Text messaging or SMS (Short Message Service) messaging puts instant communication at our fingertips. Text messages are brief messages generally sent from one cell phone to another over a wireless network.
Text messaging is normally best used to convey simple, non-confidential information. For example, texts can be used to confirm appointments, communicate job vacancies, and provide a quick way to touch base or check progress. Texting can be a good way to increase contact with consumers between formal meetings.
Like email, text messaging is a form of asynchronous communication that easily becomes overwhelming if appropriate boundaries are not established.
For tips on how to establish appropriate boundaries, review the Email section. Many of the tips we discuss there also apply to text messaging.
Text Message Communication
The language of texting
Because text messaging is usually used as an informal and quick way to communicate, people often use informal slag, acronyms, or abbreviations. For example, someone might text “Idk” for “I don’t know”, “btw” for “by the way”, or “C U L8R” for “see you later.” Text abbreviations are constantly evolving, and meanings may change over time.
Text abbreviations originated with early cell phones, which often required multiple key presses to enter each letter via the number pad. Abbreviations made texting faster. As well, most messages were limited to around 160 characters (similar to character limits on Twitter) and some carriers charged for texts by number of characters.
Today, most cell phones have full keyboards with auto correct and predictive text features, many carriers offer unlimited texting plans, and texting does not have a character limit. Because of this, do not feel compelled to use abbreviations unless you are comfortable doing so.
When to use text abbreviations
When you first begin texting with a consumer, text in the same way you would email. Using texting slang can come across as trying too hard until you develop more of a relationship. It may also be confusing to the consumer if they are not familiar with text abbreviations.
A good barometer is to match your language to that of the consumer. If they use slang and abbreviations, that indicates they are comfortable with it. If they do not, don’t assume they are familiar or comfortable with text abbreviations, and limit your use.
In general, it is better to default to typing out full words and using more formal language than using too many abbreviations.
Texting: Not just for the youth
Increasingly, text communication is an important modality for reaching a wide range of groups.
- Young Adults
- Texting is probably one of the easiest and best ways to reach young people who text more than any other age demographic — 97% of young adult cell phone users text and many prefer text messages to voice calls (16).
- Older Populations
- Texting is likely to increase among the older population as current users’ age and are surrounded by friends and family who text. Further, as adaptive text applications such as large buttons and text to speak are developed and improved, texting will increase for this demographic. A 2018 study by AARP indicates that 86% of people over 50 use text messaging, up from 79% two years ago (17).
- People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Many people with ASD prefer communicating with people via email, text, or instant messaging. Online communication, and in particular asynchronous communication, helps people with ASD process information in their own time without distractions, which can reduce sensory overload (9).
- People who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing
- Text messaging is an important communication method for deaf/Deaf and hard of hearing communities. Prior to text messaging, people who were deaf/Deaf or hard of hearing often relied on a third party services or interpreters for communication. Texting allows for more autonomous communication and overcomes barriers related to distance, cost, and availability of translation services (18).
Text messaging is not a secure way to communicate with consumers for several reasons:
- Text messages are rarely encrypted, making it easy for third parties to access sensitive information.
- It is difficult to verify a consumer’s identity via text messaging.
- Phones are often misplaced or left accessible for others to view text messages.
- Large cell phone networks save text messages and text messaging details. However, this is typically only for short periods of time (19).
Encrypted chat services
Despite security issues, there are efforts to make text messaging more secure and many phone operating systems offer an encrypted chat messaging service if users are sending and receiving from the same text messaging application.
For example, Apple’s iMessage application is encrypted if both the sender and receiver are using iMessage. However, iMessage only works for iPhones.
If you use an Android phone, or are communicating with someone who is using an Android phone, you can download an encryption app like Signal, which will let you encrypt both calls and text messages. However, both you and the recipient need to be using Signal in order for messages to be encrypted.
Another example of an encrypted communication app is WhatsApp. WhatsApp works on both Android and iPhones, and there is also a desktop app that allows you to communicate with other WhatsApp users from your computer. You can also send documents over WhatsApp. As with Signal, both you and the consumer need to have the app in order to use it to communicate.
Tips to improve text message confidentiality
- Encourage consumers to password protect their phones.
- This keeps others from casually picking up the phone and reading their text messages.
- Avoid sending sensitive data via text.
- Social security numbers or information about disability status should not be sent in a text message. Set up an appointment to exchange confidential information or share the information via an encrypted email message or over the phone.
- Don’t send text messages to the wrong person.
- This may sound obvious, but it happens! Get in the habit of double-checking text message recipients.
Consider downloading an encrypted text messaging application (such as Signal or WhatsApp) if you are going to communicate frequently via text.