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What Is Short Code Texting?

David Gargaro
David Gargaro

Short code texting offers businesses a way to send mass text messages to a wide audience.

Businesses use SMS messaging, one of the oldest and most popular methods of texting, to communicate with customers and market their products and services. Short code texting enables businesses to scale their texting efforts and reach more customers at the same time with less effort.

What is a short code?

A short code is a five- or six-digit phone number. The number is shorter than a typical phone number, which makes it easier to remember. Short codes are most commonly used for sending high-volume, high-throughput SMS and MMS messages to groups of customers.

What is the purpose of short code text messages?

Short code text messaging is similar to SMS or MMS messaging. The main difference is that short codes enable a business to quickly send or receive a high number of text messages (100 to 500 messages per second) that will not usually be filtered out as spam. Wireless text message carriers will approve short code numbers for sending more messages than a long code phone number within the given time period.

Businesses can use short codes for marketing campaigns to send text blasts and promotional messages, such as these:

  • Product discounts for subscribers
  • New product announcements
  • Voting links for viewers of TV programs
  • Text-to-win contests, sweepstakes and giveaways
  • Text-to-vote surveys for collecting feedback
  • Fundraising requests

FYIFYI: Short code text messaging is similar to SMS marketing but allows you to send a text blast at scale, which is perfect for quick communications to your audience.

Short code SMS messages have the same text limits as regular SMS messages (160 plain text characters). Short code MMS messages allow up to 1,600 characters (depending on the service provider) and multimedia (e.g., pictures, GIFs and videos). You must set up a short code as MMS if you want to send MMS messages.

Subscribing and unsubscribing

For someone to subscribe to a short code message or receive text messages, the person must text a keyword to a specific short code or sign up using a web form. In other words, they must give express written consent to receive messages through short code messaging. When the person texts the keyword to the short code number, their message is sent via SMS through the text message marketing software, which validates the code and responds with the programmed response (e.g., a confirmation message or special offer).

Companies do not need to receive a keyword or consent to send some types of transactional messages (i.e., the customer has requested additional information). The information must be deemed necessary to use your product or service to qualify as a transactional message, and a person who consents to receive a transactional message does not consent by default to receive a promotional message. These are some examples of transactional messages:

  • Password reset request
  • Order confirmation with tracking number
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Reservation confirmation

To opt out of all future messages from an SMS short code, the person can reply to a text message with the word "STOP." This obligates the business to cease sending text-based communications to that person.

Types of SMS short codes

There are two types of SMS short codes: shared and dedicated.

Shared short codes

Shared short codes are any SMS short code that different businesses or brands can use. They cost less than dedicated short codes. Companies use shared short codes because they do not want to pay for dedicated short codes or are new to SMS marketing.

Many short code services have used shared short codes for all clients. However, effective June 2021, cellular carriers are banning the use of shared short codes; the details are provided in their updated messaging guidelines. The goal is to identify and eliminate spam. To continue sending text messages, companies that have been using shared short codes will have to either lease a dedicated short code or purchase a 10-digit phone number for texting purposes.

Dedicated short codes

Dedicated short codes can only be used by one business or brand. Large companies, or companies with a sufficient budget, typically lease a dedicated short code. Companies that need access to any and all possible keywords will also lease a dedicated short code.

Companies with a dedicated short code have complete control over the types of text messages that they can send using this number. They do not have to depend on a short code service provider to ensure that a third party's text program complies with the requisite laws and regulations.

There are two types of dedicated short codes: random and vanity short codes.

  • Random short codes: These five- or six-digit numbers are randomly assigned when you apply for the dedicated short code.

  • Vanity short codes: These codes are similar to vanity license plates. You can choose a specific five- or six-digit number when applying for a dedicated short code. The governing body, such as the Common Short Code Administration (CSCA), charges a premium if you choose to maintain a specific dedicated short code, as they tend to be more memorable than random short codes.

Geographic restrictions of short codes

You cannot use one short code to send messages across the world, as every country has its own governing body for short codes. For example, the CSCA governs short codes in the United States, while the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association governs short codes in Canada.

Since short codes do not work universally, you must acquire a short code in the country where you plan to send or receive messages. You can lease the same short code in multiple countries if that number is available, but you are responsible for the cost of the code in each country.

How to get an SMS short code

Getting an SMS short code can take eight to 12 weeks. You'll need to follow this process:

  • Determine whether you want a random or vanity short code.
  • Lease a short code from the appropriate short code provider (e.g., CSCA in the U.S.). Codes can only be leased, not purchased.
  • Choose an SMS service provider.
  • Submit short code applications to all individual cellular carriers to request activation of your short code.
  • Wait for every cellular carrier to review and approve your application.
  • Connect the short code to your SMS service and activate your account.

Short code compliance

Companies that engage in short code messaging must follow short code rules and best practices. In the U.S., two sets of rules apply to short code text messaging.

  • CTIA short code compliance: The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association is a nonprofit trade association that represents wireless carriers. It develops, maintains, and enforces best practices related to short code text messaging. The CTIA audits SMS short code programs to ensure U.S. companies follow the rules and to protect consumers. It verifies that people have properly opted in to receive messages, that SMS marketing programs use the correct compliance terminology, and that short codes do not violate its guidelines when sending content.
  • TCPA short code compliance: The Telephone Consumer Protection Act is a set of laws that governs all text messaging in the U.S., including SMS short codes. It focuses on preventing people from receiving spam texts and unwanted phone calls. Companies that fail to comply with these laws can receive severe penalties, including losing their short codes.

Restrictions on applications

Most businesses are permitted to get a dedicated short code. However, cellular carriers have rules on what message content is allowed. Text messaging programs that promote content related to sex, hate, alcohol, firearms and tobacco might be prohibited. If a cellular carrier denies your application, you can discuss your options with your SMS short code service.

Short code audit

A cellular carrier or an auditing agency working on behalf of a carrier can conduct a short code audit, which is when it decides to test your short code that does not meet one or more of its basic requirements. The consequences of an audit have varying levels of severity, from the requirement to fix the wording of your call to action to suspension of your short code messaging.

Most short code audits are relatively minor and the issues easy to fix. The severity of the short code audit depends on the issue. A minor issue could be forgetting to include opt-out instructions after someone opts in to receive your text messages. A more major issue would be sending content that violates your carrier's guidelines.

What do SMS short codes cost?

When you lease an SMS short code, you pay for the right to use the short code for the given time period. Fees are typically paid on a quarterly basis.

  • Random short codes cost at least $500 per month, while vanity short codes cost at least $1,000 per month (CSCA fee).
  • You must also pay a connectivity fee to the cellular provider, which is the cost to keep the short code connected; this can range from $50 to $100 per month.

Some SMS service providers include the cost of a dedicated code in their monthly service fee. They might charge a setup fee or a higher cost per message to cover the connectivity fee.

Image Credit: whyframestudio / Getty Images
David Gargaro
David Gargaro Contributing Writer
David Gargaro is a content writer and copy editor with more than 20 years of experience in multiple industries, including publishing, advertising, marketing, finance, and small business. He has written on B2B-focused topics covering business technology, sales, marketing, and insurance. David has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Actuarial Science from the University of Toronto. He served as the managing editor of a small publishing company, and self-published a book called How to Run Your Company… Into the Ground.