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What You Can Learn From a Bad SMS Message

learn from bad sms message

In last week’s blog I covered how the Trump campaign sent unsolicited SMS messages to voters. This week I’m stuck on the same topic, but from a totally different angle: what we can learn from that failure. Because honestly, their biggest issue might not be violating the law. It might be the people they have writing their SMS messages.

It’s time to dissect the message that spawned the law suit, and learn what we can from it.

The message apparently read,

Reply YES to subscribe to Donald J. Trump for President. Your subscription will help Make America Great Again! Msg&data rates may apply.”

So let’s look at that message, bit by bit and decide whether or not it follows best practices. I’m going to use a simple pass/fail test for each of four SMS marketing best practices. I’ll use the results as a tool to discuss the proper way to write an SMS message.

#1 Identify yourself: Fail, then pass

The campaign was sent from a shortcode, so it wouldn’t be immediately clear who sent it. Initially, people would wonder who it was from. But while the message doesn’t start off saying who it’s from, it does get to it in the first sentence. That’s why it gets both a pass and a fail.

Best practice is to include your name or an identifiable abbreviation at the very beginning of a message that lets the customer immediately know who it’s from. It avoids confusion, and potential lawsuits. Of course Trump isn’t being sued for failure to identify, but others have been. There was one UK music festival that sent everyone on their list a message, but instead of using their name, they made it appear to be from “Mum”. They thought it was funny. Some people didn’t agree. If you want, you can read about what happened in this blog.

#2 Call to action (CTA): Pass

It is clear what they want you to do: reply YES for a subscription. Not much more to say about that – ok there is, but it all falls under #3.

#3 Clear offer: Fail

Or as my gamer children would say, “EPIC fail!” Technically, I guess you can say the offer is a subscription. But what am I subscribing to? Will I get more messages? Will it cost me money? Am I committing to something? And most of all, how will a text “Make America Great Again”? That’s the slogan of the Trump campaign and easily recognisable. But it’s horribly misused here.

I can’t know how long any of the recipients examined this message when they got it. But I would have looked long and hard at it (given the nature of this blog and my natural inquisitiveness!). A contribution to Trump’s campaign would certainly go towards the effort to “Make America Great Again” because it would directly support him. A vote for him would support him and his cause too, but a text? Since you can’t vote via SMS (not for president anyway), are they asking for money? This train of thought would leave me with one conclusion: subscription = donation. But of course the message says nothing about money, or if I’m agreeing to pay something by replying “YES”.  What does it mean?

If your messages leave your customers this confused, you’re probably going to have a very low ROI. It’s always best to test the copy of your SMS messages to make sure they are clear. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Send to a small segment: If you have a large enough list, test the message with a small subset of the larger list. Or send a couple different versions of the message to different subsets. Then use the one that does the best. If neither of them do well, then go back and write a new message or tweak the ones you have until you get a better result.
  • Wide internal review: It’s almost always hard to spot the problems with something we’ve created, especially when we’re immersed in it. So before you send that message to your whole list, have other people in the company review it. Get a cross-section of people if possible. The marketing team might get what you wrote, but the IT, sales, and HR people may have no idea what you mean (because they aren’t working the campaign like you are). And if they don’t get it, there’s a good chance your customers won’t either.

#4 Option to opt out: Fail

The end of the message did let people know that responding might cost them money in terms of sending the SMS reply: “Msg&data rates may apply”. But what isn’t included is a way to stop receiving the messages.

There should always be a very clear way for a recipient to opt out of all future messaging. Something like “Reply STOP to cancel”. This is required in SMS marketing messages in both the US and the UK.

It’s likely that the Trump message was a one-off based on the reports of the law suit. Perhaps this is why the author of the message didn’t feel the need to include the option for opting out. I haven’t seen any complaints of multiple messages being received – but it’s still early. Other people may come forward with more details as the case moves through the courts.

Since the Trump campaign has been silent about the issue, and the message is so difficult to interpret, it’s really impossible to know what the author was thinking.

What do you think? Was I too harsh on this message? Let me know in the comments.

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