Best Practices for Using Short Codes with an SMS API

Short codes offer a clean, fast, and legally compliant option for sending high-volume, one-way application-to-person (A2P) communications.

But short code usage comes with its own set of challenges. Compared to other SMS number types, such as long codes and toll-free numbers, short codes are the most heavily regulated, take the longest to get approval for, and have the most expensive rates.

First, companies looking to use short codes have to lease a five- to six-digit short code. Next, regulations require companies to submit a lengthy short code application that discloses who you are and how you’ll use your number. Finally, they must navigate the complicated short code provisioning process, which involves getting approval from every carrier network in the US and/or Canada in order for you to launch your communications program over that shortcode.

For this, you can work with a high-quality SMS API provider that will do the heavy lifting of getting your short code program through all the regulatory hoops, while you focus on running your business.

If you decide to work with a modern SMS API provider like Plivo—the leading Twilio alternative—there are still three core concepts you need to understand about short codes: the common use case for short codes; what makes short codes a powerful, fast, and reliable medium; the requirements for short code approval.

Common Uses Cases for Short Codes

The regulation and logistics surrounding short code usage are complex. Too often, companies jump into A2P messaging without a clear understanding of how–and when–they should use shortcodes over other number types.

One of the most common myths about short code usage is that it’s only effective for marketing campaigns. But you can use short codes in a variety of high-impact, transactional applications across different industries.

For example, restaurants and food delivery services use them to update customers on the status of their table, order, or food delivery. Hotel chains, airlines, and parking companies like LAZ Parking often use short codes to remind their guests of upcoming reservations, itinerary changes, or changes.

Cloud and data storage companies like Backblaze often use short codes and an SMS API to support their two-factor authentication. This is a convenient, cost-effective way to keep sensitive customer information and data secure by leveraging SMS to provide the “something they have” layer of 2FA.

In the public sphere, schools use this number type to update parents and students about closures or announce events. Municipalities and safety agencies use short code SMS to deliver emergency alerts, such as sudden weather changes or AMBER alerts. Shipping services like FedEx, USPS, and UPS use short codes to update residents on package statuses, including delivery notifications or delays. Finally, political organizations—from the state to the national level—leverage short codes to support voting, polling, and surveys to gauge public opinion.

While short codes are a dynamic and an effective way to deliver a wide range of A2P communications, they’re not the best number type for all promotional or transactional messaging.

If you’re sending a low-volume promotional campaign–less than 10 messages per second–it’s more cost-effective to use a toll-free number enabled for SMS or number pooling over longcodes. A quality Twilio alternative like Plivo can help you select the most appropriate number format and optimize your campaigns so that you remain in compliance with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), which sets regulations around text communications.

What Makes Short Codes a Powerful, Fast, & Reliable Tool

SMS messages offer an immediate and powerful method for reaching customers. In fact, according to mobile research firm MobileSQUARED, 90% of people read their text messages within three minutes of receiving it.

When you combine this read rate with the high-volume capabilities of A2P short code communications, you can reach more of your end users faster than you could with long code or toll-free number types. Plus, short codes are the only pre-approved number type for sending promotional messages.

This pre-approval by the CTIA and Common Short Code Administration (CSCA) means short codes also have more consistent, reliable delivery rates than their long code or toll-free counterparts.

Similarly, short code communications are less likely to be blocked at the carrier level as spam because of their pre-approved CTIA status. Before a company can use a short number, the CTIA reviews their program–which can take up to six weeks–to ensure that it meets the association’s requirements.

While an SMS API provider like Plivo or other Twilio alternative will help you with the administrative legwork of getting approval, they will also advise you on how to compose your shortcode campaigns so they have the best chance of getting approved. More on this later.

Rate limits on messaging via long codes makes them an inefficient way to send high-volume promotional or transactional messages, which often need to reach tens of thousands of end users with time-sensitive information. While long code communications are limited to one message sent per four-second interval and up to 200 messages per day per number, short code messages can be sent out at the much faster rate of 50 messages per second.

Type Send Rates Advantage Disadvantage
Long-Code SMS, Two-way & conversational 1 SMS every 4 secs, up to 200 messages per day per number. Can be the lowest cost option. Immediate provisioning. Not good for "one-to-many" messages. Number pooling and rotation required.
Short-Code SMS, One-to-many communications Up to 100 SMS per second Good for high volume. Can be expensive. Set-up time may be up to 6 weeks
Toll-Free SMS, Similar to long-code Up to 10 SMS per second in the U.S. Supports higher volume than long-code Only available in the U.S. Some carrier limitations.
Alphanumeric Sender ID, One-way SMS in select international destinations No rate limits on alphanumeric and international. Can be used for branding. Does not always require registration. Only available for outbound SMS and in select countries.

Additionally, you can easily customize short code campaigns for each use case to include one-time passwords (OTP) or campaign tracking which results in better deliverability.

Requirements for Short Code Approval

Carriers must approve the short code and its content before rollout (and conduct audits at later dates). In order to gain approval, your short code must meet the following requirements.

A Clear Call to Action (CTA)

A clear call to action doesn’t just encourage recipients to interact with the company sending the short code communication. This integral short code describes exactly what information customers will be getting if they sign up.

As such, a clear CTA should include:

  • The company and program name
  • A program description, including how often recipients will get messages
  • A link to the program’s terms and conditions
  • Opt-in and opt-out instructions
  • Instructions on contacting customer support
  • Additional carrier cost disclosures for message and data rates

These requirements ensure that end users can recognize promotional and transactional messages.

An Acceptable Opt-in Method

Before you can send promotional or transactional A2P messages to recipients, you need to get express written consent from end users. To do this, get opt-in via text message through a keyword, an online form, or an in-person, in-store signup.

There are a number of ways that companies can get opt-in from customers, including:

  • Online phone number entry
  • A mobile oriented (MO) message that includes the opt-in keyword
  • In-store, point-of-sale signup
  • Opt-in button on a mobile web page
  • Interactive voice response (IVR) opt-in via phone call

To ensure you can prove compliance with the CTIA opt-in regulations, you should store customer records electronically.

Note - double opt-in is not necessarily required, but you may wish to do it.

Templatized content & message flow

For each short code program, you must submit a template of the content you plan to send for CTIA approval. Additionally, you must use one of the three approved message flows when sending communications to customers:

  1. One-time messages: These transactional, non-recurring messages are triggered when a recipient sends in a keyword, resulting in a single, immediate text message.
  2. Recurring messages: These subscription-based communications require customers to opt-in to receive multiple ongoing messages and dictate that businesses must include opt-out instructions in the first communication.
  3. Two-factor authentication: These communications are used to verify the identity of the customer with a third-party service using a combination of two of the following: a password, a mobile phrase or authentication, or a fingerprint.

By ensuring every company complies with the above criteria, the CTIA can maintain a consistent user experience for recipients.

Terms and conditions

If you’re using short codes for transactional or promotional messaging, you must include the full terms and conditions for your programs on a web-accessible page.

These terms and conditions pages can be shared between programs (unlike opt-ins) but must all contain the following information:

  • Sponsor information and program description that tells the reader what the company does and what the program is for
  • Call to action that includes opt-in instructions
  • Statement of recurrence disclaimer for campaigns that are ongoing
  • Additional carrier cost disclosure that includes the phrase “message and data rates may apply” or “Msg&DataRatesMayApply”
  • Active keywords that are used to control the recipient’s involvement in the program (e.g., HELP or STOP).
  • An explanation of opt-out mechanisms that explain how people can opt out of the program
  • Customer support information in case recipients need additional information
  • Link to the privacy policy that details how the company ensures the privacy of user information

By following the above terms and compliance regulations, you ensure that program recipients clearly understand what you’ll be sending them as part of your program and how to get more information if issues or questions arise.

There are also a handful of things that the CTIA does not allow companies to do with short code campaigns:

  • Use the same opt-in for multiple programs
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Use of one short code for multiple use cases
  • Sell or share user information
  • Loan, debt consolidation, or other advertising for debt services
  • Deceptive marketing
  • Fraud or phishing scams
  • Work from home, “secret shopping,” and similar job advertising

Additionally, the CTIA does not allow you to promote any content advertising sex, hate, alcohol, firearms, or tobacco (SHAFT) in approved short code programs.

Get Started with Short Code Today

The SMS regulatory landscape is in constant flux, and keeping up with changing rules is a challenge even for seasoned leaders.

The right partner will help you avoid frustration by providing both the high-quality carrier network and the industry expertise you need to achieve superior message deliverability. As the leading Twilio alternative, Plivo brings depth of knowledge and direct Tier-1 carrier relationships to the table, so you don’t have to stress over regulations or reliability.

Download our whitepaper to learn how to create and execute better SMS campaigns, or contact one of our short code experts today to get started.

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