New SMS Requirements Are Just Common Sense

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THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION’S (FCC’s) new rules on business-to- customer text messaging might send a chill up your spine, but compliance is easier than you might think.
Effective on October 16, 2013, a revision to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) requires marketers to obtain express written consent from any consumer before sending any text mes-
sage or making any phone call that is considered to be auto-dialed. This revision applies to any fuel or HVAC marketer who sends bulk text messages to customers. The revision also eliminates the “established business relationship” exemption that previously entitled marketers to engage in automated telephony communications with consumers where an existing relation- ship was in place. Under the new rule, marketers must obtain written consent for all auto-dialed phone-based messages, including text messages.

While the requirements may sound onerous, they actually require marketers to do only what common sense would dictate any way: Get customers to give their permission for text-based communications before you start auto-sending them text messages. Don’t let this minor obstacle deter you from using text messaging to improve your customer connections, because text-based communications is too promising to pass up. Personal communication is rapidly gravitating to mobile phones and text messaging, making SMS (Short Message Service) the most important channel for local businesses. The Pew Internet & American Life Projects reported in 2012 that 80 percent of all cell phone owners use their phone to send or receive text messages. Young Americans use text messaging even more, according to Pew: 92 percent of cell phone owners between the ages of 30 and 49 text, as do 97 percent of those aged 18 to 29.

It’s not just your younger customers and prospects who are texting; 72 percent of cell phone owners aged 50 to 64 use text messaging, and even in the 65-plus bracket, 34 percent use SMS, according to Pew. Texting also correlates nicely with house- hold income and education: The more you earn and the better educated you are, the more likely you are to use text messaging.Cell phone users don’t just text, they text a lot. A Pew study from 2011 showed that text messaging users send or receive an average of 41.5 messages on a typical day. For the 18-24 age bracket, Pew reported an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day. Given the thorough acceptance of text messaging across the typical home com- fort customer base, your text messaging capability can take you into the home of virtually any customer or prospect.

Not only will texts reach your target audience, they will very likely get read – and promptly. A recent report commissioned by SinglePoint indicated that text message open rates exceed 99 percent, and 90 percent of all text messages are read within three minutes of being received on the mobile phone. Compare that to e-mail, where open rates lag in the range of 5 to 21 percent, according to a 2013 report by MailerMailer.

When you send text messages to customers on their cell phones, you are entering their inner domain and, in essence, requesting their urgent attention. This is a privilege that you must treat with great care, as the new legal requirements suggest. The law merely requires you to take the kind of steps that savvy marketers would take anyway out of respect for their customers.

As you prepare for launch, you’ll have two primary considerations: How will you use SMS to improve customer service? And how will you recruit customers to the service?
In the customer service arena, your text messaging service enables you to modernize and accelerate many interactions that are now done by phone, mail or e-mail. For example, you’ll be able to send text mes- sages to your budget plan and service plan customers annually asking them to renew, which they will be able to do on the spot simply by sending a short reply by text. You’ll also be able to announce payments due and provide the option of paying immediately by credit card. In a discount operation, you can text-blast your price and solicit orders, which customers can place in just seconds by choosing their delivery quantity.

In addition to facilitating transactions, your SMS service opens a great new channel for marketing your products and services. You’ll be able to put special offers in front of customers instantly and elicit rapid responses for quick sales. The special offers you send via text must be crafted with rapid response in mind, because that is the nature of the SMS environment. This means that nearly every message you send your customers should prompt them to take action immediately. To succeed in the text milieu, you have to make bite-sized asks that your customers can accept without much thought.

That doesn’t mean that texting can’t help you sell boilers and air conditioning systems. In fact, SMS can be very helpful in selling big-ticket items like those; you just have to send the right messages.

For example, you can run a heating equipment campaign in the text message channel and use it to quickly identify hot prospects. Plan a sales campaign with an attractive special offer, and then develop a series of informational videos on the value of high-efficiency equipment. As you post each new video online, announce it in a brief text message, urging customers to take a look and learn how they can save energy. (Be sure to post the pieces on a mobile website that will display properly on a mobile phone.) Track who clicks through to link, because those customers are strong prospects for an upgrade.

You can also use text messaging to support your new products and services. Develop special offers and/or coupons and be extra aggressive in the text channel to reward those customers who subscribe to your texts. As your text subscription list grows over time, you can segment it and target exclusive messages for customers with older, inefficient equipment – and any other segments you’d like to target.

Before taking your text-messaging channel live, you’ll need a strategy for getting customers to opt in. Plan on announcing the service enthusiastically in all your marketing channels with a message that emphasizes the customer benefits, such as easy transactions, exclusive discounts, and better access to you in the event of a natural disaster such as Superstorm Sandy. Announce the service prominently on the website home page and in the website sections for customer account lookup, online payment and online rewards.

One question that always comes up is what sort of incentive to offer. A one-time reward such as a company credit or reward points allotment will accelerate enrollment but might also cause customers to view the service as a sales gimmick that benefits the company more than them. On balance, a small incentive makes good sense, particularly if you are judicious in your use of the channel and do not scare people away with low-value messages.

Customers can subscribe in writing or online with an electronic signature. Plan to set up a subscription portal, paying very close attention to detail. FCC requirements dictate, as common sense does, that you make a clear statement of what sort of messages you plan to send and how often. Describe each type of message you plan to send and approximate how many you will send in a month or year. For extra enticement, promise to provide exclusive special offers in the channel.

Because these communications are covered by federal law, be meticulous in your record keeping. You should have a valid consent form in your files for every customer who subscribes to your text service.

Federal regulation and common sense are also aligned on the subject of opting out. The law requires that every text you send contain an opt-out mechanism. Frustrating as it might be to let customers opt out, you have to provide a clearly marked exit, or you risk customer alienation.

Absorb all these legalities, but don’t take your eyes off the prize. The cell phone is today’s preferred communications device and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Successful companies are separating themselves from the competition by taking customer convenience to a new level via the cell phone, and the home comfort niche is no exception.

PriMedia has an excellent business-to- consumer text messaging platform that we call TextPoint. For help in launching your text messaging service, please give me a call at 516-222-2041.

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