The pros and cons of using SMS as a mobile app marketing tool

About a year ago, a social media expert predicted that before this decade ends, SMS as we know it will be dead. Around the same time, a report from the Pew Institute suggested that text messaging growth was already leveling off. The introduction of iMessaging in iOS 5 was interpreted by some as a final nail in SMS's coffin. If developers still considered SMS as part of their mobile app marketing strategy, it may have been too late.

More recently, however, a growing number of voices are suggesting the death of SMS, impeding or otherwise, is greatly exaggerated. Bloggers have pointed to data which indicates that in countries like the United States, SMS has overtaken voice calling in terms what users do with their smartphones. Firms like Portio Research show a bright future ahead for SMS, and firms like Tyntec continue to offer products and service to enable text messaging as part of the app experience.


Source: Jhaymesisviphotography/ Creative Commons

Last week, Tyntec released a white paper urging developers to capitalize on the potential of SMS as a way of acquiring and retaining the large proportion of consumers who tend to download apps and then abandon them. According to Markus Luehe, Tyntec's business development director, this has been the biggest pain point he's heard from developers at conferences and other industry events. SMS, he said, is a way to bridge the gap between how developers move from the Web to mobile.

"I think because app developers live in what you would call a social space, they have these skills [to use SMS] naturally," he said. "That's what they do day by day. SMS is just another channel and another opportunity to activate new users and reactivate old ones."

Mobile marketing isn't limited to SMS
Mobile marketers don't necessarily disagree. Jeff Rutherford, co-founder of APPetite PR, said SMS is just one of a wide range of techniques and tactics to build compelling user experiences, and to encourage repeat app usage. Others include social media sharing and device reminders. "We recommend that developers consider all avenues to building those compelling user experiences, including using SMS to communicate with their users," he said. "If developers treat it with care--for example, if they don't annoy users with repeated SMS messages in one day or one week--SMS can be a powerful tool."

Peggy Ann Salz, analyst with Mobile Groove who authored the Tyntec white paper, goes even further, suggesting that "SMS is the most effective marketing channel there is," and that retention should be top of mind for any app developer who wants to grow.

"Up until now most of them have been very focused on building their apps. What needs to happen is to turn a hobby into a serious business," she said. "It's starting to dawn on app developers that they are not just CEOs and CIOs of their companies but also the CMOs."

Tyntec sees SMS as a way to have a more immediate connection between developers and users. Salz said this will be important as more app downloads are driven by recommendations via trusted sources. "The core of text messaging is the expectation on the part of the user that this is going to be a conversation. You listen, you get back to me," she said. There's a social contract here."

Not everyone sees SMS as a way of keeping users engaged, however. Greg Hickman, a mobile marketing consultant and the founder of, said in an e-mail to FierceDeveloper that it may be better for developers to focus more on creating apps that people can't live without vs. figuring out a way to re-engage them after they've lost interest.

"They deleted your app for a reason. In my experience I'd possibly go as far to say that it would be appropriate to send those users one--only one--SMS in an attempt to re-engage. But, more importantly let me know why the[y] deleted the app," he said. "The problem is that most apps outside of news and entertainment serve no ongoing utility for the user that they need to continually come back time and time again."

Brian Akaka, founder and CEO of mobile marketing agency Appular, said developers need to think about the differences between SMS and push notifications.

"You need to know your users' phone numbers in order to send them an SMS. Most apps do not have access to a phone's number," he pointed out. "There is an unavoidable unit cost to sending an SMS, since you must send the SMS through the phone carriers' dedicated SMS system, whereas push notifications don't have any unit costs themselves."

Whichever options they choose, the key is figuring out the right frequency based on user's preferences, Hickman added.

SMS Marketing chart

"I agree that using SMS to make announcements related to the app and updates could be valuable as long as they are not being delivered via push as well. That would be over-communication," Hickman said. "Developers should look to connect with users in whichever way is stated by that user. For some that may be SMS, [for] others email…[for] others, push."