Trends and Insights

The Rise of the SMS Marketer

rise of the sms marketer
Published
Aug 26, 2021
Written by
Kayla Ellman
Kayla is a Content Marketing Manager. You can find her hiking, reading, or growing her cookbook collection.

Three marketing leaders predict the future of SMS and conversational commerce.  

What does it take to adopt an emerging marketing technology like SMS and turn it into a hero channel for your brand in two to three years? 

Megan Edwards, CRM & Personalization Lead at Kendra Scott, Phillip Cruickshank, Associate Director of Brand Marketing at CB2, and Natasha Zuluaga, Marketing Director, Email & SMS at FragranceNet.com have all done just that. 

As SMS marketing early adopters, they all faced the unique challenge of having to quickly prove the value of text messaging while navigating a learning curve. 

Now, it's clear that investing in the channel not only drove success for their brands but also changed the course of their marketing careers. Their experiences illustrate how SMS has "grown up" in a short amount of time—and how we're approaching a pivotal moment in the digital transformation of communication and e-commerce. 

Experimenting with SMS and proving ROI early on

A few years ago, brands were only just starting to tap into the world of text messaging as a marketing channel to connect with customers. Many marketers launched their company’s SMS programs without any internal benchmarks. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we didn’t set any strict growth or engagement KPIs before we launched,” says Cruickshank, adding that Attentive helped CB2 understand what they could expect from their first year with SMS. 

In the infancy of their program, CB2 focused on driving subscriber growth, nurturing their SMS list, and maintaining a healthy ROI and low opt-out rates. It was important for the brand to see that SMS could deliver an impact above and beyond what they were already getting from their email program and other channels—and that it was sustainable long-term. 

It's in our nature at CB2 to be entrepreneurial and curious, so when we started catching wind of SMS as a channel, we immediately wanted to explore it. We didn't go into launching our channel with any firm expectations or goals. We wanted to see if SMS would complement our existing owned channel mix and drive incrementality for us—and, hopefully, target new customers on a channel that they prefer over email.

-  Phillip Cruickshank, Associate Director of Brand Marketing at CB2

Zuluaga had a similar experience launching the SMS program at FragranceNet.com. “At the time, I was a new email marketer to our team, and I was a team of one,” says Zuluaga. “We had no expectations around what goals we were trying to hit. We wanted to see what this new emerging channel could do." 

Seeing the immediate impact of someone clicking and shopping from a text message proved the value of the channel for the team at FragranceNet.com. They knew they needed to keep investing in SMS.  

At Kendra Scott, starting an SMS program felt right because their customers were already very active with them on social media, which is a more conversational channel—like text messaging—compared to email. "Email was already a huge revenue and traffic-driver for us, so we were curious to see how our customer would respond to being subscribed to our email and SMS lists at the same time," says Edwards. "We did a lot of A/B testing in the beginning, and it quickly became clear from the revenue and ROI numbers that that double exposure was a good thing."

Having the metrics to back up that early success helped Edwards get more buy-in from the leadership team to use Kendra Scott's SMS channel as a testing ground to drive results. 

In our first year with SMS, it was a priority to inform and share our results with leadership so they could understand that SMS is a channel on the rise, the importance of knowing how to grow our list, and that we needed to prioritize technical resources to support us getting the most out of our program.

-  Megan Edwards, CRM & Personalization Lead at Kendra Scott

Developing a new mobile-first communication style   

CB2 has a strong brand voice—fun but elevated and edgy. When they first started using SMS, they did a lot of testing to see how far they could take the natural, conversational tone of text messaging. "We were very intentional about looking at email and SMS campaigns with a similar theme and tailoring how we used our brand voice on each channel," says Cruickshank.

cb2 gif rise of sms marketer

One early SMS campaign for bedroom furniture started with a simple, "U up?" and a short call to action. It was pushing the boundaries of their brand voice, but it paid off: the message ended up driving a higher click-through rate than the average of any other SMS sent during that time period. "It proved to us that we needed to speak to customers differently on this channel," recalls Cruickshank. "We learned that there are things we should be doing with SMS that aren't going to resonate in an email and vice versa." 

In our first year with SMS, we sent every text to our entire subscriber list. But as we matured into our second year and looked at the ROI from SMS, we knew we needed to be more thoughtful about our send cadence and target segments. This is an area where we continue to adapt and pivot.

-  Phillip Cruickshank, Associate Director of Brand Marketing at CB2

Coming from an email background, Edwards started Kendra Scott's SMS channel with a more professional, branded voice. To help make it more conversational, Edwards took cues from how the brand was already speaking to customers on their existing marketing channels. “Our social media team does a great job responding to customers on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok—and they use a more playful tone for those interactions than we use in our emails—so I took a lot of guidance from that," says Edwards. 

Now, Edwards has the ability and freedom to A/B test things like emoji-only messages to see how their SMS demographic responds to different text styles. The brand also sees strong results from teasing flash sales with short, mysterious messages to drive click-through rates and then relying on their website to drive conversions. 

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For Zuluaga at FragranceNet.com, one of the biggest priorities early on was figuring out if SMS would resonate with their core demographic or if it would be too trendy for their slightly older, more coupon-savvy audience. “We realized that most people aren’t drawn to their desktops anymore. They’re sitting on the couch with their tablets or scrolling on their phones,” says Zuluaga. 

The immediacy of SMS enabled FragranceNet.com to tailor their text message strategy to the time of day and drive a sense of urgency compared to email, where a message might sit in a subscriber’s inbox for hours before they open it. 

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 FragranceNet.com

Maturing the channel: from marketing add-on to key business-driver 

FragranceNet.com already had a mature email marketing program in place when they launched their SMS channel. Retaining their email subscribers year-over-year and getting customers to continue shopping from their site were critical goals. At first, SMS was thought of as a supplement to help boost email and overall sales.

But it didn't take long for SMS to become a standalone channel with its own goals and ROI. “Rather than thinking about converting email subscribers to SMS subscribers or SMS to email, it was both," says Zuluaga. "We saw that people liked the double exposure of receiving emails and texts, one as a reminder and one for more immediate messaging."

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As a direct-to-consumer e-commerce retailer, SMS is also a primary acquisition channel for FragranceNet.com. "Our customer is typically looking for a discounted offer. They're familiar with a brand, and they're coming to us for the best price, so we're always making an acquisition play,” explains Zuluaga. “We want to make sure we have a way to communicate with customers after they’ve visited our website, so we can try to get them to come back, even after a lag period.”

On the retention side, we're looking into loyalty programs and rewards. How do we keep people coming back? What makes us an added value to customers beyond just having their product in stock?

-  Natasha Zuluaga, Marketing Director, Email & SMS at FragranceNet.com

Kendra Scott’s initial goals focused on list growth. They promoted their SMS channel on their website, in their marketing emails, and through paid media, and their subscriber numbers almost doubled month over month while they got their SMS program up and running. "We had a highly engaged group of subscribers joining in the beginning—a lot of our best customers that wanted to get in on text messaging," says Edwards.

From there, the brand considered how to keep their click-through and conversion rates high and retain their text subscriber base. They positioned SMS as an exclusive channel with special discounts customers wouldn't get on the email list, and they made sure to differentiate the messaging and offers for each audience. 

When we're looking at email and SMS, we plan off the same calendar, but we have separate ROI and revenue targets for each channel.

-  Megan Edwards, CRM & Personalization Lead at Kendra Scott

"We wanted to give our text subscribers added benefits for being on our SMS list,'' explains Edwards, noting that this has been a consistent goal for Kendra Scott throughout their two to three years with SMS. 

At CB2, SMS has become a trusted channel for the business to drive key results. It helped that after a year of using SMS, the brand started seeing some of their text messages drive more revenue and engagement than some of their emails. “That made everyone—from the top down—sit up and really pay attention to SMS as a channel that we should invest more in,” says Cruickshank. 

While they initially launched their SMS channel without any expectations, CB2 monitored performance over the first year and worked with their business strategy teams to establish benchmarks for the following year. The brand also regularly looks at year-to-date trends, what happened on the same day last year, and how they're performing against their forecast—and if there's a gap that needs to be filled, they turn to SMS. 

"In retail, we need to move fast. We can't spend a week planning an email campaign to respond to something timely,” explains Cruickshank. “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." 

Envisioning the future of the SMS marketer: data-driven, customer-first, conversational 

Three years ago, Zuluaga was a one-person marketing team at Fragrancenet.com, owning email marketing and leading the launch of the brand’s SMS channel. Today, there are five people dedicated to doing email and SMS marketing, including Zuluaga, two email developers, and two marketing coordinators—one of whom is dedicated to SMS. 

“One of our marketing coordinators has grown to love SMS and is really passionate about the channel, so we’re giving him the freedom to start owning some of the strategy and execution in Attentive,” says Zuluaga about how her marketing team has evolved with the growth of SMS. 

Cruickshank worked on the content and creative side of marketing before launching SMS with CB2 and started out owning the channel on the side. “I didn’t have an analytical advantage over my counterparts a few years ago,” says Cruickshank. “But now, because SMS is such an exciting channel where you can see results in real-time and experiment—it's definitely evolved the way I think about more measurable marketing.”  

Looking to the future, CB2 is thinking about their CRM audience and retention strategy as a whole, rather than comparing the ROI of their email channel to their SMS channel. “How do we build audiences and connect with them on the right platform at the right time and by sharing the right content at the right cadence?" Cruickshank elaborates. 

Looking at my own journey as an SMS marketer: I started as an email marketer, then moved under the umbrella of e-commerce marketing, and now—I sit on the marketing team doing CRM, personalization, and retention.

-  Megan Edwards, CRM & Personalization Lead at Kendra Scott

At Kendra Scott, email and SMS are considered core retention channels. As text message marketing continues to evolve, Edwards is excited to see customers get more comfortable with brands speaking to them on such a personal, conversational level. "There's so much more to come with SMS," Edwards predicts. 

As SMS strategies become more sophisticated—and more brands adopt the channel as a core part of the marketing tech stack—we’ll likely see the evolution of a dedicated “SMS marketer” role.

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