Best Practices for Using Short Codes with an SMS API

Short codes offer a clean, fast, and legally compliant option for sending high-volume, one-way application-to-person (A2P) communications. Before you consider them, however, you should understand the common use case for short codes; what makes short codes a powerful, fast, and reliable medium; and the requirements for short code approval.

Common uses cases for short codes

The regulation and logistics surrounding short code usage are complex. Companies sometimes jump into A2P messaging without a clear understanding of how they should use short codes rather than other number types.

One of the most common myths about short code usage is that it’s only effective for marketing campaigns. In fact, you can use short codes in a variety of high-impact transactional applications across different industries.

For example, restaurants and food delivery services use short codes to update customers on the status of their table, order, or food delivery. Hotel chains, airlines, and parking companies use short codes to remind their guests of upcoming reservations or to handle itinerary changes.

SaaS applications and data storage providers often use short codes and an SMS API to support two-factor authentication, which is a convenient, cost-effective way to keep sensitive customer information and data secure by leveraging SMS to provide the “something they have” layer of 2FA.

In the public sphere, schools use short codes to update parents and students about closures or announce events. Municipalities and safety agencies use short code SMS to deliver emergency alerts, such as sudden weather changes or AMBER alerts. Shipping services like FedEx, USPS, and UPS use short codes to update residents on package statuses, including delivery notifications or delays. Political organizations leverage short codes to support voting, polling, and surveys to gauge public opinion.

While short codes are a dynamic and an effective way to deliver a wide range of A2P communications, they’re not the best number type for all promotional or transactional messaging.

When not to use short codes

If you’re sending a low-volume promotional campaign — fewer than 10 messages per second — it’s more cost-effective to use a toll-free number enabled for SMS or number pooling over long codes. Plivo can help you select the most appropriate number format and optimize your campaigns so that you remain in compliance with the regulations for text messaging set by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA).

What makes short codes powerful and reliable

SMS messages offer an immediate and powerful method for reaching customers. According to mobile research firm MobileSQUARED, 90% of people read their text messages within three minutes of receiving them.

When you combine this high read rate with the high-volume capabilities of A2P short code communications, you can reach more of your end users faster than you could with long codes or toll-free numbers. Plus, short codes are the only preapproved number type for sending promotional messages. This preapproval by the CTIA and Common Short Code Administration (CSCA) means short codes also have more consistent, reliable delivery rates than their long code or toll-free counterparts.

Similarly, short code communications are less likely to be blocked at the carrier level as spam because of their preapproved CTIA status. Before a company can use a short number, the CTIA reviews their program — a process that can take up to six weeks — to ensure that it meets the association’s guidelines.

Plivo can help you with the administrative legwork of getting approval, and advise you on how to compose short code campaigns so they have the best chance of getting approved. More on this later.

Rate limits on messaging via long codes makes them an inefficient way to send high-volume promotional or transactional messages, which often need to reach tens of thousands of recipients with time-sensitive information. While long code communications are limited to one message sent per four-second interval and up to 200 messages per day per number, short code messages can be sent out at the much faster rate of 50 messages per second.

TypeSend RatesAdvantageDisadvantage
Long code SMS, two-way and conversational1 SMS every 4 seconds, up to 200 messages per day per numberCan be the lowest cost option. Immediate provisioning.Not good for one-to-many messages. Number pooling and rotation required.
Short code SMS, one-to-many communicationsUp to 100 messages per secondGood for high volumeCan be expensive. Setup time may be up to six weeks.
Toll-free SMS, similar to long codesUp to 10 messages per second in the USSupports higher volume than long codesOnly available in the US. Some carrier limitations.
Alphanumeric sender ID, one-way SMS in select international destinationsNo rate limits on alphanumeric and internationalCan be used for branding. Does not always require registration.Only available for outbound SMS and in select countries.
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Additionally, you can easily customize short code campaigns for different use cases, with campaign tracking for better deliverability.

Requirements for short code approval

Carriers must approve a short code and its content before rollout (and conduct audits at later dates). To gain approval, your short code must meet a few requirements.

A clear call to action (CTA)

A clear call to action doesn’t just encourage recipients to interact with the company sending the short code communication — it describes exactly what information customers will get if they sign up.

A clear CTA should include:

  • The company and program name
  • A program description, including how often recipients will get messages
  • A link to the program’s terms and conditions
  • Opt-in and opt-out instructions
  • Instructions on contacting customer support
  • Additional carrier cost disclosures for message and data rates

These requirements ensure that end users can recognize promotional and transactional messages.

An acceptable opt-in method

Before you can send promotional or transactional A2P messages to recipients, you need to get express written consent from end users. To do this, get opt-in via text message through a keyword, an online form, or an in-person, in-store signup.

Companies can get opt-in from customers in a number of ways:

  • Online phone number entry
  • A mobile-oriented message that includes the opt-in keyword
  • In-store, point-of-sale signup
  • Opt-in button on a mobile web page
  • Interactive voice response (IVR) opt-in via phone call

To ensure you can prove compliance with the CTIA opt-in regulations, you should store customer records electronically.

Templatized content and message flow

For each short code program, you must submit a template of the content you plan to send for CTIA approval. Additionally, you must use one of the three approved message flows when sending communications to customers:

  1. One-time messages: These transactional, nonrecurring messages are triggered when a recipient sends in a keyword, resulting in a single, immediate text message.
  2. Recurring messages: These subscription-based communications require customers to opt in to receive multiple ongoing messages and dictate that businesses must include opt-out instructions in the first communication.
  3. Two-factor authentication: These communications are used to verify the identity of the customer with a third-party service using a combination of two of the following: a password, a mobile phrase or authentication, or a fingerprint.

By ensuring every company complies with the above criteria, the CTIA can maintain a consistent user experience for recipients.

Terms and conditions

If you’re using short codes for transactional or promotional messaging, you must include the full terms and conditions for your programs on a web-accessible page. These terms and conditions pages can be shared between programs (unlike opt-ins) but must all contain the following information:

  • Sponsor information and program description that tells the reader what the company does and what the program is for
  • Call to action that includes opt-in instructions
  • Statement of recurrence disclaimer for campaigns that are ongoing
  • Additional carrier cost disclosure that includes the phrase “message and data rates may apply” or “Msg&DataRatesMayApply”
  • Active keywords that are used to control the recipient’s involvement in the program (such as HELP or STOP)
  • An explanation of opt-out mechanisms that explain how people can opt out of the program
  • Customer support information in case recipients need additional information
  • Link to the privacy policy that details how the company ensures the privacy of user information

By following these terms and compliance regulations, you ensure that program recipients understand what you’ll be sending them as part of your program and how to get more information if issues or questions arise.

The CTIA also forbids companies from doing a few things with short code campaigns:

  • Using the same opt-in for multiple programs
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Using one short code for multiple use cases
  • Selling or sharing user information
  • Loan, debt consolidation, or other advertising for debt services
  • Deceptive marketing
  • Fraud or phishing scams
  • Work from home, “secret shopping,” and similar job advertising

Additionally, the CTIA does not allow you to promote any content advertising sex, hate, alcohol, firearms, or tobacco (SHAFT) in approved short code programs.

Getting started with short codes

The SMS regulatory landscape is in constant flux, and keeping up with changing rules is a challenge even for seasoned professionals.

Compared to other SMS number types, such as long codes and toll-free numbers, short codes are the most heavily regulated, take the longest to get approval for, and have the most expensive rates.

To get started with short code messaging, companies first have to lease a five- to six-digit short code. Regulations require companies submit a lengthy short code application that discloses who they are and how they plan to use the number. Then they must navigate the complicated short code provisioning process, which involves getting approval from every carrier network in the US and/or Canada before they can launch a communications program over their new short code number.

Fortunately, Plivo does the heavy lifting of getting your short code program through all the regulatory hoops. Plivo provides both the high-quality carrier network and the industry expertise you need to achieve superior message deliverability. As the leading Twilio alternative, Plivo brings depth of knowledge and direct Tier 1 carrier relationships to the table, so you don’t have to stress over regulations or reliability.

Download our white paper on how to optimize SMS communication to learn how to create and execute better SMS campaigns, or contact one of our short code experts today to get started.

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