What is an SMS short code and does your business need it?

November 11, 2022 Julio Romero

Reading time about 9min


What is an SMS short code and does your business need it?

Themba on Apr 12, 2022 11:09:45 AM

What is an SMS short code?

An SMS short code is a five or six-digit phone number that makes it possible for businesses to send text messages at scale. When you receive a text message, the short code appears as the “from” number, just like the ten-digit number does when a friend or family member sends you an SMS message.

SMS short codes are great for marketing, because they contain fewer digits than regular phone numbers, making it easier to opt into marketing campaigns. To opt into these types of marketing campaigns, people need to text a specific word or phrase known as the “keyword” to a short code.

By using keywords, one can judge which marketing campaigns are getting a response and which aren’t. Examples of campaigns include voting in contests, signing up for text updates, or for additional information about a business.

The Different Types of SMS Short Codes

In SMS marketing, there are two types of SMS short codes: random and vanity. Both have the same capabilities and functionality, the only differences are costs and the short code’s number.

Random Short Codes

Random short codes, also known as non-vanity short codes, are exactly what they sound like. Rather than giving you a choice, a random five or six-digit number is assigned to you when you apply for a new short code.

Generally, most businesses opt for random short codes, since they cost less than vanity short codes.

Vanity Short Codes

Just like with 10-digit numbers, it’s possible to have short code vanity numbers. A vanity number spells out a word using the phone’s keypad, making them memorable. For example, KMart uses “56278” as its SMS short code which spells out KMART.

 SMS short code

Vanity short codes cost more than random short codes because the U.S. Short Code Registry charges extra to register and maintain a vanity short code.

If you can afford it, vanity short codes are the better choice, because they are easier to remember, making it easier to opt into your SMS marketing campaigns.

Shared vs. Dedicated Short Codes

If you’ve done any research into SMS short codes, you’ve likely come across shared and dedicated short codes. While shared short codes used to be the most commonly used option, due to changes in the industry, dedicated short codes are the only option now. Let’s find out more.

Dedicated Short Codes

The only option now available, dedicated short codes are ones that only one organization is using. When shared short codes were still available, large brands or companies that could cover the costs would be the only ones using this option.

With a dedicated short code, you have full control over SMS messages sent from your number. Unlike with shared codes, you don’t have to worry about relying on other brands to stay SMS compliant or risk getting the number blacklisted by the cellular carriers.

Shared Short Codes

No longer available, shared short codes were ones used by multiple organizations at the same time. Sharing a short code reduced costs, allowing companies to launch more affordable SMS programs.

A big use case for shared short codes was mass text messaging services. However, towards the end of 2021, cellular carriers updated their messaging guidelines and banned shared short codes. The primary reason for this was to identify and stop individual spammers.

Short Codes vs. Other Texting Numbers

Besides short codes, there are also toll-free numbers and ten-digit numbers for SMS marketing. There are a number of differences between these alternatives and short codes.

Short codes are only five or six digits long, while both alternatives are ten digits long. This makes opting into your marketing campaigns easier, as the number is easier to remember and input.

Short codes are also more expensive than the other options, costing anywhere between $500 and $1000 depending on if it is a random short code or a vanity short code. In comparison, ten-digit numbers have minimal costs, while toll-free numbers are free.

However, short codes can send SMS messages and a much faster speed than the alternatives. While short codes can send over 500 text messages per second, a toll-free number can only send 50 messages per second and a ten-digit number only 10 messages per second.

Finally, unlike ten-digit numbers that are subject to spam and content filters by carriers, because the short code approval process includes vetting of the sender and texting program, SMS short code messages aren’t filtered.

Benefits of a Dedicated Short Code

While a dedicated SMS short code is an additional expense to your SMS marketing or bulk SMS efforts, there are several benefits. These include:

  • The ability to choose your own number – a vanity SMS short code makes opting into your SMS campaigns even easier.
  • No keyword restrictions – use any keyword and as many of them as you want.
  • Control over your messaging – maintain full control over SMS messages sent from your number, avoid brand confusion, and ensure you’re not subject to carrier violations by others.
  • Access to dedicated throughput – If your SMS program needs high throughput for either inbound or outbound messages, a dedicated short code gives you the throughput you need to send messages at scale.

SMS Short Code Compliance & Rules

Compliance is essential with SMS short codes. There’s a lot to lose if you don’t follow the rules and best practices. Luckily it’s not difficult to be compliant. You need to consider two sets of rules for short code messaging: The CTIA’s rules and the TCPA rules.

CTIA Short Code Compliance

A nonprofit trade association that represents carriers, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, or CTIA, was set up to create, maintain, and enforce best practices for short code messaging. It audits all SMS short code programs in the US to ensure compliance with its rules and to protect consumers.

Its focus is on ensuring that people who receive SMS marketing messages opted-in to receiving them, that SMS marketing programs are sharing the correct compliance messaging, and that short codes aren’t sending content in violation of CTIA guidelines.

TCPA Short Code Compliance

The “Telephone Consumer Protection Act”, or TCPA for short, is the set of laws governing all text messaging in the United States, not just SMS short codes.

The primary purpose of the TCPA is to ensure that consumers don’t receive unsolicited, spam messages and phone calls. There are significant legal repercussions for sending SMS messages to people that didn’t opt into them, so it’s essential that you only send text messages to people that have opted-in explicitly.

Short Code Best Practices

Apart from ensuring that you comply with CTIA and TCPA rules and regulations, there are several best practices you can follow to ensure that your SMS campaigns have the best possible impact.

Use Vanity Short Codes

As mentioned above, vanity short codes are great because they’re memorable and make it easy for people to opt into your campaigns. They also make a great addition to your other advertising channels such as billboards, print campaigns, social media, and more. Being able to give users a unique brand experience is worth the extra cost.

Highlight Your Brand

Be sure to include your brand name in your message, no matter if you’re sending from a short code or long number. Since most people don’t save business numbers unless their contacting them regularly, including your brand name in the message ensures that they’re not left wondering who is messaging them.

Use Custom Keywords

Tracking your campaign’s return on investment is an essential part of ensuring its success. To understand which campaigns are contributing to your SMS list, use custom keywords. For example, you could use the keyword “FB” to track a Facebook campaign or “ENTER” when running a giveaway or contest.

SMS & MMS Short Code Messaging

Short code messaging isn’t very different from any other kind of SMS & MMS messaging. The main difference is that you can send a much higher volume of messages and don’t need to worry about your messages being filtered or flagged as spam. The latter is due to the short code sender and the content having been pre-approved by mobile carriers during provisioning.

Just like with a normal SMS, short code messages are limited to 160 characters. Choosing an MMS message increases this limit to 1,600 characters and allows you to add multimedia like pictures, video, animated GIFs, and more.

To send MMS messages, you’ll need to set up your short code specifically for this. Although you can enable MMS messages at anytime, it’s recommended you do it when first signing up for your short code.

Opting In & Out of Short Codes

Technically speaking, you’re not opting into a short code. Instead, you’re opting into an SMS marketing program using a short code as its number. Generally, most people opt into marketing campaigns by texting a keyword to a certain short code. This indicates that you’ve given explicit permission to receive future messages. After opting in, you should receive a message confirming that you’ve subscribed.

Opting out is just as simple. It’s a requirement for every SMS short code service to process specific opt-out keywords that unsubscribe people from future communications. To be unsubscribed from a specific short code, text either STOP, CANCEL, END, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT to it. Apart from an automated response confirming that you’ve unsubscribed, you won’t receive text messages from that specific SMS short code.

Short Code Geo-Restrictions

SMS short codes aren’t universal, meaning that you need to provision one for each country you want to send and receive messages in. This is due to the fact that each country has its own mobile carriers and network operators to provision short codes. This means that for every additional country that you want your own SMS short code for, will incur an additional cost.

How Do I Get a Short Code?

Unlike what you may think, you can’t buy your own short code even if it’s a dedicated short code. Instead, you’ll need to lease it for a three-, six-, or twelve-month period. The process to get your own dedicated short code depends on the type you choose.

Getting a Random Short Code

To get a random short code, you need to complete a lease application. Once the application is reviewed and approved, you’ll have to pay for the lease of your short code. Once this payment has been received, you’ll get a five or six-digit short code, chosen at random.

Getting a Vanity Short Code

Getting a vanity short code takes a bit more work but with a little planning, it’s not too complicated. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Fill out a service approval form – This contains details about your campaign. It’s sent to all networks to ensure it complies with their regulations.
  2. Wait for your application to be reviewed – This process can take several weeks. First time applicants are often rejected but are usually approved soon after revising the application. Be sure to double-check to make sure your short code doesn’t accidentally spell out any prohibited words, for example, “26627” can spell both both “COMBS” and “BOOBS.”
  3. Have your short code provisioned for testing – This process can take up to six weeks and entails networks looking for the required “HELP” and “STOP” options in your messages.
  4. Get final approval – Once the networks have verified that your campaign meets their regulations they’ll issue final approval. This means you can finally run a campaign using your new vanity short code.

Moving a Short Code

No matter what your current short code texting provider may say, if you already have a short code, you can switch to another SMS short code texting service at any time. While some providers may try to make it difficult for you to do so or even say transferring short codes isn’t possible, the truth is that it’s a doable process that mobile carriers don’t mind.

A short code transfer depends on the short code service provider and their SMS aggregator. Generally, there is little to no downtime. and if done correctly, subscribers won’t notice a thing.

Examples of How to Use a Short Code

SMS Keyword Campaign to Grow Your Subscriber List

An SMS keyword campaign is a great strategy to grow your SMS subscriber list. Use a keyword like “Join” and a short code and entice people to sign up by:

  • Promoting the keyword on your signage and business cards
  • Converting your email subscribers to SMS subscribers
  • Running an SMS giveaway campaign
  • Promoting the keyword on your social media channels

Promotion Campaign to Increase Sales

Once you’ve built up your subscriber list you can start promotion campaigns to help boost your sales. Capture their interest with your offer and give them a specific action to take. Be sure to segment your audience and send relevant offers.

SMS promotion campaign

Reminder Campaign to Save Time & Money

If your business is centered around customers keeping their appointments, running automated SMS reminders can reduce the number of customers that don’t show up, while saving you time in the process.

These campaigns can be set to go out at any time before the appointment, and include information like appointment time, date, and location, as well as additional information such as what to bring or how to reschedule.

SMS reminder

SMS Notification Campaign to Reach Your Audience

If you want to let your subscribers know about an event or special offer quickly, SMS notification campaigns are perfect. With these campaigns, you can send thousands of messages in a few minutes.


How Much Does an SMS Short Code Cost?

The cost of your short code depends on if it is random or vanity short code. Random short codes cost $500 per month and vanity short codes cost $1000 per month.

How Long Does it Take to Get A Short Code?

On average, the timeline to provision a short code is between six and eight weeks.

Can Any Business Get A Short Code?

While most businesses won’t have any issues getting a short code, wireless carriers do have strict rules about which content isn’t allowed.

In SMS marketing, the well-known acronym “SHAFT” stands for sex, hate, alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. If you’re promoting this type of content you might have difficulty getting your application approved, if at all.

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Wrapping Up

Now you should have a better understanding of SMS short codes, how they work, and if they’re right for your business.

If you’ve got the budget for an SMS short code, it’s a great addition to your marketing strategy.

Contact Trywinback to book a demo or get assistance regarding sms marketing!

Topics: SMS Marketing