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SMS Marketing Versus Email Marketing in the Post-iOS World

US Americans check their cell phones 262 times a day. Well, maybe it’s 96 times a day. Okay, collectively? Eight billion times a day. The stats on this subject vary, but the takeaway is the same: We are obsessed with our phones. We sleep with our phones. We pick them up within 10 minutes of waking up. We text people in the same room that we’re in—who are also on their phones. One of the society-shifting changes that followed Apple’s mobile revolution was the expansion of digital marketing channels that we’re all plugged into. Two of the most prominent of those channels are SMS (“short message service”) and email, with 81% of US adults using SMS and 85% checking their email every day. SMS and email marketing, then, would seem like excellent investments for advertisers—except that the powers that be in the iOS marketing ecosystem are establishing guardrails around tracking user behavior.

For this second installment of our three-part blog series about the post-iOS world, we’ll compare the efficacy of SMS and email marketing. In 2021, consumers encounter 6,000–10,000 ads per day, and as advertisers, we’re here to tell you that most people don’t trust advertising, especially digital advertising. Our phones—which serve as our handheld computers in the iOS era—are portals through which tsunamis of messages pelt our brains. Some of those messages are informative and helpful. Others are fraudulent. So let’s delve into the pros and cons associated with SMS and email marketing, and discuss strategies for how to structure them in ways that feel permission-based and foster trust in your audience.

SMS Marketing: Pros

Here’s how SMS marketing works: Customers sign up to get automated texts from a business.  Pretty simple, huh? What’s worth mulling over, though, is that companies only send texts after they receive a user’s permission—which bucks many of the power dynamics in digital advertising that usually involve companies hosing customers with ads. True, you can still get spam via text, but a legit SMS marketing plan will give people a shortcode—a digital sequence usually smaller than a phone number—that they text first before a business texts them back. (“Text ‘Flights’ to Southwest for latest schedules.”) If you do it right, SMS marketing can be quite effective. Here are a few of its benefits:

  • Strong Open and Click-Through Rates

People tend to open text messages, even if they leave those messages on read, so it’s no wonder that SMS open rates hover around 98%. (While the average email open rate is 21.33%.) Plus, 29% of recipients click the link in the SMS, making it less likely to be deleted outright, which can often become the fate of an email.

  • High Engagement

Because SMS marketing requires customers to sign up for an ongoing text-fest with a brand, that brand’s SMS marketing list tends to be made up of only people who want to hear from them. Studies have shown that SMS boasts an engagement rate 6–8 times higher than email, that less than 3% of SMS messages are considered spam, and that consumers usually open a text within 90 seconds of delivery. (For email, it’s more like 90 minutes.) SMS gives you a direct connection to engaged customers who read what you have to say in less time than you can, well, clear out your inbox.

  • No Internet Required

SMS messages are transmitted via a mobile network connection, which means that customers get those messages even if they don’t have an internet connection. So consider using SMS to spread the word about a promotion when people are on the go—letting them know about a discount at your gas station before they leave work, or telling them about an offer at your restaurant on Friday afternoon as they’re making dinner plans.

  • Popular Among Younger Users

If you didn’t already know this, Gen Z hates email. (“It’s actually crazy how outdated it is.”) They prefer DMs, Zoom calls, or texts, and it shows: The 18–24-year-old cohort sends and receives about 128 texts a day. Millennials, on the other hand, receive 67 texts a day. If your primary audience is 25 and up, this pro may be a con. But if you want to appeal to young customers now or as they get older, invest in SMS marketing.

SMS Marketing: Cons

SMS marketing comes with plenty of advantages, but balance them out with the downsides that you’ll also encounter with this tactic:

  • Less Customizable

SMS messages are limited to 160 characters, so unless you’re adept at turning texts about coupons into gorgeous haiku, you may find that you’re able to say so little in this format that your messages sound like everyone else’s. Hire a copywriter and you can make those messages punchier, but you’ll still be limited in the types of media that you can include beyond an image or a GIF. Want to add a video or work in a bespoke swirl of design? Email’s got you beat.

  • Can Cost More

The last time we checked, sending an email was free. But telecom providers charge users to send and receive texts—and those charges vary according to national and local rates, and the length and frequency of the messages. So even though you can fire off texts, be careful how many you send. People may *Unsubscribe from your SMS campaign if you’re inadvertently causing them to spend more than they want.

  • Trust Issues

We stand by our earlier citation of the stat that less than 3% of SMS messages are considered spam. But it also merits mention that email is a more professional medium than texting, which is akin to a casual hello pinged through the ether. To return to a previous scenario: A text about happy hour discounts from your favorite sushi place on Friday afternoon? People love that. A text from that sushi joint at 1 AM on Tuesday? Kind of annoying. A text every single day from this sushi place? So annoying that the people you’re texting might lump you in with the scammers and robocallers that even the Senate is trying to destroy. Keep it casual with SMS, but also be wary of being too familiar with your customers, which may wreck their trust in you.

Email Marketing: Pros

Even though Gen Zers hate them some email, a lot of people don’t share their enmity. Email remains the preferred communication channel among most professionals—which makes it enormously useful as a marketing opportunity. Here are a few reasons why:

  • More Customizable

That 160-character limit that SMS holds you to? That doesn’t apply to email, which you can lay out with videos, hyperlinks, interactive content, and a broader range of colors and images than SMS. Marketers also have greater leeway to tailor email with more targeted goals based on user interests and demographics, which can help create messages that are more personalized. (At least, that’s how the game was played before Apple’s recent iOS updates.) Emails can be long or short, newsletters or press releases, educational infographics or B2B campaigns. Oh, the versatility! With email, you have the creative carte blanche to make all those decisions. Just bear in mind that emails are best for conveying substantive messages that aren’t time-sensitive.


  • Can Be Less Expensive

Earlier we said that email was free, but the truth is that it’s free-ish. The costs associated with email go up depending on how many marketers on staff are working on an email campaign, and to what extent you customize those emails. Still, the costs are worth it. Email is forty times more effective than Facebook marketing in acquiring new customers, and it generates 50% more sales than any other method of lead gen. The ROI is a handsome devil, too. Email marketers tend to see a return of $44 for every $1 they spend. If you can think of any better investment than that, let us know.

  • Continues to Grow in Popularity

Email’s come a long way since the Seinfeld days when “What the hell is email?” was a legitimate question. Today, email has the largest reach of all platforms. About 4 billion people worldwide use email. In the US, 90% of internet users will use email once a month, and 61% trust email more than any other mode of communication as a way for brands to contact them, perhaps because email seems more proper and letter-like than SMS or social.

  • Popular Among 18–34-Year-Olds

Adobe conducted a study in 2017 that found that, among all age cohorts, the 18–34-year-old crowd was most enamored with email. Adjusting for the four years that have passed since that study, the results pinpoint millennials as the generation that loves, supports, and advocates for email. Makes sense. If you were at the prime of your career when Seinfeld asked, “What the hell is email?” you might still think of it as electronic stationery. If you’re 19 years old today, email probably seems cumbersome to you. If you’re between those age groups, you and email get each other—making you the prime audience for an email marketing campaign.

Email Marketing: Cons

Now for the inconveniences of email, which, let’s admit, can be laptop-slammingly obnoxious:

  • Spammy and Oversaturated

The typical stats that you see on this subject are stress-inducing: 269 billion emails are sent every day. Nearly 50% of them are classified as spam. (Some figures peg that number as high as 85%.) If you’re an office worker, you can expect to receive about 120 emails a day. So if these facts are to be believed, you have to hack your way through roughly 60 spam emails a day. No biggie, right? Well, that balloons up to 300 emails a week, 1,200 a month, and 14,400 a year. 14,400 emails! When you look at that number, doesn’t your mouse-clicking finger throb, just a twinge? If you’re not careful, you’ll end up spending a sizable chunk of your professional life deleting bunk emails. Google and Microsoft feel your pain, which is why they’ve set up buckets in your email segmenting the ad-heavy “Social” and “Promotions” subfolders from your “Primary” inbox, where, ideally, people (rather than robots) are contacting you.

  • Weak Open and Click-Through Rates

Emails are customizable and they let you blast on to your heart’s content, but that can result in boring the people who you’re trying to move to action. At least, that’s the conclusion that one might reach when considering that email click-through rates are about 2.53.5%. So while you could potentially reach billions of users through email, few people read an email all the way through or act on its offer. Instead, they usually chuck it in the trash—or let their spam folder chisel it off into oblivion. Which is another drawback of email marketing: A lot of your work lands in the slush pile.

So Which One Wins?

SMS marketing and email marketing are effective, and ineffective, each in their own way. We’ve long known that all the channels connect, and that consumer habits evolve more quickly than digital technology can keep pace with them. Now that we may be entering an era where users wield the power to opt out of sharing their data, finding out what they want is vital to capturing their interest. Planning mobile-marketing strategies around customer consent helps safeguard the rights of digital citizenship, yes, but it also helps offset the possibility that your audience will shovel your messages into their spam folders. So instead of choosing between channels like SMS or email, combine them:

  • Use SMS to build an email list, then email personalized messages to SMS recipients.
  • Email people about product launches, then update them with SMS texts about sales events.
  • Send confirmation notes to customers about purchases via email, then send them SMS messages with delivery updates.

Know which channels your customers are on so that when their phones ding with an update from you, they feel like your message—out of the tsunami of ads and promotions they’ve seen that day—helped get them the information they were looking for. All of which brings us back to the Apple-Facebook feud: Largely thanks to regulations in Europe, the death of pixel tracking has been heralded for years. Behavioral tracking was supposed to be its substitute, but now it looks like the marketing fundamentals of creativity and clear strategic direction are gonna win in the end.

So concludes the second installment of our three-blog series. Look out for Part III next week, where we discuss how to adjust your ecommerce approach in the post-iOS world.

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