The fastest expanding campaign technology last cycle was peer-to-peer text messaging, known as P2P or P2P SMS. Dozens of companies popped up offering the service with billions of messages sent. It has only expanded since then, and, much like IVR, has become a race to the bottom to see who can offer the lowest rate – regardless of deliverability.
Peer-to-peer texting is built on the premise that a human presses a button to send a text message to another individual. This makes it much different than IVR calls where a computer does all the work.
We had no intention of getting into the SMS space, but, as the saying goes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. After trying 8 different platforms to conduct survey research over text message, we determined a custom solution was the only way to collect high-quality samples. The other platforms/services either had too slow of a response time, unreliable deliverability, or carrier issues.
This article lays out what we learned so you can be an informed consumer of text messaging services.
There are several key differences between P2P SMS platforms that you need to take into consideration before selecting a partner.
Phone Number Type
There are three phone number types available: local (9-digits like your phone number), toll-free, and short-code (5-6 digits). Each have their positives and negatives.
Local numbers are the easiest to get, cheapest to send (for the SMS vendor), but also the most blocked. Most carriers limit a local number to sending 500 messages in a 24-hour period.
Toll-free numbers cost more (to the SMS vendor) and are more expensive to send (again, to the vendor). However, they have a much higher throughput limit by the carriers, so texts are less likely to be blocked or throttled. This is why the RNC and Trump campaign use 833 numbers for fundraising.
Short-code numbers are premium, but the carriers have to approve them in what can be a mutli-month process. Then after approval, they are still subject to carrier throttling, just at a much higher threshold.
Every P2P SMS vendor uses a “middle-man” tech provider to send the messages to the carriers for final delivery. There are about a dozen options on the market with Twillio being the most prominent. Each tech provider has its pluses and minuses, but at the end of the day, there’s not much difference between them. The real platform performance differences come from the coding of the SMS vendor’s software/interface and how well they follow carrier guidelines.
This is where every platform varies wildly. The speed at which a platform allows an agent to send messages, how often the platform pauses between message-sending batches, what information is displayed to the agent, etc. are all different. Much of this is driven by legal opinion and the rest by programming preference. Another differentiator is how responses/replies are handled.
So once an agent presses “Send”, the request to deliver the message to the end recipient is passed through the backend provider to the recipient’s cell phone carrier. It is at this point in the process where things can go poorly.
Not following carrier guidelines about phone number throughput, message construct, or delivery preferences can result in throttling. For example, an attorney general’s campaign this year had messages being delivered at 3am, and I guarantee the SMS vendor wasn’t sending those messages that late at night. The vendor took the cheap route in the name of profit, and the result was an embarrassment to the campaign.
Messages are either sent as SMS (text-only) or MMS (images or videos under 500 kilobytes). From a billing standpoint, this can be taken one more level with either a single-outbound send or a conversational (back-and-forth) rate.
Carriers consider 160 characters to be a segment, so many SMS vendors charge you for a second message if you go over that limit. Others – like Cygnal – allow you more characters at the same rate as a single segment.
Keep in mind that MMS messages get throttled significantly by carriers the closer you get to Election Day. It has to do with their network capacity. Imagine some congressional district getting MMS messages from several campaigns. A million MMS messages means 500 gigabytes of data for the carrier. So you can see why they throttle MMS near Election Day.
There is a cheap way to send peer-to-peer text messages – and a right way. With all these considerations, it’s pretty apparent why we had to build our own P2P SMS platform, because guaranteed deliverability (near instantaneously) is imperative for survey research purposes.
As the 2020 cycle heats up, be a smart consumer of SMS services. And keep in mind that less expensive probably means cheaper – you’ll get what you pay for.