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SMS vs. MMS: understand the differences

Alia Paavola
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SMS and MMS are great ways to communicate with customers on their mobile devices. But, there are several distinct differences between the two message types. 

This guide will walk you through those key differences and answer some of the most common questions that emerge when discussing SMS vs. MMS. This blog will describe in detail what the acronyms stand for, when to use each message type, as well as their pros and cons.

What is SMS?

SMS stands for Short Message Service and is commonly known as a text message. 

SMS is the most popular form of text messaging used across the globe today. In fact, about 6 billion SMS messages are sent daily in the U.S., and 18.7 billion texts are sent each day globally. 

18.7 billion graphic
The number of text messages sent per day globally.

SMS messages are limited to 160 characters and only include text. If a text message exceeds the 160-character limit they are often split up into several messages. Most carriers will send them in the desired order. 

To send an SMS message, you need a cellular network connection. SMS messages can be sent from a mobile device, computer, or tablet.

Is an iMessage or WhatsApp message considered SMS?

In short, no. iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger are considered over-the-top messaging applications. OTT applications rely on WiFi or cellular data to send rather than a cellular signal. Additionally, to send a message using this method, both parties must have the same application downloaded.

For example, a WhatsApp user could not send a message from the app to someone on Facebook Messenger. Another classic example is messaging between iPhones. The messages appear blue because you are messaging via the iMessage application. When the message is not blue, you are sending an SMS message. When it is text-only, SMS is the type of messaging that occurs between Android phones and iPhones.

Pros and cons of SMS

SMS pros SMS cons
SMS messages are short, digestible messages SMS messages are limited to 160 characters
SMS messages are easy to craft and familiar SMS doesn’t support video or attachments
SMS messages are cheaper to send and receive than MMS messages Tone is hard to convey in text-only messages
All cell phones can get SMS messages People don’t respond well to unwanted texts

What is MMS?

MMS stands for Multimedia Messaging Service. MMS allows people to send a text message with an attached file, such as a photo, video, website link, or audio clip.

MMS is growing in popularity as it becomes easier to send larger messages between phones. In the U.S. alone, the number of MMS messages sent increased by 28 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the CTIA

MMS messages are not as limited in character count. In fact, MMS allows up to 1,600 characters. But, there is often a size limit for files. For many mobile network carriers, it is capped at 5 MB or 5,000 KB.

Currently, MMS is supported by all carriers in the United States. However, it is less common in other countries. 

MMS messages are also sent over a cellular network and can be sent from a mobile device, computer, or tablet.

Pros and cons of MMS

MMS pros MMS cons
MMS supports attachments like photos, videos, and links. MMS costs more to send than SMS
MMS allows for lengthier, 1,600-character messages Not all cell phones support MMS
MMS campaigns have a higher click-through rate and opt-in rate compared to SMS You may need to hire someone to create graphics and other visuals for MMS

SMS vs. MMS key differences explained

There are several key differences between the two messaging types. 

  • Format: The main difference is that MMS allows multimedia attachments. This includes photos, videos, audio files, GIFs, website links, and more. 
  • Length: Another difference is that SMS is limited to 160 characters, while MMS allows up to 1,600 characters. 
  • Cost: It is also more expensive to send MMS messages. MMS messages typically cost at least two to three times more to send and receive than SMS.

See the graphic below to visualize the difference between a plain text SMS message and an MMS.

Example of an MMS and SMS message side-by-side
A side-by-side comparison of SMS vs. MMS.

SMS vs. MMS messages: Best use cases

When to use SMS vs. MMS will depend on your business use case, budget, and goals! One message type is not better than the other. Instead, they serve different purposes. 

To help you determine which one to use, here are a few questions to consider:

  • What is your budget? Since SMS is cheaper than MMS, you may want to limit the number of MMS messages you send to your contacts. 
  • Are you sending promotional or informational texts? Informational messages like appointment confirmations are often better to send as SMS messages. On the other hand, MMS may be a better fit for marketing messages as they can be more engaging.
  • What is the message length? If your message is longer than 160 characters, consider sending an MMS message. This will ensure it gets delivered as one singular message rather than broken-up parts. 

Additionally, below we break down a few instances where SMS may be a better fit than MMS and vice versa. But ultimately, it comes down to your business goals and how you plan to use text messaging. 

Instances where SMS may be a better fit

Here are a few instances where using an SMS message may be better for your business. In these instances, you want to make sure the message is short and contains only the relevant details. 

  • Appointment reminders. To cut down on no-shows, sending SMS reminders may be a good option. This text message will provide patients or customers with the most important details. This includes the date, time, and location of the appointment.
  • Bill pay reminders. Keep bill pay reminders short and simple by sending an SMS. Simply let your customers know how much they owe and by when.
  • Emergency alerts. Ensure the most important details are read quickly. Keep emergency alerts short and to the point.
  • Time-sensitive alerts. Make time-sensitive alerts like event cancellations and schedule changes short and simple. 
  • Order updates. Send customers updates about their orders, including order confirmations, shipping details, and delivery updates.
  • Share business hours or updates. Let customers know by SMS important business updates such as office closures, business hours, and more.
  • Two-factor authentication. Keep two-step verification processes simple. Simply send an SMS with a short code or directions.
  • Password resets. If you send a password reset via text, consider sending it via SMS to keep it simple.

Instances where MMS may be a better fit

In these instances, you may want to consider adding an attachment like a photo, website link, or PDF to your message to improve engagement. 

  • Promotional offers like coupons or discounts. Use images of your product or other illustrations to boost engagement on mobile marketing campaigns. 
  • Abandoned cart messages. Many customers leave items in their carts. Consider sending an MMS message that contains a link to their cart so they can continue checking out. 
  • New product offerings. To promote a new product, share a photo of it with your SMS subscribers.
  • Birthday messages. If you send special birthday discounts or happy birthday messages, consider using an MMS. People may smile at the photo you attach to wish them a happy birthday. 
  • Event invites and tickets. If you are sending an event invite or ticket, consider using MMS. MMS would allow you to send a barcode ticket to the recipient. Plus, a photo of the event could boost engagement.
  • Two-way support tickets. Enhance your two-way texting support channel by enabling MMS. Let customers send a photo of a damaged product or send a screenshot of the error message they're receiving. Or, send them a PDF with step-by-step instructions on how to fix a particular issue. 

Reach your customers with SMS and MMS

Companies are turning to SMS and MMS to cut through the noise and reach their customers. While they are both texting types, they are distinctly different. It is best to understand their differences to determine which will help you meet your business texting goals. 

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