If you've been researching an SMS marketing service, you may have come across terminology like SMS short codes, vanity short codes, random short codes or long codes. And unless you're an expert in the industry, these terms can be somewhat baffling. What do they all mean – and which do you need if you want to start sending SMS marketing text messages to customers? Read on to find out.

If you need to send time-sensitive messages as part of a text marketing campaign, you'll need a dedicated short code. A two-way messaging/texting service can play a pivotal role in engaging prospective customers and growing your business, but it needs to be done right. When you're planning an SMS marketing campaign, it's important to understand the different types of short codes available and how they can be used.

What are SMS codes?

SMS short codes and long codes are types of phone numbers (Sender IDs) you can use to send SMS messages. Short codes are typically five to six digits long, whereas long codes are ten digits long. They each have different pros and cons, so it's essential to understand the differences between them.

Long codes explained

SMS long code example

Let's demystify long codes first. There are two types to know about: toll-free numbers and 10DLCs. Not only can long codes be used for texting, but they can also be voice-enabled, meaning they can be used for phone calls too.

Toll-free numbers can be dialled or texted at no charge to the person making the call. If you need customers to text or call your business (as you might with customer service queries), a toll-free SMS long code is affordable and convenient for them. Learn more about using a toll-free number.

Initially, local ten-digit phone numbers were used for person-to-person (P2P) communications – that's where a text or call is made from one mobile phone to another (like when you text a friend). These long codes weren't originally designed for business use, so wireless carriers were prone to blocking them.

However, in 2021, application-to-person (A2P) 10DLC was sanctioned and developed for business messaging. 10DLC numbers are ideal for mass texting customers with transactional messages like appointment reminders, delivery updates and other customer service messages.

So, what are SMS short codes?

Dedicated short code example for SMS

When it comes to SMS short codes, there were (up until recently) two main types: shared SMS short codes or dedicated SMS short codes. A shared short code was where multiple businesses simultaneously used the same Sender ID. This was a popular approach to help cut down on SMS marketing costs as a shared short code was cheaper to use than setting up a dedicated short code.

However, there's a shared short code ban in effect now in the U.S., where most major mobile carriers have discontinued the use of shared short codes due to concerns around spam.

Because shared short codes were easy and cheap to get hold of, dodgy companies often used them to carry out spam and phishing messages. As a result, mobile carriers often blocked shared short codes, which had a knock-on effect on legitimate businesses that were unlucky enough to be allocated the same code as a spammer.

Moving onto dedicated short codes then. This is a dedicated phone number that only one business can use. And to make matters a tad more confusing, there are a couple of different types of dedicated codes: random codes and vanity codes.

Random vs vanity short codes

  • Vanity short codes –this is where you select the dedicated short code number that you want. You might want to do this to promote your brand name, a particular product, or just to have a number that's easy for your audience to remember. Here's an example: 53045 is the backward spelling of 'shoes'. So you might use that if you sell footwear and are running a promo. Or a memorable vanity short code might be something like '80808'.

  • Random short codes – this is where you have no control over the number you receive. You're simply allocated a random short code number, much like how vehicle registration plates are generated.

What are the benefits of short codes?

SMS short codes are used for a wide range of applications and offer several advantages, some of them being:

1. Best for high volume text messaging

Short codes are best used over long codes if you need to send out a high volume of one-way SMS messages in a short space of time. As well as being ideal for distributing bulk SMS campaigns, short codes are commonly used to share one-time passwords, text messaging sweepstakes or competitions, urgent alerts and reminder notifications. For example:

Flash sale notifications:

Great news! New additions to our forecourt. See all our new and used vehicles on our website: [URL]

One-time password and notifications:

125402 is your security verification code. It will expire in 10 minutes.

Text message reminders:

Hi [Name], this is a reminder for your health and safety refresher course on 15 November at 11:15am. Zoom details have been emailed to you.

Text message reminder example with a short code

Emergency alerts:

Urgent: severe flood risk in your area. Be prepared to evacuate. Stand by for more details.

Text to win:

Fancy jetting off in search of winter sun this year? A $500 holiday voucher might help. For a chance to win, text WINTER to 12345. Cost: $1.50 to enter.

2. Easier to remember than an SMS long code

Another benefit, as we've touched on earlier, is that short codes are more memorable. If you're using a short code and an SMS keyword to entice people to sign up for your SMS marketing campaigns, it's a no-brainer to use a five or six-digit number compared to a ten-digit long code. You're more likely to achieve a higher opt-in rate with short codes.

3. Less likely to get flagged as spam

Because SMS short codes are highly regulated – wireless carriers have to approve the purpose for which you want to use them during the setup process –your text marketing campaigns shouldn't get marked as spam. This will have a positive impact on your overall message deliverability rate.

Disadvantages of SMS short codes

There are a few downsides to using an SMS short code, namely:

1. They're not cheap

Dedicated short codes can cost in the range of $500–$1500 per month, depending on whether you're opting for random short codes or vanity codes.

2. Lengthy set-up process

An SMS short code can take a few weeks to set up. So you'll need to leave enough time in your marketing plans to allow for this.

3. Regulations can be complex

The flip side of being heavily regulated is that there are a few hoops to jump through when getting approval on your planned text messages from wireless carriers. In the U.S., each state has different regulations. But don't worry; your SMS provider can guide you through your obligations.

SMS short code compliance and rules

To send short code messaging campaigns, you'll need to comply with carrier compliance requirements and applicable law. These vary depending on location (where text messages originate from and where subscribers are based), your industry and your message content.

Industry guidance must also be followed. As a starting point, read the CTIA Short Code Monitoring Handbook, which covers the U.S. It explains the CTIA compliance framework, like providing proper choice and consent when encouraging subscribers to opt in, what types of content are considered unlawful, illicit or unapproved, and more.

How do short codes stack up compared to other Sender IDs?

We've already covered some of the main pros and cons of dedicated short codes. Now let's look at how a short code compares to other Sender IDs. For the record, a Sender ID is simply the displayed value of the person or business sending a text message.

SMS long codes and dedicated short codes (vanity codes and random codes) are examples of numerical Sender IDs. You can also request alphanumeric Sender IDS – these are sender names made up of letters. So you can use the name of your business, for instance, and this works brilliantly to increase brand awareness and help subscribers connect with your brand.

However, alphanumeric Sender IDs can only be used for one-way text messages. If you want to send two-way text messages, you'll need a numerical ID, aka, a long code or short code.

Budget-wise, it's more cost-effective to use a 10DLC phone number than it is to set up your own short code. And with long codes, you can make voice calls as well as send texts (that includes both SMS and MMS messages). Although they're less memorable, long codes look like regular phone numbers. They can add a human touch to your SMS campaign, so it won't look like it's come from a bot.

Woman scrolling her smartphone in a park

How to get a dedicated SMS short code

Having thought about your business requirements and decided a dedicated short code is what you need, you might be wondering how to source one. The easiest way is to use an SMS service like Messente.

Accessing short code services is just one aspect of our offering. We'll provide a personal quote based on the types of texts you need to send and your expected monthly messaging volume. We'll also take care of the entire process, liaising with the wireless carriers to get your short code set up.

Once you've created your dedicated short code Sender ID, you can send a wide range of SMS marketing campaigns and transactional text messages with our text messaging API.

Contact us today for more information and a quote on our short code service.