OMG! Text Messaging is 20!

Jerry Rackley

By Jerry Rackley

It was 20 years ago that the first commercial text message was sent. On December 3, 1992, Neil Papworth, an engineer working on developing the SMS service for Vodafone sent “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone Director Richard Jarvis. Shockingly, teenage girls were not involved in sending the first text message.

From those humble beginnings, this communication channel now accounts for seven trillion messages a year. Twenty years ago, the communications channels available to marketers were primarily print and broadcast. Email was an emerging, exciting channel marketers were fully embracing (which would lead to the coining of the word “spam” in 1993). The World Wide Web as we know it today was just starting to get legs. But few people knew what a text message was in 1992, and no one was thinking about how to use text messaging in the mix of marketing communication channels. My how the times have changed.

In 1992, the availability of bandwidth was a big concern, so the 160-character limit was established to preserve that precious bandwidth. Could the engineers who developed SMS have imagined the lexicon of abbreviations that are now commonplace? I’m sure they would have been ROFL if they’d known in 1992 how we text in 2012.

Today, text messaging is a primary communications channel, one that marketers are still learning how and when to leverage. In fact, the variety of existing communications channels is almost dizzying. Which ones are best? How can a marketer know which one(s) to use? The good news is that the fundamentals of  marketing communications has remained the same, even if the mechanisms look very different than they did even a decade ago.

What still matters most is the audience. Understanding whom your communications need to influence is still the foundation of any marcom strategy. When your audience is clearly understood, it becomes possible to write meaningful objectives for communicating with that audience.

With objectives in place, the next fundamental communications task is to determine what you need to say in order to meet those objectives. Most organizations are challenged to limit their communications to only those most helpful or necessary, because few audiences have the patience to hear everything an eager company has to say to its prospective customers. This is where a Message Map is invaluable to help sift through all possible messages and identify those that will resonate most and are most credible.

Only after you’ve defined the audience, objectives and key messages for your communications is it appropriate to select the channels for them. The temptation is to “be everywhere” and use all available channels, but not only is that often not necessary, it’s not necessarily wise. Use the Social Media Channel Selection or Mobile Marketing Channel Selection tool to help you identify the optimal way to reach your audience with your messages.

Today, we celebrate the 20th birthday of text messaging. It’s certain that new channels will emerge that provide marketers with even more options for communicating. Whatever they may be, the sticking to the fundamentals – audience, objectives, messages then channel selection – will ensure that our communications have the best chance of making the desired impact.


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