It’s hard to believe text messaging has been around for 20 years. How did we communicate in the days before LOL (laugh out loud), NTK (nice to know), and IMO (in my opinion)? Given texting’s age, I’m surprised businesses—small ones in particular—don’t use it to communicate with their customers and prospects more often. This is even more curious given the ability of text messaging to help reach people on a personal level, build relationships with them, and grow their loyalty:

  • 85% of Americans have a cell phone, and 80% of cell phone owners use them to send or receive text messages. (Pew Internet & American Life Project, Pew Internet: Mobile – Dec 2012 Study by Joanna Brenner, accessed 2013)
  • Open rates for text messages top 95% (Frost & Sullivan)
  • 90% of text messages are read within three minutes of delivery (MobileSquared)

Of course, high open rates don’t guarantee success. As with any other mobile marketing effort, you need to consider your goals, strategy, and execution. Here are four best practices I’ve gleaned from small business owners who are succeeding in this area:

1. Give customers what they want

The first question I would answer is: How can text messaging help me serve my customers better? No matter your business, the possibilities are many. Appointment-based businesses like salons and doctors or dentists can send reminders via text. Realtors can alert clients to new listings and open houses. Accountants can send last-minute tax tips and advice. Health clubs can notify members of last-minute schedule changes.

In all cases, I suggest putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and imagining what kinds of messages would be most helpful. Discounts are always appreciated, so include these in your mix if they’re suitable for your business type.

2. Deliver instant gratification

I don’t recommend using text messaging as another outlet for your email content. That could frustrate customers and result in them tuning you out. Instead, take advantage of its immediacy and send different offers that your customers can redeem right away. Do you run a restaurant? Text a coupon for the day’s lunch special. Are you a masseuse? Add 15 minutes to a massage session for making an appointment within three hours. I could see this approach lending urgency to your offers while giving customers a sense of exclusivity and reinforcing their loyalty.

Remember to note when and how to take advantage of your offer—and to identify your business in your text. (You may be surprised how many people forget this step!) A good example of a text might read:

Good Eats Deli: $2 off fish & chips today until 2 p.m. Show this message at checkout.

3. Add pizzazz

Always try to make your texts short, to the point, and interesting. You could also add a photo or video to bring your message to life. How much more appealing would that lunchtime special coupon be if subscribers could actually see what they would receive?

Services like AT&T Messaging Toolkit make it easy to create communications of this sort. When customers sign up for your text list, ask whether they can view messages with photos or video, then create separate lists for those who can and those who can’t.

4. Test and revise

When tracking results from your text messages, I recommend keeping an eye on which ones generate the best response. Are texts sent in the morning more effective than those sent later in the day? Also consider testing differently worded versions of your offers to see how they compare.

I’ve learned that not all effects of a text messaging program will appear right away. In many cases, the payoff can be increased loyalty rather than immediate sales. But this can help boost your revenue over time, and it can also help attract new customers as existing ones spread the word.

If you use text messages in your marketing, I’d love to hear about your results. Please share your experiences below.