The History (and Future) of SMS Marketing

Hi Marketers!

Picture this. It's the early 2000s. Your Nokia 3310 buzzes with the melody of Nokia Tune.

It's a text message, but it is not from your high school sweetheart professing their undying love. Instead, it is from a business.

A business that has somehow found its way into your personal SMS inbox. Ridiculous, right?

Fast forward to today, and that's not such a strange occurrence. Today, your smartphone buzzes more from brands than buddies.

SMS marketing has come a long way.

But how did we get here? How did we evolve from the personal, almost intimate medium of text messages to a marketing battleground? And where is this all going?

Well, let's take a nostalgic walk down memory lane and chat about the history of SMS marketing.

Our roadmap:

  • Hello, it's your friendly neighborhood business: The Dawn of SMS Marketing.

  • You've got 99 messages, but a friend ain't one: The Era of SMS Spam.

  • Hello Again, It's Me: The Resurgence and Reinvention of SMS Marketing

Grab a cup of coffee. We’re goin’ in.

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Hello, it's your friendly neighborhood business: The Dawn of SMS Marketing.

Remember when getting a text message was exciting? A time before smartphones, social media, and the multiple Twitter competitors vying for our attention?

Our story starts in 1992 with the first-ever SMS (not a marketing message, just a regular 'Merry Christmas') sent by a test engineer in the UK.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and businesses are realizing the potential of this 160-character limited communication channel.

But it was a challenging sell. Businesses had to tiptoe around etiquette, privacy, and even legal regulations to get their messages on people's screens.

The first SMS campaigns were downright simple. A local pizza shop sending out deals, a dentist's office sending appointment reminders, or a club announcing tonight's DJ lineup.

All personalized, all targeted, and most importantly, all invited. Because back then, the concept of 'spam' hadn't tainted this new and exciting communication channel yet.

SMS marketing was the wild west, a new frontier with its own challenges and opportunities. And it was working.

Unlike email, which was already beginning to feel the weight of spam, SMS was personal and direct. It was your mom, your friend, your barber. And now, it was your favorite local business too.

Here are a few reasons why SMS marketing took off:

  • Ubiquity: Mobile phones were becoming commonplace, and not everyone had a smartphone or even an internet connection, but they could receive a text.

  • Open Rates: The open rates were mind-blowing. We're talking 98% open rates, people. In comparison, emails had a measly 20-40%.

  • Instantaneous: No booting up, no opening of an app. The message was just THERE.

In this era, marketers lived by the motto: "If it's seen, it's sold."

But the question remained - how do marketers strike a balance between ‘being seen’ and ‘being an annoyance’?

Well, let’s be honest. Clearly, many didn’t.

You've got 99 messages, but a friend ain't one: The Era of SMS Spam.

As businesses realized the potential of reaching customers directly on their phones, they swung into full throttle. With open rates that made other marketing channels pale in comparison, SMS marketing hopped right on it.

But in the haste to capitalize on this new medium, one crucial factor was overlooked: respect for the customer's space.

Automation turned SMS marketing into a relentless torrent. With the ease of pressing a button, thousands of promotional messages could be slinged at once.

What started as a promising, intimate channel for communication rapidly transformed into a flood of "limited-time offers," "exclusive deals," and "urgent notifications."

Personal inboxes became clogged with unsolicited messages, leaving little room for meaningful, wanted communication.

This excessive usage led to the inevitable: customers began to tune out. Our cell phones, which had once been for personal conversations, had been invaded.

The intimacy that was intrinsic to the channel was compromised and traded for the convenience of bulk messaging.

And, let's be honest, nothing feels less personal than a generic, mass-sent text.

Unsurprisingly, the barrage of unsolicited messages led to a backlash. People were tired of their personal space being disrespected.

The spam era precipitated SMS’s downfall as complaints rose, regulations tightened, and hefty fines were introduced. Reckless mass texting, it seemed, was not sustainable.

This era served as a harsh but necessary lesson: while SMS marketing is a powerful tool, it can also cause damage when misused.

Customers don't merely ignore spam; they develop resentment towards it. And in the process, they develop a similar sentiment towards the brands that send it.

The takeaway? If you're not providing value, you're not just wasting your time—you're wasting theirs.

Hello Again, It's Me: The Resurgence and Reinvention of SMS Marketing

In the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence in thoughtful SMS marketing. I’ve seen folks come to realize that in the quest for attention, they had lost sight of an important factor: the customer's consent.

They realized that in their rush to be seen, they had forgotten to ask if they were even welcome.

So, what did savvy marketers do differently?

  • They asked for permission: Instead of forcing their messages onto unsuspecting customers, they invited them to opt in. And people did. Why? Because they were offered something valuable in return - personalized deals, first access to new products, or valuable information.

  • They became personal: The automation craze of yesteryears was replaced with a more balanced approach. While automation was still used, it was counterbalanced with personalization. Businesses began to use customer data to tailor their messages, making each text feel less like a sales pitch and more like a text from a friend.

  • They respected the boundaries: No more 3 AM texts. Marketers understood that while they were welcome in the customer's inbox, they were still guests. And like any good guest, they had to respect the house rules.

  • They added value: Instead of focusing solely on promoting their products or services with cringey fake scarcity, they focused on adding value. Whether it was a useful tip, a kind message, or a piece of interesting news, each message aimed to enrich the customer's day in some way.

  • They engaged in conversations: SMS marketing moved away from being a one-way street to a two-way conversation. Businesses encouraged customers to reply to their messages, creating a more dynamic and engaging experience.

Today, most great SMS marketing is a far cry from its earlier spam-filled days. It's thoughtful, intentional, and customer-centric.

It's a reminder that when we respect our customers and offer them real value, they're more than happy to hear from us.

Ultimately, even with great SMS marketing, it will become a more challenging channel to stand out in as it becomes more and more saturated.

Customers are not going for those sh*tty “fwd reply” type hacks that worked in the early days of email.

Do you know who will win?

The folks that really lean into the medium just as much as the message.

If you are only getting texts from family and close friends and family, why are you even signing up for a brand's SMS list?

How can the brands keep customers engaged over a longer period than just the welcome discount code?

I asked for some of your favorite examples of conversational and engaging SMS and got quite a few great ones. Click on the tweet below to read the replies.

At OLIPOP, we were one of the early brands doing early access to new flavors for SMS folks, and we did it with a message from our founder and a selfie.

It felt native to the channel and it CRUSHED.

Do you know why?

Because we set expectations (promised early access) and delivered them in a magical way.

The shocking part about SMS marketing is that success on this channel is fairly straightforward.

It’s just that most brands (and agencies) take a very short-term approach and spam their customers to the point of irrelevance and resentment.

As their messaging becomes less effective, they just send more.

Some of your favorite “DTC darlings” are sending one or more messages per day, and I’ve yet to meet a single customer that liked receiving that many messages.

From anyone. Ever.

Be brave. Be different.

That’s it for this week!

P.s. There has been so much talk about incrementality testing as of late, and Cody sat down with the CEO of to chat all about it.

I learned a ton from this chat, and I think you will too.

Any topics you'd like to see me cover in the future?

Just shoot me a DM or an email!

See you next week,

Eli 💛