Marketing

SMS and email marketing: Comparing communication channels

It’s email marketing vs SMS marketing. Have you picked a side? Do you really need to? Find out how these two channels compare and get strategic with your customer communications.

Hermes draws an arrow next to a lamp

What do you check more often... your email inbox or your text messages? What’s the best way to reach customers and prospects with marketing messages? How do you think other people prefer to hear from brands?

We’re willing to bet that the answers to questions about SMS and email marketing depend an awful lot on the person you ask and the situation at hand.

If you’re an email marketer, you may have some opinions about sending SMS marketing messages as opposed to connecting with people in the inbox. Email has plenty of advantages, but so does text messaging. And both channels have their drawbacks as well.

So, let’s be honest. There’s room for more than one way to communicate with customers, and it never hurts to diversify your digital marketing skill set. Let’s take a closer look at the different benefits of email and SMS as well as how they can work together.

Comparing SMS and email marketing

We’ll start by checking out some trends and key statistics on these two digital communication channels.

First, it’s worth mentioning that it’s believed the invention of email took place in 1971. The technology for text messaging emerged around 1984, and the first message (which was “Merry Christmas” by the way) was sent from a computer to a mobile phone in 1992.

SMS, aka Short Messaging Service, took a while to take off as a means of communication. That's partly because people with mobile phones had to pay extra for texting plans, and also because phones didn’t have keyboards back in the day. A lot has changed since then.

Today there are billions and billions of texts and emails sent every day, including plenty from legit businesses as well as sneaky spammers and shady scammers.

Although the winner isn’t always perfectly clear, here’s a quick look at which channel has the edge in eight key areas of consideration:

Email

SMS

Open rates

Between 15% and 25%.

Greater than 90%.

Message length

Unlimited.

166-character limit.

Engagement

3% to 5% clickthrough rate.

~19% clickthrough rate. (Benchmark data varies)

Experience

Allows for a robust, interactive experience. But support varies by mailbox provider.

Mostly limited to text and links. (Excluding MMS and RCS)

Cost effectiveness

Relatively inexpensive with high ROI.

Relatively inexpensive with high ROI.

Regulations

Subject to GDPR and other consumer privacy laws.

Subject to GDPR as well as the TCPA and other consumer privacy laws.

Security

Phishing emails are the biggest security threat vector.

SMS phishing (smishing) is on the rise.

Consumer preference

42% of global consumers prefer receiving brand communication via email.

Preferred over email for shipping notifications and appointment reminders.

SMS and email open rates

Open rates for SMS messages are often better than 90%. That almost seems unbelievable until you consider how often you leave your own texts unopened (not so often do you?).

Depending on whose benchmarks you look at and what industry you’re in, typical email open rates are between 15% and 25%. The truth is, the inbox is a very crowded place. And unfortunately, marketing emails can be pretty easy to ignore.

Text messages have a sense of immediacy around them. But subscribers may wait to read an email, and then it gets buried under new messages. That’s one reason why smart email marketers who send meaningful campaigns are such a great asset. They know how to get good email open rates.

Message length

An SMS message is limited to 160 characters. That’s not much. Even Twitter allows for tweets that are 280 characters in length. Using an emoji in SMS messages will reduce the length to just 70 characters.

The positive side of that 160-character restriction is that it requires marketers to choose their words carefully, crafting SMS messages that prioritize being clear and concise over sounding cool and clever.

SMS character limits make it best for short messages

There are no such limitations with email. Your campaigns can have as few or as many words as you need to get the message across. (And you can go crazy with emojis in email too, if you really want.) Of course, just because you can write a really long marketing email doesn’t mean you should. But at least email provides that flexibility.

SMS and email marketing engagement

Like open rates, it seems SMS marketing has a bit of an edge over email when it comes to engagement.

According to stats gathered on SMSComparison, 95% of all types of text messages are read and responded to within three minutes (although that might exclude texts from your mother-in-law). Various sources suggest the clickthrough rate (CTR) for SMS marketing is around 19%, although, you’ll find research indicating higher and lower CTRs for SMS.

In email marketing, clickthrough rates vary widely by industry. But in general, if your CTR for an email campaign is around 5%, you’re doing pretty well.

Keep in mind, however, that email marketing can offer subscribers much more to engage with. While an SMS will be a few lines of copy with a CTA and a shortened link, measuring engagement in an email campaign reveals subscribers’ preferences and behaviors. You can also continuously improve email engagement with A/B testing.

For more insights, check out Mailjet’s report on email engagement around the world.

Subscriber experience

In comparison to basic text messaging, HTML emails also offer more flexibility in terms of design. While SMS messages mainly deliver text and links, email gives you a lot more to work with.

Email developers and designers can work together to create compelling campaigns with eye-catching visuals and calls-to-action (CTAs). You can add animated GIFs, buttons, product images, and more. Advanced tactics can include email marketing trends like dynamic content and interactivity.

We should point out, however, that other forms of mobile messaging do offer a lot more in terms of the subscriber experience. Beyond SMS, there are Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) and Rich Communication Service (RCS).

MMS and RCS marketing offer more robust mobile messaging experiences

Here’s a good way to describe the differences:

  • SMS is like a simple, plain text email.

  • MMS is more like an HTML email. There are fewer limitations and more possibilities for design as well as short videos (which are tough to do in email).

  • RCS is similar to a dynamic marketing email with interactivity. It’s sometimes described as providing an “app-like experience.” But a big downside is that RCS is currently only available for Android devices.

Find out more about different messaging channels from Sinch.

Creating a well-designed email experience isn’t without its challenges. Mailbox providers and email clients render HTML and CSS differently, which means sometimes your campaigns look messed up in certain inboxes. That’s why Mailjet by Sinch offers inbox previews, which let you see how things look on different clients and devices before you hit send.

Cost effectiveness

Both SMS and email marketing are very cost effective. Your actual investment will vary depending on your sending volume and the platforms you use to create, deliver, and manage email and text messages. Where you and your recipients are located in the world can also impact SMS pricing.

It’s tough to find reliable benchmarks for the return on investment (ROI) of SMS marketing. And the aspirational number that gets thrown around for email ROI (4,000%, really?) is a bit controversial.

To accurately determine the ROI of a marketing channel, you don’t need an average, you need to look at your own investments and returns. Check out our article on calculating ROI for more.

Regulations and compliance

As with cost effectiveness, the rules and regulations around email and SMS marketing are fairly similar.

International laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) apply to both SMS and email. For recipients in the U.S., SMS marketers must abide by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which a court ruled includes text messaging. But basically, staying in compliance with email or SMS marketing means following some best practices for privacy protection.

International laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) apply to both SMS and email.

If you want to send marketing messages to people on either of these channels you must:

  • Obtain consent or have an opt-in process

  • Provide a way to opt-out or remove consent

  • Protect sensitive data aka known as personally identifiable information (PII)

Explicit consent, which is when someone knowingly and willingly subscribes, is usually required for email and text messages that are promotional.

Transactional messages are a little bit different than commercial texts and emails. As long as their primary purpose is non-promotional and they contain necessary information, you do not need explicit consent to send transactional emails or texts. Instead, a previous relationship, such as a purchase or account creation, indicates implied consent. However, the phrase “necessary information” is where things get a little confusing.

While order confirmations, password resets, and two-factor authentication are considered necessary, appointment reminders may not be. Both the TCPA and GDPR require senders to get permission before delivering reminders via text or email.

That goes for phone call reminders too. In 2015, Walgreens settled a lawsuit over prescription refill reminders in the form of robocalls.

Security

Both email and SMS are beloved by spammers and cybercriminals. In fact, it’s estimated around 90% of cyber-attacks start with a phishing email. However, the use of text messaging for nefarious purposes is on the rise. There’s even a name for phishing over SMS. They’re calling it “smishing” (that’s not a joke).

Smishing attacks increased by 700% in the first half of 2021. Meantime, an APWG report shows email phishing reached an all-time high in the first quarter of 2022, topping one million for the first time.

As with email, brand spoofing is becoming a big problem in text messaging. Attackers send text messages claiming to be the recipient’s bank, wireless carrier, or a charity the person has supported. Then, the scammers include a malicious link to obtain sensitive info or install malware.

The best way to stop spoofing is to set up authentication for branded messages.

While email uses protocols like SPF and DKIM as well as DMARC for authentication, SMS messages are authenticated using what’s known as a sender ID, which can be alpha IDs (letters and digits 0-9), numeric IDs, or designated short codes.

Responsibility for protecting these forms of authentication falls on the brands. If someone gets your DKIM or sender ID, for example, it’s very easy to spoof your brand and deceive your subscribers.

Consumer preferences

Mailjet’s report “The path to email engagement 2021” found that 42% of global consumers want to hear from brands in their email inbox while 20% feel the same way about text messages.

A recent survey of American consumers from Opinium Research reveals a much closer race between SMS and email.

The research found that 37% of consumers like email for brand communication while 21% dislike emails from brands. Those results are still good enough to keep email at the top of the list, but SMS is nipping at its heels. 32% of consumers like getting text messages from brands and 27% dislike it.

The survey also included TV ads, social media, podcast ads, telemarketing, and other types of digital advertising and marketing. Interestingly, the largest spread between email and any other channel was just 12 percentage points. 25% of respondents said they like Influencer marketing compared to the 37% who prefer email.

Findings like this suggest that consumer communication preferences are varied. It would be a mistake to paint consumer communication preferences with a broad brush. Each industry, target audience, and individual requires the right option for specific situations.

SMS is often preferred for notifications and reminders

How SMS and email marketing can learn from each other

It makes no sense to think of email and SMS as competitors. The smart thing to do is make the right marketing and communication choices for your brand and your customers.

Imagine what SMS and email marketers can learn from each other. For example, email marketers can look at the success of SMS marketing and understand that sometimes short and simple messages are super effective.

SMS is also used more often as a two-way communication channel between brands and consumers. But a lot of email messages come from a do-not-reply address. In a world where conversational customer engagement is on the rise, that needs to change.

SMS marketers can learn from email marketing too. There was a time in email’s younger days when it also experienced much higher open rates and engagement. Believe it or not, people used to get excited when they received an email. Then spammers, scammers, and over-aggressive marketers eroded consumer trust (and annoyed people). SMS could suffer a similar fate unless marketers show some strategic restraint.

The good news is that it seems SMS and email marketing are already coming together, and marketers are leaning on each other for help and advice.

Research from Attentive Mobile found that only ecommerce platforms topped email service providers (ESPs) as the top technology for SMS program integration.

And when it comes to teamwork, it looks like email and SMS can live together in harmony. The Attentive Mobile study found that SMS marketers are most likely to collaborate with the email team.

Moving towards omnichannel communications

If you’ve been relying too much on one channel to reach your customers and prospects, it’s time to consider an omnichannel approach.

Omnichannel marketing helps brands deliver consistent and compelling customer communication experiences whether they happen in the email inbox, with a chatbot, in a text message, over the phone, or on mobile messaging applications.

An omnichannel communication strategy leads to higher engagement, increased loyalty and more conversions. But first, you’ve got to get your story straight.

Find out more about that in Mailjet’s ebook, “The omnichannel hero’s journey”. You’ll learn much more about creating a compelling customer experience with omnichannel communications. Plus, discover what Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and other heroes have to do with all of this.

Start your journey

Discover the power of omnichannel communications

Find out how to use the hero’s journey to build better customer experiences across every marketing channel.

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