Get relevant information on mobile marketing delivered to your inbox.
Back to blog

SMS Short Code: What It Is and How to Use It to Market Your App

Shivkumar M 20+ yrs shaping technology Product & GTM strategy. Fintech, healthcare & retail industry expertise. Leads product launches, adoption & GTM as Director, Product Marketing.
SMS Short Code: What It Is and How to Use It to Market Your App

Pop quiz: what’s the fastest growing marketing channel around? Hint: it’s not social media.
By 2020, there will be 48.7 million consumers who will have opted in to receiving SMS marketing messages from brands. Response rates from SMS are 209% higher than from voice calls, Facebook, or email campaigns.
SMS marketing is so effective precisely because consumers want to get your messages.
But one tactic that should not be missed is the SMS short code. It’s a marketing channel where every recipient has opted in. And unlike regular one-on-one text messaging, SMS short codes allow you to send up to 100 SMS or MMS messages per second, allowing you to effectively engage more of your users than ever before.
Continue reading, or head straight to our infographic.

First, What Is a Short Code SMS?

Put simply, the SMS short code is a 5-6 digit number that you can use to get customers to opt in to your SMS marketing campaigns.

In the example above, the SMS short code is 99000. And the opt-in keyword is “GOLDS.” SMS marketing software will then validate that code whenever it receives a message to ensure the consumer is given the proper offer or the matching opt-in confirmation.

When a consumer sends the right keyword to your short code, they opt in to receiving your SMS and MMS (multimedia) messages. Now you have their mobile number and their permission to be marketed to. Cue those promotional messages!

SMS Short Code vs Long Code

Wondering about the differences between SMS short code vs long code? Here are some highlights:

  • SMS short code is a shortcut number that is 5-6 digits in length. A long code is the standard length phone number (typically 10 digits, depending on your country).
    Below, is an example of Chipotle using their 6-digit SMS short code for a raincheck campaign.

    Chipotle's campaign using a vanity SMS short code
  • SMS short code is used for opting into a brand’s SMS marketing. A long code number, on the other hand, is used for non-marketing messaging – typically for customer service, and other chat applications.
  • If you plan on sending or receiving a high volume of messages, use short codes since they allow you to send up to 100 messages per second. Long codes limit you to sending only 1 message per second.
  • For short codes, set up time can take anywhere from 3 days to several weeks. For long codes, you can use the number immediately.

Common Short Code: Accessible From Any Carrier

Originally, short codes were developed by wireless carriers as a shortcut to regular 10-digit mobile phone numbers. The drawback was they could only be used within the originating carrier (i.e. a short code under AT&T could only be used by AT&T customers).
The mobile industry saw the need to reach outside the walled garden of each carrier and decided to implement what is now known as the Common Short Code (CSC), a shortcut number that could be used by any mobile phone customer, regardless of carrier.

Shared vs Dedicated SMS Short Code

Before you begin the journey to SMS marketing with short codes, you need to know that you have a choice between shared vs dedicated short codes.
Shared short codes are used by multiple brands at the same time -– sometimes there are hundreds, even thousands of brands using one number. Think of it like shared hosting for your website.
Below is a shopping mall using a shared short code their campaign. Note how the number is the same as for the Gold’s Gym promotion above.

An SMS short code campaign in a mall
What happens here is that the manager of the shared short code (e.g. 99000 in the above photos) assigns keywords to you and the rest of their clients. This way, if someone sends the keyword “SHOPPING,” the SMS software will know it’s for the shopping/retail client. Or if the keyword is “TICKETS,” that it is meant for the travel app client.
The manager of the shared short code ensures that no two brands have the same keyword since each keyword corresponds to a unique brand or campaign.
Some drawbacks:

  • Because you have hundreds (or thousands) of brands all using the same short code, you may not have any good keywords left.
  • If a consumer mistypes a keyword, they may get an error message from the short code manager — not your brand.
  • Also, with a shared short code, you may not want your brand to be associated with the other brands (perhaps even competitors) using the same number.
    If you want to find who owns a short code, you can consult an SMS short code directory. Check the US Short Code Directory, which allows you to search for a code to see who owns it.
    If it’s a dedicated short code, it will show you the brand is using it. If it’s a shared short code, it will show you the manager/SMS aggregator and give you their contact info. Seeing which brands are using a shared number however is not as straightforward since SMS aggregators do not list their clients.Another SMS short code directory is, which allows you to look up a short code and even see if there are complaints about a number. You can also report a number if it is spamming you with messages you didn’t opt in for.

Dedicated short codes don’t have any of the problems above. With a dedicated short code, you are the only brand that uses and manages it. You can utilize any keywords you want since you have sole access to the number.
There really is just one drawback: it’s expensive. We’ll discuss the actual SMS short code cost in the last section below.

Using SMS Short Codes to Promote Your App

Now that you have an idea of what SMS short codes are, how do you actually use them for SMS marketing? There are many options. But here are four of the most effective tactics you can use.

1. Mobile App Downloads via In-Store Signage

One of the simplest ways to promote your mobile app is via keyword campaign in your physical stores. All it would take are posters and signs on your property.
For example: at your brick-and-mortar retail outlet, hang posters that invite customers to text a keyword to your SMS short code in order to download your app. Sweeten the deal by offering instant discount coupons when they install your app.
Here is an example of physical signage in Ace Hardware touting their “mobile only offers.”

SMS short code campaign via in-store signage

2. Mobile App Downloads via Ads

Another tactic, and probably the most widely used one, is to spread the news about your short code via advertisements.
Use the number in website banner ads, bulk SMS messages, and advertisements on traditional media such as TV, radio, print, and billboards. The confirmation message they receive from you can contain a direct link to download your app.
Here is a campaign for a road trip app using an outdoor billboard.

SMS short code via an outdoor billboard

3. Access to an Exclusive Members Club

One of the most effective ways to engage your users is to set up a short code for them to join your elite members club for exclusive offers and discounts.
For example: Michael’s encourages people to text APP1 to 273283 in order to download their new app and get the exclusive project builder.

SMS short code campaign for an app

4. Alerts and Updates

Have your users text your SMS short code to receive updates and alerts about your app via mobile. For some people, this is their preferred communication method, and it gives you a chance to engage them outside of the app or away from their email inbox.

Just Remember: Play Nice

One important reminder: don’t even think about trying to game the system by buying phone lists or sending messages to random numbers!
Be a responsible SMS marketer and ensure every text or multimedia message you send goes to someone who opted in. Otherwise, your organization could be fined up to $500 per message that you send to a spammed consumer. SMS marketing is governed by strict rules and regulations that are enforced by local governing bodies. You don’t want to mess with them.

How to Get an SMS Short Code Service

Now that you you have an idea how effective short codes are for SMS marketing, you may be wondering how to get a short SMS number.

What’s the Process for Getting a Short Code?

SMS short codes vary by region and country. To get one in the US, you can apply directly to the US Short Code Administration. To get a short SMS number in Canada, you could approach the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA). Each region has its own body in charge of assigning and managing short codes.
The thing to note here is that no brand really “owns” a short code. Everyone is simply paying to lease a number on a monthly basis. In the US, the group that officially administers the registry of common short codes is iconectiv.
You begin the process by searching for a number on the Short Code Registry website.

When you go directly to the governing body and lease a short code from them, you will have to take care of the rest of the process, which involves:

  • Submitting your short code application to all the wireless carriers for their approval
  • Hosting the short code (or paying a company to host it)
  • Getting the software to send your SMS messages

If you’re researching how to get a short SMS number, an alternative is to go through groups known as SMS aggregators (also known as SMS providers, or SMS API providers). These groups will charge you the same prices for the short codes as the governing body, however they can help you through the rest of the process. For a fee of course.

How Much Will the SMS Short Code Cost?

Your cost will depend, first of all, on whether you use a shared or dedicated code. And if using a dedicated short code, whether it’s a vanity or non-vanity number.

  • Vanity codes are 5 to 6 digit codes where you get to pick the numbers you want. It’s a way to make a string of numbers more memorable. (E.g. 626262 or 71111) A dedicated vanity short code will cost you a about $1,000 a month to use.
  • Non-vanity codes are those where the numbers are randomly generated and assigned to you. (E.g. 83002 or 230743) A dedicated short code that is non-vanity will cost around $500 a month to use.
  • If you’re opting for a shared short code, your SMS short code cost will be anywhere from $50 – 100 a month (or more), depending on how many keywords you need, and how many messages you plan on sending per month.

SMS short code campaign in a restaurant
Additional Costs
Additionally. SMS aggregators (or SMS providers) will charge you a one-time set up fee. This fee varies for your chosen SMS short code service and can range from a $1,100 to $3,000 depending on country and provider.
An SMS aggregator or SMS short code service provider will charge you for hosting your short code on their system.
And just because you’re leasing a short code doesn’t mean you can send messages for free. You’ll have to pay a messaging fee for each SMS or MMS message you send out. This fee – which costs anywhere from $0.04 – 0.05 a message – goes either to your SMS aggregator or SMS short code service provider.

Try SMS Marketing Today

SMS marketing has been around for quite some time now, and is a proven marketing channel simply because text messages allow you to deliver time-sensitive info to your users.
CleverTap offers an extensive SMS marketing feature set that allows you to schedule campaigns, have them triggered by in-app user activity, or even add personalization to your messages. Sign up for a demo today.

Mastering Mobile App Engagement & Retention

Mastering Mobile App Engagement & Retention

Explore the various lifecycle stages of a mobile app user and learn engagement (and re-engagement) strategies via push notifications, deep linking, in-app messaging, and more.

Download Now

Last updated on March 29, 2024