Instant messaging (IM) applications have taken the world by storm. The likes of Skype, WhatsApp and Viber allow groups and individuals to ‘chat’ in real-time, exchange images, video clips and links to websites. IM has become widely accepted by consumers, particularly smartphone users, and nowadays people are constantly glued to their applications to keep up-to-date on the latest gossip and events.

In fact, adoption has been so great that a recent report published by the research firm Informa revealed that more than 19.1 billion messages a day were sent using IM applications in 2012, compared with 17.6 billion SMS messages. However, despite all the hype surrounding these services, it would be presumptuous to write off SMS, the original, most reliable and ubiquitous form of mobile messaging.

Instant messaging may have great applications for the consumer market but it falls short as an effective tool for businesses, although many enterprise IM platforms have been adopted by large organisations as the consumerisation of IT continues to gather pace. These applications are primarily used as internal communication networks, allowing employees to share ideas and best practice in an enterprise environment, as opposed to chatting on Facebook. These services don’t lend themselves to external marketing or promotion campaigns and because they are peer-to-peer applications and only accessible to closed groups online, they are exclusive by nature and don’t have the reach that businesses require when targeting customers or other external groups.

Even the IM services with the broadest reach or the most familiar branding have their drawbacks. Take Facebook Messenger, for instance, which has experienced rapid uptake on mobile but can only support person-to-person (P2P) messaging. This excludes the use of application-to-person (A2P) messaging, which has become an essential tool for businesses allowing them to send messages directly from their systems to a targeted database. Facebook, for example, has over 1.6 billion users, a rich pool of consumers and prospects that marketers and businesses would jump at the chance to connect with. However, it would be extremely difficult to contact them all using Facebook’s Messenger service - virtually impossible, in fact, unless a business decided to painstakingly befriend every member of the social network.

Tracking Facebook users is hardly an economic use of business’s time and because of the limitations placed on IM applications in terms of reach and in some cases a lack of cross platform integration, businesses continue to utilise SMS as a channel to communicate with customers, staff and other groups. To put the value of SMS to businesses into perspective, the research firm Infonetics estimates that SMS marketing spend globally is set to reach $8 billion by 2016. Businesses have put their faith in SMS for many years and will continue to do so.

What makes SMS so appealing to businesses even now when there are so many alternative messaging services on the market?

The immediate response would be that text messaging has become second nature to mobile users – it is a technology that people understand. It is also quick, easy and cost effective for businesses to implement and with the onset of A2P messaging, SMS is now is integral to business processes. Unlike mobile-IM, SMS is a form of communication that is not reliant on an IP-connection and is a standard feature on all mobile phones. For example, dependence on text messaging commonly occurs when people are travelling abroad and they switch off their data roaming connection to avoid heavy tariffs. But there is a flipside to this. For instance, if an online business was to suffer an outage, it would still be able to despatch immediate SMS alerts to customers to inform them of the situation. This would assuage the customer and help to protect the company’s reputation, contributing to customer loyalty in the long-term. Apart from the value it offers in the despatch of alerts, SMS also offers businesses a degree of security. A2P messaging has been widely adopted by banks and credit card companies for the issuance of one-time passwords (OTPs) for transaction verifications, entered onto a webpage. OTP is used outside the financial services industry to verify a customer for online transactions. SMS messaging supports the security of e-commerce sites whilst providing peace of mind and reassurance to the customer receiving the code.

To take full advantage of A2P messaging companies should also be mindful of who they’re targeting and how they go about constructing their database. Target message recipients must be given the choice to be kept ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the database. Companies need to ensure that the opt-in process is simple and straightforward; if a recipient wants out, then the process to decline the service should also be as easy as possible. Customer acquisition through an opt-in process is an important consideration of any mobile marketing campaign. This process creates a targeted, permission-based audience, one that will be receptive to timely, relevant and useful communication, which adds to the CRM activities of a business and builds customer loyalty.

In customer relationship management (CRM) terms, A2P messaging serves as a dynamic service tool, updating subscribers on progress of their service delivery, for instance. Companies are now also using it as an information service platform in its own right. In the retail sector, promotions are despatched via A2P SMS messaging to stimulate greater footfall in-store. In the small business development sector companies are using text messaging to remind clients of appointments. In the building and maintenance industry, workflow management is enhanced by sending appointment reminders via SMS to tenants of social housing properties who have requested repairs. A2P SMS messaging usage is on the increase and its stock will continue to rise as new and cost-effective ways for the business world to leverage this communications tool continue to present themselves.

Mobile IM may have captured the public’s imagination, but messaging applications have a limited role to play when it comes to business. P2P messaging is primarily a consumer proposition - it simply doesn’t have the same reach of A2P messaging, which is more applicable to the needs of a business. With the use of SMS, and permission based databases, companies are able to maintain communication between individuals and groups without contravening privacy or being intrusive. SMS is a well-established yet versatile business communications tool, which allows companies of all shapes and sizes to integrate CRM into their business strategies.