SMS and SMS Aggregators – Playing catch up
I have been dealing with sending bulk text messages via SMS aggregators since mobileStorm was founded back in 1999. For those of you have never heard of the term, an SMS aggregator has direct connections to most carriers to deliver your text messages through their gateways. Such gateways are necessary because it is virtually impossible to connect directly to the carriers as a single company. It is not worth it to the carriers to manage such an isolated and small chunk of SMS traffic so instead, they make you use the gateways that have already been established by these aggregators.
When we started, there were few choices, and I can only remember a couple off the top of my head (Simplewire and Clickatell). As mobileStorm ventured into other message types, like email for example, we began to understand the need for detailed reporting. However, when we tried to apply such reporting to SMS campaigns, we found that the aggregators lacked even the most basic metrics.
For starters, very few aggregators can provide something as simple as bounce back information. Why is this? Phone numbers bounce just like email addresses do. There are bad phone numbers–numbers that switched to another carrier, are blocked and don’t want to receive text messages or prepaid numbers that are temporary out of credits. All in all, we have identified approximately 30 different bounces, across all carriers. Compare that with the 100 or so different types of email bounces and it’s really not that far off. Not surprisingly, most aggregators have this info, but they save it for premium SMS customers only. This, I feel, is short sighted because it’s only a matter of time before the millions of email marketers start sending text messages and they expect and crave reporting data, so it will pay to have a good strategy to accommodate this.
What about providing something as simple as an open rate on an SMS campaign – or a click through rate and forward-to-a-friend tracking? What about a complaint loop? Carriers already have so much user information stored, from personal info to demographics and even psychographics. Why won’t they share this data with good marketers who have properly opted-in its users? Even something as simple as a first name could be used to personalize the message on the next campaign. Currently, there are very few reports you can receive–pretty much everything has to be built on the service provider’s end. Because of this, when we developed Stun! SMS, we had to develop response rates, unsubscribe and bounce back handling ourselves.
Another big issue with SMS aggregators is delivery speeds. Just one of our Strongmail servers (and we have many) can do about 2,000,000 emails per hour or about 555 messages per second. Comparatively, we can only deliver about 20 to 30 messages per second via our aggregators. Isn’t SMS all about being timely? Most aggregator sales people won’t discuss delivery rates, so make sure you ask up front when choosing one. Recently, I was poking around trying to find an aggregator who could provide us priority delivery and fast speeds to power our emergency alerts platform for schools (STAT). I was told by a sales person that their fastest SMS platform was for their interactive TV division, which powers TV game shows. He told me and I quote, “you’re probably going to think this is sad, but our iTV platform is the fastest thing we have, and we don’t have anything for emergencies.” I wonder how fast that will change with the next Katrina. I mean come on… really, how important is American Idol when people can’t be contacted fast enough about a category five coming their way?
As a result of the lack of features and the aggregators’ slow moving production schedule, I feel that sales people within industry over promise and under deliver. Wouldn’t you be frustrated as well, if you were on the forefront of a major communications revolution, and you lacked basic features?
I won’t lie. It has been extremely difficult in working with most aggregators. They just don’t have their act together, even after raising millions of dollars. I just don’t see how some of them stay in business. The sad thing is you have to use them. It’s not like you can just go around them because as previously noted, the carriers won’t talk to you. Imagine if this is how email worked and you could only use about 12 different companies to send emails in the U.S. I think some attorneys would be crying for anti-trust. For now, these smart dealmakers have a nice lock on the SMS market; although I wonder how long it will last.
Overall, I have only really found two aggregators that I think get it, despite the current limitations of SMS. They do a decent job and do their best with what they have. I am really hoping the bad ones get weeded out so that businesses don’t lose time and money like we have. I am also hoping that the good ones can innovate and provide us with new and exciting features that only email currently provides us today.