SMS Compliance 101: A Complete Guide for Beginners

SMS Compliance

As more businesses are realizing that they can reach their customers anywhere, SMS is becoming an indispensable tool for marketing. The benefits of text marketing are seemingly endless. From cost-effectiveness to high open rates, the list goes on. But there’s a catch. You can’t just randomly send SMS messages to a whole bunch of people.

There’s a set of regulations you need to follow when doing SMS marketing. Whether you’re operating in the US, the UK, or even Australia, SMS compliance should be your priority.

What Is SMS Compliance?

SMS compliance is the adherence to laws, regulations, and industry standards that govern text messaging in marketing and communication. It covers a range of legal frameworks like the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act in the United States. The purpose is to protect consumers from spam text messages and privacy issues.

Text message compliance involves obtaining explicit consent from recipients before sending commercial messages. In general, SMS laws dictate how businesses can communicate with their customers and what they can do with their personal data.

Complying with these regulations allows businesses to build trust with audiences and promote transparency while avoiding legal consequences. The best way to guarantee this is to consult your legal counsel to ensure your SMS use complies with applicable laws and frameworks.

SMS Marketing Compliance: Regulations and Governing Bodies

1. FCC and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is a governing body responsible for overseeing telecommunications in the United States. The TCPA initially aimed to prevent unwanted telemarketing calls, but now, its regulations extend to wireless carriers and text messaging. The FCC enforces consumer protection laws, making sure text messages comply with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

Passed in 1991, the TCPA prevents unsolicited text messages and protects consumers from unwanted communications. It requires businesses to get consent from recipients, provide sender identification, and offer opt-out mechanisms. Violating TCPA regulations can lead to fines of up to $1,500 per message to each contact.

2. FTC and CAN-SPAM Act

The CAN-SPAM Act mainly regulates commercial email, but its laws apply to text message marketing as well. It was created by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States.

While the CAN-Spam Act doesn’t mandate opt-ins, it requires opt-out mechanisms, sender identification, and transparency, emphasizing consumer choice. It forbids the use of deceptive subject lines or header information. Although the FTC can pass new laws, the chief legislator for SMS regulations in the US is the FCC.

3. Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association

As a trade organization that represents the US wireless communications industry, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) establishes guidelines for SMS messaging. It’s not a regulatory body per se, but it influences industry standards and advocates for responsible and consumer-friendly practices.

Messaging Principles and Best Practices, a document that CTIA’s member companies created, provides guidelines for businesses to make sure their messaging campaigns meet industry standards and comply with regulations.

Not following CTIA guidelines won't lead to lawsuits, but it can affect your access to mobile carriers. If you violate rules, CTIA may report it, and carriers might suspend your access until resolved.

4. Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation

Enforced by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation is a governing framework that regulates electronic communications, including text messaging. It focuses on combatting spam messages and protecting the privacy of consumers, ensuring transparency and accountability.

CASL requires businesses to obtain express written consent before sending commercial messages and provides options to unsubscribe. This means they can't send unsolicited text messages. The legislation also requires that marketing messages include the sender’s identity and contact information.

5. General Data Protection Regulation

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) emphasizes the protection of data in the European Union. While it doesn’t specifically target SMS messages, it aims to protect the privacy of personal data, which includes contact information that businesses use for text marketing.

Businesses are required to gain consent for processing data, report data breaches to the authorities, and keep collected data anonymous. This ensures the safe handling of personal information. Beyond internal communications, the GDPR also regulates personal information going outside the EU.

6. Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) address digital marketing, including text messages, in the United Kingdom. These regulations complement the GDPR, outlining rules to ensure the protection of privacy rights in the digital world.

The PECR requires companies to get consent from consumers and provide clear ways to opt out. It also sets standards for the use of cookies; businesses need to ask for permission from users before placing website cookies on their devices.

7. Spam Act 2003

In Australia, you have the Spam Act 2003 governing electronic communications—text messaging included. It prohibits sending unsolicited commercial messages without the recipient’s permission. Businesses must also include clear sender identification, offer an easy opt-out mechanism, and respect opt-outs.

The Spam Act 2003 aims to protect consumers from the invasion of privacy that spam messages cause. By doing so, it promotes ethical standards in digital communications.

SMS Consent and Opt-in Requirements

1. How to Obtain Express Written Consent

Getting consent is one of the most crucial aspects of text messaging compliance. As a business, you should always ask for permission before texting your customers for the first—even if they’re already on your emailing list or you got their number from a signup form. The consent must contain a clear and voluntary agreement from the recipient, showing that they’re willing to receive messages from you. This can include checking an opt-in box or texting a keyword to a short code.

To gather express written consent, you can have opt-in forms, website signups, or text-to-join keyword campaigns. Make sure to mention the purpose of the messages, how often you’ll be sending them, and potential rates associated with the SMS texts.

2. Double Opt-in Process

While it’s often not necessary, a double opt-in process adds an extra layer of confirmation to SMS consent. After the initial opt-in, the recipient receives an opt-in confirmation message, to which they respond by texting a specific keyword or tapping on a verification link.

The double opt-in reinforces the validity of the consent. In other words, it reduces the likelihood of accidental opt-ins and ensures that recipients actually agree to receive text messages.

3. Age Verification for Age-Restricted Products

When you’re marketing certain products that are age-restricted products, like alcohol or tobacco, compliance with text message regulations such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is crucial.

This means verifying the ages of recipients in these cases. One common method of age verification in SMS marketing is to include a prompt for subscribers to confirm their age before receiving promotional messages for age-restricted products or services.

You can do this through a simple text response or by directing subscribers to a webpage where they can verify their age. It’s also important to keep records of age verification attempts and responses to display compliance in the event of an audit or legal inquiry.

Opt-out Mechanisms

Opt-out mechanisms in SMS marketing allow recipients to easily unsubscribe from future marketing text messages. Often mandated by SMS compliance laws like the TCPA, these mechanisms involve adding clear opt-out instructions in each message, guiding recipients on how to unsubscribe.

Automated opt-out features streamline the process, allowing customers to remove themselves from your list easily and quickly by replying with a designated keyword or clicking a provided link.

How to Create Compliant SMS Content

1. Avoid Prohibited Content (SHAFT)

To maintain SMS marketing compliance, it's essential to avoid prohibited content that follows SHAFT (sex, hate, alcohol, firearms, tobacco). This involves steering clear of harmful content including violence or hate speech and ensuring SMS messages remain free from adult material.

On top of that, you’ll want to keep away from promoting products like tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs. By avoiding SHAFT content, businesses can ensure that their SMS campaigns are both compliant and respectful, promoting positive engagement and trust with their audience.

2. Distinguish Promotional and Informational Messages

When creating compliant SMS content, it’s important to distinguish between promotional and informational text messages. This ensures that each serves its purpose effectively while adhering to SMS marketing rules and industry standards.

Promotional messages are supposed to drive sales or promote products or services and must include clear opt-out options. Informational or transactional text messages provide useful or relevant information, like appointment reminders or account notifications. These should be concise and to the point.

3. Identify Yourself

Text marketing laws require the clear identification of the sender in promotional text messages. This means starting the brand or business name in the message to provide transparency and build trust with recipients. You want to ensure SMS compliance by registering your business texting number—an essential step in the process.

Thanks to this, recipients can easily recognize and verify the source of the message, which reduces the likelihood of spam complaints. As a result, it contributes to the overall compliance with text message regulations.

4. Ensure Content Transparency

Misleading language and false claims in text messages go against SMS compliance regulations. Instead, business text messaging content should accurately represent the products, services, or offers being promoted, providing clear and honest information to recipients. Businesses should also avoid using deceptive tactics like clickbait or exaggeration to entice recipients to engage with the message.

Timing and Frequency of Text Messages

1. Business Hours

Sending SMS texts during business hours ensures that recipients are more likely to be available to read and respond to them. Make sure to respect recipients' schedules and avoid sending messages late at night or early in the morning, which may be intrusive or disruptive. For example, the TCPA prohibits sending marketing messages during quiet hours—before 8 am and after 9 pm. This applies to phone calls, too.

2. Time Zones

Account for the time zones of your international audience when scheduling business text messages to ensure you’re sending them at an appropriate time. You can use tools or software that allow you to schedule messages based on recipients' time zones, ensuring messages reach their destinations at appropriate times.

If you’re based in Canada, let’s say, and want to send messages to customers in the UK, your business hours will be their quiet hours. Therefore, to guarantee SMS compliance, you’ll want to schedule your messages accordingly.

3. Message Frequency

Remember to strike a balance between staying top-of-mind and avoiding message fatigue by minding the frequency of your commercial text messages. Sending messages too frequently can lead to annoyance and opt-outs, while sending them too infrequently may result in recipients forgetting about your brand. As a rule of thumb, aim to send one per week so people don't receive unwanted messages from your business.

4. A/B Testing

Consider experimenting with different timing and frequencies using A/B testing to determine what’s best for your audience. Test variations in send times and frequency to identify the most effective approach for maximizing engagement and conversions while maintaining a compliant SMS program.

Record Keeping and Compliance Audits

Record-keeping and SMS compliance audits are key aspects of SMS marketing campaigns. They help in adhering to regulations, maintaining accountability, and mitigating legal risks.

Businesses should maintain comprehensive records of all SMS communications, including opt-in and opt-out requests, message content, recipient consent, and delivery timestamps. These records serve as evidence of compliance with laws, allowing businesses to prove their adherence to industry standards and best practices.

Legal Implications for Sending Unsolicited Text Messages

Penalties and legal implications in SMS marketing can be severe for businesses that fail to comply with regulations and industry standards. Non-compliance can result in fines, legal action, reputational damage, and loss of customer trust. Some of the key legal implications and penalties associated with SMS rules and laws include:

1. Regulatory Fines

Regulatory authorities, such as the FCC in the United States, have the authority to impose fines for violations of laws. Fines for non-compliance can range from thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the severity of the violation.

2. Class Action Lawsuits

Businesses that engage in unlawful SMS marketing practices can be subject to class action lawsuits filed by affected individuals or consumer advocacy groups. These lawsuits can result in significant financial settlements, legal fees, and damage to the company's reputation.

3. Reputational Damage

Violations of SMS marketing regulations can harm a business's reputation and damage customer trust. Negative publicity as a result of legal disputes or regulatory actions can lead to loss of customers, partners, and market share.

4. Criminal Charges

In extreme cases of extreme non-compliance or intentional misconduct, businesses and individuals involved in illegal SMS marketing practices can face criminal charges. These can include massive fines and even imprisonment.

Differences In SMS Compliance Laws Across Key Markets

While SMS marketing compliance laws across major markets have one purpose in common, you’ll find a handful of notable differences between them. Express written consent from recipients is a common denominator among most regulatory bodies, including the TCPA, CASL, and PECR. However, the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t require it. But it falls under the same jurisdiction as TCPA so there’s no way around getting opt-ins.

In terms of data protection, GDPR is the main legal entity that comes to mind. While other frameworks like PECR and TCPA also cover requirements related to the protection of personal data, the CASL and Spam Act 2003 focus on preventing unsolicited messages.

With all that in mind, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different SMS regulations around the world. This is especially true if you plan to operate in various locations, which brings us to the next point.

Adapting Your SMS Strategy for Global Compliance

Coming up with internationally compliant SMS strategies involves taking consent and data protection measures that are consistent across different regions and countries—in other words, universal standards. One instance would be adaptable opt-out mechanisms that are compatible with the specific requirements of each jurisdiction. This allows global recipients to unsubscribe without any issues.

When it comes to adapting SMS strategies to comply with various regulations across borders, geo-targeting—or geo-blocking, in this case—often comes in handy. If a certain product, service, or even topic is restricted in a specific country, you can use geo-blocking to bar promotional communications to that area. You can also launch segmented campaigns to tailor content according to legal considerations in different countries.

Top Tools and Resources for SMS Compliance

1. Software and Services for Managing SMS Compliance

The best way to ensure compliance with SMS messaging regulations is to use software that does it for you. Most texting platforms provide all the tools you need to meet industry standards and adhere to SMS laws. The platform will likely have keyword texting for easy opt-ins and opt-outs, geo-blocking for restricted campaigns, as well as a range of security features. SMS messaging platforms that help businesses comply with regulations include:

Dexatel: As a leading omnichannel communications platform provider, Dexatel offers useful compliance tools like geographic blocking as well as list management for keeping track of opt-ins and opt-outs. The platform itself is GDPR compliant, making it a reliable resource for adhering to laws and standards and avoiding legal issues.

Plivo: Plivo is a cloud-based messaging platform that allows users to communicate with their customers in a compliant way. It provides features for managing opt-ins and opt-outs, among other tools for adherence to regional laws.

Tatango: Tatango is a text marketing platform that helps businesses launch and send SMS campaigns while complying with regulations. It offers tools for managing subscribers, obtaining consent, and guaranteeing overall compliance.

Attentive: Attentive is a personalized mobile marketing platform with a focus on SMS messaging. Its range of features includes tools for obtaining consent, managing preferences, as well as other compliance measures.

Global Message Services: GMS is a messaging software that offers a variety of SMS capabilities. These include tools for sending text messages globally while ensuring compliance with regional standards and regulations.

2. Resources and Training for Mobile Marketing Teams

Mobile marketing teams can improve their compliance knowledge through various resources and training sessions. In terms of resources, you have several options including CTIA’s guide in the US and the ICO for UK audiences. There are also the CRTC guidelines for Canadian businesses and the ACMA in Australia. European businesses, on the other hand, can refer to the DMA.

As for training, online platforms like Udemy provide certain compliance courses. Marketers can attend industry conferences for key insights and have legal consultations for tailored advice. To top it off, businesses can create internal documentation that marketers can refer to when developing their SMS strategies.

SMS Compliance Checklist: A Summary of Best Practices

  1. Obtain express consent: Make sure recipients give prior express consent to receive messages from you.
  2. Include opt-out options: Recipients should have the option to unsubscribe from your SMS marketing program if they don't want to receive unwanted text messages.
  3. Identify the sender: Always mention your brand or company name in your text marketing messages.
  4. Consider messaging frequency and timing: Avoid sending messages too frequently or outside of business hours.
  5. Avoid sharing inappropriate content: Messages that convey hate speech or other inappropriate content go against SMS compliance requirements.
  6. Be honest and transparent: SMS content should not include any false claims or misleading language.
  7. Handle customer information securely: Ensure the secure processing and storing of personal information like the customer's phone number throughout your text messaging program.
  8. Maintain records of SMS communications: Keep records of opt-ins, opt-outs, message content, delivery timestamps, and other information to ensure SMS compliance.

Frequently Asked QuestionsAbout SMS Compliance

Is SMS Marketing Legal?

Yes, SMS marketing is perfectly legal, but it’s subject to compliance with text message laws like the TCPA and GDPR. This means businesses need to obtain explicit consent from customers before sending promotional text messages in addition to providing the option to unsubscribe—among other requirements.Violating these regulations can lead to legal consequences and hefty fines. To avoid being in violation, businesses and organizations should stay up to date with local SMS compliance guidelines.

Is it Illegal to Send Mass Text Messages?

Sending mass text messages can be legal if businesses comply with SMS marketing regulations. Companies must get prior consent from recipients before launching bulk SMS campaigns.It’s also important to provide clear information about the nature of the text messages and offer easy opt-out options. Failing to adhere to these SMS compliance regulations can result in legal implications and can even damage the company’s reputation.

Can You Text Customers Without SMS Opt-ins if They Already Consent to Receive Email?

No, having consent for email marketing does not automatically grant permission to send bulk SMS campaigns. Different communication channels require separate opt-ins, including SMS and email.To text customers, businesses need to obtain consent specifically for business texting. Mixing opt-ins and sending unsolicited messages can result in legal issues and have a negative impact on customer trust.

How Long Do You Need to Honor Opt-out Requests?

Businesses are legally required to honor opt-out requests promptly and recipients should not receive future messages after opting out. According to SMS rules, businesses should process opt-outs for text message marketing and not send any messages to those who unsubscribed, unless they specifically opt back in to receive promotional messages. Updating and maintaining opt-out lists on a regular basis helps to ensure continuous compliance.

Do You Need to Obtain Consent to Send Transactional Messages?

Transactional text messages like shipping updates and bank account updates don’t require proper consent from customers. In most cases, customers give consent to these types of messages by providing their phone numbers in the first place.However, the content must remain purely transactional. If businesses plan to include promotional content in transactional messages, such as a discount offer in an order confirmation message, prior express written consent becomes necessary. Focusing on the primary purpose of the content ensures that transactional messages stay compliant and don’t violate anti-spam laws.

Do Conversational Messages Require Consent?

Conversational messaging is the back-and-forth texting between a customer and a business. It’s when the customer initiates a conversation by sending an SMS text and the business replies. In this case, the consent is implied. Since the customer is starting the conversation and is expecting a response from the company, an opt-in is not required.