SMS Short Code, Long Code, Toll-Free, What's the Difference?

by Charles Parsons | March 18, 2019
SMS Short Code, Long Code, Toll-Free, What's the Difference?

Short code texting, long code texting, and toll-free -what’s the difference?  The answer is...there are a lot of differences, particularly for your audience. People will engage with you differently depending on which style you choose. Matching the style to your use case is the best way to ensure that your voice is coming across as you intend. This is also the first step towards successful engagement with your audience.

What are my options?

There are three different ways to send text messages to your audience: short code texting, long code texting, and toll-free texting. The difference between each is what type of phone number the recipient is going to receive your text from - but it’s not quite as simple as that. The typical use of each style has formed a social shorthand that lets your audience know what type of messages to expect. It’s matching their expectations to your use that makes choosing a style most effective.

Let’s start by looking at the three styles:

  1. Short code is a number between 3-to-6 characters, used for mostly automated keyword texting campaigns by an organization. You’ve seen these before - “Text REDCROSS to 90999” is an example of a well-known short code in action. In this case, the short code is 90999, while texting the keyword REDCROSS starts a process for sending a donation to the American Red Cross. Short codes are used all over the world, but sending and receiving messages is limited within a single country.
  2. Long code is a standard 10-digit phone number, such as your personal mobile number.
  3. Toll-free is messaging from any number within one of the toll-free area codes: 800, 833, 844, 855, 866, 877, and 888. Toll-free is a bit of a misnomer. It refers to the area code being used and not any modern billing practices. A better way to think of it is as a national number - it’s not linked to any one of the geographical area codes.

Which should I choose?

It really depends on what you’re trying to do. Each option has its own strengths and aligning your needs to those strengths can help amplify your outreach.

What is short code texting?

Short code texting really excels at automated messaging. They were originally designed for large-scale polls and surveys (think American Idol). Although their use has become much more sophisticated over the years. Recipients now expect that their interaction with a short code is mostly (if not fully) automated and self-service. They text to opt-in and navigate options based on keywords, with each message providing prompts on next steps.  

Short code texting is exceptional if you want your messaging to be direct and relatively impersonal. They’re often used for transactional messaging (account balances, fundraising, application status) or for instructional/help messaging.  Short code texting is typically used for one-way messaging with automated responses, but may occasionally feature two-way conversations. This is assuming that the sender has the staff to meet the quick response times that these recipients demand.

What is long code texting?

If you want to have truly personal, long-lasting relationships with your audience - long code is the way to go. Since long codes are personal numbers, this type of messaging engenders a sense of an authentic one-to-one conversation. The relationship tends to be less formal and much more like you might have with someone you know.

What is toll-free texting?

Toll-free messaging is the king of branded texting. It excels when a unified and consistent voice is needed - such as when a brand is speaking with customers. Toll-free messages are typical professional but may be either formal or informal in tone, depending on the tone that the brand embraces. There’s an expectation that, like a brand’s Twitter account, there are real people behind the curtain - but they’re all speaking as one voice on behalf of their organization.

With toll-free - which is now available on the Signal Vine platform - users will really excel in situations where they are marketing their institution, providing support for services, or sending messages that don’t necessarily require more personal interaction. Teams can also send either one-way or two-way messages, depending on the type of messages they are sending.

Long codes are excellent for advising and counseling situations - especially if the relationship between the recipient and the advisor is expected to extend for several years. Long code messages are likely to generate a response - so it’s important to make sure you’re managing workload to ensure that each recipient is getting the attention they need. Thoughtful automation can help, but make sure you keep that personal voice shared between the automated messages and the counselor. You want the automated messages to sound as if they’re coming directly from the counselor for maximum effectiveness.

Consider your audience

When determining which style is best for you, consider how your audience is going to receive your message - and how you want them to interact with you. If you plan to send a lot of one-way messages, pick short code texting or toll-free as your style. The last thing you want to do is to alienate your audience by getting a bunch of responses you don’t intend to answer. Likewise, if you want to build a personal relationship, avoid short codes. Your recipients will assume that it’s fairly impersonal and you’ll get a much better response from long code or even toll-free numbers.

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