OPINION4 December 2013

OMG! SMS turns 21


As text messaging enters its third decade, Ipsos Mori’s Daniel Welch wonders how much life there is left in this old technology, now that phone users – and researchers – have email, apps and more to play with.


More than two decades on, SMS has become the second most commonly used feature on a mobile phone (behind checking the time), and a reported 8 trillion messages are sent annually – the equivalent of 250,000 every second.

However, the growth of SMS traffic has stagnated in recent years, driven by the increased global adoption of smartphones, which have paved the way for alternative forms of mobile communication to evolve. We are now spoiled for choice, with access to email, multimedia messaging services (MMS), instant messages and mobile applications – all within one device.

At the age of 21, there is evidence to suggest the SMS is now at the peak of its technological lifecycle, particularly as a form of communication. But what about its future as a research tool?

“Despite almost half of all email now being opened on a mobile device, our experience suggests that SMS represents a more effective form of invite for app-based surveys”

Ipsos has been carrying out SMS surveys for almost 11 years. The simplistic nature of the technology makes it a perfect fit for surveys that require quick-turnaround results, and access to opinions and attitudes in close proximity to an event or occasion.

But SMS is now competing against alternative mobile technologies that allow researchers to better engage with participants and gather more detailed information, as well as context.

Firstly, there are web-based surveys. Many of our surveys now allow participants to carry out online surveys on multiple devices, whether it is a laptop, tablet or mobile phone, meaning a participant can start a survey on one device and continue the same survey on another.

The introduction of the smartphone has also allowed researchers to capture much richer, in-the-moment information through mobile apps – involving technologies like geo triggering and mobile diaries, which can pull together a mix of text, photo and video responses to research questions.

But the evolution of these ‘new’ mobile technologies does not necessarily signal the end for SMS. The technology almost certainly has a part to play, particularly in developing markets, where smartphone penetration is growing but remains low.

From a research perspective, SMS is likely to find its role becoming more of a supplementary one. Despite almost half of all email now being opened on a mobile device, our experience suggests that SMS represents a more effective form of invite for app-based surveys, as the vast majority of text messages are read within five minutes of being received.

SMS also has global reach, due to its compatibility with just about every mobile device on the planet, unlike other tools.

So, Happy Birthday, SMS. Here’s to many more.

Daniel Welch is digital research manager for Ipsos Mori