Businesses are rapidly expanding their marketing strategies to include SMS messaging due to its high open rates and affordability. However, there are several factors to think about before you start texting everyone in your CRM.

There are certain legal terms to keep in mind, along with cost considerations. And there are two types of text message codes (aka SMS codes) to choose from – short code vs long code. What are these, and how do you know which one to use?

What is an SMS code, and how many types are there?

To put it very simply, SMS codes are special phone numbers, often virtual, that are assigned to or used by businesses that want to send SMS messages to their customers. SMS codes are also known as Sender IDs. Most of them fit into either of two broad categories: short codes and long codes.

As a business, you are free to choose which type of SMS code you want to use for your campaigns. But this choice depends on what you want to achieve. Let's talk about their pros, cons and use cases to settle the long code vs short code debate and help you make the right decision for your business.

What is a short code?

An SMS short code is a short number (usually five or six digits) used to send text messages on a mobile phone, typically used by businesses inside a sales or marketing campaign.

For instance, if you hear a radio advertisement that says to text “free meal” to 616-052, that number is an SMS shortcode.

Types of SMS short codes

There are two types of SMS short codes—vanity and random numbers. It's important to note here that shared text message short codes are also an option, but some phone carriers are in the process of discontinuing these.

Vanity short codes make it easy for businesses to give potential consumers a memorable number to text. For example, if you're a retail bookseller and you invite your audience to send a text to see new releases, your shortcode could be 266-57, which spells out “BOOKS” on your phone's keypad.

On the other hand, a random short code is a string of random numbers assigned by your SMS provider. They usually don't secretly spell out anything meaningful. Random short codes are often less expensive than vanity codes, much like personalized license plates are more expensive than those assigned randomly.

To get a random short code, you typically need to apply with your provider. Once you've paid for the code, the carrier will choose a five- or six-digit short code for you.

Advantages of SMS short codes

The advantages of using dedicated short codes are extensive and cover a broad range of uses.

Little lead time is required

You don't always know that you're going to get a massive shipment of new inventory that you need to move quickly or that a national event will happen and affect your business. So whether it's positive or negative, the flexibility to send SMS messages to your audience in just a few minutes is highly desirable.

SMS is more effective than email or social media

Social media apps in a smartphone

SMS messages have extremely high open rates and often far exceed the reach of email messages or social media posts because many people prefer using their phones to communicate.

They are easy to remember

Short SMS codes are easy to remember and simpler to include in your ads than a long website address. Vanity SMS codes are even easier to remember. Plus, adding your dedicated short code to your next print advertisement, radio ad, or billboard is a great strategy because it's not hard for potential subscribers to enter a short number manually into their SMS apps if they want to reach out to you first, such as for opt-ins or quick inquiries.

Disadvantages of text message short codes

Using SMS messages isn't a magic bullet for marketing. While it's highly effective for some businesses, it can take years of brand credibility and trust to build between the companies that send messages and the people who receive them.

And, while it might sound obvious, businesses must have phone numbers to use SMS. The process of enticing your audience to opt into messages and receive them is an exercise in itself. Then, companies receive the phone number and must be diligent about respecting the information, sending timely and relevant messages, and honoring a person's wishes to stop receiving messages.

Bulk SMS marketing can also be cost-prohibitive for some smaller companies. Carriers often determine the pricing, and it varies dramatically across regions.

Lastly, creating compelling content to send via SMS can be challenging for marketers. The content is limited in length—typically just 160 characters.

Use cases for SMS short codes

The use cases for SMS are virtually limitless. SMS might be a useful tool for some industries to send time-sensitive content and instructions. Here are a few common examples.

Promote loyalty programs

There aren't many places these days where you can check out without presenting your loyalty card or giving your phone number in order to receive your loyalty points. And you guessed it; those phone numbers go straight into a database for future SMS marketing.

Companies with loyalty programs often use SMS messages to remind customers when their points expire or to check in when a certain amount of time has passed since their last visit.

It's also common for retailers to send a coupon or promo code via SMS after signing up to receive SMS messages. This sales technique is an easy way to increase opt-in rates and ensure customers become repeat buyers.

Announce surprise sales

Flash sales in a clothing shop

Your text message feed might be full of “surprise” flash sale notices and unplanned deals that require your immediate attention. Whether or not these are genuine surprises is debatable, but companies often use SMS marketing to promote products and services available for a limited time.

With the quick delivery of SMS messages and the growth of online shopping via a mobile device, a flash sale notice in a text message with a link to shop is rather enticing.

Send appointment reminders

One of the more useful cases, and a non-sales approach, for SMS messaging is the automation of appointment reminders. The days of businesses having a staff person dedicated to calling patients or clients to remind them of upcoming appointments are long gone.

Now, when you make an appointment for a service, you're likely asked to hand over your mobile phone number. This way, providers can text you a reminder the day before your appointment and provide a link for you to confirm the appointment.

What is an SMS long code?

An SMS long code is a 10-digit number, similar to a regular phone number. Businesses use long codes to send SMS messages, just like short codes. But they are usually encouraged for uses that involve low-volume two-way messaging.

Advantages of SMS long codes

The most significant advantage of using an SMS long code number is the ability to use the same number for business texting and phone calls.

Also, you can easily convert your existing local number to a long code. So if a customer already has your phone number in their contacts (for instance, their local pharmacy), they'll know exactly who sent the message when your text message is received. This identification is different from a short code which tends to be inconsistent and impersonal.

Another advantage is that long code text messages feel more personal than sales-y or spammy. For example, when a customer or potential customer receives an SMS message from a 10-digit “real number,” the perception is that the message was intended specifically for them versus a mass group of thousands.

Disadvantages of SMS long codes

A major disadvantage of using an SMS long number is that it is more difficult to remember. Thus, the chances of someone mistyping the number are greater than that of a short code.

Another downside to long code SMS messaging is that it has a much lower delivery limit than short code texting—a one-message-per-second limit set by carriers.

Finally, the longer numbers are more awkward to work into ad campaigns, posters, or other marketing materials.

Use cases for SMS long codes

Businesses should use long code texting when they need to text fewer numbers at one time or run more person-to-person SMS campaigns that are not sales-oriented.

For instance, if you're a local flower shop that runs promotions occasionally, using long codes might work great. You can even promote the long code for customers to text you for flower advice—find out what's in season, the best flowers to send for a funeral, etc.  

Another use case for long code numbers is for order confirmations or shipping notices. When a customer anticipates hearing from you, it's a welcome message to hear that their order has been received or shipped. Recipients are less likely to mark these types of messages as spam, too.

Long code vs short code requirements

Text messaging was once novel and new and is now a primary component of many digital marketing strategies. Its uses extend to serve nearly every industry, and it's growing at a rapid rate.

As a reminder, short codes are typically 6 digits long (sometimes 5), moderately priced, and ideal for high-volume messaging such as mass marketing campaigns. Long codes are better for more personalized services, and they're less expensive. However, they have lower throughput and are more difficult to remember.

If you're still deciding which one to pick, try both for a specific use case and measure your results. This way, you can develop your SMS strategy, grow your audience, and share your products or services with those who need them most.

A quick comparison: SMS short codes vs long codes

Short codes

Long codes

5 or 6 digits long

10 digits long

Short code example: 345-12

Long code example: 987-654-3210

Longer setup and activation time

Shorter setup and activation time

High throughput by default

Low throughput by default

One-way messaging is allowed

Two-way conversations are must

Supports two-way messaging

Supports two-way messaging

Great for sending mass texts to customers

Great for 1-on-1 conversations with customers

Delivery receipts supported by default

Delivery receipts not supported by default

Subject to FCC, TCPA, and CTIA regulations, with strict rules and penalties in place

Subject to FCC, TCPA, and CTIA regulations, with rules being less stringent but greater risk of direct bans

Toll-free texting

With Messente, you can text-enable your existing toll-free number or get a new one. This has many benefits, such as:

  • It takes very little time to set up.

  • The throughput rate of toll-free numbers is higher than that of long code numbers, so it is perfect for marketing campaigns.

  • The setup cost is low, and you can send 1-on-1 text messages just like you can with a long code.

Think of a toll-free number as a hybrid between a long code and a short code.


By now, this article should've helped you better understand the difference between long codes and short codes. Both of these SMS tactics have their own unique set of pros and cons that can help your business. Nonetheless, the text message has the ability to successfully connect you with the audience whether or not you choose to employ a short code or a long code.