Criteria to consider when choosing between SMS and messaging applications when building a conversational interface

Kishor Nagula

Though functionally similar, it’s important to understand how SMS and messaging applications differ prior to engagement.

When deciding whether to design a CI on SMS or on a messaging application, it is important to consider the following:

Ease of deployment:

SMS: SMS CIs must be able to integrate their product with the mobile network operator’s system. To do so, CI providers can partner either directly with the MNO or with a third party aggregator, like Africa’s Talking, that works on behalf of companies to push their service onto the MNO’s system. In either case, the CI provider depends on another organization to push their service to customers. Accordingly, the CI provider cannot control the delivery. Among the organizations we spoke with, many struggled with the lack of transparency around knowing whether their message was ever sent to the user and, if not, what the bottleneck was.

Messaging applications: Currently, messaging applications companies have different rules and parameters that CIs need to follow in order to build on their service. On one end of the spectrum are companies like WhatsApp that does not allow external, open access to the public API; on the other end are companies like Telegram that offer open and public access to their API. In the middle are companies like Messenger that review each CI built on their application and can deactivate the CI if it breaks any of their rules.

Target audience reach

SMS: SMS offers incredible reach to a large audience of potential customers— regardless of the type of phone used—in one geography that can be easily accessed by users through a shortcode and therefore does not require a data bundle to access. However, SMS cannot easily be shared across different geographies, limiting the number of potential global users who can access the CI.

Messaging applications: Messaging applications are relatively easy and simple to share among other users [regardless of network] through a link over social media applications, have a rapidly growing user base that tends to be digitally savvy and literate, and can easily reach across multiple geographies. However, despite the rapidly growing user base, the vast majority still do not own the feature or smartphone necessary to access a conversational interface. Moreover, WhatsApp, arguably the most popular messaging application in sub-Saharan Africa,does not have an open API, making it incredibly challenging to use the application as a distribution channel.

Service offerings:

SMS: By design, SMS CIs can offer only a limited number of features and services to the user. Each SMS is capped at 160 characters that cannot link to information outside the message and is limited to interacting with the user purely through  text ( not visual or audio). These restrictions make it difficult to offer a robust and dynamic experience for the user. However, its simplicity paves the way for a more instructional experience, particularly around building user competency in different topic areas, like financial literacy.

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