What Is Two-Way Messaging?

Two-Way Messaging is an SMS service that allows businesses to send and receive SMS, to give their customers an easy way to respond. Two-Way SMS can be sent from a short code or long number via a messaging platform with the use of APIs, to communicate with large numbers of customers effectively.

Two-Way SMS turns the simplest and best-known channel for mobile messaging into a channel for customer conversations. It massively expands the functionality of text messaging by giving users a platform for two-way communication with customers. Instead of treating SMS as an outbound channel, it lets businesses send SMS messages and receive a reply on the same number at a minimum cost.

Two Way SMS Combines Inbound and Outbound Text Messaging

Such a messaging platform solves a major problem for businesses reaching out to customers: scaling up. By letting businesses both send SMS messages to thousands of people at once and reply near-instantly with a satisfactory response, it enables marketers to engage customers in goal-driven, service-focused conversations by text message.

Two-Way SMS Messaging brings you the specific tools and methods to make those communications truly interactive, inviting customers into back-and-forth exchanges using keywords, offer codes, choices of response, and even natural-language conversation. Like a chat window or instant messaging application, it lets marketers and customers talk to each other with simple text messages—and does so by using the one method of mobile communication almost everyone on the planet is familiar with: SMS.

How Does Two-Way SMS Work?

Two-Way SMS offers several options, each satisfying a different business case. You’ve seen the short codes in common use, easier to remember than a phone number, but even short codes come in several variants. While Long Numbers look like traditional phone numbers, and are useful if you’re reaching out to a more global audience. What matters here: setting up your Two-Way SMS with an expert SMS Gateway provider means you won’t have to deal with the complexities of market-by-market SMS messaging.

two way sms replySMS Short Codes

SMS Short Codes are the go-to method of voting in TV competitions, expressing interest in a special offer, or taking part in some customer service interactions like opening a trouble ticket. Offering a Short Code as a way for customers to contact you has a bonus: at just four or five digits long, it’s far more memorable than a phone number. Most people won’t even need to write it down first.

There are two flavors of short code SMS. The first—and priciest!—option is a Dedicated Short Code: your own private SMS channel. Everything texted to that code goes straight to your company, and no other company can use that number; it’s even possible to customize the number to something your customers will remember, known as a Vanity Short Code. If you don’t want a vanity, you’ll be assigned a random five-digit number by your provider.

Answering a slightly different business scenario is the Shared Short Code. While messages to your company can stay just as private as with a dedicated code (see keywords, below) the actual five-digit number may be used by many companies. Since the provider is able to amortize the costs of that code between many customers, costs can be very competitive.

SMS Long Numbers

There’s one issue with short codes: they tend to operate within a single country, set up for customers in that market and nowhere else. There’s a reason for this: each SMS costs money, and enabling a short code worldwide opens up the risk of high-cost inbound and outbound communications with low- or no-value customers. Long numbers solve this.

Read more: How to Choose Between Short Code or Long Number? >

Long numbers work in the same way as short codes—text to the number, get a reply back—but they’re set up as normal phone numbers, letting customers send and receive wherever they are in the world (and also giving them a clue of the costs of doing so, since international customers will need to use an international dialing code).

Experienced providers such as CM.com go even further: offering customers a choice of local numbers in many countries, so each marketer feels in-market to its audience. This can make a huge positive difference to response rates and conversions.

SMS Keywords

If many marketers are sharing the same Short Code, how does the SMS infrastructure “sort” the inbound text messages to make sure each goes to the right company? With SMS keywords.

SMS keywords are the instructions you see when you receive an outbound marketing communication from a company whose list you’ve opted into. A fast food company using a shared short code may make offers like “Reply FREEBURGER for your $5 voucher”; an auto showroom using the same code will say “Reply USEDCARS”. This keyword identifies which company the inbound text is for, and the messaging provider routes it accordingly.

Automated Actions

Of course, once a customer texts you back a response, you need to do something with it—and that’s where automated actions come in. This is how Two-Way SMS turns simple text messaging into something more like a conversation, even when thousands of people are doing it: the keywords they use to trigger an automatic sequence of actions that take the interaction further, without needing human involvement like a Customer Service Agent.

Automated actions combine a fixed set of input data with precise rules governing what to do with it. For example, customers texting back YES2OFFER may all want your voucher—but you may want to treat new customers (cellphone numbers not in your database) differently from those you already know. You may want to test several offers against each other in a single campaign—does 50%OFF work better than 2FOR1?

Such data can help marketers plan campaigns and streamline offers to the ones that work best. And, of course, they can gather customer intelligence too—if the keyword you put on billboards is OFFER99 while you put OFFER66 on your web ads, you can work out which advertising channel is performing best.

Opt-In and Double Opt-In

Of course, with the different business models incurring costs to one or both sides—some Short Codes allow the marketer to debit $5 or more from the customer—it’s important to have safeguards. Opt-in is the method of confirming a customer is happy to receive your outbound SMS messages, often by texting YES or SUB to a Short Code.

All reputable SMS messaging providers today use opt-in to confirm a customer genuinely wants to receive communications; many national regulations legally require double opt-in, where a specific text response is needed before they’re added to the database. If a provider approaches you offering non-opted-in lists: beware.

Use Cases of Two-Way Messaging

Combining different keywords and automated actions opens up a limitless set of possibilities for customer interaction—and marketers can be very creative. Here are some common use cases for Two-Way SMS.

Send Out Special Offers and Vouchers

Among the most common is the simplest: outbound messages informing customers how to take advantage of offers, and incentivizing them by offering discounts and vouchers. If the customer responds with a YES, the next outbound SMS is a custom code that can be used when shopping. Ultra-savvy marketers even personalize these codes for the individual, so they know which customers redeemed it.

Targeting Offers by Business Unit

A useful feature of keywords is the way they can be combined. Businesses from SME size up will have many BUs offering different services: for example, a construction firm may have different departments for kitchen, bathroom, and furnace repairs. That firm can use a main keyword like REPAIR in several response variants—like REPAIR BATH, REPAIR KIT, and REPAIR HEAT.

A/B Testing Offers

A/B testing is as old as marketing itself; word the same offer differently to two halves of a customer base, and see which version gains the highest conversion rate. Two-Way SMS Messaging makes it very easy—and automatable.

Gathering Timely Customer Feedback

Many marketers use the directness of Two-Way SMS to find out what their customers think of them, often asking the “Ultimate Question” of whether you’d recommend the company to your friends and family. Responses can be rated in a range of ways—for example, asking customers to text back on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is “your service was terrible” and 10 means “your service was amazing”.

This use case, finding the marketer’s NPS or “Net Promoter Score”, illustrates how basic single-digit points can give extremely accurate data about customer attitudes—while taking up very little of their time.

Raising Funds for Good Causes

For charities in many countries, texted responses can do more than act as pledges to donate—they’re the donation itself, debited to the customer’s phone bill. Of course, stringent legal conditions apply to any provider offering this—make sure the provider you choose offers the service levels you want.

Opening Customer Service Tickets

Two-Way SMS can also act as a jumping-off point to a deeper interaction with a human, using a keyword such as TROUBLE that instantly alerts the Helpdesk. It’s especially effective for existing customers—by recognizing the number the text is coming from, the correct CSA for that customer can be instructed to act. If a customer’s feeling stressed, a friendly phone call within two minutes can turn a negative experience positive again.

Appointment Setting and Confirmation

When meetings are booked, it’s useful to confirm that appointment instantly, giving data like address, booking number, and even a link to a map. Because phones are personal items, carried everywhere, mobile messaging is the ideal way to make sure that information reaches customers at the right time.

How to Improve Customer Engagement With Two-Way SMS?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of Two-Way Messaging—even more so than mobile messaging in general—is its immediacy of impact. Almost everyone knows how to text; almost every phone in the world can use it. And research suggests the average text message is read within minutes of receipt, unlike email or voicemails.

This immediacy makes it great for building and deepening customer relationships—not as a brand-building method in itself, but as support, reminding customers you’re always there and always reachable.

Why Use Two-Way Messaging?

By giving consumers the possibility to receive SMS messages from a business, with the ability to send an immediate response, businesses can create meaningful conversations and build a strong customer experience. And because the applications used to manage those campaigns and responses are unified, with all your codes and keywords integrated into dashboards and other software like your CRM, Two Way Messaging goes beyond simple text messaging.

With all the data and tools gathered together, managers can see metrics about large numbers of customers and set up actions (like callback, forward call, or send email) that answer their needs in the way they prefer. It’s a way to leverage the simplest of all messaging channels into a sustained advantage for your organization.

Benefits of Two-Way Messaging

SMS is a long-established technology with a huge user base. As such, it opens you up to a large audience—including, perhaps, people who haven’t seen you on the web. Which is great for your acquisition and retention goals.

Offering SMS as a channel carries another advantage: whether you’re blasting out offers or soliciting feedback, you’ll often collect the bulk of data in mere minutes, as thousands of people respond to your text the moment they feel their phone buzz.

Two-Way SMS can also be very cost-effective. With a Shared Short Code and multiple keywords, many customer care pathways can be created and automated—taking customers through even multi-stage service processes without requiring any human involvement.

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