Digital Message Strategy

A mobile messaging strategy flows from the overall mobile strategy with one important difference: it must start and end with the customer. Mobile is the first channel to not merely recommend but require permission in advance. Earning permission to occupy a mobile screen, “the most personal, and arguably most valuable, real estate in the world” (Brent Hieggelke, chief marketing officer, Urban Airship), requires a supremely customer-centric view.

A typical messaging strategy covers each stage in the customer lifecycle: acquire, onboard, engage, and retain. Many mobile marketers focus on list size and the first stage: acquire. A customer-centric approach, however, starts at the third stage: engage.


How will your company provide content of such high value that customers will not merely accept but request it? This is the key to a successful mobile messaging strategy. For the moment, ignore the practical constraints of delivering the experience, and concentrate efforts on serving or, ideally, delighting the customer.

The mobile messaging medium is characterized by brevity and immediacy. What “instants of value” (Thom Kennon, chief strategy officer, Brabble) can you provide? With just a few minutes of preparation, you can have a few seconds of your customers’ attention. What will you do to be worthy? Consider each of the four mobile message categories: deals, service, information, and convenience.


With the customer value proposition clearly defined, the next consideration is acquisition. A big “list” is not likely out of the gate, nor should it be your measure of success. Those who choose to hear from you via push or SMS will be a smaller, more engaged group; your super fans. How can you promote your program(s) to this elite group?

  • SMS subscription. For SMS, you have two options: subscription and “text to get.” SMS requires permission in advance. No, you cannot send an SMS to a mobile phone to request permission; you must get it in advance. Message content and frequency must be clearly defined. In most cases, SMS subscription can be promoted alongside email opt-in. Develop a succinct benefit statement, which flows from your work in the engage phase, then display in every possible location:
    • Website
    • Facebook
    • Mobile site
    • Mobile apps
    • Email
    • Packaging and package inserts
    • Banner ads
    • Search
    • Store personnel
    • Store signage
    • “On hold” messages
    • Traditional advertising

    Any promotion that is not “text to join” requires confirmation of handset ownership, essentially, a double opt-in. Be prepared to respond immediately to an SMS opt-in with a confirmation request. Too long a gap between opt-in and confirmation will cause some portion of your list to go stale – another good reason to begin your strategy with engage.

  • Text-to-get. For many marketers today, building a digital messaging program is a chicken-or-egg problem: I don’t have a program because I don’t have a list. I don’t have a list because I don’t have a program. Text-to-get promotions are an excellent solution.

    Since text-to-get programs are mobile originated (MO) by customers, they do not require permission. They are also a great opportunity to provide value before requesting a subscription commitment from the customer. Retailers can use signage to promote a text-to-get coupon for immediate redemption – an effective showrooming antidote. Conferences and trade shows can promote whitepapers or product literature. The possibilities are endless, and the payoff delivery can include a request to subscribe to ongoing messages.

  • Push notifications. Since the opt-in for push notifications is generic, you must sell your app and push together. Promote the value of notifications everywhere you promote the app, using your succinct benefit statement. Consider also special programming to create periodic in-app messages to non-subscribers, requesting push opt-in.


As we have learned from email marketing, relevance = response = ROI. Use the onboarding process to gather and link critical subscriber preferences that can be used to tailor the mobile experience. Apps can offer granular options in a preference center with simple Yes/No or On/Off buttons. Financial institutions,, and ESPN’s ScoreCenter provide excellent examples.

SMS can employ progressive profiling to gather key data points. Be careful to request only that which can be used to improve your marketing efforts, avoiding the nice-to-know. Responses can be free-form or a reply menu, e.g., Reply 1 for X, 2 for Y, etc.

SMS and push notifications are typically accompanied by a sound, so make sure to avoid interrupting a customer’s sleep with that sound, particularly in the early stages of your relationship. Those with home phones may turn off mobile notifications while sleeping; mobile-only households that need to be available for emergencies will not. Allow customers to set quiet times and/or avoid sending after 9 p.m. or before 11 a.m., adjusted for time zones.


Retaining mobile subscribers is a function of continuing to provide content of value. Customers are selfish about the amount of mobile “shelf space” they allow you to occupy, so you must justify your presence at every opportunity. Test approaches, timing, offers, landing pages, and copy to learn what works with your mobile audience.

Unlike email marketing, mobile unsubscribe rates are a key performance indicator. Monitor your “quit rates” to see which messages trigger STOP replies and app deletions. Use your own average rates to evaluate effectiveness, not the nebulous “industry average.” Learn from your best and worst results, not from others.

Relevance is a key factor in retention and behavioral data. Behavior indicates not what a customer has done in the past, but what she is interested in now. There are vast deposits of behavioral data across social, web, POS, and email channels – the challenge is to connect them to an individual. A good start is to use email address as user name in your app. Email address represents a customer’s “digital fingerprint” (David Daniels, CEO, The Relevancy Group). Since email remains customers’ number one choice for promotional messaging, it is often co-promoted with SMS and other programs, on websites, and via social channels.

Your mobile messaging strategy should include a plan to link as many of these factors as possible:

  • Mobile number
  • Customer ID
  • Email address
  • Website cookie
  • App download
  • Facebook fan
  • Twitter follower
  • Loyalty member
  • Store purchaser
  • Reviewer

There are limitations to using behavior as well as explicit preferences. We have seen a divergence between what customers say and what they do – e.g., they express an interest in women’s fashions but buy regularly in the men’s department. Similarly, behavior can be misleading. An item purchased for someone else doesn’t indicate an ongoing interest in that category. The leaders in behavioral marketing use both behavior and preferences and allow customers the opportunity to edit misleading data points.

The goal in connecting the dots is to understand the customer in order to provide relevant digital messages. Remember: your mobile messaging strategy must start and end with the customer.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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