SMS Marketing Automation: Buy vs. Build

SMS Marketing Automation

SMS Marketing Automation: Buy vs. Build

SMS marketing is picking up momentum. Consumers are increasingly asking for personalized brand experiences and increasingly ignoring older channels of communication such as email marketing. When it comes to customer acquisition, marketing, ecommerce & customer support use cases, SMS marketing is now gaining traction for direct-to-consumer, mobile first brands. Many brands observe simplistic ways of using SMS to notify customers, but they are missing out on a bigger opportunity to engage with customers in conversation which converts to sales and revenue faster than simple SMS marketing (spray & pray) and traditional email marketing. 

Surprisingly, many brands believe it is important to build technology rather than add pre-existing software automation to their marketing tech stack. This article reviews considerations for buying SMS marketing automation vs. building and managing your own SMS marketing solution.

Customization for simple use cases

Some brands choose to create their own SMS marketing solution because they believe text messaging starts and ends with SMS notifications, and they default back to email for more traditional marketing or support use cases. However, as mentioned email continues to see a rapid decline in overall effectiveness for engaging with consumers. Companies like Twilio have built tools to help developers build basic notification-based messaging. Often times these custom-built solutions are not designed for two-way conversations over text messaging and therefore are ill equipped to handle any response from a customer who texts back to your brand. Typically, custom built SMS solutions are built for one or more of the following use cases:

  • Reminders, alerts and notifications
  • Order fulfillment
  • Shipping updates or order changes
  • One-way promotional offers without personalization
  • Bulk SMS marketing blasts
  • Simple human-to-human texting for support

These use cases are table stakes and can be useful to get messages to consumers quickly. However, as mentioned they lack sophistication addressing the larger opportunity for brands to engage in a regular digital dialogue with customers on their mobile devices. SMS marketing is a direct conduit to ask your customers what they want versus telling them what they need. If your solution is not equipped to handle incoming texts from your customers and in turn drive automations based on who they are, what they like, buying behaviors, context and intent, then your custom built SMS solution is analogous to building your own email platform. The simple question is “Are you creating effective personalization channels for mobile engagement and is building it core to your business success?”

Time to market

The most obvious drawback of building your own SMS marketing solution is the time to market. In the best case, it takes between a year and 18 months to get to basic functionality. Can your marketing teams wait that long to have a solution that enables them to connect with customers, send personalized offers, and drive more mobile sales? Let’s face it: today’s users don’t want to wait 18 seconds, much less 18 months for new features. And if your competition already has better solutions for texting, you really can’t afford to wait.

Costs and options of building from scratch

One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid when building a custom SMS marketing solution is to underestimate the amount of time and effort it will take. Yes, there are open source libraries and other tools you can build on, but they take time to design, architect, build and maintain for the life of that application. You’ll also have to consider the implications of needing to provide in-house development support for a feature or component you might not understand initially in a real world use of the application.

Building your own SMS marketing application typically requires the following components:

  • Elastic infrastructure (2-4 months): Building the backend infrastructure to handle tens of thousands to millions of messages back and forth between your brand and your customers.
  • Elastic data storage (2-3 months, plus ongoing hosting costs): Two-way conversational mobile messaging accumulates a large amount of persistent state data which needs to be hosted. It is possible to do this part fairly quickly, but you will have ongoing cloud hosting costs.
  • Real-time infrastructure (2-4 months): It often comes as a surprise how much time is required to sustain real-time messages and conversations on mobile. Most teams underestimate the complexity of maintaining real-time connections for mobile applications. SMS & MMS has strict rate limits and message queue depths. Building a system that can be responsive to the masses while staying under the rate limits is an art that takes constant tuning.
  • Integrations with existing applications (2-4 months): Real-time systems need to work together seamlessly. The complexity of getting systems and applications to work together can be daunting and a resource drain to engineering and internal IT.
  • Admin & agent web portal (3-9 months and ongoing): Initially, it will be ok for your developer to set up an experience that only a developer can maintain and perhaps tie into existing systems. At some point you will want to deploy your technical resources to more meaningful projects, but first you will create ways for your non-dev team members to administer and architect meaningful customer experiences for your conversational SMS marketing solution.
  • Features & improvements (+6 months ongoing): After completing all of the baseline infrastructure investments and implementation mentioned above, can your marketing, ecommerce, and CRM teams focus on using the application according to your design? It will inevitably take a few months to implement and test these features, but when it’s your proprietary software you have the ongoing maintenance to account for. Additionally, you must account for and stay current on security updates, alerting, monitoring, CCPA compliance and CTIA rules changes.
  • Changes in the industry (+6 months each time): After investing months of capital and developer resources necessary to build out your SMS marketing stack, you must plan for and continue innovation on new technologies in the mobile messaging industry. This includes 10 digit long codes (10DLC), Rich Communication Services (RCS), as well as extensibility to future conversational platforms. By the time you finish your first platform launch it will likely be already out of date.

For most teams, this development would take 15 months and 3-5 full-time salaried software programmers for development. We understand this well, having designed, built and supported hundreds of millions of conversations between brands and customers. And, it doesn’t end there. Security updates, added features, and keeping up with compliance and industry developments to ensure your messages are getting from your application through the mobile carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc). are also necessary.

Testing and managing software defects

Building an application will require extensive testing and debugging which strains internal development resources and adds additional costs when something goes wrong. This can include changes instrumented by carriers, deliverability across mobile carriers, infrastructure as code updates, data storage, compliance, and software integrations with your existing software investments. 

Additional features

As we described above, SMS marketing automation is and should be comprehensive for a variety of use cases. A fully features SMS marketing solution should be able to address the following features and capabilities:

  • Indication of message deliverability.
  • Indication of who has read a message, responded or clicked through to a website, landing page or other web application. 
  • Auto-responders when your brand or representative of your brand participants are not available for one-to-one chat over SMS. 
  • Conversion of conversations to online sales or ticket creation for support use cases.
  • Ability to design messages fit for SMS/MMS which includes images, videos, GIFs and emojis.
  • Designing your infrastructure to prioritize incoming messages from customers over outgoing messages from your brand. 
  • The ability for your SMS marketing software to listen for responses and respond in turn with context. For example, you should never have to ask a person what their name is more than one time.

If you are considering building your own SMS marketing solution, you need to individually develop each one of these features with scale in mind.

Ongoing maintenance

The total cost of ownership (TCO) is always a concern when you are building your own SMS solution. First of all, you’ll have ever-increasing cloud provider costs as your app gains traction, you acquire more customers, and engage in regular digital dialogue with those customers over mobile. Secondly, your development and IT team will need to support and maintain the code. As you already know, there are regular security updates and changes to operating systems to take into consideration. Maintenance costs will vary, but issues or bugs will be your problem which can be compounded by scale.

Critical questions for justifying building your SMS software solution versus buying an existing solution built for scale.

  1. Is SMS really core to your business? Are you in the software development business or are you selling products or services to consumers? 
  2. Is the investment for differentiated intellectual property (IP) or is it merely a means for you to build a strong mobile connection with your customers?
  3. Are you staffed to invest in building and innovating on your messaging stack?
  4. Are you staffed to maintain the investment as a business-critical application and support the integrations you will have with other business applications?
  5. Are you staffed to troubleshoot deliverability and issues with carriers?
  6. Are you prepared to stay on top of industry changes, rules and compliance?
  7. Are you prepared to lease and manage short codes to enable conversations to occur with your customers?
  8. Do you have time to build a minimal viable product (MVP) that will be world-class for your customers, easy to manage for your marketing, ecommerce and support teams?
  9. Do you have time to build at the risk of losing customers to your competition?
  10. Are you prepared to build additional features to help your application become smarter with every conversation and understand context and intent?


Mobile messaging and conversation marketing over SMS is a new frontier. It is unlikely you get everything right the first time. This is why many businesses choose to invest in pre-existing platforms and vendors that are flexible and provide the heavy lifting for you. You will be able to get to what is right for your brand faster. Adding a robust SMS software solution to your mobile marketing technology stack doesn’t have to be time-consuming or costly. With a pre-existing solution built for modern marketers and APIs for developers you can get up and running with a complete enterprise grade solution without making compromises on your product, services or interoperability with other business applications. SMS marketing software like Chatitive have proven to be highly effective for use cases spanning mobile engagement. Whether you are planning for tens of thousands or millions of messages a month across thousands of mobile subscribers, marketing automation solutions have solved for many of the pitfalls you will encounter if you choose to build instead. In almost every case, choosing to buy a solution and partner with an experienced vendor will be faster, cheaper, and risk-optimized compared to in-house development. 

Conversational Messaging Evangelist at Chatitive