These days, businesses large and small are increasingly using a full range of communication methods including email, web and fax to enhance relationships with existing customers, as well as a low-cost means of acquiring new ones. Now a new communication mode, text messaging—or Short Message Service (SMS)—provides an additional and extraordinary opportunity for companies and organizations of all industries to differentiate themselves.

With SMS…

  • Ski resorts can now send early morning notification via cell phone that fresh powder has fallen overnight, driving more guests to the slopes sooner.

  • Or, at a popular summer resort, golfers can be alerted at the last minute to tee times that remain open.

  • A text message can notify a consumer of frequent, suspect credit card activity, or a low bank account balance with a warning of possible overdraft.

  • Or a real estate agent automatically sends information to a client about homes that just came on the market.

The US is poised for explosive SMS growth. Over 165 million Americans now use mobile phones capable of sending and receiving SMS messages. Domestic traffic is more than tripling annually—making the US the largest growth market for SMS messaging.

Take the financial sector, which is transaction- and event-driven. Customers have come to expect a full array of financial services to be delivered via Web browser—from banking to bill paying to choosing home loans.

Still, when businesses need to reach out and touch business and retail customers, all too often they still use low-tech means. Overdraft notices arrive by postal mail, mass-market advertising promotes new products and expensive outbound calls alert customers to suspected credit card fraud.

Enter SMS, a shiny new tool in the communication toolbox that can distinguish offerings and lower costs, and it generally has the best chance among all channels of reaching customers instantly, regardless of location.

Contact via SMS can be automatically triggered, and a message can be sent to notify customers of anything from an overdrawn account, to automatic deposits, to online bill payment, providing a unique opportunity to add value and boost customer loyalty.

In the case of fraud protection, for example, customers can opt into a SMS confirmation service triggered by large or unusual transactions. Instead of a phone call, an SMS query enables a customer to simply reply "Yes" or "No" to ensure the legitimacy of the transaction.

The hospitality industry has, for years, relied on multiple modes of communication and marketing, including print advertising, email, call centers, referral programs, targeted postal mail and dynamic Web sites.

The key role of text messaging in touching tourism customers is to deliver timely messages—notifications of availability or promotions, answers to questions, alerts that offer loyal customers short-term discounts and so on.

In Europe, casino operators use SMS to notify receptionists when a VIP guest swipes a card in a gaming machine, so he or she can receive a special welcome from a staffer.

Just as ski resorts can notify visitors of fresh powder, seaside venues could fire off surf and weather reports before guests arrive; casino guests could also opt into receiving live play updates or slot tournament notification.

Putting guests in control of the types of messages they receive always yields the best result. Some customers may want to participate in whimsical SMS contests; others may simply want to be pinged when their table or room is ready.

As long as companies observe opt-in guidelines, SMS can provide a powerful tool for connecting with customers, particularly in emerging markets such as financial services, real estate or tourism, where SMS still surprises and delights users.

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Dave LaPlante is CEO of Twelve Horses (