The Ultimate Guide to Short Code Texting

August 15, 2022 | By Sam Pelton
Business man texting outside

If you’ve looked much into text marketing, you’ve likely come across the phrase “short code.”

But what in the world does it mean?

This guide will go over all the in’s and out’s of short code texting, and other alternatives, so that you can make the most confident and informed decisions regarding SMS marketing for your business.

Let’s start first with the most basic question.

What Is an SMS Short Code?

An SMS short code is a short phone number, generally 5 or 6 digits, through which businesses and organizations can send mass text messages. Some differences between short codes and regular phone numbers for texting include shorter length, higher throughput (message speed), and better delivery rates.

Welcome text

Short code use is declining for reasons we’ll explain in a bit more detail, but it is still a viable option for businesses to consider as they pursue increased sales through the power of SMS marketing.

Before we get into all of that, let’s dive a bit deeper into some of the different benefits of short code texting.

What Different Kinds of Short Codes Are There?

There are 3 different types of short codes that texting providers use or have used:

  • Shared short codes (these are being discontinued)
  • Random dedicated short codes
  • Vanity dedicated short codes

Shared Short Codes

Although no longer offered, “shared” short codes were short codes that were not specifically assigned to a single business or organization.

These short codes were utilized across hundreds or even thousands of different businesses, each of them sharing the same phone number through which they sent their SMS marketing campaigns.

This meant that the costs to maintain the short code could be distributed among all the different businesses utilizing the code. In most cases, individual businesses never even felt these operating costs as they were absorbed by the provider.

Shared short codes have been discontinued by phone carriers and thus are being phased out of operation (more on that later).

In contrast to shared short codes, dedicated short codes are leased to a single business or organization at a time.

There are at least 2 types of dedicated short codes: random short codes and vanity short codes.

Random Dedicated Short Codes

A “random” short code is a code that is randomly assigned to your business. It’s just a series of digits with no particular meaning behind them, but it costs less than a “vanity” short code (see below).

The limited flexibility of not being able to choose a number may not be an issue for some businesses, so this can be an option for those who want to use a short code but want to save some money.

Vanity Dedicated Short Codes

A “vanity” short code is one that your business can choose. Businesses will choose numbers that are easier to remember and/or are related to their company or the services they provide.

This offers more flexibility and better branding options than random dedicated short codes, but costs a bit more to lease.

3 different types of short code

What Are the Benefits of Short Code Texting?

So why go about text marketing through short codes? What benefits does it provide?

3 benefits short codes provide include:

  • Better message delivery
  • Better throughput (messaging speed)
  • Better response

Better Message Delivery

As an SMS marketer, your goal is to get people to see your text and follow the call-to-action within.

Short code texting helps you get there, because it is pre-approved by phone carriers ahead of time.

Since short codes are pre-vetted, carriers are more likely to allow the traffic to go through without filtering it out and preventing it from delivering to the recipients.

Thus, short codes can yield better message delivery than other sending methods.

Better delivery means better response rates, which means more sales, which means more satisfactory marketing campaigns.

Better Throughput

If you’re a part of a larger business with hundreds of thousands of recipients for your messages, throughput should be on your mind.

What’s throughput?

It’s how quickly your messages go out.

If you’re sending a message out to a few hundred (or even a few thousand) recipients, you don’t have to worry much about throughput. For all intents and purposes, your message should be delivered almost immediately.

However, when sending out a message to hundreds of thousands of people at once - if your messaging number has low throughput, it could take a long time for all your recipients to receive your message.

Short codes have a messaging throughput of around 350 messages per second, which means they can send out to over 20,000 recipients per minute.

At that rate, if you have 500,000 recipients for your message, it will only take around 20-25 minutes for your message to send to all of them.

Contrast that with toll-free numbers (another sending option) which can send perhaps 150 messages per second. This means if you were sending to the same 500,000 recipients, it would take almost an hour.

The more recipients you have for your messages, the more you need to think about throughput.

Better Response

Contrary to popular belief, the king of the jungle is not the lion.

It’s convenience.

Anything that frees up even just a little hassle is poised for success.

Short codes present a convenient alternative to clunky 10-digit numbers when it comes to allowing your audience to text in and subscribe to your SMS list.

You’ve seen it before:

Text DISCOUNT to 74121 to receive great deals!

Compare that with:

Text DISCOUNT to 800-913-4953 to receive great deals!

Which one do you think will yield a better response?

And with a “vanity” short code (as opposed to a “shared” or “random” short code), you can choose your own number.

That means you can make the number even more convenient or memorable, as you can make it an easy string of digits. Or you can make the digits correspond with a particular word related to your business (for example, 72537 which corresponds to SALES on your dialpad).

3 benefits of short code texting

What Are the Cons of Short Code Texting?

As seen above, short code texting has a lot of positive benefits.

That being said, it’s not for everyone.

There are 3 different types of short codes, and each one has their own cons, so we’ll go through the cons of each individually.

Shared Short Codes

Shared short codes used to be the bread and butter of many texting platforms.


Because of all the benefits listed in the previous section above, and because text alert providers could essentially offer it for free to their users.

So what is the downside?

The biggest one is this: phone carriers are phasing out shared short codes, so texting providers can no longer offer them.

This phasing out of shared short codes is a relatively recent development, so these numbers are still in existence for now. But they could but shut down at any time, and at present are not being offered as an option to new customers.

The other cons of shared short codes (some of which led to their eventual demise as sanctioned by the phone carriers) include:

  • Poor user experience
    • if a user happened to be subscribed to 2 different companies who shared the same short code, there could be confusion as to who was sending the message (and also difficulty in opting out of the correct campaign)
  • Less flexibility
    • since the numbers were shared, marketers had to choose opt-in words that weren’t already taken by another business on the same short code
  • Instability
    • a single bad actor sending illegitimate messages through a shared short code could (and many times did) cause the shutdown of that short code for all businesses using it

Due to all of these cons, as well as other issues, shared short codes are unfortunately no longer an option for businesses.

Random and Vanity Dedicated Short Codes

As mentioned previously, in contrast to shared short codes, dedicated short codes belong to one business only.

Businesses lease these codes on an individual basis.

Since they’re dedicated, these short codes don’t have the same cons as shared short codes.

They do have some of their own disadvantages, however.

The downfalls impacting both of these options include cost and relatively lengthy setup process.

The cost for leasing a dedicated short code for your business will run at least $500 per month for a random code and $1,000 per month for a vanity code. For either option, there’s also a one-time application processing fee of around $2,500.

In addition, the setup requires filling out an application/approval form that will detail how you’re going to use the short code.

All of this allows regulators and phone carriers to vet the use case and make sure the dedicated number won’t be used for spam or fraudulent purposes.

Once the application is submitted, it takes several weeks to be reviewed and approved before you can start sending messages.

Random short code vs Vanity short code

What Are Other Considerations with Short Code Texting?

Here are a few other elements to keep in mind in considering whether or not to utilize short code texting.

Compliance, Opt-in, and Audits

Like all SMS marketing campaigns, messages sent through short codes must adhere to compliance standards set by the CTIA, an organization that represents the wireless communications industry in the United States.

Although it’s not a legislative or government entity, phone carriers generally require adherence to the CTIA’s regulations.

These regulations help maintain the integrity of SMS marketing for consumers, to minimize the amount of fraudulent and spam traffic sent to people’s phones.

As far as actual laws go, the Telephone Consumer and Protection Act (TCPA) used to be a legally binding standard for companies that sent mass text messages.

Although a recent Supreme Court ruling has put some of that official regulation into a bit of chaos, companies should still adhere to the TCPA’s regulations in order to help them stay out of legal trouble (legitimate or otherwise).

The main tenet of both the CTIA and TCPA requirements is that you must obtain clear opt-in consent from your recipients before sending them text messages.

Short code texting (and other mass texting options) makes opt-in simple by providing a mechanism that allows people to simply text in a particular word to your short code number in order to be automatically subscribed.

Your short code application will have sections you’ll need to fill out, which will help make sure your texting campaigns adhere to compliance regulations.

And once your short code is approved, you may experience a “short code audit” from time to time to make sure your campaign is still on par.

So just make sure you continue to follow the rules and you’ll be just fine!

Country Limitations

Will you be sending text messages to multiple countries?

If so, be aware that you’ll need a short code set up for each country, as these short codes are country-specific.

This means that if you provision your short code in the United States, you would only be able to send messages through that short code to the United States.

Short codes are available for provision in most countries.

But if you’re like the majority of businesses, your primary client base is located in a single country… even though you may have some international clients.

So if you don’t want to go through the hassle and cost of provisioning multiple short codes, you could use a short code for your domestic traffic and use long code numbers for international traffic.

That way, if you have just a handful of international recipients, you can still send them messages.

Short Code Transferring

If you already use a short code, you can typically transfer it over to another service.

Just submit an inquiry to a texting service letting a representative know the short code you’d like to transfer and what purposes you’re planning to use it for.

Someone will then get back to you with more information on whether your short code is transferable and how to go about the transferring process.

Handset Compatibility

Is it true that some phones can’t accept messages sent from short codes?

By and large this is a non-issue, as the majority of phone carriers and phone handsets can and do receive short code messages without an issue.

That being said, you may from time to time run into problems with handsets not being able to receive these messages.

Does that mean those users can’t receive your texts?

Not at all!

In rare cases like that, your short code texting provider can fallback to 10-digit numbers for that particular user.

Sometimes providers can even detect compatibility issues like this and use the fallback number automatically, without your recipients even realizing there’s an issue.

Who Should Use Short Code Texting?

All things considered, the basic question becomes, “Should my company use short code texting?”

As discussed in previous sections above, “shared” short code texting is no longer an option.

So that leaves dedicated codes.

Short code texting via dedicated codes is a good option for bigger businesses with a large audience and a more robust budget.

By “large” audience, we mean a text list in the multiple hundreds of thousands (or even millions).

If that doesn’t describe you and your business, you could consider pursuing less expensive mass texting options instead.

But if you can afford it, short code texting allows you to have better delivery and send messages faster through a number that’s easier and more convenient.

And between using a “random” or “vanity” dedicated short code (with a 5-digit number that you can choose), the difference is all in the price.

Since vanity short codes cost $500 more per month than random codes, you would have to make the determination for your own business on whether the convenience and ease of being able to choose your own number is worth the cost.

How Do You Get Set Up on Short Code Texting?

So let’s say you’re interested in getting a dedicated short code up and running for your business.

What’s the actual process?

It’s not complicated, but it does take a few steps.

First, you’ll need to contact a texting service such as Mobile Text Alerts and let them know whether you’re interested in a random short code or vanity short code, and what you’ll be using it for.

If you’re not sure what type you’re interested in, that’s OK! A sales rep can help you make the decision.

The representative will confirm pricing with you and may ask you questions about your use case.

Once you’ve come to an agreement and paid the $2,500 application processing fee, you’ll be asked to fill out a form which will go to carriers and providers for review and approval.

The form will ask you to provide:

  • Details about your company
  • A summary about what kinds of messages you’ll be sending
  • The opt-in process through which you’ll be collecting your contacts’ phone numbers and receiving consent to send them texts
  • Contact information that will be provided to recipients in need of support

Once submitting the form, it will take around 4-8 weeks for your application to be reviewed.

Then after it’s approved, your representative will be in touch to let you know.

You’ll then be billed the $500 per month leasing fee (for a random short code) or $1,000 per month leasing fee (for a vanity short code).

You’ll also select a messaging subscription, which you can pay either monthly or annually.

Then you’re ready to go to send your messages!

(And don’t worry - a sales rep will walk you through every step to make it as easy and stress-free as possible for you.)

What Are the Alternatives to Short Code Texting?

If the cons of short code texting outweigh the benefits for your business, don’t worry!

There are affordable SMS marketing options available to you, including 10-digit long codes (10DLC) and text-enabled toll-free numbers (TETF).

10-Digit Long Codes (10DLC)

Long codes, as opposed to short codes, are “regular” 10-digit numbers.

You can even get these set up with a specific area code, which can be helpful if you’re targeting a particular geographical region.

So in some ways, these can feel more “personal” than receiving from a 5-digit short code.

They also are significantly less expensive than short codes, costing only $15 per month to lease, with an initial setup fee of $50.

What are the downsides?

  • 10DLCs have lower throughput (messaging speed) than short codes, so if you have a bigger audience, messages can take longer to be delivered to all of your recipients
  • 10DLCs are also subject to greater carrier filtering, which means a higher chance that your messages will get misinterpreted as spam and not delivered
  • The regulation of 10DLCs for SMS marketing is currently in flux, and some carriers have daily messaging caps which prevent you from sending too many messages in a particular day

Due to messaging caps, 10DLCs are not the best for businesses that want to send multiple thousands of messages per day.

But they are a viable option for businesses that don’t need to send a lot on a daily basis.

Text-Enabled Toll-Free (TETF)

The most commonly used SMS marketing option in the current climate is text-enabled toll-free numbers.

These are phone numbers that start with “800” (or a similar variant, such as “888”).

Many texting providers offer this option for free. And these numbers don’t have the daily messaging cap limitations that restrict 10DLC usage.

The cons?

  • Like 10DLCs, they have much lower throughput than short codes
  • Also similar to 10DLCs, TETFs may experience more message filtering issues by the phone carriers, so you could run into some delivery issues
  • Since they are 800 numbers, they don’t have the personal touch of 10DLCs (which look like a “normal” phone number with a local area code)

Text-enabled toll-free numbers may be the route to go if you’re a business that won’t have a huge recipient base but would like room to grow.

Short codes and Toll-free

How Can You Market to Customers with Short Code Texting?

Once you’ve moved forward with short code texting (or one of the alternative text marketing methods), how do you actually go about SMS marketing?

Here are a few tips to getting started.

Step 1: Decide Which Opt-in Method(s) to Use

Short code texting providers will offer various methods for your audience to subscribe to your texts.

The most popular of these opt-in methods would be “text-to-join.” This allows your audience to simply text in to your dedicated number and be automatically added to your text list.

Some other opt-in methods include:

  • QR codes
    • your audience can scan an automatically-generated QR code, which will pre-fill a text message on their phone. They can then just hit “Send” on that text message to subscribe.
  • Web forms
    • your audience can visit an automatically-generated web form that they can fill out in order to register.
  • Handling opt-in on your end automatically
    • you can create your own online or physical sign-up forms and then can load your contacts into your short code texting platform automatically. You can do this either through integrations with your other software or through API (if you are a developer or have access to a developer).
  • Handling opt-in on your end manually
    • if you’ve already received consent from your audience to send them texts, you can add their numbers to your text list manually by importing a spreadsheet, or individually one-by-one.

You can use one, several, or all of these opt-in tools to build your own text list.

If you want to target your SMS marketing campaigns to specific segments, you can also organize your contact list into different groups within your SMS platform.

SMS marketing opt-in methods

Step 2: Decide What Campaigns You’d Like to Send

After you’ve decided how you’re going to build your SMS contact list, the next step is the same process you’d follow for any type of marketing.

You need to plan what you’re going to do.

Keep in mind that texting is not email. You won’t be able to get away with texting your audience every day.

People like getting texts and pay attention to them - but they also don’t have as much patience with receiving texts that they don’t actually want.

Our suggestion would be to send texts sparingly and make sure they have truly valuable content within them.

Step 3: Schedule Your Campaigns

Once you’ve done your planning and are ready to set up a text campaign, go ahead and schedule your campaign within your short code texting platform.

This isn’t hard to do at all. You can schedule for a specific date and time, or you can set up a drip campaign for your text to go out automatically according to when people are added to your text list.

Scheduled Message

You can schedule it for the day and time that you’d like it to be sent and then get ready to see the results.

Once the message is sent, people will receive the text on their phone from your dedicated short code and they’ll respond accordingly.

Step 4: Monitor Your Campaigns

Like with any marketing effort, you need ways to both monitor results and engage with responses.

You’ll be able to view reporting for how many messages you’ve sent and delivery statuses as well as who has clicked on links within your messages.

Sent Messages Report

You’ll also be able to view responses and engage in 2-way conversations, or set up automated replies to go out to folks who respond.

Inbox Screenshot

Get Started on a Short Code Texting Service

As you can see, there are a lot of layers to short code texting, and to SMS marketing in general.

And you don’t want to miss out on the power of texting for your business.

Want to give short code texting a try but not quite ready to take the plunge?

Try out a free plan today with Mobile Text Alerts to get a feel for how a texting platform and mobile app work.

Get a Free 14-Day Trial Account

Start sending mass text alerts to your entire list today!