As a student of the digital era, I’ve developed a little mental parlor game to keep track of the shifting role of digital channels. It’s easy; here’s how to play: as news headlines stream by, keep an eye on the formats of key evidence.
Cold war cases (Hiss, Rosenbergs) tended to focus on paper documents. For Watergate, it was audio tape. At some Clinton point, it became emails. Evidence for Jan 6 events has been an interesting split; social posts, video and selfies for the foresight-poor, and (interestingly) apparently-unrecoverable text messages for the Secret Service.
This little game tends to reveal which channels are “sticky” and habitual at the time. Those deleted Secret Service messages, for example, suggest that texting has moved just a bit more to the center of habitual digital communications.
Put any three marketers at a bar and it’s likely that email-vs-text messaging will come up. But the conversation tends to be relatively short. Texting tends to be dismissed as a competitive channel on either personal grounds (“I hate getting marketing messages!”), or cost. While both factors matter, there are quite a few more to consider in assessing how messaging and email compare as marketing channels.
This post provides a more structured look at text messaging vs email marketing, circa 2022.
About Text Messaging & Email Marketing
Email and texting/messaging evolved on substantially different tracks; in comparing them, it’s helpful to keep those historical roots in mind.
Email marketing, as we use the term now, is “Internet email”. Over roughly 40 years, standards groups and industry evolved the set of published standards that enable global email messaging. These include SMTP (mail transfer), POP/IMAP (message retrieval and sync), email HTML and others. Most of the key standards required to participate in email are published as Internet RFCs. In simple terms, “nobody owns email marketing”.
Text messaging, as a singular term, has become a misleading term. SMS (Short Message Service) is a somewhat-global standard for sending and receiving short text-only messages. SMS was an historical accident. Early mobile phones used one set of frequencies for voice calls, and a separate “side channel” for control messages with towers. Carriers “hijacked” the side channel, monetizing it as SMS.
Meanwhile, chat and message services rose and fell on the Internet — IRC, ICQ, AIM. Mobile phones became Internet smartphones, leading to the current messaging-Babel world of (literally) hundreds of different messaging applications.
To understand how text messaging might evolve as a mainstream marketing channel, most of these proprietary message systems can be set aside. The focus of this post are common-enough forms of messaging likely to show up in that headline parlor game — SMS and its successors.
SMS is text-only, carrier controlled, and used globally; 5 billion people send and receive over 500 billion SMS messages each month. MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) adds multimedia content, but MMS is essentially limited to US + Canada markets. SMS still works, but it’s fast becoming ‘the fallback’ between systems. My take is that SMS is too limited and carrier-constrained to be a first-class digital marketing channel, and that the two dominant mobile players — Apple and Google — are quietly battling over the future of messaging.
The Smartphone Text-Messaging Battle
When smartphones hit the market, SMS was a multi-billion dollar business for their carrier partners. The 2007 iPhone 1 came with an SMS (but not MMS) client; Android likewise provided SMS support from early on.
It’s an interesting business Trojan Horse case study, with a marked contrast between the two dominant platforms. Within 5 years of the iPhone, Apple had introduced their proprietary iMessages, and has steadily evolved it into the rich Messages platform that spans the entire Apple device ecosystem. Google, by contrast, introduced more than a dozen messaging services (Talk, Allo, Chat, Voice, Android Messages, Duo, Meet and Google Wave) during the same period — some mobile-centric, others not.
The Trojan Herd of messaging solutions changed the mobile messaging game on at least two fronts. The more obvious front is features and functions; less obvious, but equally important, is the role of the carriers. In a nutshell, the new generation of smartphone-centric messaging platforms (from both Apple and Google) are not SMS clients. They are “OTT” — Over The Top — message services, built on Internet data transfer rather than carrier SMS. (Case in point — iMessages can be used on an iPhone with WiFi but no SIM card.)
As that OTT category suggests, these nouveau messaging services are to carriers what Netflix is to cable companies, at least conceptually.
There are other OTT messaging systems. In reality, Facebook controls the majority of platforms outside China (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram). I don’t think they fit in the same category, however. The Android and iOS messengers are (or feel) “native”, with identity tied to the mobile number. That “identity space” — where someone with your smartphone number can send you a message — is controlled by the mobile platform OS vendors, Apple & Google.
True to brand, Apple has played an Apple-only messaging game thus far. Messages only works on Apple devices, with Apple IDs. Messages users can communicate with Android users, but traffic falls back to the SMS carrier in these cases. “Rich” functions like activity indicators (‘He’s typing’), video and picture transfer, and link previews are visibly different; even plain-text messages to Android are visually called out with the dreaded “green bubble.”
The differences are more than cosmetics and green bubbles, though. iMessages is controlled by Apple; key aspects of how messages are handled, stored and retrieved are dictated by Apple, and not iMessages users. (The iOS config screen for iMessages only has @20 preference choices.) Articles suggest that the Secret Service messages mentioned earlier were apparently sent in iOS devices; a Politico article from 7/29/22 headline reads “Secret Service may disable iMessages to avoid repeat of Jan. 6 controversy.”
Let’s restate that for emphasis. Due to the choice of mobile platform, archiving and records policies of a US Government agency (Dept of Treasury!) were dictated by Apple. “Apple’s iMessages cannot be backed up by this system, because they are encrypted and stored on users’ devices, unlike regular text messages.”, notes the Politico article. The email comparison is roughly as if the Secret Service had said “Hey, we’ll save some budget and have all the agents use Gmail addresses.”
By contrast, Google’s messaging strategy over the past decade was less mobile-centric, more fragmented, and arguably more carrier-focused. Google seems to have recognized that its sprawl of messaging services was confusing users. On the desktop and browser, Google appears to be consolidating services under Gmail, with a built-in Google Chat function. In the Android ecosystem, Google has been pushing support for RCS (Rich Communication Standard) for over 7 years. The Android Messages app supports RCS, with some significant limitations.
How Might ‘Text-Messaging’ Evolve?
There are a few pivotal decisions that are likely to dictate how messaging evolves as a marketing channel going forward.
The first domino is, will Apple support RCS in some way? Google recently unveiled a public campaign, with the website headline “It’s time for Apple to fix texting.” and “Help @Apple #GetTheMessage” as an engineered meme. It’s notable that this campaign is not coming from Apple customers, but rather from the company behind “the other mobile platform.”
Will Apple ‘get the message’??
I don’t see Apple supporting RCS in the short term. iMessages provides no small measure of ecosystem lock-in; full RCS support would erode that. The business gain for Apple is questionable — will they sell more Apple devices and services by making the Android experience better, or by keeping the Apple-to-Apple experience better? And, critically, would Apple surrender substantial control over issues like (for example) message encryption to a standards group?
The second domino, to my mind, is RCS itself. Google has been pushing this rock up the hill with carriers for years, but mobile carriers are fundamentally conflicted about OTT services. A decade of fat revenue from SMS (with little real cost) evaporated with smartphones, but RCS isn’t going to replace that revenue. Per-messaging charging went out years ago, and consumers seem to recognize that those short personal messages don’t cost their mobile carrier much.
Carriers may resent being treated as “just the pipes”, but I’m hard pressed to name a consumer-facing services innovation from any carriers. Look on your smartphone; aside from a billing app, are there any apps from your carrier, or another carrier, that you use on any regular basis? Without digging into the details of RCS, I would hazard an educated guess that it’s packed with compromises precisely because of carrier involvement.
If RCS doesn’t become a compelling global experience that leaves Apple users “missing out”, I don’t see Apple boarding the RCS train, no matter what hashtags Google throws at them in public. Tim Cook apparently agrees; at Apple’s Sept 2022 event, written after this post was drafted, his response re RCS was 'Buy your mom an iPhone.'
Net net, I think messaging will look and act pretty much the same for the next 3-5 years.
Vs Email Marketing
With that perspective in mind, what might the co-existence of email marketing and text messaging for marketing look like going forward? Absent a global messaging standard (RCS or another), I expect that it will look much like today for at least 3-5 years.
A timely study from CM Group showed up as this post was nearing completion, surveying @5,000 consumers across Australia, France, Japan, Spain, the UK, Ireland from late 2021 to early 2022. The results showed a generational difference about email — Baby Boomers most likely to buy things via email campaigns (59%), with a generational fall-off through Gen X (52%), Millennials (47%) and Gen Z (39%). Social media advertising influence was roughly the opposite. SMS came in a distant third — Boomers 16%, Gen X 25%, Millennials 29% and (interestingly enough) Gen Z 25%.
The standard objections to text-messaging for marketing have considerable validity — messages are a bigger interruption, and the channel costs are quite a bit higher. The blue-bubble/green-bubble fractured market also inhibits sending richer-than-text marketing messages, which means that “message marketing” right now is a primitive ASCII-text playing field. The purists who like their emails and marketing messages text-only may think that’s fine, but it’s a significant inhibitor in the competition for attention and memory.
That mostly-text-only constraint affects the data ecosystem for messaging at scale as well. There’s clear value to cleaning and enhancing email-audience data (Go Webbula!), because that data can be put to use, in conventional ways (e.g. segmentation) or more cutting-edge applications like real-time content (insert shameless Campaign Genius plug here🙂. While email isn’t as “rich” as a website, it’s a whole lot richer than SMS.
It merits a separate article, but I think the working design of messaging clients is also immature or mis-matched to the “jobs to be done” that we ask of email clients. After 20+ years of evolution, email clients do a wonderfully strange mix of managing the immediate (inboxes and sending) and the long-term (saved mail, tags, folders, hierarchies and more.) Messaging clients are simplistic and “flat” by comparison. They handle the immediate pretty well, but over-time organization is not their strong suit.
Private-Label Messaging for Marketing?
Apple’s announcement of Mail Privacy Protection in 2021 prompted quite a bit of speculation, including my musing that Apple could eventually commercialize Messages as a marketing channel. In the year since, Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) has wreaked havoc on the digital marketing landscape, with particularly high impact on Facebook’s business. Between mobile-platform pressure from Apple and (albeit delayed) cookie-handling changes by Google & Chrome, one could speculate that social media has passed its peak as a marketing channel.
In that same year, TikTok wrested the website-visit crown from Google, becoming the most-visited domain of 2021 according to Cloudflare. What’s interesting about TikTok in relation to messaging and email is not its rise as a social-media channel, but what TikTok says about the power of media, especially video, plus AI. A few years ago the notion that Google could be unseated as the top domain seemed unthinkable; TikTok did it.
Neither SMS/MMS nor email are technically capable of delivering a video experience comparable to web, apps or dedicated video devices. I’d argue that TikTok’s rise suggests that rich media provides a competitive edge over text-and-graphics channels.
Here’s the speculation. If the RCS ‘unified messaging landscape’ never materializes, and competitive pressure from TikTok or successors becomes too threatening, might Apple decide to commercialize Messages, or Google to commercialize RCS? Those richer, proprietary messaging clients are capable of richer “app-like” experiences and interactions, and the habit of personal use is already locked in.
Apple and Google, in other words, have fundamental control of an incredibly valuable piece of attention-economy real estate. Even if they continue to operate separately, the temptation to commercialize that could be considerable, and their duopoly status might insulate such a move from accusations/regulations of monopoly behavior.
To put that more concretely…I can go to Amazon today, and buy the identical Fire Tablet for two different prices. The lower price-point is subsidized by commercial messages - ’Lockscreen ad-supported’, in their verbiage.
Apply the same logic to smartphones and messaging clients — if the iPhone 20 or Pixel 12 device a few years hence were offered at half the price - ‘Message ad-supported’ - would there be a market? Would brands pay up and shift some of their marketing to that channel? Something to think about.
Final Thought: One vs Many, Closed vs Open
Interviews for the video/podcast series The Future of Email (including this terrific Jenna Devinney DePofi of Webbula conversation) have included a number of text-marketing experts, and texting comes up quite often. That’s by design. Texting is a naturally adjacent channel, and as that parlor game at the beginning suggests, texting is starting to take on some functions that email filled for a time.
In the long run, at least as far as marketing is concerned, I expect them to co-exist rather than compete. While they’re adjacent, the fundamentals are so different that neither is a great substitute for the other.
Text messaging, however it evolves, is built on the mobile number as the key address. While I haven’t seen much analysis to back this, I’d hazard a guess that people will keep “their” one mobile number for a long time.
People keep email addresses for a long time as well, but multiple email addresses is the norm — one for the current job, one for personal stuff, and frequently one for commercial stuff. A mobile number, with permission, is a big long-term asset; an email address, with permission, is valuable but perhaps less so.
The two are likely to evolve at a different pace, although that’s a little more murky than at first glance. Nominally, email is built on open standards, but email is also caught up in the mobile duopoly; Google commands ⅔ of inboxes, but around 50% of email is read in iOS/Apple email clients. Google is pushing an interactive email standard (AMP for Email), which I think Apple is very unlikely to support. As noted, messaging evolution is a bit stuck for now, and it’s difficult to guess how that will proceed until/unless that sticking-point is solved.
It’s going to be an interesting space to watch!
Meet the Author
Dr. Matthew Dunn is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Campaign Genius, the real-time content platform for email. He has been a startup CEO, Fortune-1000 Senior VP & CIO, Microsoft veteran, professor and teacher. He is also an award-winning speaker, writer, designer, director and inventor.