What You Need to Know About Choosing SMS Keywords

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Keywords are a big deal in SMS marketing. They’re more important than ever, whether you use a shortcode or a virtual mobile number (VMN) if you’re planning on using two-way messaging.

Two types of keywords

Keywords are technically all the same – and I mean technically speaking. They are all implemented the same way from both your point of view and that of the person replying to your message. But in practical terms, keywords can be divided into two categories:

  • Brand keywords
  • Special or Campaign keywords

As the name suggests, a brand keyword is the primary keyword you use to identify your brand. It’s most often used with the primary campaign to gather opt ins for your marketing list, member list, or volunteers. You’ll use it on your website, printed materials, videos, radio, and everywhere you advertise to drive signups to your SMS list. So whatever word you choose, it should be recognisable as your brand. It won’t be something you can change often or easily if you use print or other types of advertising. Changing it might confuse customers too.

As an example, let’s say you have a high street retail store called Kelly’s Fashions. You could use KELLY or KELLYS as your keyword. But then there might be dozens of Kelly’s pubs in the area. That word just might not be unique enough depending on your clientele, location, or any number of factors. So you could choose KFASHIONS, KSFASHIONS, or KELLYSHOP. You could also use a nickname people have for the store (assuming you approve of it!).

You see choosing your brand keyword can be a bit tricky. Especially when you also want to meet other criteria such as keeping it short, simple, and using standard spelling (I’ll talk more about this later).

After you’ve chosen your one primary keyword, you’ll find you’ve only just begun your journey on the road to finding perfect keywords. That’s because there are many reasons to have multiple keywords. If you’re running marketing campaigns you’ll probably want to create unique keywords for each one. This helps you with tracking and also will help your list be aware that they are replying for different things. You don’t want someone thinking “Didn’t I just do that?” when you ask them to reply to an offer.

portrait of beautiful young long-haired woman holding mobile phone and pointing at it in green summer park

Other organisations might want to use different keywords to keep track of different lists. Are people signing up as donors to your charity or as volunteers? You probably wouldn’t want to send out the volunteer details for your event to everyone that donated money. That simple “Please arrive by 6” message aimed at volunteers could easily confuse a donor who then shows up two hours early for the start of the 8 pm dinner event.

Those are just a couple simple examples of why you’d want to use more than one keyword. But can you see both the challenge in developing your keywords and the benefits you’ll receive from doing so? Good.  Now it’s time to get to a few more things to keep in mind when you’re brainstorming ideas.

What to do and what to avoid

  • It must make sense. Unless you have a compelling reason to choose a selection of random characters for your keyword, just don’t do it. It’s confusing for the people trying to type it in to reply to you. If it’s hard they just might not even do it. Using “YES” is always better than “R5K” when asking if they agree to receive your text messages. Want them to enter a contest? How about using “ENTER” instead of using something cryptic like your internal tracking number for the contest “458708”. While that may make sense to you, people will wonder what it really is they are replying to with some strange set of numbers.
  • Use real words. This is probably one of the hardest things to do when creating keywords. Some are simple and obvious like “YES” and “NO” or “PIZZA”. Finding a real word that makes sense and applies to your message could be difficult. But there’s a good reason for trying: autocorrecting software. Most mobiles today try to anticipate, or correct, the words we type while texting (and other activities). So if you choose a word that is a deliberate misspelling of another word, you may end up getting very few replies. The feature works so fast most people don’t know it’s corrected a word before they send it (happens to me all the time!). Given the potential number of keywords, most SMS services only do a positive check for the word. Any misspellings get “lost” or at least not logged as replying to the correct keyword. You can’t prevent this from happening since the autocorrect settings are unique to each mobile (as it learns how the person types). However, the goal is to not make it happen by getting tricky with words. You can set up checks for all possible misspellings too, but isn’t that much more work?
  • Stick to letters and numbers. Special characters are cool! But not for keywords. Including these non-alphanumeric characters means the person replying will need to switch keyboards on their mobile (tap from one to the next and back again). That’s asking a lot from someone who is probably busy running from one place to the next. And there is some percentage of people who will say it’s too hard, I don’t have time now, or I’ll get back to it and forget all about it. Pretend all your keywords are for people like this and chances are you won’t have those problems!
  • Keep it short. The more people have to type the harder it is to reply to your text message. One word is ideal. One short word is better. There isn’t any fixed upper limit to the number of characters you can have (other than the text message limit of 160). But the idea is a person can read the word and type it in to reply without having to look back up to double check they have the word right. So it might be a four letter word, or a very memorable 8 letter word.
handsome middle aged man using smart phone at car dealership
  • Test them out. Unless you work or live in a vacuum, you have the ability to do a test run of your keywords before you put out your campaign. Ask people in the office for feedback on the keywords you’ve selected. Do your best to get a variety of people, and not just people you’ve been working with to choose keywords. Objective feedback is best and it’s easier to get that from people not intimately involved in the selection. What sounds great to you, might make no sense to everyone else.

Making a keyword fit every guideline on this list isn’t always easy. That’s why I called them guidelines. Use them, adapt them, and refine them to fit your own situations. Please feel free to share any additions or changes with us in the comments so everyone can learn from the shared experiences.

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