SMS strategy

SMS: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

It’s natural to worry that launching a new side of your digital program can come with steep learning curves. If that’s held you back from considering starting an SMS program, never fear! The great thing about SMS fundraising is that it can scale incredibly quickly – even if you’re starting from scratch. We’ve worked with many nonprofits to launch their SMS programs, helping to add additional touchpoints and creating a surround-sound experience for their audience. Ready to give it a go yourself? Let’s walk through the process:

So you’re ready to start an SMS program:

To launch your program, you’ll first need to build your SMS audience, which requires inviting your supporters to opt in. To get your existing audience opted in to your program, you can append phone numbers to your digital and direct mail housefiles. Another fantastic way to acquire cell phone numbers and emails at the same time? Add a cell phone opt-in on your landing pages, a strategy we implemented with the USO. They launched a major ad campaign around the Fourth of July and used that moment to add a cell phone capture to their landing pages, ensuring they were acquiring cell phone opt-ins at the same time as they were adding new names to their email list. Just by adding this optional cell phone field, they saw explosive growth that took their SMS list to an unprecedented level. Remember how we said the SMS learning curve doesn’t have to be so steep? This is exactly what we mean!

When opting in your supporters to your SMS audience, you’re building up your list for shortcode texting. Also known as broadcast, this is what we consider the bread and butter of an SMS program. Another effective strategy for building up your list of opted-in SMS subscribers? Longcode texting, also known as peer-to-peer, has the benefit of massive scale: You can text any supporter in your file as long as you have their number because these messages come from a direct line.

This approach is one of the key ways we’ve helped our partners grow their SMS programs. With longcode acquisition texting, you can drive immediate revenue for your campaign while also gathering opt-ins to that high-value shortcode list. What’s more, recent developments in the longcode space have made it even easier to reach supporters in this channel: You no longer need volunteers to hit a send button; rather, you can use automated services that make this process significantly more efficient, cost-effective, and scalable.

(April 2024 update: Interested in finding the right longcode audience to engage over mobile? Powered by The Digital Co-Op, our MissionSMS offering uses state-of-the-art modeling to find you the very best audience to text and deploys your strongest content to them over SMS. For one nonprofit member, bolstering their existing SMS list with acquisition and modeling through MissionSMS led to a 275% increase in SMS donors and a 110% increase in SMS revenue year over year.)

So you’ve acquired a strong SMS list – what type of content should you serve them?

For another of our SMS partners, Sandy Hook Promise, we’ve taken what we know works incredibly well over email and translated that to SMS. Sandy Hook Promise has worked hard to build an engaged audience that cares deeply about their work and its real-world impact. Narrative and voice are critical to the program, so it was equally important that we translate that authenticity to a new channel.

The tricky part from a voice perspective, though, is that SMS means restrictions on character count – so every word matters. We’ve extensively tested where adding additional language and voice has made a difference in both engagement and conversions. For Sandy Hook Promise, we’ve seen that leaning into “voice-ier” content and emotional language often lifts response. Many messages signed by leaders of the organization, with whom the audience is familiar from the email program, have also translated well to SMS. But these factors will be different for every organization and will depend on your organization’s unique messaging style and your audience. When it comes to learning what SMS approaches work best for your program, our usual advice absolutely applies here: test, test, test to establish the best approach.

Across channels, it’s crucial to consider the balance of fundraising and engagement – and this is especially important with SMS. Once someone is on an organization’s SMS list, they’re able to see all your past messages right in front of them every time they open a new one. As you’re developing content, make sure you’re thinking about the stack and the comprehensive story you are telling – and find that correct balance so you aren’t only asking for money, but offering back engagement opportunities.

Interested in chatting more about starting an SMS program for your organization? Email us at [email protected]! And if you’re ready to dig deeper into strategies for scaling up your growing SMS program, be sure to check out our Q&A with AVP Aneesh Gowry: Level Up Your Texting Game, our comprehensive resource, The Essential Nonprofit Guidebook to SMS, or our SMS growth resource, MissionSMS.