The Definitive Guide to SMS Marketing for Nonprofit, Political & Advocacy Organizations

May 28, 2019 - 40 minutes read

How often do you look at your phone in a day?

Too many to count?

Well, the average American looks at their phone 80 times a day. Moreover, for people between 18 to 24 years of age, that number almost doubles.

sms marketing eyes phone

As a business or nonprofit, this means you have 80 opportunities in a day PER PERSON to inform, educate, and change people’s minds.

That’s a huge opportunity. However, it’s also only one side of the coin.

The other side has businesses dealing with an increasingly distracted audience who are quick to shift their attention to the next post on their timeline.

So how do you break through the clutter and capture the attention of a modern tech-savvy audience?

Surprisingly enough, text messages have turned out to be the answer.

Let’s look at the stats.

Even outside of numbers, text messages align themselves with traits that are valued in modern communication.

Successful communication is:

  • Immediate – With a negligible delay between sending and receiving messages.
  • Concise – Gets to the point fast.
  • Non-intrusive – Let’s people reply at their leisure.
  • Personal – Meant for individuals, not groups.
  • Conversational – Facilitates back and forth.

For business and nonprofits trying to widen their reach, this makes SMS an ideal platform to connect with their audience.

However, where do you start?

How do you use SMS marketing, and where are you going to use it?

Email and social media currently occupy the majority of organizational communication. Is it worth adding text messaging to the mix?

Hopefully, you’ll reach a conclusion by the end of this article.

How to use SMS in your marketing

Getting started with SMS marketing essentially comprises of three parts:

  • Choosing your number: You have to choose between a dedicated short code, shared short code, and long code that people will see as the caller ID.
  • Building your list: Managing opt-ins to your list and promoting your SMS marketing program.
  • Texting your list: Different ways of putting SMS to use at your business or nonprofit

Let’s start with the number you’re going to use.

Choosing the right texting number – short code VS shared short code VS long code

You might remember the buzz the Obama campaign generated way back in 2012 when Obama announced his Vice Presidential selection via text message.

People who opted in via SMS to the campaign list by texting VP to 62262 were the first to receive the announcement for his VP pick, Joe Biden.

Not only was it a great branding effort, but the campaign also reached more than 2.9 million U.S. mobile subscribers who opted in to receive updates via texts.

While the Obama campaign had a dedicated short code that costs around $1000 a month, you can start with SMS marketing with a much more affordable 10-digit long code or shared short code.

What is a short code?

short code sms marketing

A short code is a 5 or 6 digit phone number that is used by businesses, nonprofits, and political campaigns to send text messages to their audience. Unlike a long code (10 digit number) short codes are capable of handling a high volume of text messages without being restricted by mobile carriers.

Advantages of using a short code include:

  • Brand recollection – Short codes can be as memorable as a website or social media account. A good example is a short code, 62262, used by the Obama campaign which spelled out OBAMA on the keypad.
  • Quick delivery – Short codes let you send a high volume of text messages making it ideal for time-sensitive campaigns that have to reach many people at once.

Disadvantages include:

  • A high price for dedicated short codes.
  • Longer time to implement – They take a couple of weeks to go through a review process.
  • Impersonal – Since short codes are meant for one-way communication and automated interactions. They don’t let you have personal conversations.

What is a dedicated short code?

With a dedicated short code, a business is in control of all the keywords they want to use with the short code. In the above scenario, the Obama campaign used the keyword VP to get people to subscribe for updates on the Vice Presidential pick; they used the keyword GO to get people to subscribe to general campaign updates, and GIVE for people who wanted to donate to the campaign.

With a dedicated short code, you have the flexibility to generate an unlimited variation of keywords without having to pay extra — to join your list, donate to your cause, sign up to volunteer or any other requirement that you have.

While a dedicated short code is expensive, it offers businesses the most control in terms of branding and message delivery.

Advantages of using a dedicated short code include:

  • Unlimited keywords – A dedicated short code gives you control over the keywords you want to use.
  • Higher send limit – You can send texts in large volumes and have it reach inboxes quickly.

Disadvantages include:

  • They are expensive – A dedicated short code can cost you anywhere from $500 to $1000 a month.

What is a shared short code?

shared short code sms marketing

With a shared short code, you can rent specific keywords from the text messaging service at a rate that’s far less than the cost of a dedicated short code. In this case, you’re renting a keyword instead of the short code, so rates fall to around $50 per month.

While shared short codes are a great way to bring down costs if you are an up and coming organization, they also come with a few caveats:

  • It affects brand recognition as other businesses also promoting themselves with the same short code.
  • If someone mistypes your keyword, they might accidentally opt-in to the list of a different business.
  • If the carrier decides to penalize a short code because one business misused their keyword, it can affect all the other parties(organizations/businesses) sharing the short code to send out texts.

What is a long code?

long code sms marketing

The alternative to using a short code is a 10-digit long code that’s similar to your local cellphone number. Long codes are inexpensive, and you can rent one for around $2 per month.

Businesses usually rent multiple long codes based on the area code of the contacts on their list when they’re sending out texts. That way, each contact sees a local caller ID on their phone when they receive the text. It also helps businesses navigate the stricter filtering process that mobile carriers apply to long codes.

Advantages include:

  • Quick implementation – Long codes can be rented and implemented in a texting campaign in a matter of seconds, unlike a short code which can take a couple of weeks to go through the verification process.
  • Personal – Business can establish a local presence, no matter where they are located.
  • People can call back – You can choose to transfer calls from a long code to your business line.
  • You can start conversations – Long codes let you have back and forth conversations with contacts.
  • Unlimited keywords – You can use an unlimited number of different keywords on a long code.

Disadvantages include:

  • Not memorable: People are less likely to opt-in to a 10-digit number compared to a 5-digit short code. While this isn’t an issue when long codes are used as a hotline to provide access to help or information (eg. Text CRISIS to 202 555 0555 to receive help from a personal mentor.), it’s going to be tougher to get people to opt-in to your list as a business.
  • Limit on texts – Carriers put a stricter limit on the number of texts that can be sent per second from a long-code compared to a short code. This is usually solved by renting long codes in groups.
  • Chance of getting blocked – Sending similar or identical content from your long code to multiple numbers within a short period increases your chance of getting blocked.

So, what’s the verdict?

If you want to broadcast promotions to your audience, we recommend using a short code. Go for a shared short code if you are starting with SMS marketing. Once you build traction and see a definite impact around SMS marketing, move to a dedicated short code.

If you want to cut down on costs, send personalized messages and even engage people in conversations, use a long code. If you are texting a large group, rent a group of numbers instead of using a single long code to improve your deliverability.

The cons of using a long code can be overcome by following the best practices for using long codes in your SMS marketing.

Building your list with SMS marketing

Once you have a short code or long code in place the next step is to decide on a keyword. Subscribers text the keyword to your number to sign up to your SMS marketing list.

Note: If you’re using a shared short code, you will be renting a specific keyword. In this scenario, you’ll have to decide on the keyword before you rent the number.

With the keyword and number ready, you can create your SMS campaign and set up automated responses that will go out to people who join your list.

Let’s say you chose the keyword JOIN and the short code 52555.

Depending on your goals, you can choose to send a thank you message immediately after the opt-in or set up automatic interactions in your text messaging service to capture additional details.

sms marketing single text

If most of your communication is going to be over text messages, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to opt-in. In that case, a simple thank you message does the trick.

sms marketing conversation

However, if you intend to communicate with subscribers over other channels, go ahead and ask for more details.

Your text messaging service takes this information and builds out a profile for each subscriber. Most services come with integrations that sync this information instantly with your CRM, so you don’t have to worry about moving data back and forth using spreadsheets.

sms marketing integration

In case you can’t find integration with your CRM, it’s easy enough to use a service like Zapier to send contacts from your text message service directly to your CRM.

Promote your keyword and number

The more people join your list, the higher the impact of your text message marketing campaigns. That’s why you need to go all out to promote your SMS marketing program to your audience.

Promote it across:

  • Social media
  • Direct mail
  • Email and Email signature
  • Website
  • Blogs
  • Yard signs
  • Flyers
  • Business cards

and any other channels where people see your messaging.

sms marketing consent form

If you have forms on your website, add a field to collect mobile numbers with a checkbox that explicitly mentions that you will be sending text messages. Although nonprofits are exempt from TCPA regulations requiring explicit opt-in from mobile subscribers, it is an excellent practice to let people know why you’re asking for their phone number.


Communicating with an audience over text messages

There are two ways you can go about using text messages to communicate with your audience. Use it:

  1. To send out regular communication.
  2. To initiate a time-sensitive action.

I’ll expand on each of these use cases.

Using text messages for regular communication, aka mass texting

Regular communication involves

  • promotional messages
  • discounts
  • reminders
  • alerts

. . .and other updates you want to communicate with people regularly.

All you need to do is choose the list you want to text, craft your message (including any links) and schedule a time you want the text to go out – a lot like an email service.

sms marketing mobile optimized landing page

Link in text directing people to a mobile-optimized landing page.

Make sure your links are directing people to a mobile-optimized landing page.

Pro Tip: Instead of keeping things one sided, mix things up on occasion by sending surveys, conducting polls, and running quizzes – all of which play into the evolving trend of interactive communication.

Related read:  12 ideas for using text messages at your nonprofit.

Using texts to initiate a time-sensitive action

On most occasions your texts are part of an automated campaign that is scheduled to go out when:

  1. Someone opts into your list
  2. When you want to broadcast information to a group of people.

However, there are instances where you will want to engage your audience in a conversation. Especially if you are trying to get them to take a time-sensitive action like attending an event, donate to a cause or cast their vote.

That’s where peer to peer texting comes in.

How does peer to peer texting work?

peer to peer texting event invite fundraising get out the vote

Examples of peer to peer texting conversations for event invites, fundraising, and Get Out The Vote

Peer to peer texting lets organizations have one to one conversations with people at scale with the help of agents. A single agent can have around 1000 conversations in the span of an hour. While a mass texting campaign is meant to get information in front of an audience, peer to peer texts are intended to get people to chat with you with each conversation leading up to a call to take a specific action.

Take the case of a broadcast message that is sent out to the people on your list.

“Informational event next week on the 10th of February at 6 pm in Saint Mary’s Park. Reply YES to RSVP.”

Compare that to,

“Hey Jon, guess what? We’re having an informational event next week on the 10th of February at 6 pm in Saint Mary’s Park. Wanna come? There’s going to be free food and a fun crowd!”
“Sure, I’d love to. Wait, is it a free event or do I need to buy a ticket?”
“Awesome. The event is going to be like our food—free! Can’t wait to see you!😀”
“Cool. And I’m bringing my friends too.”
“Perfect 🙌 See you there.”

Which person do you think is more likely to attend the event?

That’s right, the second one.

The same goes for getting someone on a sales call, getting a supporter to donate to your cause, or getting a voter to go out to vote on election day.

A personal conversation is way more effective when you want to initiate an action from your audience.

Let’s look at some of the everyday use cases around text message marketing.

Use cases for text message marketing (with practical examples)

These are examples of how text message marketing is connecting organizations with the people they care about:

Nurturing Prospects

With how easy it is to send a text message, it’s a formidable tool to help you stay in touch with your prospects.


opt in text messaging offer an incentive

Offer an incentive.

Encourage people to make a purchase by offering an incentive if they sign up to receive SMS updates.


mass texting promote a sale

Promote a sale.

Send out a quick broadcast text to inform people about an upcoming sale.


peer to peer texting ticket purchase

Encourage a ticket purchase.

Have a live agent walk prospects through the process of booking a ticket at a show.


Getting people to your events.

Getting people to attend an event through impersonal broadcasts rarely work. On the other hand, the right mix of personal communication and automated messages can work wonders for your event.


event invite peer to peer texting

Invite people to your event.

Inform people about your event and nudge them to attend over a personal conversation.


event reminder mass texting

Send an automated reminder the day of the event.

Send an SMS reminder on the day of your event, just in case!


event feedback mass texting

Thank attendees and ask for feedback.

Thank your attendees for coming and take the opportunity to insert a link to a quick survey, asking for feedback on the event.

Check out our extensive guide on using texting for events.

Volunteer engagement.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization. Recruiting them and keeping them up to speed on your organization or event is critical for smooth operation.


volunteer sign up opt in text messaging

Recruit volunteers.

Let interested supporters sign up to volunteer.


volunteer invite to phone bank peer to peer texting

Discuss responsibilities.

Inform sign-ups about upcoming volunteer opportunities.


volunteer update peer to peer texting

Thank volunteers and keep them updated.

Let your volunteers know how successful your event was, and motivate them to join your next one.


Fundraising.

Text messaging let’s you have personal conversations with each of your donors, keeping your cause at the top of their mind and encouraging them to lend a hand.


donate via opt in opt in text messaging

Let people text to donate.

Let potential donors opt into your text campaigns to receive a donation link.


fundraising via conversation peer to peer texting

Ask for donation over a personal conversation.

Inform people about your latest campaign and encourage them to donate over a personal conversation.


fundraising update sms broadcast

Broadcast campaign updates.

Send your donors an update whenever you make significant progress in reaching your fundraising goals.


Please take a look our in-depth article on how you can use text messages for political campaigns

Get Out The Vote.

Elections are becoming more competitive and margins razor-thin. Which is why Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns are so important. Text messaging helps you reach and mobilize your voters quickly.


voter registration reminder sms broadcast

Voter registration reminder.

Remind your base to register to vote before election day.


GOTV polling place peer to peer texting

Help people make a plan to vote.

Inform people about poll timings, polling location and help them create a plan to vote.


GOTV reminder peer to peer texting

Election day text.

Send a reminder to your base the day before the election to cast their vote


We’ve covered the use cases in more detail in our guides on using peer to peer texting and our blogs where we cover:

Text Message Regulations You Need To Know

Unregulated text messages are no good.

Imagine getting so many messages that you can’t distinguish the spam from the stuff you want to see.

Annoying, right?

Keeping the annoyance at a minimum for the people we reach out to is why laws around texting are so relevant.

Most countries have regulations regarding text message marketing. you need to be aware of the subtle variations.

TCPA (USA)

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act by the Federal Communications Commission has laws in place for organizations to follow when collecting contacts or sending text messages.

Some points to note from the TCPA:

  • Obtain prior consent from individuals before sending them text messages. This applies even if the organization has a prior relationship with the individual and already has their phone number.
  • Texts must provide the sender’s identity and instructions to opt-out of texts they receive from the organization.
  • You cannot ask for an opt-in by sending a text message to a number that has not opted-in.

Note: Tax-exempt Nonprofit organizations are free from the Opt-In and “do-not-call” requirements of the TCPA. However, we still recommend you follow them to minimize annoyance to the receiver.

Spam Act (Australia)

The Spam Act, passed by the Australian Parliament in 2003, establishes rules to restrict texts, emails and other types of electronic messages.

There are some notable differences from the TCPA, such as:

  • Opt-in is not required if the individual has an existing relationship with the organization.
  • If a list of contacts is bought from other organizations, and those contacts have agreed to allow contact from third-parties, you are allowed to send them communications.

PECR (UK)

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, by the Information Commissioner’s Office, gives individuals specific privacy rights with regards to electronic communications.

Similar to acts in the US and Australia:

  • You can only send texts with consent from the receiver.
  • The option to unsubscribe (opt-out) from messages is required for SMS compliance.

Also similar to Australia, an explicit opt-in is not required if the individual has already engaged with the organization and provided their contact information.

Note: Take the time to research the text message marketing laws for the country you are operating in before starting SMS marketing.

You can follow a few best practices to make sure you are operating within the existing text messaging regulations.

Best Practices For Using SMS

“With great power…”

Well, you know the rest.

With a powerful tool like text messaging at your disposal, you can push a message to thousands of people with a click.

That means you need to be extra mindful of how you reach out to your contacts:

Get permission first

It’s polite to only send text messages to people that have permitted you to do so. There are two good reasons to get SMS opt-ins.

  • You want to make sure you are compliant with regulations for your region, which in most cases involves getting an opt-in from consumers.
  • You don’t want to annoy your prospects by sending them unsolicited text messages

Ask your users to opt-in to your texts by showing them how your texts can provide value. Entice them with new product updates, offers or other useful information.

Don’t leave your conversations hanging

Text messaging offers you the opportunity to make a personal connection with the people at the other end. A big part of that is having a conversation with them.

If you have agents sending texts to people, keep in mind that they may not always respond to every conversation.

Keep track of pending conversations and reassign them to active agents. Most SMS marketing tools have this feature built in to make the process easier.

Whether people have a question they need you to answer, or want to tell you how much they love your brand or organization, don’t leave them hanging.

Be concise and conversational

A rambling text will quickly lose a reader’s attention, while one that is too short will not get your message across.

As long as your texts let the receiver identify you and get your point across, you’re good to go.

At the same time, avoid using SMS shorthand or corporate jargon, unless you are talking to a specific audience that is likely to understand what you’re saying.

“R u inrstd in r offr 2 buy condos @ 5% disc? Rply YES.”
“Luxurious condos by the lake set amidst lush greenery. Gym, spa, swimming pool and all the latest amenities at your disposal. We’re offering an early bird discount of 5% for pre-booking. Reply YES to be the first in line for this hot deal.”
“Hi Jan, this is Bill from Haven Homes. Heard you’re on the lookout for a new place. Can we get on a quick call to discuss your requirements?”
“Yeah, of course. Can you call me at 3?”
“Yup, 3 works great. Talk to you soon.”
“Ok, thanks.

Don’t abuse the privilege

It takes a certain amount of trust for someone to give out their contact details to your organization and opt-in to your text communications.

Maintain and respect that trust by making sure they get only what they have agreed to, i.e. the content and frequency of your texts.

More often than not, respecting the preferences of the receiver will lead to better results for your organization.

Make opting out simple

Let’s face it, some people don’t want your texts.

When you receive an opt-out request  (“STOP”, “UNSUBSCRIBE”, “remove me from your list”, etc.) it’s important to honor the request promptly.

Make sure your subscribers know that they can opt-out from your communications any time they like.

sms marketing opt out

It’s good practice to remind subscribers in your welcome text, by telling them how to do it.

Use clear language

Depending on your goals, the type of text you send and the language you use should change.

If your goal is to:

  • Convey information
  • Initiate an action on your website
  • Get a specific keyword response (Eg. Reply with YES to RSVP for the event.)

. . .phrase your texts as statements, not conversations.

For example.

“Reminder for Clean Energy rally tomorrow at 221B Baker St, Marylebone from 3 pm to 6 pm. See you there!”

is a statement.

While

“Hey Jon, Melinda from Hope Society here. We’re having an informational event on Feb 10th at 6 pm in Saint Mary’s Park. Wanna come? There’s going to be free food 🍕and a fun crowd💃🕺!”

. . .is meant to initiate a conversation.

While appearing friendly is essential, don’t risk frustrating people by framing your mass texts as conversations if you’re not going to be around to send out replies.

What To Look For In An Sms Tool

There are plenty of SMS marketing tools out there, but the best ones all have a few things in common.  

They provide an array of features you can use to make your organizations text messaging easier and better.

Displaying an Alphanumeric sender ID

Alphanumeric Sender IDs lets you set your company name or brand as the Sender ID when you send a one-way SMS message to prospects.

alphanumeric sender id sms marketing

Choose an SMS marketing platform that makes it quick and easy for you to activate your custom sender ID and start using it in your text messaging campaigns.

Note: Some countries require that you register your Alphanumeric Sender ID beforehand. Others don’t support the feature.

Short Codes and Long codes for your campaigns

Your SMS marketing platform should make it simple for you to lease and start using short codes and long codes for your campaign, and help you stay compliant while using them. Ask for shared short codes if you’re on a tight budget and still want to use a short code.

In-depth Reporting

Keeping an eye on how your campaigns are doing is important so you can adjust your text messaging strategies when you need to.

Make sure you can pull up statistics on sent texts, response rates, and up-to-date contact counts. You should also be able to keep track of your opt-ins and opt-outs, letting you see when and how new contacts are joining or leaving your text message marketing campaigns.

Sending automatic replies

Setting up a single ‘Thank you’ response to an opt-in is pretty basic. Your tool should let you go above and beyond that by automatically collecting more information from opt-ins when you need to (name, email etc.). You should also be able to set up automatic responses to your mass texts (For example, when someone texts “RSVP”, you can send them a “Thank you”.).

Ability to assign conversations to agents

For big campaigns where you want to engage people in conversations, it is not feasible for one person to manage every single conversation. If your campaigns are going to involve a lot of back and forth conversations, your SMS tool should have peer to peer texting functionality. Which essentially means that it gives you the ability to assign batches of contacts to agents who then carry out conversations with the assigned batch. Common use cases include fundraising, event promotion and GOTV efforts.

Integrations that connect your tools

Integrations come in all forms and sizes. Most often, integration means you can pull in lists from your CRM into the SMS tool at the click of a button. Beyond that, some tools let you send new mobile subscribers directly to your CRM, update event registrations, sync surveys, start an email nurturing campaign and more.

Integrations save you a ton of time and let you set up multi workflows (eg. start email nurturing if email is collected from new mobile subscriber).  If you can’t find a custom integration, make sure your SMS tool integrates with Zapier. Zapier lets you combine multiple tools to get stuff done – very much like a custom integration, but with one additional step.

That’s almost everything you need to get started with SMS marketing. If you have more questions, we’d be happy to answer them. You can schedule a time to talk here.

If you’d instead try all of this out, you can take CallHub for a test run by signing up.

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