June 20, 2024

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Text message spam: Why are so many companies using SMS marketing and robotexts?

I have a new text bestie, and it’s the brands.

Scrolling through my phone recently, I was surprised to see just how many of my incoming messages were not from friends or family but instead from companies. The package update from UPS made sense, as did the alert on the restaurant reservation I’d made over the weekend. But why did I have an offer from a swimming-pool-sharing service I’ve never used and an alert about a sale on items from Tory Burch, a brand I’ve never purchased? And what about the Pride party invite from a beauty loyalty program named Allē?

The situation made me feel a little sad and uncool — I’d rather a friend ask me to a party than an app made by the pharma giant that makes Botox. It’s also just a reality of being a consumer today, albeit a reality that snuck up on us. Reaching consumers via SMS, meaning text messages, has become increasingly popular among marketers. If you feel like the brands are texting you a lot more than they used to, it’s because they are.

“Getting someone’s phone number is incredibly valuable for marketers,” said Erin Blake, vice president director of connections strategy at Digitas, a digital marketing agency. “There’s a reason why a lot of brands care about SMS as a channel for marketing and why you’re seeing so much of it right now.”

It’s not that hard to see why. I voluntarily gave my phone number to all the companies currently texting me except for one (I think), and I’ve considered engaging with those messages much more than I would any other advertisement. If I’m being honest here, if I’d taken a closer look at the party invite, maybe I would have gone.

You open your texts a lot more than you do your emails

There are multiple reasons marketers are turning to text to reach consumers, the main one being that it works.

Text message open rates are astronomically high, having a 97 percent read rate within 15 minutes of being delivered, according to Insider Intelligence. That’s well above open rates for emails, which estimates place at around 20 percent. Consumers click through on SMS at higher rates than they do emails, too.

“Texts are acted on in near real-time, we’re talking minutes, as opposed to email, which is going to have a low response rate in a couple of days,” Blake said.

Text has served as a fresh channel as other, more traditional formats have become difficult to navigate, explained Sara Varni, chief marketing officer at Attentive, an SMS marketing platform. “There’s been a lot of changes around privacy and regulation when it comes to how people can retarget customers, and so channels that used to be tried and true, whether that was a retargeting program with Google or an email, some of those channels have declined over time,” she said.

The GDPR, Europe’s privacy law that went into effect in 2018, has made it a little harder for companies to track you and chase you around the internet with ads for that rug you decided not to buy. (It’s why you’re asked to accept cookie trackers on all the websites now.) Apple’s moves to up privacy protections for its users have caused headaches for email marketers, too.

Many people’s inboxes are inundated with messages from dozens upon dozens of companies they’ve interacted with a handful of times, if at all. Even if you wanted to jump on that sale from American Airlines, you have to sift through 30 other offers you have no interest in. People’s text messages, at least for the time being, are less cluttered — in part because it’s more expensive for brands to text people than it is to email them.

“In general, most users’ text message feed is a lot less spammy than their email feed. It’s harder to get permission, but once you get permission, it works better,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at advertising firm Publicis.

Unlike email, text doesn’t have a separate folder for junk or for spam, or, in the case of a service like Gmail, a different section for promotions you never even have to look at if you don’t want to. “There’s none of that filtering on your SMS messenger client,” Goldberg said.

All of our text messages are mashed together, putting brand texts together with messages from your mom. It’s a solid deal for marketers, though maybe not so much for you.

“Your text message inbox is incredibly personal, that’s where a lot of people are having most of their interpersonal communications on a day-to-day basis,” Blake said. “I would caution brands to really think through how they can be good stewards of that trust and build that relationship, because if you break it, that’s a lot harder to get back.”

The good, the spam, and the ugly

What people in the industry say about marketing via text message is that it’s one of a number of avenues brands can use to reach consumers and that the good actors involved are very smart about how often to message and with what. They say that SMS marketing is more conversational, not just a constant attempt at a hard sell, and note that consumers can often respond to messages to really interact. It’s actually somewhat true.

There are plenty of examples where you can see text messaging from brands working. There are moments when SMS is really clutch, like when a flight moves gates, or a shipment is delayed. Chatbots on websites and in text messages are notoriously bad for solving anything beyond basic problems, but in a world where artificial intelligence and ChatGPT do really make them better, you could see that adding some value to SMS, too. “Maybe now because of Chat GPT, the robots will make people more happy than humans, so SMS could grow along with all of the other text-based services,” Goldberg said. (To be sure, the hype machine around AI right now basically has it either fixing everything under the sun or ruining the world, hard to say.)

Varni said that text message marketing can be a solid medium for giving consumers a curated experience, for sending loyal customers special deals, for educating people, or for alerting them when an item becomes available they wanted. Her company works with its clients to try to make sure it doesn’t go overboard. “We don’t want to turn SMS into the next version of email, which becomes a graveyard of brands and promotions in your inbox,” she said.

In many cases when it comes to legitimate companies and brands, people are signing up to receive text messages, often in exchange for a discount or free shipping or some sort of gift. A survey from Attentive found that 91 percent of consumers globally have signed up for an SMS program or are interested in doing so.

Still, it doesn’t take much for people to start to feel annoyed and overwhelmed by all the texts. A report from data company Validity found that 96 percent of survey respondents have felt annoyed at least occasionally by marketing text messages, 84 percent have gotten a text message from a company they didn’t remember signing up for, and 70 percent have worried brand texts pose a data security risk.

According to data shared with Vox by Robokiller, a spam text and call blocker, 70 percent of the spam messages identified on its platform were related to brand marketing messages in May and June of 2023. Even if the texts aren’t technically spam, that’s how many consumers see them, said Patrick Falzon, the general manager at Teltech, the app maker behind Robokiller. “Those are messages that are coming from what you’d think of as legitimate companies offering some degree of promotional discount, sales offer, trying to pull people back into some web funnel or experience,” he said, meaning guiding people from an entry point toward some goal or action, like a sale. He acknowledged that the high open rates can be enticing for marketers, but they can also create tension for brands over time. “You’re likely going to see increasing consumer fatigue,” he said, “and with that, consumer pushback.”

The good news for consumers is that if they want to stop getting marketing texts from brands, in many cases, they can just respond “stop” to the messages, and that’s that. Phone providers tend to take the issue quite seriously, too, in part at the government’s urging, blocking robotexts and making sure that once people say they want to opt out, they can. Still, the system is imperfect. Not every marketer is going to heed a consumer’s “stop” wishes or refrain from passing your phone number onto someone else. “There are more gaps in the regulatory frameworks on the text side of things vs. calls,” Falzon said.

Between the brands and the politicians, maybe just throw your phone into the sea (I kid, kind of)

Much of our personal data is already all over the internet and in the hands of actors good and bad. That landscape makes it a little difficult, from a distance, to decipher just how to think about text message marketing. On the one hand, it’s not ideal that companies that are pretty bad at protecting their data get their hands on yet another piece of information. On the other hand, a text from a company with a sale isn’t the worst thing in the world. Like, oh, yet another brand has my phone number? At least I got a 20 percent discount for handing it over.

“It’s just way more common to see, in funnels, brands asking for your phone number,” Falzon said. “We, as consumers, have become kind of numb to giving out our information online.”

The tipping point here really hinges on whether people become so inundated with messages that their phones wind up looking like their email inboxes — a space where there’s so much of everything that it’s next to impossible to find anything. And again, we don’t really have much ability right now to filter our text messages like we do our emails right now.

The brands, hopefully, aren’t going to blow up our phones to the level of email in the near future, but we should prepare for some text-heavy months ahead. Marketers generally jump on the holiday season to send an extra number of texts, meaning you should expect more messages in October, November, and December. Then there’s election season and the raft of political texts that come along with it. And then there’s the next holiday season after that.

“Political campaigns are really leaning into SMS as well, so it’s not restricted to commercial brands,” Falzon said. “Politicians are using it a lot. I think, unfortunately, it’s going to be a pretty rough next 12 to 18 to 24 months for consumers.”

So look forward to texts from Starbucks and Old Navy and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders from here until eternity.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Correction, July 13, 11:30 am ET: A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of Validity survey respondents who felt annoyed by marketing text messages. The correct number is 96 percent.