The 160 Character Challenge: Copywriting for SMS Text Message Marketing

So, you got all excited about SMS Text Message Marketing and have high hopes for what it can do for your business. Rightly so! Mobile marketing is now coming into its own, and text message campaigns are being used to extraordinary effect by many businesses.

You’ve set up with a service provider and you’ve started building a list of people to send your messages to, but here you are staring at the blank screen of your PC. How on earth do you communicate any kind of meaningful message when you only have 160 characters to play with?

First, the good news

It may seem like an impossibly short space in which to say anything meaningful, but it depends on your perspective. Here’s a thought: you get 20 characters more than a twitter update! Twitter is being used today in some very creative and effective ways by online marketers. So if they can pull it off with even fewer words, there has to be great hope for the SMS text message.

We need to challenge this idea that copy can’t be effective if it’s short. Radio advertising has long been recognized as one of the most consistently effective kinds of advertising. The most common radio ad runs 30 seconds in length. Would it surprise you to know that these ads generally contain fewer than 70 words, and the best radio ad writers insist that repetition is a key ingredient? 70 words with repetition, and it is highly effective.

Some may argue that writing SMS text messages can hardly be called “copywriting” at all when you have so few words to play with. I would say that for this very reason it requires the best, most disciplined and thoughtful of copywriting to consistently achieve results and build an audience.

What About “Serial” SMS Text Message Marketing?

One way around the challenge may be to consider the option of splitting your copy into multiple text messages. There are several factors, however, that would caution we only do this very sparingly.

Firstly, it can be an annoyance to the receiver, and may also encumber them with extra cost, depending on their cell phone service plan.

Secondly, there can be delays between receiving the multiple parts of your message. Sometimes the SMS service provider may be at fault, but it can be as simple a reason as the receiver going in and out of clear reception areas. It’s also possible for recipients to receive the message installments in the wrong order, and all of this may lead to confusion. So this tactic must only be employed sparingly or it may well lead to an increase in subscribers opting out.

So How DO You Do it?

In a way, writing effective SMS text messages is like writing ONLY a headline. Good copywriters often say that if they have 8 hours to write a piece of copy they will spend 7 of those hours on the headline and the last 1 on the rest of the piece. Headlines are THAT critical; they are an art form all in themselves. A headline can make or break your copy because readers will make their decision whether to keep reading based on whether the headline grabs them. For this reason, great copywriters are practiced headline writers.

Writing great headlines is great training for writing SMS text messages.

1. Shoot an arrow.

A great text message is an arrow, not a shotgun. You’re firing one point at a set target, not blasting a pile of buckshot in a general direction. All the best copywriting – long or short – has one definite aim to it. The vast majority of text messages are acted on (if they are going to be) within 20 minutes. So your message must grab attention, be clear, and be immediately actionable.

2. Talk benefits – not features.

The age old principle of all sales writing is more imperative in this form than any other. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Don’t try to list all the things your widget does; just tell them how you can improve their life.

Great copywriting does not attempt to “create demand”. Rather, it seeks to channel existing demand. In other words, find out what your customers already want, and scratch that itch. That’s the best news ever for short copywriting, because if you had to create demand in every 160 character message before you could call to action – talk about an impossible task!

3. Write the call to action first, and keep it short.

“Call 800-555-5555 now”. That’s a clear call to action in 21 characters. That leaves you 139 characters to hit a need and give your solution. “Can’t face cooking after work tonight? Our delicious lasagna will be hot and ready for you. 20% off with this txt message – $10! Call 800-555-5555 now”… 10 characters to spare.

4. Resist the urge to abbreviate words.

Remember the “KIPS” principle… Keep It Professional Stupid! That doesn’t mean writing an office memo, but you don’t want to write like you’re a high school sophomore texting your best friend after school.

5. Test! Test! Test!

Test different approaches. Once your list begins to grow you should do this within campaigns. Have 2 versions of the same basic message, and send each to half of your list. Over time you’ll begin to develop a sense for what works best.

Writing for SMS Text Message Marketing with just 160 characters? It can be done, and done well.