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Be Careful When Reading About Shortcodes and VMNs

Be careful when reading about shortcodes and VMNs

When you start using SMS marketing, one of the first decisions you need to make is whether or not you’ll need to get replies. If you do, then you’ll need to decide between shortcodes and a virtual mobile number (VMN, also called longcode). If you don’t, then that’s alright too.

You might even do some research to decide which one you should use (perhaps you’re doing that now!).  And this is where you need to be careful.

I recently came across an article backing the use of the shortcode, while disparaging the longcode (VMN). Some of what was said just didn’t make sense to me, so I conveyed, conversed, and consulted with the SMS experts here at fastsms to see if we could sort it out.

And we did.

Much of the article was wrong, or slanted unfairly against VMNs. Another issue was the regulations it referred to applied only in the US. Which is great because we don’t have to worry about that silliness here, but if you didn’t know that you might get the wrong impression.

To set the record straight, I’m going to tell you about them, and the UK reality of SMS messaging (so if you’re reading this from another country, take note it may not all apply to you – unless you want to send SMS messages in the UK).

The Options

Here are some short definitions of each available option for receiving SMS messages.

VMN – Short for “virtual mobile number”, it works like any mobile number for receiving text messages. They can be rented from an SMS service provider, usually for a low annual fee. What makes a VMN special though, is the fact that it’s virtual. You don’t need a physical device to use the number so it works well with web-based systems, email to SMS, or even A2P (Application to Person).

Shortcode – A special five-digit number used for receiving SMS messages. These numbers can be “dedicated” or “shared”. Dedicated means only you can use it, and you have total freedom over keyword choice. A shared code means that many different companies use the same number. In order to avoid confusion, you rent one or more keywords associated with that number. Whenever anyone sends your keyword to the shortcode, you are the only one that receives it.

Text label – It’s required to provide something in the “from” part of the message. Otherwise no one would ever know who sent it. If you don’t need to get replies to your messages, you can simply put a text label rather than a VMN or Shortcode number. This option is available in NetMessenger, our web-based SMS service. It’s often a great choice because the recipient will immediately recognise the sender (assuming you use your company name or abbreviation).

Different Uses

Which one of the above you’ll want to use depends on what you’re doing. To keep things simple, I’ve divided up every possible use case into just two categories: marketing and non-marketing.


Yes, everything that isn’t marketing fits in here under this label. It’s a big list of possibilities, but there’s one simple reason that they are all the same. In theory at least.

That reason is: The people you are sending to must know who you are already.

Think about it. You send messages to your friends and family. Employers send messages to their employees. Automated systems send messages to the IT department when a server fails.

In all those cases either a VMN or a text label would work perfectly. If you need to get replies to your non-marketing messages, then choose a VMN. If the messages are all one-way, just use the text label option.

In these examples, where the recipient knows who’s sending, the fact a VMN is long won’t matter. People will get the message and then just add it to their contact list. Next time you send them a message, it will show up with whatever they named you in their contacts. Just think what you do when a friend gets a new mobile number, or you get a new friend sending you messages.  That’s right, you add them to your contacts.


Once we start to think about marketing though, things are a bit different. The person you are sending messages to may have asked for them (they should have if you’re complying with the UK regulations), but that doesn’t mean they’ll add you to their contacts like they would for a friend or employer.

Chances are actually, that they are getting SMS marketing messages from multiple companies. You can’t guarantee they will know who the message is from unless you tell them. Just like you wouldn’t pay for a huge print ad and leave your name off of it, you don’t leave your name off an SMS message. It might be an abbreviated version, but it should still be there.

What does that have to do with shortcodes, VMNs and text labels?

It means you have choices on how to let your customers know you’re the one sending the messages.

For one-way messages, a text label works just fine. You can use your company name and they’ll know exactly who has the great sale starting tomorrow.

For two-way messages, either a shortcode or a VMN will work. Technically speaking that is. In the UK there is no difference in delivery rates or timing for either. Other countries are different, so you should be careful about the source of your information when researching because it can be misleading.

In the US for example, carriers have an agreement that longcodes (or VMNs) are intended just for person to person messages. The carriers themselves, like Verizon and AT&T, can choose to block a longcode if they see more than a one message per second. That would put a damper on most marketing campaigns.

Here in the UK that isn’t the case. But there some best practices to follow that can make your marketing campaign more successful.

In our experience, most marketing campaigns use a text label even if they want to get replies. This way, your customer will always know who the message is from, and you don’t need them to remember a shortcode or a VMN.

If you need to get replies, then you’d need to write the message slightly differently than you might think. Here are two messages for comparison. The first uses a shortcode, and the second a text label.

In the first case, the customer knows who you are because you started the message with the company name, ABCShops. In the second, they see your name as the “From” and don’t even need to read the message to know it’s you.

If you think the second message is harder because they can’t just reply, it really isn’t. In most cases the shortcode in the body of the text will become a link automatically. The customer clicks it (instinctively these days), and it then opens another message where they can type YES to enter your great contest!

It’s different, but still simple. The added value of the text label is you now have extra characters available for the message body. Since your name is already listed in the From field, you can leave it out of the message body. Of course, if you are using a VMN or shortcode, you’ll need to include that in the message body to get a reply. So the amount of extra space will vary depending on the type message you send.

Which method you use is up to you entirely. You may also choose different ways depending on the type of campaign you’re running. There are circumstances when a short, easily remembered shortcode could be important (opt-in campaigns or contests for example).

Hopefully, this blog combated much of the potentially confusing information on the internet regarding shortcodes and VMNs. At least in the UK. If you still have questions though, please leave a comment, or grab us on live chat.

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