Vanity Short Codes Soon To Be Irrelevant In SMS Marketing

The following is the weekly guest series by Derek Johnson, Founder & CEO of SMS marketing software Tatango. There are two types of short codes in SMS marketing: “random” short codes and “vanity” short codes. Random short codes are exactly what they sound like, a combination of 5-6 numbers picked at random, outside of the clients control (i.e. 95632, …   Read More

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Vanity Short Code Example - Text MyLexus to 90210

The following is the weekly guest series by Derek Johnson, Founder & CEO of SMS marketing software Tatango.

There are two types of short codes in SMS marketing: “random” short codes and “vanity” short codes. Random short codes are exactly what they sound like, a combination of 5-6 numbers picked at random, outside of the clients control (i.e. 95632, 20924, 425031) and vanity short codes are 5-6 numbers that are picked specifically within the clients control, i.e. 12345 (sequential order), 90210 (Beverly Hills zip code) and 411247 (411 – directory / 247 – all day every day).

The Common Short Code Administration leases vanity short codes for SMS campaigns at $1,000 per month, compared to $500 for a random short code. From a client’s perspective, there is usually one of two reasons why they see the value in paying twice as much for a vanity short code than a random short code.

  1. Client wants a “phoneword” – the alphanumeric equivalent of a specific number (i.g. the short code 466453 spells ‘GOOGLE’ on a mobile phone keypad).
  2. Client wants a specific number series – making it easier for consumers to remember.

I believe number one to be useless due to the fact that it increases consumer confusion when opting into a campaign. It’s more difficult to understand texting a WORD into another WORD (i.e. “Text PLACES to GOOGLE”) as the order of the two words (which one is the keyword) can be confused. Some examples of this failed tactic include Paris Hilton’s SMS campaign and Great Clips’ SMS campaign.

The second reason I can understand, in that it’s easier to remember 12345 when opting in than it is some random 5 or 6 digits. Although if this is true, why doesn’t our SMS service offer vanity short codes to clients? The answer is simple — soon I believe it won’t matter what the short code is, as consumers won’t actually type the short code into their phone when joining an SMS campaign. You heard me right, no typing.

So how the heck does a consumer join an SMS campaign in the future? By simply scanning a QR Code. If you have a QR code scanner on your mobile phone, try joining this SMS campaign I setup by scanning the QR code below. As you join this SMS campaign, you will realize how minimal of a role the short code plays in this new opt-in process.

QR Code to Join SMS Marketing Campaign

SMS campaign using a QR Code

The real drawback right now to QR codes is that most phones don’t have the required software to be able to scan a QR code. This is drastically changing however, as mobile phone providers start to release phones with the QR code scanning software built in. Just recently AT&T released their own mobile barcode scanner, which is already pre-loaded onto many AT&T devices.

It’s just a matter of time until all mobile phones will have the ability to scan a QR code, which at that point the vanity short code will have become irrelevant in SMS marketing.

Update 6/30/11: I’ve received a few emails asking how I created the QR code to trigger an SMS message in the example above. For details instructions see the post I wrote on SMS Marketing with QR Codes, which takes you step-by-step through the process. Any questions, feel free to email me at derek(at) or give me a ring (206) 334-4012.

In this article


  1. hasnain1

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  2. Larry

    thanks for posting this info on how qr relates to the future use of short codes. much appreciated.

  3. Robin

    QR codes interesting for print media and point of sale, but pretty much Irrelevant to DR on TV and radio.

  4. Paul

    As a mobile vanity code provider, I tend to see things differently. We have provisioned #LAW (#529) which offers nationwide mobile access to attorneys, who opt in as clients, to service specific areas of the country. They are therefore able to market "Dial #LAW form your mobile phone…" and bring toll free, on demand, 24/7 service to a completely NEW level, via mobile phone vanity dialing.

    An example: If we provision #CAB, or perhaps #TOW to nationwide dispatching services, No matter where your plane lands, or your car breaks down, you dial one of these vanity codes (easy enough to remember) and your call is routed via IVR to a Taxi or Tow service in the area code your call is coming from. #FLY is another code we have not yet began to launch, which is available. I imagine the day will come where an airline or travel company will lease this number and receive nationwide calls.

    This is what we do and I only see it growing, going forward.

  5. Eric Landeen

    Short codes are how carriers manage campaigns and policies- all that stuff is built around the idea of short code=program=campaign=aggregator=one throat to choke. So I think it's hard for short codes to go away entirely, unless you want to go rogue and use long codes. I can buy the argument that vanity codes aren't necessary, but I think short codes are going to be around a long time.

    1. Derek Johnson

      Yea, I was just talking about vanity short codes, especially with the use of QR codes. Thanks for the comment Eric.

  6. Derek Johnson

    Agreed Becca, thanks for the comment.

  7. Becca Parks

    Some type of 'barcode' will be the future, it may or may not be QR Codes but it will be some type of Barcoding!

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  10. Roger Ramjet

    Interesting concept but it does rely upon the QR code creators and QR code readers to agree a set of standards – not achieved so far. As the example provided #FAILED I am not able to comment on the overall user journey – suffice it to say that the user experience was unsatisfactory.

    1. Derek Johnson

      How did it fail? What kind of QR code scanner are you using?

  11. Mark Smith, BoomText

    Sorry Derek I think you're initial premise is incorrect. You're assuming that shortcode #'s (vanity or otherwise) are currently relevant… I disagree.

    Being in the industry you should know that shortcodes (random or vanity) and keywords do not have to be recalled by consumers. A consumer interested in opting into an SMS campaign will see the information (keyword and shortcode), immediately opt-in to the program and then they're done – there's no need for them to recall that information again.

    So whether a consumer gets their shortcode/keyword from a printed table tent, window decal, highway billboard or enters a campaign through a QR code, the shortcode # has little relevance.

    Will QR codes be the future of joining a campaign (replacing simple texting)? Not until smartphones are in the vast majority… which will happen in the next few years, and even then, simple texting will have it's place in many applications.

  12. Scott Goldman

    As usual, insightful and provocative thoughts from a real industry leader. I do disagree to a certain extent, though. Vanity short codes – or random ones, for that matter – won't disappear completely for several reasons:

    1. You can't scan a QR code on a radio ad.
    2. It's very difficult to scan a QR code on a TV ad (and most people won't want to jump off the couch to get close enough to the TV to do so anyway).
    3. Anything that's moving – a bus, subway or roving billboard – will be exceedingly difficult to scan.
    4. Some people's hands aren't steady enough to scan accurately.
    5. You can't "remember" a QR code if you don't have your phone handy.

    There are more reasons, but you get the idea. In the end, this won't be an either/or scenario, it will be one of multiple choices. There will be a place for each technology depending on the application.

    1. Derek Johnson

      Great points Scott. I agree with you that there will be a time a place for short codes, but I think the majority of opt-ins will be generated through QR codes in the future. The examples you gave are perfect examples of when a short code works better, but I think there are more situations that could use a QR code. Just my thoughts. Thanks for the comment!

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  14. Jonathan Madnick

    I also agree with those who question how QR codes could impact call to actions on radio, on live TV, and in venue. And if I am in different channels, do I want to have different methods, or one ubiquitous method.
    So I don't see text to a number going away. I see QR codes, SMS opt-in, mobile web opt-in, and voice opt-in co-existing. But a number is not just about short codes. There are also long codes, a normal ten-digit number.

  15. Ted

    "The real drawback right now to QR codes is that most phones don’t have the required software to be able to scan a QR code." How is that possible? The target audience here is someone using a smartphone. All smarthphones have the ability to download QR code app.

    1. Guest

      The target audience of an SMS campaign is very often NOT a smart phone user, but any user with a text-enabled phone (so pretty much all phones). The main benefit of an SMS campaign is that almost any phone user can access it.

      Also, I agree about short codes not going away b/c of radio and other events where the call-to-action is purely an announcement.

    2. Derek Johnson

      Correct… I agree the short code will never completely go away, but in my opinion the scans will definitely outnumber the amount of opt-ins via short code soon.

    3. Derek Johnson

      What do you mean by here? On this blog? Then you are correct… but the majority of the population isn't on this blog. Only 30% of people have smartphones right now, so it isn't majority. Good news though is that 70% of new phone purchases are smartphones. We will get there.

  16. Mike Ross

    I think QR codes have their place and Vanity codes have their place. For instance radio QR codes don't do much good there and a vanity code would be easier to remember. If I'm at a restaurant and there is a QR code on the back of a menu I will scan that. My thoughts are to keep tuned to both methods and learn the appropriate application depending on the media type.
    I will throw this in though I think QR codes are more sexy.

    1. Derek Johnson

      Completely agree. I don't think the short code will go away, but I think the amount of scans will supersede actual typing in the short code in the near future.


    QR Codes are no doubt changing the face of mobile marketing and its use will continue to grow. That being said, try advertising a random short code on radio and see how many people remember it versus a vanity short code with a memorable number. If nobody remembers your short code, the interactivity in your radio advertising is useless. For $500 more per month, that's an investment that I'm willing to make if you use broadcast advertising. If not, you will waste a lot more money in wasted radio ads!

    1. Chris Taylor

      My point exactly!

    2. Derek Johnson

      In my opinion repetitive number short codes are the worst for advertising recall. Think about it from a consumers standpoint, how many 4's did they say? For radio/television I would agree though that QR codes aren't the best option, but I would much rather display a short code like 90120 then. Just my thoughts. Thanks for the comment.

  18. Chris Taylor

    Derek, we have had this conversation before and while I agree that a vanity "phoneword" is confusing and I tend to steer my clients away from them, a vanity code that is easy for a client to say/visualize is always the first they pick. I know we all don't have access to codes like AT&T's 23456, but similar or repeating numbers like 24747 or 90999 will get picked 10 times out of 10 by a client that can afford it over a random five or six digits.

    1. Derek Johnson

      That's why we're here to steer clients in the right direction 🙂

  19. Text2VIP

    Good points Derek. We've seen very few clients express any concern over their perceived need for a 'phoneword' or memorable short code in our 3 years in the industry. Truth be told, the vast majority of consumers are LOOKING right at the number when they opt-in anyway–so what is there to commit to memory?

    1. Derek Johnson

      Yea, that's why we decided not to go with a vanity short code in the first place. Thanks for the comment, great to connect with you.

  20. Jeff

    Great read. The big media is putting qr codes all over and I suppose it will get worst (or better), so now it's up to the phone carriers to start catching up. Put the scanners in the phones…

    1. Derek Johnson

      Agreed… I read magazines and it seems like every issue has more QR codes than the previous one. Thanks for the comment.

  21. Andy Smith

    I disagree that short codes will become irrelevant, in many circumstances, having a number you can remember is going to help increase response rates. Many marketing mediums are aimed at people driving, people on trains or in a rush on the underground, where it just isn't feasible to get your phone out, open the QR scanning app, and take a picture/scan of the QR code. I can see QR codes growing, and growing fast (here is some evidence of that:, but I believe in many circumstances an accompanying response method, such as a short code, will be required. The easier that is to remember (a vanity short code) the better the response will be.

    SMS Short Codes

    1. Derek Johnson

      I still have to think that most SMS campaign opt-ins happen when someone is standing right in-front of the call to action. I don't know about you, but if I'm walking by a call to action into an SMS campaign, there is no way in hell I'm going to keep walking, remember the keyword and short code and text it in later. I think that's wishful thinking.

      I agree though with the radio example mentioned below, QR codes are completely useless on the radio 🙂

  22. Derek Johnson

    Couldn't agree more!

  23. Derek Johnson

    Thanks for the comment.

  24. Derek Johnson

    hahahaha – Thanks Alex for your insightful comment 🙂

Comments are closed.