Getting a reply: Should you choose a VMN or Shortcode? Part 1

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Getting a reply- Should you choose a VMN or Shortcode- Part 1

Do your customers have the ability to reply to your SMS messages? There are many reasons why you would want them to reply. For example: to make a sale, get their opt-in for a specific campaign, have them click on a URL for more information … the list could go on.

In order to get a reply though, you need to have either a shortcode or a virtual mobile number (VMN). You’ve probably seen them both, and may use one or both, but which do you really need and does it vary by campaign?

In this two part series I’ll look at what VMNs and shortcodes are, what makes them different to each other, and when you might want to use one or the other.

How A Virtual Mobile Number Works

Virtual numbers have been around a long time. Services like Skype and Vonage allow you to use virtual numbers via Voice over IP (VoIP) – basically let you call any number using a combination of the Internet, standard phone lines, and cellular networks if you’re calling a mobile.

VMNs work the same way, they are just considered virtual mobile numbers rather than virtual landline numbers. And because they are mobile numbers you can use them to send and receive texts.  The benefit is you can get replies to your text message campaigns without having a dedicated physical (mobile) phone line. But VMNs look like a regular 11 digit mobile number. For example a UK number could look like: +44 (0) 77 3456 7890 (note, this isn’t an actual number!)

As far as the caller, or person replying to a text, is concerned the VMN works like a regular mobile number. The text reply is received by the network service you used to get the VMN. After that, you have control over where the text message reply goes. Usually you can forward it to an email, or other mobile number you specify. Most services also allow you to filter based on content so you can sort the replies by campaign, keyword, or other criteria.

How Much A VMN Costs

Not surprisingly, the cost of a VMN depends on the service you are using. A quick Internet search will sometimes turn up offers for free VMNs. But be careful with those services. Some of them actually offer instructions on how to create a false identification to get your free number (especially true if you’re looking for a number in a different country). Others offer free VMNs but they aren’t really free.

Legitimate companies offer free VMN in one of three ways:

  1. The cost of the virtual mobile number is being paid for by the company – the money is coming out of their pocket, not yours. This may sound good, but it means that money is coming out of something else. That may mean the rest of the services they offer may be done on-the-cheap using inferior routes for messaging, substandard equipment, or lacking in security. There are a number of axioms that apply here, but the best may be “you get what you pay for”.
  2. The cost of the VMN is being carried by many people. In this case the company is sharing the VMN between multiple users. This can work well if the company provides keywords for each customer so text message replies can be filtered and sent to the appropriate destination. Unfortunately not all companies do that. Some will simply route incoming text replies to an account that has previously used that number. If the number is shared between customers, the replies may not always reach the right destination. In this situation you may never get all the replies your customers send. Worse, another company may get your customer’s replies.
  3. The most common way companies provide free VMNs is to bundle them with other services. For example, we offer a free VMN for three months with the purchase of 1000 credits, or a free VMN for a year when you purchase 5000 credits. In this way the cost is included in a bundle, and we’re still able to provide excellent services. This approach is like a getting a discount for making a larger purchase.

Of course, many providers offer VMNs for a fee as well. Fees vary from about £99 per year to £420 per year. And be aware that just because you pay for a number, doesn’t mean the service provider isn’t sharing that number with other customers. Before you purchase a number, always ask if it is shared. If the answer is yes, then ask more questions about how they filter the delivery so you know you get all your replies.

When To Use A Virtual Mobile Number

The good thing about a VMN is they can be used anywhere. Since they look like a standard 11 digit number you can put it on your website, in print marketing, as well as for a reply number in your text marketing. However be aware that a virtual mobile number can’t normally be used as a traditional phone number (i.e. fax or voice calls).

People are familiar with the format of numbers and should have no trouble typing it in to send you a text message. This is true even if you are using your number for international campaigns. Because the +44 is included you should be able to receive messages from anywhere (note international rates may apply).

And if you think of how a VMN is used most of the time – in replying to a text message you send – then the person texting you back doesn’t even need to know the number. They simply push reply on their mobile.

VMNs are also very easy and quick to setup, so it’s possible to have multiple VMNs  and use them for different campaigns, departments, or any other possible reason you might want to segment your replies.

How does all this compare to shortcodes? Come back to read part 2 of the blog series that focuses on shortcodes.

You can also find more detail on the options for receiving SMS messages on our website.

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  1. rich
    July 9th

    from my experience there is a better result for VMN’s as they are trusted more than a Shortcode, where the fear is that the sender could be charged for replying.

  2. rich
    July 9th

    bigger brands using shortcodes for opt outs seem to work ok though

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