For many people in the modern age, their lives are on their phone, and marketers have many ways to reach them. Apps and ads on apps, social media, email and more. In fact the vast majority of digital marketing has to take phone optimization into account.

But despite it being one of the most popular forms of communication on phones, marketing via SMS is rarely as popular as other forms of marketing.

But it can be a hugely successful form of marketing. Aidan Casey, CMO of Paintru, joined us on an episode of CMO Diaries to share the success she's had with SMS marketing, along with advice for other CMOs in how to utilize it, and a look to the possibilities the channel could have in the future.

Check out a write-up of what we discussed below!

We cover:

CMO Diaries | The medium is the messages | Aidan Casey
Aidan Casey has seen great success utilizing SMS marketing for her brand, and she joined us to discuss her experiences with the channel and share advice for other CMOs on how to add SMS to their marketing toolkit.

SMS marketing: what is it, and why use it?

Let's start with the basics. Firstly, what is SMS marketing? Can you talk about the benefits that you've seen from it? Is it just sending text messages out? Or is there a system behind it?

I think about it as a new marketing channel to be incorporated into our marketing, tech stack and channels of communication. Emails, channels and social media are channels, SMS is a new channel. I find it very different from other channels. It's important that it links to the common thread within all of your marketing, and that you make sure the positioning and messaging is consistent with your brand.

But I think that SMS is a really unique and interesting channel. To be totally honest, I'm newer to it as well, but I've really dived in over the past six months or so. We on-boarded with Attentive using our SMS provider in May of this year. I've had a lot of fun with it. We've really seen a lot of success with it in the business. I'm excited to chat a little bit more about it with you today. I do agree that it's not necessarily a channel that a lot of CMOs are familiar with. I think it can be really, really valuable.

Maybe people are hesitant because SMS feels like the last boundary of privacy. Talking on social media, that's fine. Sending out emails, that's completely fine. We're all used to that. But getting SMS messages from brands and companies, some customers would be quite resistant to that. What pushed you to get over that boundary? What was the reasoning behind that? Had you done some research into the effectiveness? Or was it something that was already happening at Paintru?

I will admit that a year back, I was very resistant to it. Because, like you said, it's too much interruption and I had subscribed to a couple of brands, and I found it irritating and totally non- tailored. I just really didn't like it. I think that the unique thing about SMS is you have to take a step back and realize that it is so direct. You're really reaching the customer in their pocket, right? You're reaching them right away. It's not like you're going into an email inbox where they're sifting through their emails. Your message is hitting them quickly.

SMS on average has an 85-95% open rate. There's benefits and disadvantages with that. So, the benefit is people are seeing your message right away. The open-rates are extremely high. Conversion rates are very high. But the disadvantage is that you are interrupting your customer or prospect. So, you have to tread very lightly. If done well, it can be done extremely well, but if done poorly, it can be detrimental to the brand.

I would like to think that we have a really strong SMS programme. We've had a steady increase of subscribers over the past six months, with a fairly low unsubscribe rate. Unsubscribes are inevitable and natural, just as you're building an email list. I kind of want to be cleaning my list constantly, because if someone does not feel that the content is relevant for them, I want them to unsubscribe. I don't want them to be receiving something they don’t want to receive.

I treat SMS the same way. For Paintru, being a custom art company, we are very lucky that our product is very visual. So, when I was coming up with our initial SMS strategy, I was thinking about how we can mirror our strategy to the way people like to enjoy content, which, for example, is like scrolling through Instagram and seeing beautiful aesthetic things that brighten their day for a moment, or give them a little bit of inspiration.

I think we have been able to leverage SMS in the same way. I send probably, on average, one to two SMS campaigns a week. I usually split them into at least three groups: purchasers, customers, loyalists or big spenders.

You can see in our platform, if someone's added something to cart, or if there’s someone that has browsed products and then abandoned it. So, I'll send those out separately as well, because I can get that messaging a little more tailored to them, knowing that they're very interested in purchasing. I always put my campaign through a lens of what I enjoy seeing. Is it going to make someone's day a little bit better?

Whether it's an inspirational piece of art, something that's related to a current holiday, or if it's a sale that our customers would want to know about. Another great way to leverage SMS, we promise that we will keep our SMS subscribers aware of any updates, sales, any new products, anything with priority. We have launched a couple of products to our SMS subscribers before our full subscription list. We do have exclusive sales for them, just to make sure that they're getting value from being subscribed to our programme and not just treated like someone I can push promotions out to. That's really not how I see our subscriber list.

Constructing your messages

Positioning it as an inner circle fits into how people tend to use SMS platforms. People tend to be in WhatsApp groups where it's almost a closed circle. You find shared values and shared interests.

Yeah, and I would say SMS is very conversational compared to other channels. I don't want to be typing out a novel for someone to read, so you have to be quick, to-the-point, and friendly. Again, I said it several times, but I want to brighten someone's day. I don't want them to get rid of it.

But another benefit I would mention is that an SMS campaign takes five minutes, whereas creating an email campaign can take an hour. It's a very time-effective way of communicating with your customers. You can be very casual in tone and really authentic, authentic with the brand. But again, you need to make sure that the messaging matches your tone, so I wouldn't be using some acronyms that don't fit with our company positioning.

What about emojis? Do you put emojis into your messaging?

Definitely! I typically use emojis with our texts. The way our programme works is we can send multimedia messages and emojis. I actually can't think of a single campaign I've sent out without an image, whether it be a still image or a GIF. Because I think our brand really lends itself to that. We're very visual in our company. I definitely always leverage the multimedia messages, and I typically have an emoji in there, not overdoing it, but something that portrays a little bit of personality in our brand.

Yeah, and one of the emojis that everyone recognizes, so you're not going to confuse customers.

When it comes to these multimedia messages, do you have to take into consideration different device types? Do you have to think about that when you're picking the images and the image size that you're using?

You don't have to worry too much about screen size now that the majority of people are on smart phones. But not everyone has the space or the memory capacity to get lots of multimedia messages at once.

Yeah, I only send one and typically they have a 500 KB limit for the file size, and that keeps it down on people's phone. I only send one image, typically. I don't think it would bog down the phone too much. And it’s small file size.There is a preview function. But I just make sure that with whatever image I'm using, it doesn't have text in the corners or anything. So, if it’s a square crop or horizontal crop, it should be fine.

We haven't really had too many issues. Typically, if there’s any text on the image, it's one headline. That hasn't been too much of a concern. On my end, I think the GIFs are useful as well, especially for us. A lot of times we'll show an original photo and the final painting of the person.That's a really engaging way that our customers can see our product. We experience the product virtually. Those also have a size limit as well, so it shouldn't be bogging down anyone's memory.

Who doesn't love getting a good GIF on WhatsApp or anything like that? So yeah, that has to be a good way to go.

I just scheduled one today, actually. With it being National Hiking Day in the United States, we've done all these awesome commissions of people's hikes and tracks. A GIF is a nice way for us to rotate through a few images with only one message. That's a nice way that I like to use it, as we're able to share or showcase a few projects at once without having to send separate image files, because I do think sending separate SMS is a bit invasive.

Opening up conversations with SMS marketing

You mentioned having a conversational tone to the copy. Would you call it copy in a text message?

I would call it copy.

How conversational is the copy? Can your subscribers text back? Do you get replies to your messages? How does that work?

How it works for us is, I have the UI open, usually at all times, like our customer service agents. We just check in every once in a while right now. They are not set up to send us a notification when we get a text, which is kind of unfortunate, because once in a while, we'll miss a text in there.

But if I'm in there, and we get a text, I can reply to it. Typically, what I like to do is point the customer towards live chat on our website, which is manned by our team all the time. It's just a quicker conversational flow. But I do believe that Attentive is planning on building out their two-way messaging system to be more robust so that you can use it as a customer service area. I know Apple does this, but you can actually get tech support via text. I would love to have it be a little more functional for us eventually. But right now, it works.

We can get responses back and we do check those but I'm kind of eagerly awaiting when we can have a notification sent to our customer service team because I feel terrible when a customer texts us and we don’t get back to them. If customers are asking questions, they'll usually reach out to us on live chat as well, if we don't get back to them right away on text.

It could be a really useful resource for customer support. many millennials and Gen-Z  prefer getting on the phone and don't like opening up their emails unless they really have to. They'd rather just be able to send a text on a platform that they use frequently.

It's more personal. I'm definitely the one who likes to live chat with any type of support. I don't have the time to be on the phone. It frustrates me. I have a live chat window open, and I know I can talk to someone. I think that a lot more people are kind of leaning into that as well. And for us, it reiterates that we are people, it’s person to person interaction. It's another way for people to communicate with us.

How do you hope to use it for customer support and what are the campaigns you are interested in using SMS for in the future? How are you going to evolve the system?

Yeah, another benefit of the SMS platform is we can build out different automations. We have cart-abandonment automation, we have browse-abandonment automation. And that's all triggered within the API that connects HubSpot to Shopify, so it actually can build out these segments of customers.

We can also segment out our loyalists, champions or big spender customers. With our customers who have not purchased within a certain amount of time, we can send tailored campaigns to them. We always have our welcome campaign, which is when someone signs up on our website, there’s a pop up that welcomes them and tells them how our platform works.

We have a four tech series which gives them painting ideas. It's a bit of a shorter nurture flow than our email sequence, but it kind of mirrors it. We have that cart-abandonment series and browse-abandonment. We have several different order fulfilment journeys as well. So, another great one, which sounds really simple, but is really nice for customers, is shipment confirmation. They have their tracking number right there in the text. One thing that we would like to build out, but the API functionality isn't quite there yet, is we'd like to actually send out the painting.

So, when a painting is done with the artists, our customer service team sends it to our customer for them to take a look at it. If it's an oil painting, the painting is still so wet, so it can be revised. If it's a watercolor painting, things can be changed. That phase of our customer journey is really critical, getting that review and feedback on the painting.

A lot of times it needs to be fairly timely, because if a customer doesn't respond to us for a week, then that's another week delay. I would love to figure out how we can have our customer service team actually send the paintings out via text, because that seems a lot easier for people to take a look at and it’s just right at their fingertips.

I think that it's time to probably come out with more automated journey options based on customer behaviour on the website, which I think will be really interesting to explore. And then campaign-wise, I like to make sure all our content has a common thread.

Typically, what you're seeing across email, social media and SMS will kind of mirror each other but be slightly different, just to tailor to the channel a bit more. On SMS, I typically do more fun visual campaigns. I leave a lot of the deeper FAQ stuff to email, just because sometimes it merits a longer read. I think that I'll just continue doing what we're doing. And then as the platform evolves, how can we target that really tailored messaging towards customers?

CMO Convo | Putting people at the heart of your brand story
The days of brands just being faceless monoliths are long gone: today, brand stories need to be built around people. But why is that the case, what advantages does it bring, and how can CMOs tell people-centric stories?

The future potential

Just thinking about the ways this can evolve in the future. Perhaps being able to do orders via text or something?

I know, I was just thinking about that as well.

Say you take a picture while you're on a hike or something, you can send that straight away, and someone can get to work on it. That'd be a really cool system, right?

Definitely. That's kind of like our live chat on our site right now. People can just attach their photo to a live chat and we can create a custom order for them. But it would be great if we could do that via text as well. If you want to send a picture to us directly via text and we can match you with an artist, then the order is started. Right now, the two-way texting functionality is just a little bit too laggy to make that an effective communication channel. But I will definitely be keeping my eye out for any updates.

I think it's just a good example of how marketers should be thinking creatively about their channels and how they can use them to the best capacity. Every once in a while we will actually do a painting sample drop for our inner circle of SMS subscribers. We have different sample paintings in our warehouse for various business explorations we've done and there's a lot of really incredible artwork there. So, you've done four sample drops, where we'll have three paintings that are at an incredibly low price and it's kind of first come, first served.  

We do sample drops via SMS with those three paintings. We include size and price details, and then whoever replies first to create a painting, they get it. That's kind of a fun way. It’s a way of using the channel to the best of its ability. It's instant, it's right there on someone's phone. It's kind of exciting. It's visual, it's satisfying for the customer. And it's fun. It definitely reiterates the value of being an SMS subscriber with us, because if you weren't an SMS subscriber, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to purchase these sample paintings.

There's been loads of studies on the serotonin boosts that people get from hearing the SMS chime go off. That sensation has got to be very effective, especially if they're getting some kind of value from opening up the SMS messages from you.

Implementing SMS marketing

Let's talk about how you actually went about implementing this from the start, dial it back a bit and talk about how other CMOs could look into implementing this. Firstly, how did you communicate the need for this to other stakeholders? Did you have to do loads of research and get loads of evidence on why this is gonna work?

I did a bit of listening on various podcasts, email digests and marketing blogs that I follow. I'm pretty data driven, so seeing the numbers made me interested in getting some research done.  We were really fortunate, Attentive is an incredible partner and they have a wealth of data and knowledge.

And it was a fairly easy sell, I would say for myself, because of the data that they're able to capture, it made it extremely easy to get up and running. There was obviously a bit involved with building out those different journeys. So, with the welcome journey, the cart-abandonment, the browse-abandonment and order fulfilment, there is critical thinking that goes into all that.

But like I said, I like all of our content to be consistent. I kind of drew from our email welcome series and thought about how I could adapt that to an effective text welcome series. Attentive have a white glove service where they'll actually build out the pop up on the website and some of your journeys for you and you can just go in and input the copy and visuals if needed.

So, they did make it fairly easy for me to get everything implemented. I would say that their pop up system is extremely effective. The way our pop up works is, we have an offer, then  someone inputs their email, and then to unlock the offer, they subscribe to our SMS platform. We have probably tripled the amount of email subscribers; our email list has grown so much over the course of the past six or so months. Our email subscriber list is growing at an even faster pace.

That is to be expected because not everyone wants to opt into SMS marketing, but a lot of people are willing to opt in to email. Another thing that I do, I actually try to encourage our email subscribers to join our inner SMS circle. We can have them opt in on the landing page as well. We have that pop up that captures people, getting them subscribed to SMS and then we drive traffic to the website. Again, I want to make sure my content is beautiful and inspiring and effective so that I'm building loyalty with the people who stay subscribed.

How did you present this idea of being an SMS subscriber? Did you have to explain it in detail to people?

I created an email campaign. It was an email series that was describing our costs and saying  that we've developed a new channel of communicating with people.“If you'd like to join our inner circle, we're going to be sharing something exclusive this Friday.” I think the email went out on Monday. That was actually our first sample painting drop. It was the excitement factor of joining our inner circle, getting exclusive access to offers.

We have a surprise coming on Friday that will be for our inner circle only. I think I sent out an email on Monday, and then a follow up on Thursday. And we promoted it on social media as well. So, in our stories we had a link to subscribe.

Again, we reiterated the unique discount code. We actually give another welcome discount for current customers, just to get them on our SMS subscriber list. Then we updated our checkout language in Shopify, so that people could opt into SMS updates as well, and transactional updates via SMS, as they're checking into the website.

We actually have a very high conversion rate on that. Around 80% of our customers opt for SMS updates. I consider that pretty good. It’s been slowly and surely building. I was pleasantly surprised with how many subscribers we got from our existing email base. And then it's just been growing. As we increase traffic to the website, through different advertising campaigns, we see a kind of a mirror effect with our subscriber increase as well.

More than just "sell, sell, sell"

Is it just deals and offers? Or do you send holiday messages and stuff like that?

We actually don't do too many offers. We only discount 15%. Ever. We did have one special discount with our Black Friday, Cyber Monday week, which we wrapped up at the end of October for 20%. But we only discount at a certain rate. And we don't make too many offers. I would say 80% of our SMS campaigns are actually non-offer related. It's mainly project inspiration, current holiday inspiration, and relevant topics like that. Again, I just love sharing beautiful art with people and giving people ideas for projects. I think it's really powerful.

It’s better than just "sell, sell, sell".

I don't think that's an effective campaign. I really don't think that strategy for SMS is going to be very successful. Because if you're doing sales all the time that just kind of mutes your messaging and puts you into this category of discount driven purchases, which can be a bit dangerous.

You don't want people constantly waiting for a discount. Then you don't have that conversational tone and relationship with the customer. If you’re only sending out one SMS every couple months or once a month, I wouldn't think that platform is really worth the time spent implementing it. You don't have that opportunity to establish a conversational relationship because you can't establish a relationship solely based on discounted offers. It needs to be more authentic to your brand and your product or service.

SMS marketing cadence

You mentioned something about sending out an email once a month. How did you land on the cadence of the text messages? Was that something you decided internally? Or was that advice from Attentive?

We actually have a lot of data on it. They recommend two per week. I do one or two. It just kind of depends on how strong the content is. I always put everything through a lens of “Are our customers going to find this interesting? Is this going to brighten their day?” So yeah, I looked at the data, and then I just tried to make sure it's genuine and aligned with our content.

Sometimes I'll have one text a week, maybe two or three around the time that we're doing our gifting event. I think two is the maximum number, unless there's a certain holiday or something special. You don't want customers to ignore your campaigns because they're getting so many of them.

How does that mirror the cadence of your email marketing? Is it following a similar pattern? Or is there a unique pattern for SMS?

It actually does mirror it. I don't always send out our email campaigns the same day as our SMS campaigns. A lot of times they're similar content. Today, it's National Hiking Day in the states, and that will go out via SMS. But I actually have another more FAQ-based email campaign for the beginning of this week. We typically send out two emails per week as well.  That is in addition to our automated sequences. I’m talking about our ‘welcome journey.’ Those customer nurturing sequences.

I would also like to mention that Attentive does have a function, which I believe most SMS providers do, where it has a smart sending option. It will not send a campaign text if someone has received a text within the last eight hours. We also have sending hours as well. We set those between 9am and 9pm of the subscribers’ local time zones. We make sure they're not getting a funky order fulfillment text in the middle of the night, or really early in the morning. We’re very cognizant of not being intrusive at all.

I am constantly testing different times a day to send texts. Attentive data says evening is best, but sometimes I feel that mid-morning is better. Again, using today as an example, with it being National Hiking Day, it's better to know about an interesting day in the morning versus  at night. It just depends.

But I also don't want to get mixed up with people rushing into the office, the morning rush. If I'm gonna send it at the beginning of the day, it's usually around 10:30 to 11:30. I like lunchtime texts on Fridays. Sometimes I have some kind of fun campaign on a Friday. I think that on Friday lunchtime, people tend to take a little bit of a pause before they finish out their day.

Working out the timing is gonna be even more important than email marketing they're probably not getting an alert straight away on their phone. But with SMS, they're gonna get that alert as soon as you send that out.

With SMS, it's less about the best open-rate. I guess I just assume that almost every text will be opened. It's more about whether someone will actually have the time to take a moment of pause and read the content. If I'm sending it out at 7am, it might not get opened, because you have your morning risers who might be at the gym, or getting their kids off to school.

Or, if you’re making your coffee or checking your email, that's not the right time to approach someone via text message. That's their morning prep time. That's why I like to send it mid-morning for daytime texts, when people sort through their inbox for the morning. They have their day outlined. Of course, you might get someone who's in a meeting. But again, it’s better than sending it in the evening.

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Measuring SMS marketing success

You mentioned open-rate. Let's talk about measurability. Do you have the ability to measure open rates?

We can. For every journey. Journey is what we call automation or sequence. There's open- rate, click-through rate, and revenue attributed to that campaign or text. They'll just calculate a conversion rate for you quickly. The dashboard actually shows you all of that. I can see how all my campaigns did, and I can check in on the welcome journeys.

I have also worked with them on benchmarking for click through rates and unsubscribes, just to make sure we're on par. We’re just making sure that the click through rates we're getting on campaigns are at least up to what they would expect, or surpassing it. It’s the same for unsubscribes.

But if we're having a much higher unsubscribe rate, as a CMO, I have to reassess our content strategy and how we're leveraging the platform, because that unsubscribe rate might be too high. That means what we're doing with SMS isn't valuable enough for our subscribers to stay subscribed.

SMS marketing golden rules

Awesome. We've covered quite a lot of bases. How about we sum things up with some golden rules when it comes to setting up and running SMS marketing campaigns?

I think the golden rule one would be assessing whether it is effective for your business and whether it makes sense for your business. Then, you need to be putting that through the lens of what SMS is. It's an immediate touch point. It's very personal, it's in the palm of someone's hand. very conversational, quick messaging. Keep in mind that you are interrupting someone, it is a bit more invasive than email.

Golden rule two: do you have content that would lend itself to SMS? For example, Patreon. Very visual, beautiful content of inspiring artwork. In that case, it's worth pursuing as a platform, I would say. But think of the strength for the platform and how you can ensure that you are leveraging those strengths and not playing into the disadvantages. I think a lot of it comes down to the different content you're sharing and how you're sharing it and the tone of what you're sharing.

It needs to resonate, and people need to enjoy it. Number three: make sure that you leverage the automations to the best of their potential and don't think of SMS as just a campaign announcer. What automations can you create that are moving customers or potential customers down the funnel? Which automation can you create that turns customers into loyalists?

And which automations can you create to ensure you're capturing all possible revenue? So, that would be, for example, cart-abandonment, and browser-abandonment. So, you have your campaigns and then you also have your automations, which should be seen as part of your overall content strategy.

Just the start

Awesome. It's really interesting that SMS is a full marketing channel. It's not just sending out text messages to people. You can use it as content distribution, you can use it for campaigns, you can use it for potential customer service, you could use it for all kinds of stuff, depending on how the platform evolves. It's an interesting route to go down. We've talked about it mainly from a B2C standpoint, but it would be interested to see what could work with B2B.

You read my mind! I was about to mention that. As you know, I was in B2B marketing. I think it'd be very interesting to explore from a B2B standpoint, but it’d probably merit more than five minutes of discussion.

I would love to chat with other CMOs, or if there's anyone else who'd want to open the conversation, I think it could be valuable. What pops into mind just coming from a tech background is the different stats, platforms and how you might be able to make that customer support or customer onboarding a bit more personal. It’s an immediate touch point. I think there's a lot of opportunities.

I would love to see how different companies are leveraging it. I should attend the webinars and workshops, because I think it's really interesting. There haven't actually been any B2B companies yet that I can remember, but I'm sure that they do have some in their network. I'm sure it'd be interesting to see what type of campaigns there are and how they're leveraging the platform.

Well, we'll keep an eye out. And I hope our readers keep an eye out as well. If you're a CMO who's in B2B, who's using SMS, let us know! Get on the CMO Alliance community website.

Definitely, if anyone out there has any questions about SMS or is just kind of curious to hear a little bit more, I'm definitely open to chatting. We'll typically link my LinkedIn to the podcast, but I'd love to help anyone who's considering it because it's been a huge revenue driver for us and just a really fun channel from a marketer’s perspective.

So, if people do want to check out the text messages you're sending out to your customers, can they just subscribe? They don't have to purchase anything from you?

Yes, they can definitely subscribe. I would love for anyone to subscribe. We leverage Attentive, which is the US SMS platform, only. I should have mentioned earlier, but SMS is actually extremely regulated. So, different countries have pretty rigorous standards. But I'm sure there are several SMS marketing providers in the UK and elsewhere.

Are you utilizing SMS marketing? Have you got questions on how to implement it? Join us on the CMO Alliance community and let's keep the discussion going!