shared shortcodes is that they can either be free or priced very low.

Several businesses are using it which means these businesses can split the operating cost. While shared shortcodes are cost-effective, it does pose a few problems:

1) Businesses Competing Over Keywords

The first problem is the limited keywords that are available to each business. For instance, let’s say a provider sets 555111 as the shortcode for all restaurants in a given city or area code. If there are 50 restaurants that opt for this shortcode, then that means they would all have to use unique keywords for their businesses.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with using shared shortcodes – especially if you’re thinking of the most cost-effective option for your small business.

However, not having the option to use a specific keyword, especially one that is proven to be effective in SMS marketing, could significantly affect the outcome of a marketing campaign. If another restaurant is already using “FREE” as a keyword to promote their free items, then you would have to get creative and think of something else to use.

A solution to this would be to use a keyword that is unique to your business.

You can add an identifier to your keyword. For instance, your pizza place is named A1 Pizza and you want to promote a free pizza offer and get SMS subscribers, you can use A1FREE as a keyword. It’s easy to remember because it is short but is not too random.

A great example is 7-11’s 7REWARDS, as shown in the image below:

(image from Reddit)

2) Regulation And Acceptable Business Practices

Another concern with the use of shared shortcodes is that it cannot track which businesses are sending which promotional campaigns.

In the US, the CTIA regulates the use of SMS Shortcodes, and businesses that use shortcodes need to comply with the rules and regulations set by this governing body.

However, from the above example, if all 50 restaurants are using the same shortcode and sending out SMS marketing campaigns all at the same time, there is no way to tell whether any of these restaurants are abiding by the set standards or not. This becomes especially problematic if other businesses using the same shared shortcode do not abide by the common and acceptable business practices.

This could potentially damage the reputation of some or all of the other businesses that are using the shared SMS shortcode. For instance, if one business violated the regulations, all businesses will be penalized by getting their shared shortcode blocked.

To prevent this from happening to your business, it would be best to work with an SMS marketing provider that ensures that all their account holders follow the rules strictly.

3) Reduced Brand Recognition

Think of it this way: the SMS shortcodes are essentially your identification number for your customers. If you are using the same ID as all the other businesses in your area, they won’t be able to easily associate your company to the “ID” itself.

By using shared shortcodes, you are minimizing the chances of your brand being recognized by your customers.

Because of these three main issues, around June this year, major carriers in the US have made announcements that they will stop supporting the shared shortcodes. So if your SMS marketing provider still has not shifted away from shared shortcodes, it’s time to choose a different one.

Dedicated Shortcodes

In contrast with shared shortcodes, dedicated shortcodes are specifically made for or assigned to only one specific company. The following are the benefits of using a Dedicated Shortcode:

1) Free To Set Your Own Keywords

Obviously, you would not have to compete over keywords with other businesses anymore when you have your own dedicated shortcode. Since the dedicated shortcode is registered to you alone, you can set keywords and other functionalities as you deem fit.

Common and easy-to-remember words like DISCOUNT, ITEMS, FREE, BONUS, and HELP are used because they are very intuitive and self-explanatory. If you are using a dedicated shortcode, this comes in handy because customers won’t even have to remember a whole menu of options.

2) Fewer Restrictions, More Flexibility

Because the number is dedicated to you, you wouldn’t have to worry about being tied with other businesses that might have been spamming or doing some questionable acts with the shortcode.

You can be more flexible with how you’d like to execute your marketing strategy – you can track each campaign, manage all your SMS and MMS marketing, and properly organize all communication between you and your customers.

3) Customers Can Attribute The Number To Your Business

With a dedicated shortcode, branding is also much easier – and eventually, people will remember it as easily as they remember that 911 is for emergency services. Over time and as your business grows, you can expect to retain customers simply because you have a dedicated number that they can reach out to when necessary.

All these benefits may convince you to have your own dedicated shortcode, but there is one big downside that can make or break your decision: the price.

Dedicated shortcodes cost $500 a month! And that doesn’t even include the set-up fee.

If you can spare $500 per month, on top of the cost of sending messages, then getting a dedicated shortcode would be ideal. It would be even better if you can get a decent ROI from your SMS marketing. But for small businesses, spending $500 per month can be too expensive.

Vanity Shortcodes

Vanity Shortcodes are essentially Dedicated Shortcodes, too – but with an added feature: you can choose your own specific numbers to use. Instead of having the system generate random numbers, you are free to select your own.

For instance, some businesses with 5 or 6 letters in their names opt to “spell out” their company names as if they were using old telephone keypads.

If your business is called “Harry’s Craft Beer” – then you can use 427797 (H-A-R-R-Y-S when you dial in a phone keypad) as your Vanity Shortcode as this spells out your business name.

The 7/11 convenience store in some locations uses 711711 as a Vanity Shortcode, which is a smart move for the business.

Of course, you don’t just have to “spell out” your business name – you could also just choose a shortcode that is simple and repetitive. Two-number combinations like 999111, 575757, or 58585 (this one is actually already used by McDonald’s) are a good way to go.

While these are all so exciting, let’s not forget about Dedicated Shortcodes’ biggest downside, and that’s how much it costs. While random dedicated shortcodes are priced at $500 per month, Vanity Shortcodes are priced twice!

So yes, having a vanity code can cost you at least $1,000 a month.

Toll-Free Numbers

A Toll-Free Number is another SMS Marketing option that businesses can’t afford to miss out on. Toll-Free Numbers are used by businesses for exactly what its name implies – it allows customers to call the business toll free.


Benefits of Using Toll-Free Numbers

1) Free for Subscribers to Get in Touch

For small and medium enterprises, this is an easy way to generate more leads because potential clients can contact you over the phone or through SMS about whatever product or service that they’re interested in without worrying about the costs of doing so.

2) Affordable Price

Toll-Free numbers are very much like 800 or 1800 numbers, except they come with all the same great business benefits of dedicated shortcodes – minus the steep price tag!

Unlike Vanity and Dedicated Shortcodes, Toll-Free Numbers don’t need $500 to $1,000 per month for registration fees – just around $19 to $72 monthly fee depending on the provider.

WinBack SMS app initially offered free shared SMS shortcode number to its users, but are now migrating to a different solution. We now offer Toll-Free numbers for free for all users who sign up with us!

3) Unique to Business

With a toll-free number, you get your own unique phone number where customers could reach out anytime and anywhere in order to ask questions about products or services offered by your company. You also have more flexibility because there would be no restrictions since it’s not tied up with any other businesses, unlike Shared Short Codes.

4) Conversation Text Messaging

Shared shortcodes do not allow two-way messaging, which means customers cannot reply to messages sent to them by the business. In contrast, toll-free numbers accept replies. This means you can get feedback from customers and engage in conversational text messaging.

5) Calling Option

While shortcodes are only used for SMS, toll-free numbers can be used for both SMS and voice calling. This is a great option since not everyone likes sending text messages; some people want to be able to speak with an actual person in order to settle their concerns immediately.

Plus, your customers will not be confused with what number to call when trying to reach you. They can just check the number in your SMS messages and dial them directly instead of searching for your voice phone number from your website or social media pages. With shortcodes, users would be confused about whether or not the number can be called.


How To Promote Your SMS Number

As soon as you have your SMS number up and running, get the word out by using either your owned or paid media. Not only will this help them know how to contact you, but they will also know who is sending them a message when you do send them one.

Here are some of the ways to get your number out there:

Owned Media

a. Via Your Website

Simply edit your “About” section and add your new SMS number. If you want, you can also add it as the first thing that appears as soon as someone visits your website.

b. Via social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)

Don’t forget to add it to all your publication materials (images/text/videos, etc.) for all your social networking sites. A simple mention on Twitter or YouTube could go a long way.


Paid Media

a. Going Old-School

Some non-digital ways to promote your SMS number include having them printed on business cards, product labels, in-store signs, and billboards. This will be particularly helpful to customers who pass by your store because they wouldn’t even have to go online just to find you.

(image from Foursquare)

b. Going Digital

Advertising via pop ads, search ads (Google), native ads, and even in your email messages would become more efficient if you include your SMS numbers to them. It’s like adding your personal identification card to your business—something that customers can trace back to you.


Common Benefits of Promoting Your SMS Numbers

No matter how big your business is, your SMS numbers could definitely play a big role in growing your company. Here are some of the most common ways sharing your SMS number to your consumers can benefit you:

1. Increased Subscriptions to Paid Services

Initially, SMS Shortcodes are focused on getting more customers to subscribe to specific services/businesses. The New York Times, for example, uses 22411 for their subscription plans. With just one text to this number, customers can start or cancel the service they need.

2. Increased Subscriptions to SMS Marketing

Subscriptions not only mean subscribing to paid services, but also subscribing to receiving an SMS notification or newsletter from your business.

Subscribing to your SMS marketing via keyword could also allow you to offer special discounts to customers. For example, Pizzahut uses 69488 for their Pizzahut deals, which definitely adds value to their business by giving options to their customers that they cannot miss.

3. Better Customer Service

Instead of having to scroll through various menus, texting “HELP” to a dedicated number leads your customers to the information they need. They can even get in touch with you easily for any concern.

Possibly the most common keyword used in shortcodes, “HELP” allows your customers to get information fast. This is especially true in businesses that use dedicated or vanity shortcodes, because they don’t have to compete with other businesses over this particular keyword.

4. Collect Donations

Whether you’re raising money for a good cause or for your own organization, promoting your SMS numbers can be very helpful in collecting donations.

Many non-profit organizations and NGOs use shortcodes to receive donations from their supporters, such as RedCross and UNICEF. Sending “REDCROSS” to 90999 or “UNICEF” to 80100 will automatically donate $10 to RedCross US or UNICEF Canada, respectively.

5. Run Contests

Entering SMS contests through a mobile phone has become extremely popular from its inception because all that’s necessary is your standard SMS-capable mobile phone. Your customer doesn’t have to have a smartphone just to be able to participate. This is important especially if your target audience (for example, the elderly) are not adept at using the latest technologies.

This makes contests more inclusive, and in turn, could get you more customers to participate.


Final Thoughts

Allowing SMS as a form of communication between brands and consumers gives businesses the ability to interact on a more personal level via their phones – even without the customers having to download apps. Whichever way you want to use your SMS Numbers, there is no denying that if you want to benefit from SMS marketing campaigns, your should understand how they work.

If you’re a medium to large business, using a Dedicated Shortcode, or better yet, a Vanity Shortcode can greatly benefit your branding and eventually, your bottom line. But if you’re a small business or you’re just starting out, working with an SMS Marketing provider that will give you access to Toll-Free numbers is your best bet.

We’ve got you covered with Toll-Free numbers here at WinBack. Try us out for 14 days. You’ll definitely won’t regret it!