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Play by the rules: A quick guide to SMS marketing compliance

8 Minute Read

Christy ParrishDirector of Strategic Consulting, Cordial

SMS is a relatively new player in the personalized marketing game, yet has proven to be a powerful way to engage customers. If you’re considering adding SMS to your marketing mix, you should also familiarize yourself with the rules that come along with it. Since you’ll be sending messages directly to a personal device, there are strict regulations about what messages you can send and how you send them. 

Remember, we are not legal experts so always consult with legal counsel to make sure you are 100% compliant with the most current regulations before you begin sending. 

Basics of SMS marketing compliance

The opt-in

Opt-ins are the most critical aspect of SMS compliance. If you text someone without their explicit permission, it’s considered spam and you risk facing legal repercussions. You, as a marketer, must receive express written consent from a contact before you can start sending them SMS marketing messages. That consent needs to be clear and straightforward — not buried in your terms and conditions. Present clear language and ensure that consent is concisely stated, perhaps with a checkbox. 

In addition to physical written consent, your customers can opt in to your SMS campaigns using a few different methods. The two most common are mobile opt-in and web opt-in.

  • Mobile opt-in: Consumers opt in by texting a keyword to a short code number. Promote your keyword and short code on advertisements, emails, or ads to encourage people to subscribe to your messages.
  • Web opt-in: Using a form or landing page on your website, during a newsletter sign-up or at check-out, ask the customer for permission to send them text messages. Again, you are looking for express consent to send them messages. They must receive clear disclosure of the text messages they will receive from you, and agree to receive those messages to a specific phone number. When it comes to receiving consent, you can never be too careful. Remember that customers giving you their phone numbers isn’t the same as permitting you to text them. If you use an opt-in form, you should include the SMS program details and very clearly ask for their permission.

The double opt-in

To make absolutely sure that you’re in compliance with the law and that your customers actually want to receive SMS messages from you, consider implementing a double opt-in. In fact, Cordial requires that all clients implement a double opt-in automatically. A double opt-in requires that the customer confirm via text message that they would like to receive your communications. 

Double opt-ins are not required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), but they are the closest a marketer can come to following the letter of the law. Having the customer confirm that they signed up for your SMS program shows additional intent to receive messages, and is a much stronger consent should the consumer forget that they opted in. 

Double opt-ins can be simple. It’s as easy as sending an immediate follow-up message that reads: Reply Y or YES to confirm that you want to receive SMS messages from [Business Name].

The message itself

To maintain SMS compliance, you must make sure that each SMS message you send has the following attributes:

  • Contains content expressly requested by the consumer
  • Has no other marketing or advertising information
  • Is a one-time only message
  • Is sent in response to the specific consumer request
  • A subscriber must be able to stop receiving messages from your company by replying to any messages with STOP, OPT-OUT, CANCEL, or UNSUBSCRIBE

The opt-out

Equally as important as the opt-in, is the opt-out. There are two places where opt-out instructions are absolutely required by the FCC. The first is wherever a call-to-action asks someone to join your text program. Every location where you’re opting customers into the program—whether it’s a text to join, an opt-in form, or a sign-up sheet—you must include opt-out instructions. It can be as simple as “Text STOP to opt out.”

The second place you’ll need to include opt-out instructions is in the confirmation message the user receives after opting in. In addition to a welcome message, you’ll need to alert the user to the frequency of messages, provide them with a way to contact support (usually by replying “HELP”), and give them an option to opt-out. 

Learn CTIA and ADA regulations

One of the key components of text messaging compliance is making sure your campaign follows the rules set by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act for Accessible Design (ADA). Both spell out exactly how texts should present messaging and prevent misleading messages or campaigns that exclude individuals with disabilities.

Regarding the CTIA, there must be clear opt-in consent presented and details must not be hidden within the terms and conditions content. More specific directives include:

  • Displaying a clear call to action, giving users a specific idea of what they are signing up for and what they will receive — in this case, recurring text messages
  • Providing clearly labeled Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy links in the opt-in messages
  • Giving subscribers the ability to stop receiving your messages any time they choose by replying “STOP” or something to that effect
  • Including your brand’s name in all outgoing messages to avoid confusion
  • Sending new subscribers a message upon their enrollment that includes complete details about the nature of the campaign, the frequency of messages, disclaimers about SMS and data rates, and how to opt out or receive technical support
  • Giving subscribers the option to contact support by messaging “HELP” or something similar, which should result in a message containing detailed information about getting assistance
  • Avoiding offensive content such as hate speech and violence
  • Displaying instructions for opting out at least once a month, which should appear in either the advertisement itself or the Terms & Conditions content

In terms of how your SMS messages should conform to ADA, they fall under the law’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This means that your messages must be crafted with particular attention paid to their:

  • Readability: Images and text should be high contrast to ensure those with vision impairment can still read what you’re saying.
  • Operability: Interactions and navigations should be easy for all and provide no undue obstacles.
  • Comprehensibility: Messages should avoid jargon and provide directions or instructions as clearly and concisely as possible.
  • Compatibility: Any assistive technologies used in your SMS campaign should be capable of reading and understanding all content.

Adhering to these requirements is essential if you want to make sure your campaign will be successful from a compliance standpoint.

Review your privacy policy and terms

Your privacy policy and your terms and conditions are extremely important aspects of FCC compliance. These documents must include explicit language about how you plan to use subscriber information and provide details about how to opt out of communications. Cordial will partner with your team to ensure your documentation is compliant, but you should also work with a legal expert to ensure your language is airtight. 

At a minimum, these documents should contain the following information:

  • Minimum age requirement
  • Clause about standard messaging rates
  • The short code(s) messages will be sent from
  • The frequency of message sends
  • How to unsubscribe
  • What subscriber information will be collected
  • How subscriber data will be used
  • Where the service is available
  • Supported message carriers
  • Where to get help and support
  • Notice that terms may change

Keep in mind that complaints often arise when customers forget they’ve signed up for text message marketing in the first place. You can avoid any potential issues by promoting your SMS marketing terms, conditions, and privacy policy in as many places as possible. Here are a few important places to add links to these documents:

  • Your website
  • Inside your physical business or on store signage
  • On landing pages and/or preference panels used to collect opt-ins

Also remember that if you change your terms and conditions or privacy policy in any way, you should inform your subscribers via text, and ask them to reply CONTINUE or YES to confirm their continued consent. Not doing so could land you in a sticky legal situation if there is a complaint. 

Ready to learn more?

Now that you know the basics of SMS compliance, download our comprehensive guide to learn how to build an effective SMS marketing strategy. Or if you’d like to learn more about how Cordial can help you send personalized messages to your customers, request a demo today.