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How much does it cost to send a text message?

It's often less than a cent if you're a marketer sending in bulk, but U.S. pizza chain Papa John's could be forced to pay $1,500 a pop for 500,000 text messages its franchisees sent in 2010.

A class action lawsuit alleges that the chain's franchisees, though a third party text messaging service, sent promotional ads to consumers without their permission in violation of a 1991 law. The attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case are asking for $250m in damages, but a jury could award triple that amount if it decides that Papa John's willfully violated the law.

While it remains to be seen just how likely an eight-figure verdict is, and it would seem that there's a decent chance the class action will be settled before the matter is put in the hands of a jury, Papa John's plight provides several good lessons for other marketers using SMS to reach consumers.

1. It pays to get permission

In the United States, it's against the law to send text message advertisements without an opt-in, but even if that weren't the case, the magnitude of the Papa John's case hammers home the fact that consumers get really irritated by intrusive forms of advertising that they didn't ask for.

2. High volume rarely produces high ROI

The consumers suing Papa John's apparently have good reason to want the pizza chain to pay for its unwanted text messages: according to one of the lawyers involved in the case, some of the plaintiffs were sent more than a dozen messages in a row -- at all hours of the day.

While this, if true, this could have been the result of technical error or incompetence, many marketers do make the mistake of assuming that the more ads they send, the more likely it is they'll see a return on investment. In reality, that's rarely the case and high volume produces high levels of anger on the part of recipients.

3. "Somebody else sent it" isn't an excuse

Papa John's claims that "third-party vendors and a small number of franchisees" were responsible for sending the troublesome text messages. Assuming that's true, a jury may ultimately determine if Papa John's is culpable for the irritating SMS campaigns.

But make no mistake about it: Papa John's is unlikely to emerge a winner in the court of public opinion. After all, the Papa John's brand name is what appears in the headlines about what could be one of the largest spam lawsuits ever.

4. SMS campaigns are easy to execute, but hard to make work

Despite the fact that text messaging is apparently plateauing in the United States, it's an attractive channel for marketers for obvious reasons: billions of mobile phones around the world are capable of receiving SMS messages and it doesn't take much work to get an SMS campaign off the ground.

That doesn't mean, however, that success comes easy with these campaigns. The mobile phone is an intimate, always-on device and while that creates incredible opportunities, it also means that it's easy to cross the line and significantly harm a customer relationship with a single interaction.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 November, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2377 more posts from this author

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Barbara Fowler, Managing Partner at Chief Outsiders

Thanks for sharing. I hadn't heard about this lawsuit. Makes for an expensive pizza for Papa Johns.

over 3 years ago

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Pigiame

I highly agree with point #2 in that it's optimization and targeting that converts, not spam. Hope marketer everywhere will heed this warning as users are more and more irritable with poor forms of marketing. Great post.

over 3 years ago

Simon West

Simon West, Chairman at Nett Sales LLP

Even if you are provided your mobile by you company, there is still a feeling of invasion over the use of text message marketing.

I guess this is a personal device and texting is a personal activity...

As distinct from reading emails on the same device, where there is a higher degree of tolerance to marketing messages. IMHO!

over 3 years ago

Timothy James Compton

Timothy James Compton, Digital Community Coach at Affinity Water Ltd

I agree with Simon, marketing via text message is a real turn-off for me and more instrusive than emails (although I am normally veiwing them on the same device!). Thanks for posting this!

over 3 years ago

Andy Killworth

Andy Killworth, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

As much as I love their products, I did find the annoying texts I got recently (which I'm sure I never consented to) a PITA.

Asking for $500 per text is a bit silly though.

over 3 years ago

Simon West

Simon West, Chairman at Nett Sales LLP

@andy - "profiteering" is the word that comes to mind!

I can understand using text messaging for transactional communications ("your package will be with you between 3 and 4pm"), but for marketing it just leaves me cold. And there is no traceability to understand who is engaging...

over 3 years ago

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Paul Thewlis

Generally I'd agree with Simon's comments that texting is cold but in some industries - mine, the offline gambling sector - it's the way the majority of our customers prefer to receive information... discreet, direct and easy to delete.

That said, blanket SMS doesn't work and it needs to be optimised to get true results. There's no excuse for not targetting the customers right with any half decent back-end systems put in place.

over 3 years ago

Simon West

Simon West, Chairman at Nett Sales LLP

Yes. For B2C Customer engagement it's great. I've seen pubs using it to announce the guest beer of the week and dentists reminding about appointments.

over 3 years ago

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Karla Campos

I find text message advertising extremely annoying, a text message is more of a personal communication and when you actually allow a company in your personal space you expect them to do it with respect and not go overboard.

over 3 years ago

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Stuart Murray

Sending 12 messages in a row is simply crazy! If managed responsibly that could be 3 months of messages for a single client's campaign, i.e. 1 a week at the most. Whilst not everyone likes receiving texts, if clear expectations on frequency are set when opting in, plus the message is timely, relevant and engaging - a campaign is more likely to be effective and customers are more likely to be happy :)

over 3 years ago

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