Retailers must follow the rules of text message marketing

Marketing text messages can be effective if retailers proceed with caution, a guide says.

Katie Evans

Consumers pay attention to messages they receive on their phones. While a consumer might pre-record a TV show and skip through commercials or ignore online banner ads, text messages are opened 95% of the time and 98% of U.S. consumers who own a mobile phone can receive text messages, according to mobile marketing vendor Mogreet.

However, text message marketing is highly regulated. A new guide from Mogreet seeks to demystify the rules and regulations surrounding text message marketing so that retailers and other marketers can use the medium while abiding by the laws and rules set forth by several regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the CTIA, The Wireless Association, an industry trade group for the wireless telecommunications industry.

Perhaps the most important step marketers need to take is to receive a consumer’s permission to send text messages. The recipient must be the one to take the action to join a company’s text message program before the marketer sends the consumer a single text, Mogreet says. Consumers can opt in on a retailer or other marketer’s web site, mobile site or app, or they can send a text to a shortcode that may be displayed in a store or other marketing material.

Further, Mogreet points out, precisely what constitutes opting in is extremely specific. Verbal consent is not acceptable, Mogreet says. A consumer’s consent to receive text messages must be documented and saved by the marketer. And, a marketer can’t require a consumer to opt in to receiving text messages in order to make a purchase.

Additionally, companies cannot use an existing list of phone numbers, even if the customer provides her number, unless she gives explicit permission when providing it that the company can send her text messages. If  a consumer signs up to receive text messages online or in any way other than via her mobile phone, the company must verify that the person signing up is the owner of the mobile number that opted into the program. This process is often coined double opt in. To comply, retailers can send an initial text message to the mobile number asking the subscriber to reply Y or Yes to the message, to verify they are in possession of the mobile phone and give permission to join the mobile database. Double opt in is not required if the company is sending only one text message to the consumer—only if the marketer plans to send multiple messages.

Marketers also must be extremely clear in how they plan to use text messages. For example, retailers should tell consumers how often they plan to send messages and what they will consist of, such as sales notifications or information about new products. To meet such requirements, Mogreet recommends marketers outline what the text campaign will entail in the body of the first text message.

“The fastest way to see your database dwindle and to put yourself at risk for legal action is to pull a bait and switch with your audience and have them opt in to receive one type of message and then start sending messages unrelated to what they opted in for,” the guide says.

Other requirements put forth by regulators and associations include offering a web address where consumers can go to read the full terms and conditions of the program and privacy policy, and the option for a consumer to opt out of a program—enabling consumers to reply with the word STOP to no longer receive messages. Companies also must offer the option for consumers to reply with the word HELP for further instructions and carrier costs. For standard rate campaigns, which are campaigns in which the company is not charging a fee to participate, retailers are required by law to include one of the following two messages in each text:  Message and data rates may apply or Msg&data rates may apply.

Another important rule is the banning of the word “Free” when describing standard messaging rate campaigns. Wireless carriers prohibit the word in this context, because the message may cost the consumer if she does not have a messaging plan, Mogreet says.

Marketers considering using text messaging should also keep in mind that consumer opt ins automatically expire if the marketer has not sent a message to the consumer for a particular amount of time. For text message campaigns that don’t charge a fee, the campaign expires after a retailer goes 18 months without sending a message.  For text message campaigns that charge a fee, the time period is six months.

After a marketer has ensured it is meeting the federal and industry rules and standards, Mogreet offers the following tips for sending text messages:

Avoid rush hour: Consumers are unlikely to read or engage with a text message during common rush hours, typically 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., local time.

Be respectful: Avoid sending messages early in the morning and late at night. Think about when consumers would want to accept a phone call, Mogreet suggests.

Breaking news trumps all: The bigger the news—for example, a very large discount or tempting promotion—the more lenient marketers can be with messaging times, Mogreet says.

Drive in-store weekend foot traffic: Sending a message on Friday between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. local time can be a successful way to drive traffic to stores on Saturday mornings, Mogreet says.

Support upcoming events: Retailers may want to send reminders to increase RSVPs and attendance to store events. Include specific event information to assist consumers with planning and logistics, the vendor advises.

Seasonal and holiday messaging: Marketers may want to send holiday messages with valuable content up to a week before an event to allow customers time to plan, for example, to visit a store event or take advantage of a store sale during the busy holiday season.

Use contests with caution: While contests and sweepstakes can be a great way to use text-message marketing, the laws surrounding such contests vary by state, Mogreet says. It suggests that marketers planning to launch a contest or giveaway check with their lawyers to make sure they are complying.

It is important to comply, Mogreet says, for a number of reasons. Wireless carriers and the CTIA monitor text message marketing programs on a regular basis. Severe infractions can result in a carrier or aggregator suspending a marketer’s short code or halting sending text messages on behalf of the marketer.

Poor practices can also lead consumers to opt out, bad publicity or even class action lawsuits by consumers. Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Papa John’s and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have all faced lawsuits because of their text messaging programs.


CTIA, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, legal/regulatory, m-commerce, Mobile, mobile commerce, Mobile marketing, Mogreet, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, SMS messages, Taco Bell, text messages, The Wireless Association, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.