SMS still an integral business tool

While use overshadowed by new media such as social networking, SMS remains unique and effective tool for customer outreach, note industry observers.

While organizations are dipping their toes into newer technologies such as social networking as a means to communicate with consumers, traditional tools particularly SMS (short message service) is still proving to be an integral outreach tool.

According to Shalini Verma, principal analyst at Gartner, SMS, MMS (multimedia messaging) and voice-related technologies are perceived as traditional, and newer tools such as social media have "come up and taken over".

"There are traditional tools that have been perceived as outdated because when we come from a smartphone standpoint--the high-end devices--definitely some of these [older communication] tools are not a big focus," Verma noted in a phone interview.

That said, SMS continues to be used widely in marketing and other forms of customer communication, and its usage will continue in the face of social media popularity, she added.

In Southeast Asia, the analyst noted, people want to use social media but do not have the devices to access their accounts, so the reliance on SMS to update their social networks is not uncommon.

Rebekah Russell-Bennett, professor at the School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations in Queensland University of Technology's business faculty, pointed out that SMS is "not at all" an outdated means of communication as it is "currently the only technology that most, if not all, of the population" can access.

"You're looking at a tool that's convenient, that is cheap, that people already know how to use, and the majority of people regardless of race, age, economic situation, income...have access to," Russell-Bennett said.

The professor found SMS to be a particularly relevant tool in a recent initiative she was involved in, known as Mumbubconnect. Run in conjunction with the Australian Breastfeeding Association over eight weeks, Mumbubconnect was designed to be an SMS-supported scheme for new mothers, where they were asked to rate their breastfeeding experience using standard responses. The system would then follow up with a programmed reply based on advice from the association. If a mother indicated she was not coping well, the system would flag an alert for a breastfeeding counselor to intervene with a phone call.

According to Russell-Bennett, prior to the trial, mothers had indicated during focus group sessions that SMS was not only an easy way to obtain information, they could also respond at their own convenience and would not be as embarrassed as "it's not a real person at the other end of the line 'speaking to' you".

While social media was also tapped for the campaign, its use was more complementary and SMS was "far more private", she noted. In addition, people could not always get access the Internet where and when they wanted to, so SMS proved a good alternative, said Russell-Bennett.

She added that the text messaging platform can also be particularly important in times of crisis such as the floods in Queensland early this year, as "the Internet is the first thing you're not able to get access to" in such scenarios. However, she acknowledged that mobile networks can be impacted as well, as was the case in March's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, during which mobile access was interrupted and many used Internet access to communicate with loved ones and share updates of the disaster.

SMS also an internal tool
Over in Singapore, local telcos told ZDNet Asia that SMS use remains healthy.

A SingTel spokesperson said in an e-mail: "SMS services continue to be popular with businesses for personal communications, as well as communications with customers and employees."

M1 noted, also in an e-mail, that overall SMS traffic continues to grow, in part due to the ease of use and accessibility of the technology.

Singapore-based Raffles Medical Group uses SMS to remind patients of medical appointments as well as solicit feedback from first-time patients, a spokesperson said. The organization, which runs a hospital and network of clinics in the city-state, described SMS as a "suitable medium for private information such as medical appointments" and a fast and easy way to draw a response from patients, she shared in an e-mail.

The use of SMS is not limited to these purposes, she added, noting that Raffles Medical Group will continue to explore ways to tap the technology further for the business.

Tanmoy Chakrabarty, vice president and head of government industry solutions unit at Tata Consultancy Services, said SMS has been integrated into enterprise workflows where notifications are generated to inform users about project status or alert them of unusual or critical developments.

Messaging comeback in mature markets
Gartner's Verma noted that while SMS traditionally has been a cheap medium and worked extremely well in emerging markets, it has "limitations in terms of how compelling the messaging experience is". This has led to the evolvement of mobile messaging, a service that "sits somewhere between SMS and instant messaging" and one that is particularly relevant in markets more mature in their use of technology.

It is easy, for instance, to rally people using mobile messaging, Verma said, pointing to the recent riots in the United Kingdom.

The Blackberry Messenger has worked very well for Research In Motion in terms of driving adoption and creating a community, the analyst added, noting that the mobile messaging ecosystem also includes Apple with its new iMessage platform as well as cross-platform application players such as WhatsApp.

"The use is more compelling and more intuitive, and that is why people have latched on to [this new wave of mobile messaging]," said Verma. "Service providers are feeling that SMS is becoming a bit obsolete and, therefore, are looking at ways to add on more capabilities on top of it, [which is why you]…have SMS linked to social media."

At the same time, Internet giants, particularly Facebook, are strengthening their messaging capabilities, she added.

Going forward, messaging will also not be restricted to text, and can incorporate video or VoIP (voice-over-Internet Protocol), she said.