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SMS 101: A Technical Guide to Business Texting for Non-Technical People

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Telecommunications and online software are both very technical by nature, which makes things difficult for you and your team who are trying to make the best decisions each day.

We want to fix that, and we want to help you, so we created this “technical guide for non-techies.” We’ve taken all the overly complicated things in our industry, and broken them down as simply as we could.

There’s quite a bit of information in this guide, so use the table of contents below to quickly find answers to specific questions (click on an item to jump down to that section).

If you still have questions after reading, shoot us a text at (423) 218-0111, or send an email to [email protected] We’ll be happy to help!

Table of Contents

What is SMS?

You’ll hear people use the term “SMS and “text messaging” interchangeably. That’s because they refer to the same thing - but what are they referring to?

Below we’ll break down some of the technical aspects of SMS, and show you how understanding these aspects can help you use Text Request better.

Technically Speaking

SMS is an acronym for Short Messaging Service, which is a way to send small amounts of data electronically. This data is measured in bits, and one SMS message can hold up to 1,120 bits of data. In English, this is equal to 160 characters.

How does SMS handle different languages?

When SMS was created, industry leaders wanted to create a standard for what could be included in SMS messages. So they created the Global System for Mobile Communications (or GSM), which is a set of characters made up of 128 letters, numbers, symbols, and spaces from common languages.

Each character is the GSM takes 7 bits of data to send electronically. This is what gives us our 160 character limit for SMS messages (7 bits x 160 characters = 1,120 bits).

Characters not included in the GSM can still be sent through SMS, but are handled differently, using a variation of SMS technology called Unicode. Many of the differences are very technical, but here’s what you’ll want to know.

Unicode messages have a character limit of 70, because each character takes more data to send. Having a single unicode character in your message will automatically turn the message from standard SMS to Unicode, so you don’t have to worry about changing your settings or being limited to certain characters.

For reference, Text Request supports all languages, and has a character counter for every message you send. It will automatically toggle between standard SMS and Unicode character limits as needed.

You can also view this complete list of GSM characters, and this complete list of Unicode characters.

What about messages over 160 characters?

Through Text Request, you can send and receive messages that are over 160 characters, even though an SMS message has a 160-character limit. You can also send Unicode messages with over 70 characters (see above).

So how does that work?

We use a process called “truncating,” which displays multiple SMS messages - let’s call them segments of 160 characters - into one continuous message. For instance, if you send a message that has 200 characters, it will send as two segments, but display as one message.

We do this for continuity. Most people think one long message looks better than splicing up the message into multiple segments. And most (though not all) mobile carriers follow this same process of truncating messages.

How are SMS messages sent through a computer?

Text Request uses something called an “SMS gateway” to send and receive texts through a computer.

This SMS gateway converts the data (message) you send online into signals that mobile carriers can process, and does the reverse for messages coming into your Text Request account.

Fun fact: The first SMS message ever successfully sent (“Merry Christmas” on December 3, 1992) was sent from a computer to a mobile phone using an SMS gateway.

What counts as a message towards my monthly total?

Text Request account usage is tracked by how many SMS messages (segments of up to 160 characters each, or up to 70 characters for Unicode messages) are sent and received in a given billing period.

If you send a message with, say, 200 characters, it will send as two segments, and count as two messages towards your account’s monthly total usage.

Messages with Text Request (423-218-0111) do not count towards your account’s monthly total usage. STOP messages do count towards your account’s total monthly usage. For details, see the Compliance section below.

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What’s the difference between SMS and mobile messaging?

You might notice a few differences between SMS services like Text Request and mobile messaging apps like iMessage or WhatsApp. You’re just trying to send a text either way, so why are they different?

Basically…

SMS and mobile messaging apps actually use two different kinds of technology. SMS messages are sent through cell phone towers, while mobile (app) messages are sent through the internet. So why does that make things different?

SMS Details

SMS messages travel from your cell phone to the nearest cell tower through a frequency of radio waves.

The cell tower (also called a receiver) then reads the signals, and forwards it on to the next cell tower. The message keeps going from cell tower to cell tower until it’s close enough to the recipient’s phone to the deliver the message.

Because SMS messages travel through physical locations (cell towers), messages are often limited to the country you’re in. There’s also a limit to how large a message you can send through SMS (see What is SMS? section above.)

Mobile Messaging Details

Mobile (app) messages can send in two different ways.

If you’re connected to Wi-Fi, the message travels from your cell phone to a wireless router (again through radio waves). The router then sends your message through the internet, and on to your recipient.

If you’re not connected to Wi-Fi, you can still send a mobile (app) message by using cellular data. In this case, the message travels as radio waves to the closest cell tower, which then connects your message to the internet, and on to the recipient. (This is how you access the internet from your phone in general, too.)

Mobile messaging is also referred to as app-to-app messaging, because it uses the internet to connect you with another user of the same app.

If your recipient does not have the same app you’re using, the message will not be sent through the internet. Instead, your phone will convert it to an SMS message, and send it as an SMS (see above). As an iPhone user, you might notice this happening whenever your messages turn from blue to green.

Why do these differences matter?

The big thing these differences will help you understand is how messages are tracked.

With mobile (app-to-app) messages, there’s a continual signal flowing from one phone to Wi-Fi to the next phone, and back, because you’re constantly connected to Wi-Fi or a cellular data plan. This allows app-to-app providers to track message opens, clicks, and more.

With SMS, signals only flow one way at a time, so the most that can be tracked is whether your SMS message made it from the cell tower to the recipient’s phone. You can learn more about how we track this on our Message Status Icons page.

These differences also affect message security.

To use an app, you must login to that app with a username and password. The same is true for your wireless network. Because of this, messages sent between apps are considered secure.

All information inside Text Request is guarded by the top security measures available. However, SMS on a recipient’s phone is not password protected (you don’t have to login to view SMS messages), and so they are not considered fully secure.

The differences between SMS and mobile (app-to-app) messaging also affects what can be sent inside a message. We cover this some in our What is SMS? section above, and cover it more thoroughly in our What is MMS? section below.

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What is MMS (picture messaging)?

MMS is an acronym for Multimedia Messaging Service, which is a form of mobile communication that allows you to send and receive images, videos, audio, and other types of media through a mobile phone.

MMS is similar to SMS (covered above), but also has many differences. People commonly use the terms “MMS” and “picture messages” interchangeably, but that isn’t entirely accurate. We’ll cover why below.

Technically Speaking

MMS is a technology framework that builds on SMS, which allows you to send and receive messages larger than 160 characters (or 1,120 bits of data). MMS messages can hold up to 1MB of data, which is about 1,200,000 characters, or up to 40 seconds of video. Other forms of media can be sent, too, so long as they are under 1MB in size.

MMS uses the Third Generation Partnership Project (3G) network to send data from your phone to a mobile carrier tower and on to the recipient. MMS also functions with fourth generation (4G), fourth generation Long Term Evolution (4G LTE), and fifth generation (5G) cellular data networks.

How does that work?

When you send an MMS message, that data is encoded as an internet signal (radio wave) and sent to the nearest mobile carrier tower. (If that tower doesn’t belong to your mobile carrier, then it forwards the signal on to the appropriate carrier tower.)

Once at your mobile carrier’s tower, the carrier’s Multimedia Messaging Service Center (MMSC) interprets the signal, and forwards it on to the next mobile carrier tower MMSC, and so on until the signal is close enough to be delivered to the recipient’s phone.

Messages can take more or less time to send based on the size of the message and the geographic distance between your phone and the recipient’s.

Most people today have smartphones, but if a phone cannot handle MMS, the carrier’s MMSC sends a URL containing the message instead. The recipient can click the URL to access the media on the mobile carrier’s server.

What about media larger than 1MB?

Any photo or video taken on a relatively new mobile phone will be larger than 1MB. So how come you can still send this (and other) stuff to friends and family? There are two potential reasons.

If you try to send something larger than 1MB, your phone will automatically constrict the file(s) to under 1MB, send them, and then the recipient’s phone will ope the file back at full-size.

A lot of people today use messaging apps (covered above) instead of traditional SMS or MMS services.

If you and your recipient both use the same messaging app, like Apple’s iMessage or WhatsApp, then file size in a non-issue. This is because messaging apps use Rich Communication Services (RCS, covered below) to send messages through the internet, instead of SMS or MMS. This only applies if both you and all recipients are using the same messaging app.

Most messaging apps also have SMS and MMS capabilities. If you and any of your recipients use different messaging apps, like Apple’s iMessage and Android’s Messages, your app will pick up on the difference and use SMS or MMS to send your message. For more details, see the Rich Communication Services section below.

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Group Messaging

Details coming soon

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Compliance

When we talk about compliance (which is important), we inevitably have to cover laws and regulations. We’re not lawyers, and the following is intended for informational purposes only, not legal advice. But understanding this section will help everyone stay safe and happy.

TCPA Compliance

TCPA stands for the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which was passed to protect consumers from telemarketing, spam, and other forms of potential harassment via telecommunications.

On paper it’s a good thing. A problem, though, is that TCPA was enacted in 1991. As you’ve probably noticed, the way we communicate has changed a lot since then. How does it apply to today’s communications, and what should you do about it?

Boring but Important Legal Precedent

The most up-to-date info we have is how judges have ruled on recent TCPA-related cases. This “precedent” sets the stage, and a couple of these cases make for great examples that are vital for you to understand.

Example #1

In 2017, someone sued Twilio (a platform for building communications software, which we coincidentally use), because he received “an unsolicited text message and phone call” from a business using Twilio services “immediately after attempting to obtain a free sample of a product” from the business.

The case was dismissed after these rulings.

  1. As recipient of the communications, the plaintiff did have grounds for his claim.
  2. Twilio’s ability to automatically trigger texts and calls could allow it to be considered an automated telephone dialing system (ATDS, or “autodialer”), though not necessarily. Context will be considered for each instance, now and moving forward.
  3. Twilio was not held responsible for issuing the text or call, as the business using Twilio’s services was held responsible.
  4. The plaintiff had already consented to these communications by providing his phone number to the business.

You can read more about the case here: Twilio Avoids TCPA Lawsuit

What does this mean for your business?

You must have some form of permission before texting (or calling) a contact. If you decide to violate that law, your business is likely to be held responsible (and not your communications provider). We cover getting permission in the Express and Implied Consent section below, but here’s another notable case first.

Example #2

In 2015, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) went through a series of (highly demanded) hearings to update regulations around the TCPA. Though the FCC does not have complete authority over TCPA regulations, the conclusions they reached affect us all.

For reference, here’s the FCC’s fact sheet from those proceedings.

What does this mean for your business?

  1. An “autodialer” is any technology that has the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. At the time of this writing, Text Request does not have the ability to dial random or sequential numbers, but we do - like most in our industry - have the capacity to create a feature that does. This ruling creates a large grey area that, as in the Twilio case above, will be analyzed on a case by case basis.
  2. All consumers (contacts) have the right to “revoke their consent” to receive messages (or other forms of contact) from your business. They must be made aware that they can opt out of communications at any time. See our STOP Messages section below for more details.
  3. Whichever party controls the content of the message and the time at which the message is sent will be most responsible for compliance. That means Text Request users will likely be responsible for what is sent and when, as Text Request does not control your messages.
  4. “Human intervention” is recommended to remove yourself from the liability of robocalls and robotexts. That means a real person should manually compose and send messages.
  5. “Triggered” messages - messages automatically sent as the result of a contact’s interaction or agreement with your business - have been ruled A-OK in the past, and were not considered robotexts.
  6. “Prior express written consent” is still the best and safest way to protect yourself and your business. See our Express and Implied Consent section below for more details.

FINRA Compliance

FINRA has a ton of rules and regulations. How do they apply to text communications? There’s a lot to wade through (which you can do here), but here are the high points:

  1. Communications should be permanently stored, searchable, and secure. Messages in Text Request are all three.
  2. Non-promotional communications with a single client/investor at a time (“institutional communications”) are nearly always compliant, including those about performance, so long as you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We recommend not using texts for product and fee information. Generally, there are a lot of details (and a disclosure) you need to include in these communications, which means they aren’t great for texts.
  3. All promotional communications, and most communications with 25 or more clients/investors at a time, need to be filed and approved. Accordingly, we recommend that you do not use Text Request’s group messaging feature for sharing financial information, unless previously approved.
  4. Communications regarding appointment scheduling, individual account info (facts), and other general communications are fine.

HIPAA Compliance

If HIPAA applies to you, you can still text for appointment scheduling and instances like “We have your results, please call us.” A good rule of thumb is you can text anything you would leave in a voicemail. You cannot, however, include any client information (and we would not recommend that you do).

Any messages containing client information must be password protected on both the institution’s and client’s end. As standard SMS text messages, even through Text Request, are not password protected on the client’s (contact’s) end, these messages do not comply.

For details on how SMS messages differ from app-to-app messages (which can be HIPAA compliant), see our App-to-App Messaging section above. You can also review HIPAA security guidelines here.

Getting Permission to Text Someone

“Prior express written consent” is the safest way to communicate with any contact as a business. What does that mean, though? And are there any other options?

You need permission from a person before you may contact them. Period. There are two types of permission you can get: express, and implied. We’ll cover both below.

Express vs. Implied Consent (Permission)

Once given permission to contact a person (express or implied), you may contact them via any means they’ve given you until they say otherwise - until they “revoke their consent.”

Express consent is a clear and concise agreement where the contact says they’re okay with being contacted. Normally, this is documented electronically whenever a person fills out a form on your website, adds their name to a signup list, buys a product, etc.

Implied consent is a little trickier, and applies when it’s “reasonable to believe” you have permission to contact that person.

If a person texts you, it’s reasonable to believe you have permission to text them back (unless otherwise stated). If a person emails you, and included their phone number in the signature, it’s reasonable to believe you have permission to call them. If you meet someone in person and they give you their business card, it’s reasonable to believe you have permission to contact them by whatever means are included on that card.

It’s not a perfect rule, but you can think of express consent as formally giving you permission, and implied consent as more casual or inferred. In general, if someone gives you their contact info, you have permission to contact them until they say otherwise.

So what happens when they say otherwise? Read our STOP Messages section below for more details.

 

Anti-Spam Recommendations

The worst thing that can happen, short of being sued, is to have your text number flagged as a spammer. Just beneath that is having a message filtered as spam.

You should at no point send spam messages to anyone, and you should gain permission to text any contact before doing so. That said, it’s difficult to know what counts as a “spammy” message, so that’s what this section is here to help you understand.

Keep in mind, mobile carriers - like Verizon, AT&T, etc. - each come up with their own spam regulations, the details of which are never explicitly shared. However, there is a lot that we know. Here it is.

Blacklisting

This is bad. “Blacklisting” means that your number has been blocked by a mobile carrier, and that means you won’t be able to text any number owned by that carrier. So if Verizon decides to blacklist your text number, you can no longer text any Verizon customer.

There is no getting off the blacklist. Should you be blacklisted, it’s time to change up your communication habits and get a new text number. But, if you follow the tips below, you stand a very good change of avoiding the Blacklist (or other spam filtering).

The following tips mostly apply to sending large group messages. It’s rare that anyone has trouble sending individual or small group messages, though they can be blocked or “filtered” from sending. For reference, we show Message Status Icons on all sent messages, so you can track the status of your messages.

URLs

Texting URLs can be helpful and valuable. Links have become a part of how people communicate with each other, and we recommend that you use them as applicable, especially for online reviews, collections, and customer service. But texting the same link to large groups of people is an indicator that you might be doing something you shouldn’t be.

Our recommendation is to not send a link to more than 50 people at a time (though users have sent more and been okay).

Shortened URLs like http://bit.ly/txtrqst are a stronger indicator of potential spamming. With long Urls like https://www.textrequest.com, viewers can see where the link will take them. But with shortened links, you often can’t tell where it’s going to send you. Mobile carriers see this as a good opportunity for spammers, and might filter your message.

Because of this, we do not recommend sending shortened URLS to large groups of people. We do, however, recommend using shortened links for individual or one-off messages. Shortened links use fewer characters than long links, which helps keep your messages shorter (and your total message count lower).

To create easy shortlinks for free, you can use tools like Bitly or Google’s URL shortener.

Images/Attachments

Images and other message attachments are used by mobile carriers as spam indicators. Sending images or attachments to individual contacts is perfectly fine (and recommended). Sending images or message attachments to large groups of people at a time, however, is not recommended. If you have questions about group size, etc., you can contact us.

At the time of this writing, you cannot send images or attachments in group messages. Also at the time of this writing, we are working on that feature.

All Caps

Typing messages in ALL CAPS is bad. We do not recommend it for normal conversations, and when used in group messages, it becomes a spam indicator. Avoid using them if you can.

Special Characters

In the How does SMS handle different languages? section above, we discuss the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Any character that falls outside of this set (i.e. any Unicode character) becomes a spam indicator when sent to large groups of people. This also included emojis.

Day to day, it’s perfectly fine and reasonable to use these special characters, especially if you’re communicating in a language other than English. Just try to remove them before sending large group messages.

Identical Messages

Sending the exact same message to thousands (or tens of thousands) of people is not recommended. There are cases when it’s appropriate, but doing so can also get you labeled as a spammer. Our group message feature is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen (see the Group Message section on this page), but it’ll be better for everyone if you don’t push it.

If you need to send one message to tens of thousands of people - and you have verified your permission to do so - contact us for advice on sending all those messages smoothly.

Too Many Messages

If you’re sending lots and lots of messages, mobile carriers will look at how quickly you’re sending all those messages, though how they treat them varies. For more details, see our Group Messaging section on this page.

Message Length

Like other tips, this applies mostly to large group messages, rather than individual messages or small group messages. Really long messages can cause problems if sent to too many contacts. Details around this are difficult to get from mobile carriers (and vague), but in general you want to keep messages shorter instead of longer.

General Recommendation

Don’t text anything you wouldn’t text a friend. We recommend that you avoid being overly formal or verbose in your texts, sending messages the length of novels or shouting in all caps. Mobile carriers use atypical behaviors as spam indicators. So if you text like you would text any friend or relative, you ought to be fine. Learn more in our guide: What Does it Mean to “Text Like You Text Your Friends”?

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Text Request SMS Billing

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STOP Messages

As part of TCPA and CAN-SPAM regulations, all contacts must be able to opt out of (or cease) communications from your business, and be made aware of that option. To keep things simple, and to make sure your business adheres to these regulations, a STOP message is included with the first text you send to any contact. The messages reads:

Text STOP to opt out

If a contact texts “STOP,” you will no longer be able to text them from your current text number. Contacts who text “STOP” are automatically archived and removed from any groups. For more details, view our Individual Contacts page.

The STOP message will only send to a contact one time per text number (the first time you text them). So if you text the same contact from, say, three different text numbers, the contact will receive the STOP message three different times (once from each text number).

We do not recommend texting the same contact from multiple numbers, particularly if they have opted out of messages from one number already. It’s confusing for the contact, and can open you up to harassment claims (which nobody wants).

If there’s room at the end of your original message, the STOP message will be included at the end, and everything will send as one text. If there is not room for the STOP message in your original message, it will send as a separate text.

Remember that one text can hold up to 160 characters (see our What is SMS? section above). To help you keep up with what will fit where, there is a character counter in your Compose a Message box, and a reference chart below.

Number of Texts Number of Characters Stop Message Included?
1 1-139 Yes
1 140-160 No
2 161-292 Yes
2 293-313 No
3 314-445 Yes
3 446-466 No
4 467-598 Yes
4 599-619 No
5 620-751 Yes
5 752-772 No

Note, character counts apply to English characters only, not Unicode characters. For more details, see the How does SMS handle different languages? section above.

STOP messages will count towards your monthly usage (and billing) if they are sent as separate texts. That might not matter to you, but it’s something to consider when composing your message. See the Text Billing section of this page for more details.

At no time will the STOP message accompany an Autoresponse. STOP messages will only send with the first manual message you send a contact. The rules change slightly when using Keywords. For more details, view our Keywords page.

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Different Types of Numbers

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SMS Hosting

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General Recommendations for Texting as a Business

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