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A Marketer’s Guide to Navigating the SMS Compliance Seas

A Marketer’s Guide to Navigating the SMS Compliance Seas

As your partner in SMS success, we’ve compiled the following guide on the governing rules and regulations for text message marketing.

June 8, 2022

SMS Text Message Compliance for FCC, TCPA, CTIA Regulations and Beyond

You wouldn’t dive into deep blue seas without ever having tested your buoyancy in shallow waters. Brands looking to harness the power of the SMS marketing channel should take a similar approach and start with SMS compliance. 

As your partner in SMS success, we’ve compiled the following guide on the governing rules and regulations for text message marketing. Launch your text message program confidently with Voyage – we’ve snagged the most important resources and summarized the critical elements to will help you get your feet wet with the fundamentals of SMS compliance. 

To get started, we’ve scanned the depths of SMS compliance acronyms and made you a reference sheet.

Acronym Meaning Details
FCC Federal Communications Commission An independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress that regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The United States' primary authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.
TCPA Telephone Consumer Protection Act Created by the FCC, TCPA is the primary federal law governing the regulation of telephone solicitations.
DNC Do-Not-Call Registry The FCC regulates imposing financial penalties on all commercial telemarketers for calling phone numbers on the “Do-Not-Call” registry.
CTIA Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association Trade association for wireless carriers and mobile operators. Although not a government organization, telemarketers must abide by CTIA regulations to avoid issues with carriers
SHAFT Sex-Hate-Alcohol-Firearms-Tobacco Regulations The CTIA Short Code Monitoring regulations on explicitly regulated brands include age-gating and other restrictions.

Let’s walk through each of these elements more, and how you can best adhere for successful SMS compliance.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) SMS Regulations

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates communications over radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in the United States, the District of Columbia, and all other U.S. territories. The FCC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the U.S. government’s laws and regulations on all forms of communication. 


How the FCC Regulates SMS

The FCC regulates all communications via email and mobile phones, including SMS messages. The FCC SMS regulations ban text messages sent through an autodialer unless the user expressly gave consent to receive such messages or the message is for emergency use. This rule still applies even if the phone number is in the national Do Not Call Registry.

The FCC categorizes giving consent to a company to send messages via an autodialer in a few forms. Commercial consent is usually written, but oral permissions are also accepted. Businesses must tell the users the name of their company and clearly state that they will be sending promotional messages to advertise their products and services or notify them of promos.

The FCC also requires all brands using these opt-in methods to allow contacts to opt-out of the agreement. Brands are required to give users a shortcode to stop receiving auto-messages.

To better regulate calls and texts and protect consumers from unwanted and unsolicited messages from companies and other entities that might send them messages or calls, the FCC created the Telephone Consumers Protection Act (TCPA) and the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry, which align with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) and its Sex Hate Alcohol Firearms Tobacco (SHAFT) Regulations for SMS.

The Telephone Consumers Protection Act (TCPA)

The TCPA is a federal law that protects consumers from receiving automated messages and calls from telemarketers or other companies. In 2015, the TCPA redefined some rules to include SMS messaging and wireless communication. 

The following are the TCPA SMS compliance rules covering any business using SMS messaging and wireless phone calls:

  • The telephone service providers should offer robocall blocking to consumers.
  • Companies cannot use automated dialing to call wireless phones and leave pre-recorded messages without consent.
  • Consumers can revoke consent in any way at any time.
  • The consumers’ consent continues when they port their landline to a wireless number.
  • Companies can still send automated SMS messages especially to warn consumers, but they must include an opt-out option in all messages.

TCPA considers “telephone solicitation” as any call or message meant to encourage the user to purchase goods or subscribe to a service. The TCPA deems “unsolicited advertisement” as any material that advertises products, property, or services sent to a person without the person’s consent or invitation.

Acceptable telephone solicitation is possible, only when the consumer has allowed it through consent or invitation, or the text was made by a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, such as a church or a charity.

If a brand is found violating these TCPA regulations a penalty of $500 per call or text will be imposed. This could reach as much as $1500 per violation if the company is found to have done it willfully. The TCPA can increase these penalties as they can add uncapped statutory damages.

The Do-Not-Call (DNC) Registry for Text Messaging

Originally created to give consumers the option to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls from companies, the Do-Not-Call Registry also covers commercial text messaging.

This means that a brand must remove any person who is on the registry from their list unless they get express consent by them. The intent is to ensure anyone on the DNC Registry by default should not be contacted via commercial text messages unless they have otherwise requested.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA)  

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) is the trade association of the wireless communication industry. Its members include carriers, equipment manufacturers, content creators, and app developers, and acts as the voice of the wireless industry in the United States.

The CTIA has its own regulations and companies must follow them. In 2019, they updated their messaging principles and best practices regarding application-to-person messaging to include: 

  • All carriers must use a consent-based approach to application-to-person messaging.
  • Message senders must seek consent with mechanisms, such as entering a phone number through a website, clicking a button on a mobile web page, sending a message through a mobile device, or using interactive voice response (IVR).
  • Consent should be limited to one specific campaign or message.

The CTIA can flag a company’s messages and they can audit a company and terminate their messaging campaigns if they do not follow these guidelines. 

The Sex-Hate-Alcohol-Firearms-Tobacco (SHAFT) Regulations for SMS

The CTIA’s SHAFT regulations for SMS covers prohibited content in North America. It categorizes text messages and regulates their content based on moral and legal issues. SHAFT also restricts any message that includes depictions of violence, profanity, and hate or discriminatory speech.

Any content that has, or promotes adult or sexual content, alcohol, firearms, or tobacco use in SMS messaging can be legal; however, companies need to create an age gate that includes name and birthdate to ensure that the users who receive and view the message are above 21. Some companies use several layers of gatekeeping to cover sensitive content, such as geographical locations, to ensure that the content meets local laws and communication guidelines as well.

The FCC requires mobile carriers to be responsible gatekeepers and distributors of text message content, and requires text message opt-in language in all messages. Every mobile carrier may have their own guidelines, but it is always best to follow what the FCC has outlined to prevent penalties.  

💡 Related Article: The Truth About SMS for SHAFT Brands

Person-to-Person vs Application-to-Person SMS Compliance

With the use of SMS platforms and live agents, brands need to be hyper-vigilant with their compliance to maintain a trusted channel for their consumers. Application-to-person and person-to-person SMS messaging have different regulation standards that every marketer needs to understand. 

Application-to-Person (A2P): Any form of message traffic in which a person is receiving messages from an application rather than another individual. Single send and automated drip workflow text messages from Voyage SMS platform is A2P.

Person-to-Person messaging (P2P): When two or more people communicate over text messaging. P2P messages must be sent by humans. LiveRecover by Voyage is P2P with texts coming directly from Live Agents.

While the majority of SMS compliance regulations are similar across A2P and P2P messaging, the TCPA does not expressly require written consent for person-to-person SMS. Although it’s not required, Voyage recommends express consent for P2P for the highest level of trust with your customers. By having it in place, your brand is prepared for any future regulation changes for P2P messaging from the start.

SMS Compliance Best Practices & How Voyage Helps

With regulations shifting over time, we help brands stay informed on SMS compliance best practices built into our platform and through Voyage Compass consulting services.

💡 Check out a note from the Voyage CEO on how we’re compliant here.

SMS Opt-in Elements

Set SMS Program Expectations

All of your opt-in workflows should clearly explain the types of messages and frequency your subscribers should expect from you. The nature of the opt-in text message should align with messaging regulations and subscriber expectations to make a smooth customer experience from the start.

Offer Accessible Terms & Conditions 

Don’t sweat crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s – Voyage handles your Terms and Conditions language so you can focus on delivering the best SMS customer experiences.

Require Explicit Opt-In and Express Consent

Voyage makes getting clear consent from your consumers frictionless. Brands can harness Voyage’s robust opt-in features including custom modals where they have express opt-in language, offer easy opt-in at checkout, and use effortless keyword campaigns to compliantly build your subscriber lists. 

Many SMS opt-in methods offer a discount in exchange for signing up. The language in these opt-ins must be explicitly clear that the individual is also enrolling in a promotional SMS program. If any ambiguity exists, it could lead to the individual claiming their consent was not valid—i.e. that the subscriber did not clearly authorize you to deliver ongoing advertisements via text.

In the Voyage SMS platform, the pre-populated opt-in text message for every list building method deployed includes the language “receive other exclusive SMS messages” — which eliminates ambiguity and protects your brand from claims of invalid consent.

Reduce Any Opt-In Compliance Unease with Double Opt-Ins

For brands looking to double down on opt-in validation, Voyage defaults to double opt-ins across all of our SMS list building methods. Voyage encourages brands to use this quick, double validation option to ensure their subscribers give consent clearly, reducing all possible compliance issues.

Ease of Opt-Out

Go Beyond Standard Keyword Opt-Outs

In accordance with TCPA and industry guidelines, Voyage automatically includes a list of opt-out keywords within each account that will lead to being unsubscribed (none of which are case sensitive):

  • STOP 
  • Unsubscribe
  • Cancel
  • Stopall
  • End
  • Quit 
  • Arret (Canada)
  • Opt Out

Besides including the mandatory and standard keywords for quickly opting out of text campaigns, Voyage encourages brands to include common misspellings of these opt out keywords with your campaigns and confirming if the intent was to opt out when they come through. Offering these extra safety net opt-out keywords ensures thoughtful customer experience at every engagement, even when they are stepping away from your text campaigns.

Allow for Opt-Out via My Account

Put customer experience first by including opt-out options with customer Account management areas. If you have email or other account management available on your site, incorporating SMS management will give customers full control over their communication preferences in one spot.

Sending Times and Cadence

Be Considerate with Time and Frequency

Even when it’s your loved one, getting too early a text or too frequent of messages can cause annoyance. Brands that are thoughtful about the time of their text sends (including time zones!) and the frequency of their messaging find the most success with their campaigns by putting their subscribers first.

Automatically Comply to Quiet Hours with Voyage

Voyage helps brands avoid mistakenly sending texts during regulated quiet hours by automatically holding those sends. Your scheduled texts are automatically paused and placed in a queue to be sent when quiet hours are over, ensuring strict compliance. Unlike other SMS platforms, Voyage does not allow overriding of quiet hours so no mistakes can be made that jeopardize your sending reputation.

Text Message Content

Default to Full Transparency

The best brands ensure subscriber satisfaction by defaulting to full transparency within their campaign messaging. Make your messages clear, being as obvious (and delightful) with your purpose as possible.

Properly Age-Gate SHAFT Brands & Content

If your brand falls into the SHAFT category ( Sex, Hate, Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco), Voyage can help you compliantly run your SMS channel with proper age-gating and content guidelines. And for brands that don’t fall into this category but are in a gray zone, like CBD, Voyage can help.

Taking a compliance-first approach to your SMS marketing program also means you’re taking a customer-first approach. 

If you’re looking for guidance on where to get started, how to tighten up your existing channel, or delve deeper into expert approaches, Voyage Compass experts have you covered.
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