SMS messages are short and sweet. As a means to communicate between friends or family with a quick “I’m running late” or “What’s for dinner?”, they are perfect. But for many other purposes, the maximum 160 characters for SMS messages may not seem like enough.
This seems especially true for SMS marketing where you have limited space to get your message, call to action, and all the legally required opt out information in each message. You might think the 160 character limit is some arbitrary number, or perhaps that it’s determined by some computer limitation. But there was real research behind the choice.
In 1985, Friedhelm Hillebrand was working on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMC) as chairman of the non-voice services committee. He and the other committee members were trying to develop a standard for text messaging, which was primarily used for car phones at the time. The wireless network used was bandwidth limited, so they wanted something that would work both on the network and be sufficient to convey a message.
Hillebrand’s approach was to type out random sentences (on his typewriter – anyone remember those?) and count the number of characters – letters, spaces, punctuation and numbers. More often than not, the sentences were about 160 characters. So he made the case to the other committee members that his research supported using only 160 characters.
Apparently they agreed, and today we’re still using the same standard. The Twitter 140 character limit is also based on Hillebrand research as well. They reserve 20 of the 160 characters for the senders name, leaving the 140 for content.
Given the popularity of Twitter and SMS messaging, it seems Hillebrand and his colleagues were correct that 160 characters were enough. As hard as it can be to write a short message that conveys an idea or drives a call to action, I think the limit works in favour of the popularity. If SMS messages were as long as emails, I’d bet people would read them less often. But when someone gets a text message they know it’s something they can glance at and read – no major investment of time. We’re all time strapped these days, so quick is often best.
Of course with fastsms you’re not bound by such limits as you can send three linked messages up to 456 characters long in total!