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Shortcodes are just what the name describes: a short code used to deliver SMS messages. The exact length varies by country. In the UK shortcodes are mostly 5 digits long (87007 for example), but in the U.S. they can be five or six digits long. Many other countries use only four digits.
However long shortcodes are, they are always much shorter than VMNs, or the long codes as they are sometimes called. This is one reason shortcodes have become popular. It’s much easier for people to remember five digits than it is eleven.
Functionally, there are many similarities between shortcodes and a VMN. Users just type in the number and send the text. On the receiving end, you can easily filter and forward the replies based on keyword or other criteria. But shortcodes are different from VMNs in how they are managed.
It’s an involved process to obtain a custom shortcode (vs. a shared one provided by your SMS provider) that can take months. They are highly regulated and require agreement between different carriers in order for them to work with every mobile number in a country. Because of this regulation and inter-carrier agreement, shortcodes do not work internationally. From start to finish the process can easily take three months.
Another side of the regulation is every carrier has the right to suspend shortcode service at any time. If a particular carrier claims your use of the shortcode violates any of the many regulations, it is their option to stop supporting it. That means any customers you have on that carrier will not be able to reach you using that shortcode.
Many SMS providers have their own shortcodes. The different service packages offered to customers usually revolve around renting a keyword on their shortcode rather than purchasing a shortcode outright. In theses cases you can use the shared shortcode of the provider, and pay for the keywords. The cost of keywords varies significantly between providers.
Custom shortcodes, because of the difficulties in obtaining them, are very expensive. Setup fees run between £500-1000 . Monthly fees are in the same range. There is usually a contractual agreement for a minimum amount of time to rent the shortcode and prepayment is usually required.
In short, custom shortcodes are very expensive.
Many organisations choose shortcodes because they are easy to remember. A custom shortcode could also become another recognisable symbol of a brand. When running a marketing campaign to generate opt-ins, a contest, or fundraising for charity an easy to remember number could improve results.
At least that’s the theory.
It’s hard to find statistical data to prove consumer behaviour regarding shortcodes. But you can find individual case studies supporting their use in certain circumstances: Basically using a shortcode in a situation where your message will be seen or heard for only a short while like radio, a TV ad, or even some display advertising.
In our experience, the costs of custom shortcodes rarely justify the return on investment. Most people have their mobiles with them at all times. If they see an ad in print somewhere they can take out their mobile and send the text right away. Even in radio or TV ads, people are used to hearing or seeing long numbers given as forms of contact.
If you are going to advertise in such places it probably is worth testing the effectiveness of a shortcode versus a VMN by first taking advantage of your service providers shortcode and a keyword. Even if the shortcode gets a better response, evaluate if consumer recognition of a unique, custom shortcode will improve the response enough to justify the costs, regulations, and timeline.