10 Things to Know About Short Codes

Most likely you’ve seen cell phone “short codes” when advertisers slap them on candy wrappers or big media brands like American Idol create text message-based voting campaigns. You know, text a message to this 5 or so digit mobile code and get some free stuff you don’t really want. But more smaller organizations and communities are turning to short codes with the help of startups like Mozes and TextMarks. And mobile companies like 3Jam and Embrace Mobile are using short codes to power their services.

Do you need one? If you want to market or promote something to mobile users, manage mobile communications to members of a group or organization, or get cell phone users to access your mobile application or service — then, maybe. How much are you willing to spend and what kind do you need? Here’s 10 things to know about short codes, how to get them and what to avoid:

1). There are two kinds of short codes, shared and dedicated. Dedicated short codes are dedicated for one customer, and are costly and take awhile to set up – in the U.S. it can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 per year and take two months to get it ready.

2). Shared short codes are shared among customers and use keywords to identify their traffic. The cost of these is pretty small, and you can access these services from companies like Mozes and TextMarks. Mozes has been actively signing up bands while TextMarks has been working on organizations and local communities.

3). If you want to obtain a dedicated short code in the U.S., you have to choose between vanity or select (hand-picked) and random codes. It’s like picking a license plate. Vanity codes cost around $1,000 per month just to register and random short codes cost about half that.

4). Registration of dedicated short codes is only part of the process if you want your own code. You’ll probably want to go to one of the dozen or so SMS aggregator companies that have relationships with different carriers like Clickatell, or VeriSign. Research prices and compare as they are all trying to undercut each other.

5). The method of obtaining and using short codes is different in different countries — don’t assume it’s a global world when it comes to carriers and use of short codes. Particularly the U.S. is somewhat more difficult than many other countries.

6). It’s also not like the open Internet, and carriers can shut you down any time they want if you do something they don’t like. Often startups that have created mobile applications using short codes find out they’ve been snubbed when the service goes dead over one carrier or the other. Fun!

7). If you are a content provider you can’t have any fun either. According to the CTIA site you generally have to: “Agree not to transmit political marketing (news is acceptable), religious, pornographic, prostitution/escort, gambling, hate, alcohol or drug related content.” Wonder how FAITH and PLBOY (see below) are working that out.

8). Carrier control is frustrating for a wireless startup or a third-party application provider but sometimes a modicum of control makes a better experience for the customer (only sometimes). It’s good for a carrier to stall applications that can mess up systems or wreak havoc on end users.

9). If you text HELP or STOP to a short code, the service should respond. This is implemented to help users end or learn more about the short code service, and is useful for managing and finding these services.

10). Here’s a site that pulls together a lot of registered short codes. I can’t verify the accuracy of all of them (some worked with HELP/STOP and some didn’t), but some vanity codes on this list might inspire you: COKE, 20FOX, FAITH, FBOOK (Facebook), GAWK (Gawker Media), MYSPC, (MySpace) PLBOY (PlayBoy).