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Cannes Lions Special Section

New website to stop abuse of SMS as a marketing medium

As the use of the Short Message Service (SMS) to deliver commercial messages to cell phone users markedly increases, the Marketing Federation of Southern Africa (MFSA) has initiated a web site and code of practice in a bid to curb the abuse of this oft-used direct-marketing tool.

In a groundbreaking development the MFSA, MTN, Vodacom and Cell C, as well over 30 Service Providers and interested companies, contributed in a co-operative effort towards the common objective of creating the SMS Code Site.

Launched today (Friday, 14 March), the web site will enable customers to identify which Service Provider sent the commercial SMS. The web site will also enable cell phone users to contact the Service Provider and request to be un-subscribed from the sender's list, or to report an unsolicited commercial SMS to the MFSA.

Cell phone users will not receive a direct response to reports made to the MFSA. However, their reports will either be forwarded to the correct Service Provider, or, the MFSA would collate and transmit these reports to the relevant Network Operator, especially if a number of complaints are received about a single sender.

"Something would obviously need to be done if too many complaints are received about a particular commercial SMS says Rowan Brewer, CEO of and a member of the MFSA's e-business group.

Brewer explained that in most instances Service Providers send a commercial SMS on behalf of another company. Service Providers, therefore, submit "unsubscribe" requests from customers to the sender company.

The SMS code site is run by the MFSA, which also acted as a neutral forum to draft an SMS Code of Practice between June and December 2002 in collaboration with MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and over 30 Service Providers in South Africa.

The aims of this joint initiative are to protect customers against unsolicited commercial SMS messages by providing a channel for resolution and promoting the responsible use of the SMS as a marketing medium.

The unprecedented collaborative effort also formulated a set of ground-rules for the use of the commercial SMS as a marketing tool. These stipulate that companies cannot send a commercial SMS unless the recipient has requested the SMS or the recipient has a prior commercial relationship with the company and would reasonably expect to receive marketing communications from them. Where the company has no prior commercial relationship with the recipient, the organisation supplying the originator with the recipient's information must firstly procure the recipient's consent to do so for the purpose of sending commercial SMS.

The rules also prescribe that companies must allow recipients to un-subscribe from commercial messages sent via SMS through notifying the sender directly or being through the Service Provider that sent the SMS.

Further rules dictate that Message Originators must include their names or identifiers in a commercial SMS message while Service Providers are obliged to include a valid originating number in all commercial SMS messages.

Finally, in accordance with the rules, Network Operators are required to provide the Originating Numbers issued by them to the Service Providers as well as their names and contact details to the MFSA for inclusion on the newly established web site as part of their contractual agreement with the Service Provider or Message Originator.

"SMS marketing is very valuable but the web-site is an effort to stop the abuse of this marketing strategy," emphasises Brewer.

He adds that the MFSA-driven web site also provides a win-win solution to all concerned. "On the one hand, it affords cellular users the opportunity to identify and trace Message Originators so that they could be un-subscribed if they so desire. On the other hand, it protects Network Operators, who usually aren't the originators of a commercial SMS, from irate customers calling to be un-subscribed."

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