The Textizen Blog

DEC 10 2014

Happy 30th Birthday, SMS: Why Text Messaging is Ready for Community Engagement

Construction workers texting in a park

Construction workers texting during a break. Via [Duncan] under CC BY 2.0.

Text messaging has been around for a long time – the concept dates back to 1984, and the first text was sent in 1992. Texting use is now at an all-time high in the United States, across all ages and income levels. Even with smartphone ownership rising, texting remains dominant.

Businesses have taken notice, using text messaging for everything from flight status updates to real estate. These companies take advantage of texting’s longevity and ubiquity to reach people across all age groups and demographics.

Meanwhile, citizens feel increasingly disconnected from their government, while civic institutions and nonprofits struggle to reach the people they serve.

How can we be both so connected, yet disconnected at the same time? It’s time for those in community engagement to learn what marketers figured out years ago: text messaging is a widespread technology with unprecedented reach.

Godzilla texting

Even dinosaurs use text messaging. Via Rhys Asplundh under CC BY 2.0.

SMS By the Numbers: Reach Anyone, Anywhere

Reaching people by text message is easy: SMS is everywhere. Nearly everyone (90% of U.S. adults) has access to texting, more than any other communication medium. Texts are also immediate, viewed within 5 seconds of being received, on average.

Low-Income, Hard-to-Reach Populations Text Constantly

Low-income populations, in particular, rely heavily on texting. This segment is traditionally hard to reach, often living without landline telephones or broadband Internet.

  • People who earn less than $30,000/year send and receive roughly twice as many messages as those earning over $75k.
  • Low-income New Yorkers choose text 2x as often as phone calls — with email a distant loser

Millennials are the Future… and They’re Ignoring Your Emails

Even though Millennials are by far the most connected, many public outreach efforts fail to reach this large and increasingly important demographic – despite the fact that they text constantly.

Young girl texting

Texting remains the #1 communication platform for young people. Via Jeffrey Kontur under CC BY-ND 2.0.

But What About Baby Boomers?

Although text message usage is highest among youth, it is a mistake to assume that older people do not text. In fact, 45-64 year olds are the fastest-growing demographic for mobile use.

  • Marketing research shows that baby boomers are willing to adopt new technology when the benefits are clear.
  • Approximately 75% of 50-64 year old U.S. cell owners use texting.


The majority of 45-64 year olds own cell phones, and they are the fastest-growing mobile demographic.
Via Jim Fischer under CC BY 2.0.

Beyond the Stats: Data as a Conversation

These stats tell us a clear story: SMS offers an opportunity to foster immediate, useful conversations with anyone, young or old, across socioeconomic divides.

The health sector has already figured this out: studies have found texting to be powerful for smoking cessation programs, and for clients with eating disorders. For clinic appointments, text reminders improved attendance at a fraction of the cost of phone calls. Commercial services have become savvy to SMS as well, with airlines, banks, hair salons, and many other businesses using text messaging to confirm reservations, provide information, or notify customers of service changes.

In our work with at Textizen, we have seen varied and inspiring uses of text messaging, from gathering location-specific input on bike sharing programs, to tracking outcomes of community health services, to reporting harmful vehicle idling in real time.

Quotes from Textizen survey respondents, provided via text message:

“Using the text poll was using technology that I was familiar with. You should use it again.”

“It allowed for the maximum amount of input from multiple sources.”

“Easy way to give input.”

“It was more interactive and easier than a regular survey and allows people a chance to speak who can’t attend the in-person meetings.”

“The texts made me feel involved and I loved the ease of use.”

Ready to use text messaging to bring your community engagement into the 21st century? Get in touch:

Industry report by Frost & Sullivan, 2010.