No Such Thing as Free SMS Text Messaging

This post will not be popular amongst some text messaging companies.

There is No Free Lunch in Text Marketing

Undoubtedly you have discovered that there are tons of text message companies to choose between when you are ready to dive into text marketing. While there are a large number of terrific options available you may also come across some that are downright bad for your business. This post will help you to tell the difference.

Let me start off with some basic text messaging knowledge.

There are two ways to send text messages – SMS and SMTP. SMS is true text messaging that utilizes short code technology and there is a fee charged for each message that is sent. SMTP is essentially sending an email to a cell phone number and it arrives looking like a text message; there are no fees for sending SMTP messages.

To many people it will seem like the same thing. Using either method a business sends a message and a consumer gets it on their phone. No difference, right? Wrong. In fact, the SMTP method might seem better since there is no fee per message. Free is always better, right? Wrong.

To be blunt, SMTP text messaging is DANGEROUS for your business for three reasons.

Your messages sent via SMTP are likely not getting delivered to your customers.

From the Mobile Marketing Association’s Consumer Best Practices Guidelines:

Carriers, at their discretion, make available SMTP gateways so that subscribers may receive SMS messages originated via email. Example: A mobile subscriber can be reached by sending an email (SMTP) message to [10 digit number]@[carrierdomainname].com. The carriers that support such gateways do so with the intent that they are not utilized for any commercial traffic. To that end, carriers actively monitor and filter against these connections to protect subscribers from unsolicited messages (spam) and utilize a variety of mechanisms to do so, including spam keyword filters, throttling against questionable domain or IP addresses suspected of abuse, and the like.

That’s right. The cell phone carriers are actively monitoring these gateways for commercial traffic and abuse of the system. They can and will shut down your messages with a flick of a switch. All your hard work to build a text message list will be wasted as the carriers shut down your messages.

You will receive no notification that they have done so. You will have no recourse to get things moving again. Your text messaging will simply stop working one carrier at a time.

When your messages don’t get delivered you will see your results plummet and may incorrectly think that mobile marketing doesn’t work. It will be worse if you have signed up for an SMTP service that charges a monthly fee because you’ll be paying money for nothing. A marketing tool that you may be counting on to bolster your bottom line will fail you.

If your messages do get delivered you are opening yourself up to legal action.

Because messages sent by SMTP are sent via email, they are subject to Section 14(b)(1) of the CAN-SPAM act and anyone sending unsolicited messages can and will likely be prosecuted. If you think people are fussy about getting spam in their email, just imagine how quickly they will report spam text messages coming to their phones.

Even if you have gotten permission and think you are not spamming, it is entirely possible that customers will think that you are. Or report you as a text message spammer just because they want to opt out of getting your messages.

Using true SMS messaging with short codes there are systems set in place to protect businesses from unfair accusation of spamming – there are opt-in audit trails and built in opt out mechanisms (support for HELP or STOP commands).

You risk your company’s reputation and customer good will by doing text messaging wrong.

There is no other media that is so personal as the mobile phone. When you send a message to your list you are going directly to your customer wherever they are and interrupting them with a personal message. This is a very powerful communication channel and must be used responsibly. Your customers will not tolerate anything on their mobile device that is not relevant to them and gives them the ultimate control over the communication. SMTP messaging does not.

Bottom Line:
Do not use SMTP text messaging for your business mobile marketing efforts or you will ultimately regret it.

How to tell if a text message company is using SMS or SMTP technology:

Side Note:
Not all of the companies who have built services on SMTP platforms are scammers. They may think they have built a viable service and are offering an affordable option to fee-based text messages. Regardless of the intent behind it, you should steer clear of their services.

Many of the text message companies that are using SMTP technology will have the words SMS messaging spread widely throughout their site. Simply seeing the phrase “SMS” is not enough to ensure you are getting the right kind of service.

The only way to tell if a particular company is using SMS technology is to see if you will be using a short code (a 5 or 6 digit number) in your messaging. It might be a shared short code where all customers of theirs utilize the same number but are distinguished by keyword or they may work with you to lease your own short code.

The first question you should ask a potential text messaging vendor is
“What short code will I be using if I go with your service?”

Your messages will come from that code and your customers can send a text message to opt-in to your messages using it. You will pay a fee for each message you send. There is no such thing as free SMS messages. There are some SMS companies that allow you to send messages free, but their revenue model is to include advertising within your messages. Still, not free is it?

Still Confused? Need Help?

If you are not certain if a particular company you are considering working with is using SMTP or SMS technology, please email me and I will be happy to check it out and let you know. I’m also happy to refer you to a selection of text message companies that you can choose between knowing you are in good hands.


  1. Great blog post! We actually did a blog post that is similar, may have some supporting information for your readers.

    A few other key things to look at when selecting a text messaging company, is their efforts in fighting SPAM and also the opt-in/opt-out process they use. Here are a few blog posts about those two issues, hopefully they come in handy for your readers.

  2. Kim, The protocol for SMS delivery over short codes is SMPP v.s. SMTP over email.

    As you know, our company provides SMS services to agencies on a wholesale basis. We are constantly asked about this. For years now we have tried to figure out if SMTP was worth it or not as it is “free” versus “per message cost”. i2SMS has passed along similar information in your post to those that ask, and we continue to ask other SMS companies about their experiences with SMTP because we believe the client deserves a solid answer.

    What we can tell you and your readers is we have had multiple clients come to us and report that in sending SMS campaigns via SMTP they have had less then 60% hit the end user. We have no proof of this other then this is what our clients are telling us. Honestly, experienced SMS campaigners are not using SMTP best we can tell. We will continue to monitor SMTP to see if this changes in the future.

    We (i2SMS) considered building out a SMTP portal for our customers that wanted to try this service over a year ago. The software would be easily attached to our portal. We could easily charge a much lower cost to offer this service as we wouldn’t have the global aggregator’s fees and short code fees involved. However, we continue to hear companies that use this are not happy with the end result. Therefore, it would do us more harm to offer this as we believe we would end up with clients that were not happy, thus making it possible to have negative comments about our company and software. Realize that in this scenario we would warn the client about a lack of consistency, but in the end, the failure of the messages to be delivered would fall on our shoulders.

    For us, the answer is simple. If you are just sending out a massive amount of messages and you do not care if 40% or so do not reach the end user, then SMTP is a cost effective way to market. There are a multitude of companies that can do this for you economically. However, if you want the messages to hit 98% of the end user’s phone, then you need to be using SMPP.

    We wish there was a more cost efficient way to send out SMS messages. The truth, at least for now, is that SMTP is just not delivering in the end. Possibly for small campaigns with messages here and there. But certainly not for the larger campaigns where agencies are being held to ROI numbers…

    I am sure as soon as I hit the “submit” button below some of your followers will answer that they ARE having successful campaigns using SMTP. I am not trying to challenge their successes. What I am reporting is that we have customers coming to us and now paying for messages to be delivered ‘after’ they tried SMTP and were not successful in their campaigns. Over time, the SMTP protocol has not been met with overall success.

    We continue to believe that 2009 will see many changes in charges being allocated by the carriers and global aggregators in the SMS and MMS industry. We believe that a balance will be met so all will find an equitable mix of revenue and palatable cost to the marketers.

  3. Very good article. If you really want to do a business, then do it right way. Permission based mobile marketing, opt-out features, Help commands, etc. For businesses it makes perfect sense to allow a flawless (98%) communication with their customer. I agree with cost attached to SMS delivery and short code is quite high at this point, but I’m sure as more businesses start adapting the mobile marketing, the cost will be down drastically.


  4. Mobile marketing is the new tread of marketing products because of uses of mobile phone. According to recent survey about 90% US people read sms and this shows how people interested in mobile. Sending sms through shared short code or own brand short code to customer helps to reach your products to customer. Short code is now used by all popular reality shows, programs, games and election campaigns to send or to populate their message to targeted audiences. See also

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