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Of Short Codes and Scotsmen

Look away, look away: Away from marketing applications and towards possible business uses.

November 1, 2003  

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In the April issue of Cabling Systems magazine, I noted that Canadian mobile phone users would soon have access to Short Codes — a form of Text Messaging that connects people to companies, media outlets, information and applications.

The wireless industry made this promise a reality in July and potential providers of Short Code-based programs are already applying to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) to use the 5- and 6-digit addresses.

(More information on Short Codes, including application forms and the industry’s code of conduct, can be found on the CWTA Web site:

Much attention has been directed to Short Codes’ potential use in marketing campaigns and — if the campaign is compelling enough to entice mobile users to sign up – they could become a highly effective medium, enabling brand owners or content providers to have personalized, permission-based, one-to-one dialogues with a self-selecting target audience.

As one developer of Short Code programs told me this summer, we are bombarded with roughly 3,000 marketing messages each day, delivered to us via a variety of media — including TV, radio, web sites, billboards, newspapers, flyers, brochures, our e-mail inbox, point of sale posters and so on.

Most of us have learned to effectively filter out most of them. (Although sometimes, a really clever marketing campaign sticks and just won’t go away. The ranting Scotsman promoting Keith’s does make me want to rise up: Who’s with me?)

Even if we do remember the message, the advertiser has no way of knowing: the Scotsman can rant all he likes, but only I know if his outrage encouraged me to buy a pint of Keith’s.


By contrast, Short Code programs are permission-based.

They have to be; it’s in the CWTA’s code of conduct, and the wireless companies have the ability to cut off service to any marketer that ignores the code.

The industry is adamant that Short Codes do not become spam, particularly since their customers are being charged for Text Messaging. But this is good news for marketers because by opting-in to a Short Code program, mobile users are essentially qualifying themselves as good sales prospects.

If I tell an automaker, or a potato chip company, or a radio station that I want to receive messages from them, I’ve already told those companies that I’m interested in their product or service.

Compare that to the 3,000 daily messages that I’ve ignored (okay, 2,999, not counting the ranting Scotsman) and the return for marketers looks pretty good.

Business applications

In all the talk of Short Codes, however, not much has been said of business-to-business uses. Perhaps it’s easier to discuss business-to-consumer applications, and these will be important to spread awareness of what Short Codes are and how to use them.

But this could be a valuable means via which property managers could deliver services to their tenants. For example:

Tenants could use Short Codes to send requests to custodial staff. Text Messaging is a quick way to say the lights are out on the 10th floor or the 17th floor washroom needs more paper towels, and an automatic response can let the tenant know the problem is being addressed;

In an emergency, Short Codes would be yet another way to deliver messages to tenants. Since mobile phones are not chained to desks, evacuation plans can be updated as the situation develops. As a bonus, mobiles are not dependent on other building systems to function.

These applications are not the high-traffic, sexy marketing uses the wireless industry has in mind for Short Codes, but they are definitely worth exploring.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or