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Why you need an SMS chatbot right now: Six strategic best practices

SMS chatbots are the future. Not the ones you may be familiar with, coupons from Bed Bath & Beyond and World Market, hair salon appointments, and let’s not forget Joe Biden’s bot-turned meme website. Conversational SMS chatbots are the future. What are they? An experience that delivers value in a text message, just like bots currently do on Facebook, Twitter or a website. In this post, you’ll learn exactly why SMS chatbots are a valuable asset to your marketing strategy, and how to design a strategic, conversational experience on SMS that your customers will love.

Why are SMS chatbots such a game-changer?

Customers love to text, and they want to text with businesses. These stats illustrate only a few of the impressive reasons why you should add SMS to your marketing strategy. Enabling this channel for your business unlocks one of the most valuable things in your customer’s daily life, their text message inbox.

SMS chatbots aren’t as popular as website and Facebook chatbots are currently, perhaps because there are fewer self-serve providers that make it easy to implement an SMS chatbot quickly. This is an opportunity. By taking advantage of one of the many types of SMS chatbots, which I’ll touch on later, text-enabling your business will put you ahead of your competition.

Additionally, as a marketing channel, SMS is superior to websites and Facebook. Here’s why:

Thinking of properties you “own” (a website) vs ones you don’t (Facebook), SMS is one that you own – your phone number. Unlike a website, SMS is a persistent channel. Non-persistent means when a lead leaves your website, even if they interacted with your website bot, they are gone, and you cannot engage them again. With persistent channels, a lead messages you on Facebook or texts you, and they become a user that you can re-engage strategically at a later time. This makes SMS a double win – an owned property that’s also persistent.

Lastly, one of the greatest things about SMS is that everyone uses it. All carriers, all phones. Even non-smartphone users can text, so the reach is incredible. Don’t forget about those incredible open rates I mentioned earlier, which are far greater than email or organic social media posts.

What are the benefits of adding an SMS chatbot to your advertising strategy?

One of the most unique things about SMS chatbots is that they breathe new life into traditional media and advertising. It’s very difficult to validate and measure traditional advertising (billboards, commercials, print ads, radio, mailers) but they are still viable ways to advertise, often having lower costs than Facebook and Adwords. When you add a chatbot to traditional advertising, you take advantage of the following:

  • You finally give attribution and measure the performance of billboards, radio ads, and, commercials by tracking conversations started.
  • Add “call OR text us” to every single lead you have.
  • Add shortcodes (303–30) and keywords (JOE) to billboards and mailers to increase visibility.
  • Create measurable keyword and texting call-to-actions for websites, commercials, and print.
  • Utilize new messaging (hate talking on the phone? send us a text!) and SMS-compatible CTAs on traditional sources, like QR codes.

Are you convinced that SMS chatbots are great yet? Let’s explore the types of SMS experiences available, and how to create an enjoyable experience for your customers.

What are the types of SMS chatbots?

One thing I’ve noticed about any SMS automated experience that I’ve ever interacted with is that they fall into the following categories: Subscriptions, notifications, mass messages with links, human-powered, and conversational experiences.

Let’s review each type.

1. Subscriptions

You sign up for something, and it delivers you a message each day, like a quote or photo. The Angry Therapist is a good one.

SMS chatbot subscription type

2. Notifications

Reminders to go to the dentist, your prescription is ready, or you have a new phone bill.

3. Mass messages with links

Bed Bath & Beyond coupons, political campaigns, bus ads. Typically you sign up for something online or via their shortcode (that five-digit number like 303-30) and you periodically receive a message, but it always includes a link to their website. This sort of SMS chatbot defeats the purpose of sending the message, why not provide the website link upfront?

The Cereal School was a bit more engaging with the photo and emojis in their example, but their conversation fell flat when I tried to reply and received nothing back. This is email newsletters over text.

4. Humans + Bots

Magic, Fancy Hands, Fin. These are conversations potentially initiated or partially managed by a bot, but all of the actions and behind the scenes work is done by humans, and a lot of times, humans are the ones who even send the texts too! The interesting thing about these hybrids is that they put us in the frame of mind of what could be possible when texting with a chatbot, but they aren’t there yet.

Notice what’s missing? Automated conversational experiences. Conversational SMS chatbots should be the best practice.

So how do we do it? To me, the future looks something like this. Two-way, conversation-based experiences that are extremely valuable for the user.

Qualifying directly inline. No links, no websites. Texting a 1–800 vanity number that you can also call. Clear re-engagements (without time limit restrictions). Recalling customer details during the conversation. Customers acting on their time. The list goes on.

How do you design a strategic, conversational experience on SMS? Here are six best practices:

1. Use clear directions

Since there are no buttons on SMS, have the user respond with a letter or number that represents their answer. This will minimize errors due to misspellings and make the conversation flow a lot faster. Of course, there are some instances where you need a user to type something in (like the name of their business or email), and in that case, instruct them so they know how to respond “you can type it in” or “please reply with”.

2. Enrich their phone number

We’ve built chatbots to run an enrichment with information from the internet based on the person’s phone number when they text us. Similar to the way you can suggest a user’s phone number or email on Facebook based on their profile. You can find information about your customer through their phone number that they used to text you, like where they work, their name, or what state they’re in, and instead of asking the user “where do you work”, you can ask them to confirm the details, “Is this Hillary from Mav?” – Now that’s just magic.Chatbot best practice

3. Engage with copy and emojis

Since you won’t be entirely sure what type of phone the customer is using (maybe it’s a flip phone, you never know) or if they have good service, it’s a better idea to not send images or videos in the conversation. These tend to be delayed when sending and may send out of order, or not send at all. Instead, engage your user with creative copy and emojis, especially in moments of celebration or where you’re reminding them that they’re almost reaching the result.

4. Optimize re-engagements

You may be familiar with the 24+1 rule on Facebook, where you can send a user one more message after the first 24 hours. Typically this should be used to re-engage the user and refresh that timeframe, which sends them a push notification.

The rules are more flexible with SMS, there is no 24+1 rule (but we still shouldn’t spam people). Re-engagements should be strategic in order to get a user to complete the experience. A best practice for this is following a one hour, 23 hours, three-day cadence, but you can also follow up with your users in the future if you have something new for them. Have you added a new vendor and can now service customers that were previously unqualified for your service? Reach out. Are you having a limited period promotion in a certain state? Target those users. The benefit of having a conversation on SMS instead of Facebook or your website is that you have the ability to re-engage these users forever. So think about creative ways to do so.

5. Provide value

Ask yourself, do you have a value to provide your users outside of just promoting your brand or product? The answer should be yes. If you are using a chatbot to qualify users, there is a lot of value that you can provide during the experience to keep them engaged. Give them a real-time quote, tell them if they qualify for an offer, create and deliver a personalized action plan, and more of the essentials. If you currently qualify customers through a phone call or lengthy web form, consider turning that value into an automated conversation.

Don’t wait for RCS and Apple Business Messaging

“But what about RCS and Apple Business Messaging?” What about it? Why wait to make the most of the existing opportunities. There are still smart things you can do to make things easier for the user to reply that’s already built into most smartphones. As the technology evolves, you can adjust your bot to support rich features as they become available.

6. Format questions on their own to activate suggested responses

Questions like, “What is your name”, “What is your email address?”, “What is your zip code?”, “What is your phone number?” will all auto-suggest if a user has the information stored on their phone. This is a great way to get around the lack of quick-replies in SMS. Here’s an example of what that looks like.

Best practice formatting questions to activate suggested responses

I hope by now I’ve convinced you that SMS chatbots are the future and you want to take advantage of this platform. Let’s make conversational automated SMS experiences the norm. We all know people prefer to text, it’s time to make it easier for them to text your business.


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