What Is SMS (Short Message Service), and Why Does It Matter?

August 8, 2022 | By Sam Pelton
Woman is using an SMS short message service

You may have heard the term “SMS” (which stands for “short message service”).

You may even already know that it has something to do with text messaging.

But what, actually, is it?

How does it work?

And why does it matter to you?

We’ll go through each of these questions one at a time.

So buckle your seatbelts, ladies and gents, and let’s get started!

What Is “Short Message Service” (SMS)?


“Short message service,” more commonly known as SMS, is text messaging in its most basic form.

It is simply sending a text-only message (meaning, no media such as images or videos included) to a recipient’s phone, typically through the recipient’s cellular network.

Some common alternatives to SMS include MMS (which allows for media) and internet-based messaging apps such as Facebook’s Messenger app and WhatsApp.


SMS was built in 1985 but the first text message wasn’t actually sent until 1992.

The content of that first SMS?

“Merry Christmas.”

(Sent by Santa Claus. Just kidding.)

Use of SMS gradually grew over the next decade or so until it came into widespread use as we know it today.


If you’re simply sending text messages to your friends and family, you likely would never notice the difference between SMS (short message service) and MMS (multimedia message service).

But there is a difference.

SMS technically has a limit of 160 characters per message (less if it contains characters not standard to the English language).

Or if you want to get technical, here’s Techopedia’s explanation:

SMS messages hold up to 140 bytes (1,120 bits) of data, which allows a 160-character alphanumeric message in the default 7-bit alphabet or a 70-character message in a non-Latin language, such as Chinese.

This means that if your message goes longer than 160 characters, or 70 characters if it included an emoji or a non-English character, the message would actually be sent as 2 or more messages.

Now, odds are you haven’t noticed something like this in a long while. If you’re like many, usually your messages come through as a big block of text, no matter how long they are.

That’s because many phones concatenate messages sent in multiple segments.

Concatenate essentially just means the recipient’s phone can “detect” that the message was meant to be a single unit.

So your phone can display the message as a single block, even if it was technically sent as multiple messages.

Or another reason your message may come through as a big block of text is that it’s possible the sender’s phone automatically converted it to an MMS when they sent it out.

So what exactly is MMS?

MMS (multimedia message service) is a different type of message that allows you to include media (such as images or GIFs), and also allows up to 1,600 characters.

When sending messages from your phone, the device itself seamlessly handles the transition between when an SMS or MMS is sent. So you don’t typically need to even be aware of a difference.

However, if you’re on a phone plan that charges different rates to send SMS vs. MMS, you’ll want to be aware.

Why? Because SMS are typically less expensive to send on the provider end, so providers usually charge more for sending MMS.

Online texting platforms will also typically count SMS and MMS messages differently in regards to billing. So you’ll need to be aware of that if you’re considering sending texts on a larger scale.

Comparing SMS with MMS

SMS and Internet-Based Messaging Apps

You’ve used them, even if you haven’t realized it.

Internet-based messaging apps are becoming increasingly popular.

These would include apps like iMessage, Messenger, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and WeChat.

Through apps like these, users can send each other text messages, and even media messages similar to MMS, without actually using SMS or MMS.

These apps can have some convenient advantages over SMS/MMS.

For example, through Messenger you can send text messages to people without needing to know their phone number (although this is not true of all messaging apps). All you need to know is their Messenger information, or have access to their Facebook profile.

This gives you more flexibility to get in touch with the people you need to.

This also means you can send texts to people who don’t have a wireless phone plan, which may be helpful in certain contexts.

So what’s the downside of sending a text message through an app like Messenger?

There are 2 main differences that would matter to you:

  • Non-SMS messaging apps send texts via the internet rather than via a cellular network
  • Non-SMS messaging apps can typically only send messages to other users of the app

Something to consider is that these apps are internet-based, rather than sent through the recipient’s cellular network.

This means that the ability to send and receive the message is based on internet availability rather than cell network availability, which could be either beneficial or problematic, depending on the circumstance.

The most important issue, however, is that apps like iMessage or Messenger only allow you to send text messages to people who also have the same app.

For iMessage, for example, this means you can only send iMessage texts to fellow Apple users.

For Messenger, this means you can only send Messenger texts to people who have a Messenger (or Facebook) account.

So while apps like these do sometimes give added flexibility as to who you can text, in another sense they are much more limited.

SMS/MMS vs Internet-based messaging apps

How Does “Short Message Service” (SMS) Work?

You’ve probably guessed by now that SMS isn’t too complicated of a concept.

And you actually already have a general knowledge of how SMS works, even if you didn’t know exactly what it was before.

When it comes to sending texts from your personal phone, it’s simple - you just type out your short message and hit send.

And voila!

You’ve just sent an SMS.

Your message is submitted to the cell phone carriers, who will then deliver it to your intended recipient.

But how does it work when you’re using a text alert platform (particularly if you’re sending texts to large numbers of people)?

It’s essentially the same. You’ll submit your message via the text alert platform (either on a web browser or on a mobile app). And the text alert platform will handle submitting it to carriers for delivery to your recipients.

Here are a couple of quick steps to sending an SMS via an online texting platform.

1. Load in your contacts

This can be done through a variety of manual or automatic methods. And there are several ways your contacts can actually add themselves into your texting database.

You can also organize your contact list into “groups” so you can send your message to the right segments.

Message subscribers screenshot

2. Set up your message

Setting up your message simply means selecting the time you’d like your message to go out, selecting your intended recipients, and typing out your message content. Send message page in the Mobile Text Alerts platform

3. Hit “Send”

Once your message is ready to go, you can just hit “Send” and your SMS will be submitted.

You can monitor results in the online platform’s reports.

3 Steps to send SMS with an online texting platform

Why Does It Matter?

So now you’re aware of all this information regarding using “short message service” (SMS).

What’s the point? Why should you care?

The concept of SMS is good for anyone to know, since most of us actually send SMS regularly (whether we realize it or not).

Having an understanding of what SMS is and how it works helps you be more informed about what’s going on behind the scenes every time you send a text.

(Not to mention, it’s just interesting!)

Beyond that, if you want to send texts on a larger scale (for example, for your business), the terminology is important.

Text message software platforms will use terms like SMS and MMS often.

So you’ll need to know what exactly they’re referring to.

It can actually impact your bottom line, because as mentioned previously, texting platforms will usually count SMS and MMS differently in terms of how many messages they bill you for.

How Do Businesses Use “Short Message Service” (SMS)?

Now that you know that SMS is simply texting, you can agree that SMS is one of the most widely used products out there.

For example:

  • One study showed that 66% of Americans check their phones 160 times every day. (Source: Small Biz Trends)
  • The same study indicated that over 3 quarters of Americans consider themselves to be addicted to their phones.
  • 2.2 trillion texts messages were sent in the US in the year 2020 alone. (Source: Statista)

That’s a lotta texting!

Phone usage and texting are so popular, in fact, that many have caught on and now use it for business purposes.

But is SMS something that would actually be useful to you and your business?

What are some ways businesses actually use SMS?

There are 3 overarching uses that businesses and other organizations have for using SMS:

  • Marketing
  • Internal alerts
  • Community notices

You can read through the descriptions below and determine if sending SMS would be something to try for your own business.

SMS for Marketing

Due to high read and response rates and the vast popularity of text messaging, businesses find SMS to be a powerful marketing tool.

Some marketing use cases include:

  • Notifying or reminding customers about promotions
  • Checking in with leads and prospects
  • Showcasing special events
  • Fostering customer loyalty programs
  • Following up with lost customers to try to win them back

SMS for Internal Alerts

Businesses and other organizations also find SMS to be an effective tool for efficient communication within the workplace.

Some examples would include:

  • Notifying or reminding employees about meeting times
  • Announcing HR updates
  • Getting the word out about office closures or changes in hours
  • Requesting people to cover shift needs
  • Informing and updating employees about IT issues
  • Providing employee recognition

SMS for Community Notices

Along similar lines of “internal alerts,” businesses and other organizations take advantage of SMS to engage with and inform members of their affiliated “community.”

Some specific examples would be:

  • A business asking a customer how they’re enjoying their new product
  • A church letting their members know that a service is canceled due to weather
  • A city government informing citizens about a new health ordinance
  • A school updating parents about some upcoming events for their children
  • A YMCA notifying class participants about a class postponement
    How do businesses use SMS

Cons of Using “Short Message Service” (SMS) for Your Business

If you read the above section, you may think using SMS sounds too good to be true.

An effective communication situation that works for almost any business?

As with anything, there are negative aspects of using SMS to consider.

Below we’ll discuss some objections to using SMS for business purposes.

“It’s Expensive”

Here in the United States, many of us are used to free unlimited texting on our phone plans. So the cost of sending SMS through an online platform can seem steep.

So why the cost?

It simply comes down to operating expenses.

Texting platform companies need to charge their customers enough to cover the costs of sending the messages they’re providing, and to make a profit on top of that.

But when you consider how much more effective and efficient texting is as a way to communicate than other methods, the value can easily outweigh the expense.

The cost doesn’t seem so expensive when you realize that almost 100% of your customers will see your message, as opposed to maybe 20% who will see your emails, for example.

“It’s Hard to Figure Out”

Learning new online tools is often tricky and time-consuming.

This can be particularly difficult if you’re not tech-savvy. But even if you are, it can be hard to get the hang of a new platform. And your time and energy are precious.

The good news is that the concept of using a business texting platform is pretty simple. It basically involves learning 2 things: (1) how to add contacts and (2) how to send the text.

Sure, you can dig deeper into it, but only if you want to.

So you can get the basics down in as little as 5 minutes, particularly if the platform you choose is optimized to be user-friendly.

“I Won’t Be Able to Get Subscribers to Sign Up”

Anyone who has done much in promoting anything knows how difficult it can be to get people to engage.

Trying to get people to donate to charity? To join an email list? To RSVP to an event?


What if you run into the same issue of non-response with getting people to sign up for your SMS?

But the thing to remember about SMS is the read rate is so high that you don’t need as big of a recipient list to make it effective.

And there are convenient, automated opt-in methods (such as “text-to-join,” QR codes, and web sign-up forms) available to make it as easy as possible for your customers to join.

Add all of that to some kind of mouth-watering incentive you can provide, such as a free item or discount or giveaway, and you’ll see your text list growing in no time.

“I Don’t Want to Bother My Customers”

Some are concerned about implementing SMS because it may seem intrusive.

Text messages are much more personal and “in-your-face” than email or other communication channels.

What if sending texts annoys people and turns them off?

This objection is put to rest once you understand that texting is entirely opt-in.

The only people you’ll be texting will be the ones who have specifically asked to receive your texts.

If they asked to receive your texts, they won’t be annoyed that you’re sending them the texts they asked for. (As long as you don’t abuse your opportunity and text them too much!)

And if your customers do ever change their mind, texting platforms have a built-in mechanism in which all the recipient has to do is reply STOP to be automatically removed from your text list.

Concerns with using SMS for your business

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Look at you!

You’ve gone from not knowing what the initials “SMS” (“short message service”) meant to becoming a pro on different texting options and ways businesses go about using SMS.

Interested in seeing how SMS might work for your own business?

Get a free test account today and just see how it works.

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