The Email Marketer’s Guide to SMS

laptop with email message
Published on
Aug 10, 2022
Written by
Candice Sparks
Candice is the Director of Product Marketing at Attentive. You can find her at a pilates class, baking, or searching for a great coffee shop.
Thank you! You've been subscribed.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

SMS and email aren’t just parallel marketing channels. They’re great partners for delivering a consistent and personalized customer experience—the kind that consumers have come to expect from brands. Learn how to translate your skills to convert and delight your subscribers.

Check out our Email Migration Guide to learn what to look for in a new provider, what steps to take to make sure the transition goes smoothly, and access our pre and post-migration checklists.

As an email marketer, you know that email is only part of the job. There’s a whole world of responsibilities tied to the role: compliance, mobile optimization, analyzing results, and A/B testing (oh, so much A/B testing). It’s no wonder some email marketers may be hesitant to take on SMS marketing, too; they feel they already have enough on their plate. 

While SMS has its own best practices, regulations, and metrics, it also has much more in common with email than meets the eye. In fact, email marketers who are taking on SMS are finding that it’s a great complementary channel to what they’re already doing. 

SMS is a customer lifecycle channel, just like email. From acquisition to retention, the goals and strategies of each channel are similar. And from a messaging standpoint, email and SMS are often singing a similar tune. 

Done right, using email and SMS together can help you deliver better customer experiences, offer consistent messaging and branding, and communicate with audiences where they’re most likely to respond.

Marketers that have aligned their email and SMS channels are the ones who are future-proofing their roles in a rapidly-changing world. They’re equipped to provide their customers with a direct, streamlined, and holistic communication strategy that places their customer’s experience front and center. They’re also driving over 10x more revenue than they did with email alone.

If you’ve been tasked with—or are curious about—taking on SMS marketing, this guide is for you. You’ll walk away with an understanding of how you can succeed in both channels and make yourself an even more multifaceted marketer.

Benefits of SMS and email marketing

Ben and Jerry. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. Every iconic duo is made stronger by each individual’s unique attributes. Email and SMS are no different. So let’s start by looking at the unique strengths and benefits of each.

What sets SMS apart

There’s a reason so many consumers subscribe to SMS marketing: as a marketing channel, it’s extremely personalized and direct. It gives shoppers more access to brands, whether for support, early access to discounts and new products, or updates on their orders. And it uses a channel we’ve all become accustomed to communicating through.

Framed this way, SMS marketing has a few major differentiators over other marketing channels: it’s timely, targeted, and conversational in a way other channels can’t replicate. Read rates reflect this, with 97% of brand text messages read within 15 minutes of delivery.

Because it’s such a direct, targeted, and two-way channel, there are a number of ways to use SMS as part of a greater marketing communications strategy. Let’s take a look at each:

It’s a great tool for gathering first- and zero-party data

With email marketing, most preferences are gathered at the sign-up stage (for example, a clothing retailer might ask you to confirm which gender you’re shopping for, as well as your birthday). 

SMS marketing lets brands collect and leverage zero-party data across the customer lifecycle by explicitly gathering preferences. They can use that data later to deliver a highly-personalized communication experience. 

For example, Food52 sends a series of text messages asking new SMS subscribers about the types of recipes they’re interested in. The brand also asks if they prefer meat or vegetable options before recommending a recipe. In this example, sharing preferences becomes a two-way conversation, rather than a necessary—but relatively static—part of the sign-up process. 

Food52 text message

SMS has also emerged as one of the most effective channels to apply first-party data, which is also collected with the customer’s consent but in a more passive way (through website activity, purchase history, demographic information, and more). That data can be used to personalize text message marketing with information that makes the customer’s experience feel truly unique. For example, if the subscriber was browsing a product that was sold out, your brand could use that activity to later text them when the item is back in stock—increasing the likelihood that they’ll place their order right away.

It’s an excellent “first touchpoint”

Email and SMS are both great channels to use throughout promotional periods and seasonal campaigns. But SMS marketing is especially effective at grabbing subscribers’ attention when a sale or campaign begins. The average click-through rate for SMS is 20-35%, signaling that it’s a great entry point to kick timely marketing events off.

In other words, if you want to grab the customer’s attention quickly, SMS is the best way to do that. You can also use segmentation to map out your communication journey after that first message. For example, you can send a follow-up or “last chance” text message to subscribers who didn’t make a purchase from the first text message. Or, if you’ve integrated your SMS and email marketing channels, you can create a segment of subscribers who are opted in to both channels. Then, if someone isn’t converting via email, you can try sending them a text message to see if that catches their attention.

It’s a high-value way to connect with your most loyal customers

Consumers tend to be more selective about which brands’ SMS programs they subscribe to, because they typically only have one phone number. While the resulting distribution list may be smaller, it’s also made up of the most dedicated and captive audience members—the ones who explicitly opted in to hear directly from the brands they love. 

This tends to generate more engagement from the channel. Jewelry brand Dorsal Bracelets’ email subscriber list is three times larger than its SMS list. But when the brand sends emails and text messages featuring the same offer, the two channels provide nearly identical returns.

Because SMS subscribers tend to be a brand’s most engaged shoppers, you can have a lot of fun tailoring your messaging to reflect this. For example, using SMS marketing to drop VIP perks or early access to sales is a super effective way to spend your SMS marketing dollars (our personalized text messaging platform drives $55 in sales for every $1 spent). 

How email fits into the equation

We know we don’t have to convince you that email is an effective channel all on its own. Paired with SMS marketing though, its unique strengths stand out even more.

It has a wide reach

While SMS is ideal for reaching your most engaged customers, email is the perfect channel to use to reach a mass audience inexpensively. Most companies have been building their email database much longer than their other channels, making it the distribution list with the widest potential reach. This also makes it an effective channel for encouraging existing email subscribers to sign up for SMS.

Email lets you go long

Where SMS is short and sweet, email is—well, long and sweet.

Since it’s not constrained by character counts the way SMS marketing is, email allows you to cover more ground. Not only does it allow you to link to multiple areas of your website, but it also lets you communicate many messages, like a sale ending or a restock of a favorite item.  

Because of its capacity for long-form messages, email is also great for relationship building and awareness/consideration phase content where the customer might want more information. Additionally, email is great for relaying content that's not time sensitive. Think of it as the add-on to any urgent or important messages you’ve sent using SMS. 

Email and SMS: better together

It’s not a matter of if the two channels can work together; it’s how you can orchestrate them to create the most personalized, seamless, and effective communication strategy for your brand. 

The reality is that not everyone will want to subscribe to email, and not everyone will want to subscribe to SMS. Some will want to subscribe to both. It’s important to meet the customer where they are, so they can choose how they want to hear from you. Together, both channels create a better overall customer experience. 

Another benefit of using email and SMS marketing together is that you can collect insights from your subscribers on each channel to create more effective future messaging. For example, analyzing how specific segments perform on email compared to SMS can help you create more strategic journeys. This can also help you understand what type of content performs best on each channel.

In retail, we need to move fast. We can't spend a week planning an email campaign to respond to something timely. But with SMS, we have access to real-time data to do predictive modeling and come to business leaders with a campaign idea within a couple of hours—and then we can execute it that same day. The agility of SMS is where we look at the channel differently from email.

- Phillip Cruickshank, Associate Director of Brand Marketing at CB2

Email and SMS in action: How to orchestrate marketing channels

Now that we’re on the same page about why email and SMS work so well together, let’s talk strategy. This section will go over our recommendations for how to make each channel work together.

Sign-ups in a multi-channel world 

As an email marketer, you’ve no doubt mastered the art of capturing sign-ups. But SMS is its own retention channel, and without a subscriber list, you can’t kick off your program. 

Just because you’re dealing with a new subscriber channel doesn’t mean you need to complicate things. When it comes to multi-channel signups, we always recommend:

  • Collecting email and SMS in one easy flow. You can even extend the offer for both sign-ups as one, for example, “Enjoy 10% off when you sign up for email and SMS.”
  • Making sure the SMS sign-up unit you add to your website matches the look and feel of your brand (just like you would design an email sign-up modal).
  • Capturing SMS sign-ups to collect preferences. You can use the welcome flow to collect birthdays, interests, gender, product preferences, and more. 
Crocs 2 in 1 text examples

Tailor your triggered messages

Cart abandonment. Product recommendation. Replenishment reminder. These are all triggered messages that, for many companies, are email-only. The beauty of adding SMS as a marketing channel means you now have twice as many opportunities to create smart, tailored experiences for people in a way that’s comfortable and convenient for them. It’s not either/or; it’s both. 

Take cart abandonment, for example. SMS can be a great first touchpoint here. The customer has high intent, and reaching out within a few minutes of them placing an item in their cart can be a perfectly right place, right time scenario. But let’s say they get that message and they still don’t make a purchase. Here, you can use orchestration to follow up via email within a predetermined time frame. 

Having the flexibility to tailor your communications lets you make the biggest impact where it counts. 

Lulus cart abandonment text example

Customize campaign messages

Of course, one of the main uses for email marketing is to notify consumers of seasonal headlines like new stock hitting the website or an end-of-season sale. With SMS marketing, you can get pretty sophisticated when it comes to delivering the right messages to the right audience segments, at the right time. 

Trade off the timing of messages

Especially during promotional periods, customers can experience fatigue from repeated email sends. In these times, SMS can be a great tool to send a “final hours” or “sale ends soon” message. You can also target messages to only go to customers who haven’t purchased yet, or a segment that belongs to a “purchases only sale items” list. 

Use preferences to segment messages

Here’s a perfect example of email and SMS marketing working together: you can use preferences gathered through SMS messages to target your emails better. For example, if you’ve captured color or product preferences through texts, you can use that information to replace sections of a new stock or sale email with dynamic images that reflect those preferences. 

Vosges 2 way journeys text example

Start a conversation

Now more than ever, customers expect a more personalized, seamless experience from the brands they’re subscribed to. Our recent report on The State of Conversational Commerce found that 90.1% of customers expect a response within a day when they reach out to brands. That’s hard to achieve with email alone, but SMS marketing enables the instant, direct, two-way communication that customers crave. 

Innovations in SMS have made this channel truly conversational. Today, brands can use Attentive Concierge to reach out to subscribers browsing their website, and offer real-time support or answer questions that might be preventing them from purchasing. They can also use the two-way nature of text messaging to collect a number of zero-party data points in one quick conversation.

Winky Lux concierge text example

Text message marketing also makes transactional messages feel more conversational. Let’s consider the typical message flow of a transaction. Order confirmation messages are great to send through email because the customer will likely want a record they can refer back to in the event they need to provide a receipt or start a return. 

Order shipped and delivery notification messages, on the other hand, are almost always better to send as SMS messages. Typically, people want to know the moment their package arrives (don’t you?). The direct nature of text messages makes these updates feel like more of a conversational heads-up than an automated send to close off the transaction. 

The dos and don’ts of using email and SMS marketing together

We’ve gathered some best practices—and mistakes to avoid—when using email and SMS marketing together. 

Do regularly test message formats and segments

There are endless iterations to campaign flows, triggered journeys, and specific messaging to try when you have two complementary marketing channels at your disposal. We suggest testing, and testing often. This goes for message formats—is it better to use email or text to notify subscribers that something they’ve been put on the waitlist for is available?—and different segments. 

There’s also a ton of testing you can carry out with segmentation (sending offers to different purchase and preference segments, for example). VIP customers might be more responsive to targeted text messages due to their level of engagement. Try out different journeys for this segment and see how each performs. You can also roll out successful VIP campaigns to a wider audience later on.

We did a lot of testing early on to see what works and what doesn't. We tested our best-performing email offers on SMS to see if the conversion rates translated across channels. Mystery sales and flash sales, which play on the curiosity of the click, resonated via text. But we also learned that things like stacked offers, which perform well in email, are harder to fit into SMS. 

- Natasha Zuluaga, Marketing Director, Email & SMS at

Do think through send flows

There’s no one-size-fits-all journey when it comes to what you’re sending and to whom you’re sending it. Start by thinking through which messages might be best for each respective channel, and make tweaks according to results that roll in. 

For example, timely updates on things like flash sales or product launches make more sense to send via SMS, when the message is time-bound or personalized. For less timely or longer form updates, email wins. In this format, the subscriber has more freedom to explore and take in information.

Don’t batch and blast

With both SMS and email, you have the gift of segmentation on your side. Even the most loyal and engaged customers still want an experience that feels thoughtful and personalized, so use exclusions, engagement metrics, intent, and location information to tailor your message flows. You can read more about some of our segmentation strategies here

Don’t copy and paste

This point bears repeating: Email and SMS should be treated as complementary channels. This doesn’t mean taking your mass email and sending it to SMS subscribers as well. With both email and SMS, you can use each one to strengthen the message you’re sending through the other. 

Think about how these formats can play off one another. A well-timed (and worded) text message can pique interest when done well. Using images and concise, attention-grabbing language can prompt customers to click, but it can also prime them with key information before they learn more in an email.

Setting up for success with SMS marketing 

The most important thing about setting up a new marketing channel is knowing how you’ll measure success, and avoid headaches in the future. Here’s how to lay that foundation.

Find the right platform

Every SMS platform is different. Before you choose, consider their level of expertise, and your brand’s needs. Some providers are dedicated to guiding customers through each step of configuration to ensure nothing is missed, while others leave the customer to their own devices. 

As with any new channel, choosing an SMS platform that can provide a library of resources, best practices, and inspiration will help you hit the ground running. Attentive’s team shares guidance with you every step of the way—from launching and scaling your SMS program, to setting your KPIs, and even giving you strategic tips to make sure you’re exceeding your goals.

Similar to email—which has a set of laws for remaining compliant—SMS is a regulated channel with its own specific rules and requirements. Regulations around opt-ins, messaging, and accessibility can be tricky to navigate alone, and some providers are more of a partner in navigating these waters than others. Make sure your SMS vendor has the expertise to provide you with guidance and recommendations on how to navigate the laws and remain compliant.

Having a partner who was experienced in compliance was a key point for us. We needed to make sure we had the right terms and conditions, legal language. We needed to be confident in that, and make sure we weren’t left out to dry if we had any questions.

- Rhea Monique, CMO at ChocZero

Finally, you’ll want to consider deliverability when choosing your SMS provider. Your provider should have close relationships with carriers so they can quickly advise on any deliverability issues the carriers are experiencing (or any updates they’re making), and provide direction on how to resolve the issues.

The deliverability with Attentive is noticeably stronger [than our previous provider], especially with the relationships they have with carriers. That definitely helped us jumpstart our KPIs almost immediately.

- Tiffany Chen, Director of Retention Marketing at Oak Essentials

Grow your subscriber list

As mentioned earlier, incorporating SMS into your existing sign-up units is a great way to boost both your email and SMS lists. As a general rule of thumb, your sign-up unit should be consistent with existing branding, contain an actionable headline, feature an offer (like a discount), and have a clear call-to-action.

There are a lot of places to include sign-up units: as a standalone landing page, on your social channels (like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok), through email, or as a step in your checkout flow (you can read more about these strategies here). 

Once a user opts in, they’ll be interacting with your welcome flow—the first set of messages confirming their opt-in and welcoming them to the program—which should list out the terms of the program, instructions on how to opt out, and a link to your privacy policy. 

Growing your SMS channel doesn’t end once it’s implemented, either. Consider other channels you can use to grow your list. Taking a multi-prong approach is a powerful way to stay top-of-mind.

Measure success

KPIs are different for email and SMS marketing. An important part of starting up any SMS program is determining which KPIs you want to measure so you can gauge what’s working and know where to start when it’s time to make changes. 

There are a number of metrics that are a good fit for SMS marketing: new sign-ups, conversion rate, click-through rate, return on investment, opt-outs, and delivery rate. The KPIs you set will ultimately depend on what goals your brand is trying to achieve. More on this in a future post.

Whatever you’re working towards, it’s important to determine that early on so you can accurately measure your channel’s success and identify the areas that may need improvement.

It’s not a question of either/or, it’s when/how

SMS has become a critical touchpoint throughout the customer journey. Email marketers have a big opportunity to become leaders in personalized, data-driven, and omnichannel marketing.

Your customers aren’t limiting themselves to just one channel, or one device—and your marketing needs to meet them where they want you to be. 

Building a thoughtful and cohesive email and SMS marketing strategy—one that uses each channel’s strengths to your advantage—will create even more touchpoints for your brand to connect with consumers.

So no matter where your audience chooses to engage with you—email, SMS, or both—you’re delivering the personalized experiences they’ve come to expect.

Related Articles