July 14, 2009
How To

How to Build an SMS Alert Campaign: 6 Steps and Lessons Learned

SUMMARY: SMS alerts can be a good way to engage an audience or remind fans of an upcoming event. But as a television channel’s marketing team found out, alerts do not work for every product.

See how the marketer behind the popular National Geographic Channel program “The Dog Whisperer” learned the ins and outs of an SMS alerts campaign that can attract and maintain a list of dedicated subscribers. Includes steps for building your own SMS campaign and links the regulatory agencies you will have to work through.
Brad Dancer, Senior VP Digital Media and Research, National Geographic Channel, is responsible for bringing television content to other platforms in hopes of getting more viewers to tune in.

Dancer’s team has experimented with mobile marketing several times. For example, they set up an SMS alert service that provided trivia and interesting facts based around the channel’s "Dangerous Encounters" show -- but had little success. The show did not lend itself well to the alerts’ "tips" format, Dancer says.

Dancer’s team did not want to give up on SMS marketing so easily. They felt that choosing a show more in-line with the tip format would encourage viewers to sign up. "The Dog Whisperer," a show about dog training and behavior starring Cesar Millan, seemed a perfect fit:
o The show had an audience that craved tips for raising and training dogs
o The audience proved responsive to mobile marketing during a fall 2007 campaign that encourage downloads of a "Dog Whisperer" ringtone

The effort paid off: Since the alerts’ fall 2008 launch, almost 3,000 people have signed up for the service. Even better, the subscriber list has shown little churn, says Dancer.

"As a person who travels most places with Cesar Millan, people come up to us and say they love the book, love the show, and love the website," Dancer says. "And I’ve heard people say that they love these tips, too."

If you’re considering an SMS alert program of your own, here are six steps Dancer’s team took to launch the "Dog Whisperer" SMS campaign -- and lessons learned along the way:

Step #1. Create valuable alerts

The team wanted the alert to act as a weekly reminder of the show’s broadcast time. But that feature alone would not be enough to encourage viewers to sign up.

The team also included tips on dog obedience and care -- information that is at the core of the viewers’ interest in the show.

The alerts were sent every Friday, four hours before the show aired. Here is an example:

Dog Whisperer Tip
Letting your dog lead the pack spells nothing but trouble. Establish leadership from day one.
Watch Fri 8P et/pt on NGC

The team created a database with more than 100 of these training tips to pull from as needed.

Step #2. Build custom SMS short code

The team wanted to have a short, simple number for viewers to message from their phones to opt-in to the alerts.

These numbers are called Common Short Codes (CSCs) and typically consist of five or six digits. CSCs are leased from the Common Short Code Administration (CSCA) on a three-, six-, or 12-month basis. The fee is a non-refundable $1,000 per month for "select" codes and $500 per month for random codes. To get started, go to the CSCA website and create an account (see links below).

The team registered the vanity number 64288, which corresponded to NGCTV (National Geographic Channel Television). Viewers signed up for the alerts by texting "DOG" to that number.

Step #3. Get sponsorship

The team secured a sponsorship that supplied enough revenue to cover the cost of the campaign. The alerts were sponsored by the online pet supply retailer PETCO.

Each SMS message included a "sponsored by PETCO" mention, and once a month subscribers received a text message with a coupon code for 10% off at PETCO.com.

Step #4. Get approval from carriers

Every SMS campaign must be approved by the wireless phone carriers that will send the messages. To do this, you must gather all the relevant information around your campaign and fill out an application on the CSCA website.

Information needed for an application includes:
o Description of the step-by-step interaction with the user
o If and when traffic spikes might occur
o Market size and potential reach
o Contact information for all parties involved, such as aggregators, content providers, agencies, etc.

The CSCA will review your application and forward it to the carriers for their approval. This is an important part of the process, so be careful.

"Missing or incomplete information will only delay the provisioning of your CSC and trigger violations," according to the CSCA website.

Step #5. Multi-channel promotion

Once the campaign was ready to launch, the team promoted the short code in the following channels:

- On-air

During episodes of "The Dog Whisperer," an animated graphic would appear for approximately ten seconds encouraging viewers to "sign up for the latest tips. Text "DOG" to 64288."

- Website

The Dog Whisperer portion of the National Geographic Channel’s website included a tab for mobile information. This page described the tips, the sign-up process, and featured a picture of a cell phone with a sample tip.

- Blog

National Geographic Channel maintains an Inside NGC Blog, where a post was written announcing the tips and how to sign up.

Step #6. Time launch for special event, and maintain momentum

The show had a 100th episode special in September, complete with a red carpet event. So the team timed the alerts’ launch to coincide with the special.

This timing helped give an extra push to subscriptions generated by the on-air animated graphics, since more people were likely to tune into the special episode.

- Continued alerts

Specific team members were assigned the responsibility of writing tips and ensuring a new one was ready to be sent each week. SMS alerts are not a one-off campaign -- they should be an on-going effort. "The Dog Whisperer" tips program continues today.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative Samples from "The Dog Whisperer" SMS tips campaign:

2ergo: The agency that helped build and maintain the alerts


Common Short Code FAQ

100th Episode Commercial

The Dog Whisperer

National Geographic Channel

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