Texting Laws & Best Practices for Churches
In this series, we'll walk through the laws and guidelines for texting inside of your church. We'll also discuss the different numbers (long codes and short codes) you can use for texting in your church. We created this video series to help you understand the nuances of texting and the best practices for developing an effective strategy for your church.
This video series will cover:
TCPA Texting Laws for Churches
The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is the governing body responsible for overseeing communication laws inside of the U.S.. This agency regulates text messages, phone calls, fax and more. The laws are in place for the purpose of protecting consumers using these various forms of communication.
The FCC enacted the T.C.P.A (Telephone Consumer Protection Act) in an effort to curb spam messages and robocalls, to name some annoyances that we experience as consumers of communication tools. The T.C.P.A is the law that every organization in the U.S. must follow when using texting.
What are the laws that a church must follow in order to send text messages to members, guests, volunteers, and staff?
An organization must receive prior express written or electronic permission or consent.
Nonprofits have a unique exemption where individuals can also give verbal consent to the nonprofit that approves them to send a message to that specific individual.
At Clearstream, we encourage churches to have a record that indicates permission was granted to send text messages to subscribers. It is important to safeguard against legal issues that could arise from not receiving prior consent to send a text message to a member, guest, staff, or volunteer. This could be an online form, texting into a Keyword, or filling out a connect card and checking the box that says, "Yes, I want to receive updates from (Church Name)".
Even though there is a carve-out for churches and nonprofits it is still very important to receive consent to send text messages per the T.C.P.A.
CTIA Texting Guidelines for Churches
The wireless carriers in the U.S. belong to an association known as the Wireless Association (or the C.T.I.A.). The C.T.I.A. is made up of all the carriers inside the U.S.. They enforce the guidelines and best practices necessary to send texts on their networks. These guidelines spell out what you can and cannot do when sending text messages as an organization.
You can read the full list of guidelines here.
Important guidelines to follow from the CTIA when texting in your church:
Recurring message description
Message & Data Rates Apply
The first message you send when an individual joins your texting list must follow the guidelines listed above. These guidelines inform the individual receiving the message of your organization, how often they will receive messages, how to stop receiving messages or get help, and an indication stating that every message received will use a message credit and data from their plan.
Example: A first-time guest comes into your church. Someone stands up to give announcements and points to the screen indicating for any first-time guests to text the Keyword EARLYCHURCH to 97000.
Once they text your keyword they will receive the C.T.I.A. required message:
The Early Church: Reply STOP to opt-out, HELP for help. Message frequency varies. Msg&DataRatesMayApply.
Then they will receive the message you initially wanted them to receive. The Early Church: Thanks for visiting today! We'd love to connect with you. Take a moment to tell us about yourself: (link to the digital connect card). By the way, at Clearstream, it does not cost you a message credit to send the C.T.I.A. required message.
Best practices for texting inside of your church
Send at normal hours: 8 am - 8 pm (per the C.T.I.A.)
Keep the wording/message human
Stay away from all caps and excessive punctuation
Send a maximum of 1 - 2 messages a week
Reply to incoming messages
Send text messages at normal hours: 8 am - 8 pm
Now, of course, there are going to be times when this does not apply. Let's say that your youth group is doing a lock-in or coming home from a retreat. Youth leaders can use texting to send updates to students or parents. That is totally understandable and encouraged. Texting is a great way to keep parents and students up to date in real-time.
Keep the text wording/message human
Stay away from text messages that are full of technical jargon or salesy rhetoric that can be interpreted as impersonal. Write out the text message that you plan to send and then read it aloud to make sure it sounds like you're speaking to a friend or a fellow leader in your church. This will help increase the engagement and responses that you receive when sending text messages to people in your church.
Stay away from all caps and excessive punctuation
Another way to keep your text messages simple, human, and easy to read is to stay away from all caps and excessive punctuation. Avoid writing out your entire text message in uppercase or using a lot of exclamation points. This will not get more attention, or motivate people to open your texts. If anything it will feel like you're yelling at them in the text and possibly increase the rate that people opt-out from receiving your messages.
Often times this is because all caps are one of the tell-tale signs of spam text messages. If you think about the spam messages you receive, many of them are in all caps. Someone is trying to sell something, get in your face, and shout at you. You want to avoid this kind of interaction with your church.
Send a maximum of 1-2 messages a week
Another thing to keep in mind is message frequency. You don't want to be texting people too much and annoying them which could increase your opt-out rate. We recommend sending one to two messages per week to your entire church. Honestly, two would be considered a lot of messages per week, because that means you're sending eight messages per month.
Now, there are going to be other ways you're using texting in your church. Your youth ministry is going to be sending out texts, you may use texting to schedule volunteers, or parent notifications on a Sunday morning. In those use cases, it makes sense to send more than one to two messages per week. But when it comes to sending a text to your entire church we recommend one to two messages per week.
Reply to incoming messages
It is always best to reply to incoming messages. Clearstream allows you to interact with your people through two-way communication. So if you send out a mass text message to your church it will go out to all of the people on your list (50 people or 5,000 people). Then when someone responds to that message it will go into your Clearstream inbox. You can interact with that individual one-on-one. No annoying massive group messages.
So, make sure you and your team are responding to incoming messages. This is a great way to interact with the people in your church.
Short Codes vs. Long Codes
We are going to quickly outline short codes and long codes, how they are different, how they are each used, and which number you should be using in your church (or maybe you'll be using both numbers because you can use both short codes and long codes inside of Clearstream).
What is a short code?
A short code is a carrier-approved, 5-digit number (94000) that’s used for mass texting. With Clearstream, you can also use short codes for two-way texting.
What is a long code?
A long code is a 10-digit (917-825-5293), local phone number. Also referred to as a Dedicated Local Number. Long codes are used for two-way communication, but they are not meant for mass texting.
The wireless carriers (per the C.T.I.A.) are very clear that if you are mass texting as an organization you are required to use a short code. There are no grey areas. This is clearly defined in the C.T.I.A. guidelines.
The C.T.I.A. indicates that you can use a toll-free number (888 number) for mass texting, but it looks and feels very commercial. It is also important to know that the message throughput of a toll-free number is much lower compared to a short code. Clearstream's short code can send messages at 300 messages per second. Long codes (10-digit numbers) send messages at 1 message per second.
It does not matter if you're using a long code with Clearstream or any other provider. The standard throughput for any long code is 1 message per second. If you are trying to send your message to a list of 1,000 people (assuming that message does not get blocked by carriers) that message will take 1,000 seconds to deliver. But even before that message finished delivering, the carriers would see a mass text going through a long code and they would block that message.
If you try to send a message through a long code you might occasionally get away with it if you're sending to 40-50 people. But if you are sending a mass text to 100s or 1000s of people in your church there is almost a zero percent chance of that message being delivered to everyone on your list.
Learn more about short codes and long codes here.
How to use long codes
Short codes: 5-digit numbers like 94000
Long codes: 10-digit numbers like 917-825-5293
Short codes are meant for mass texting. It is the carrier-approved way to send mass texts. Long codes are not meant for mass texting. They send at much slower speeds. Short code: 300 messages per second. Long code: 1 message per second. Short codes are also much easier to text a keyword into for a first-time guest on a Sunday morning.
When guests arrive at your church on a Sunday morning they can pull out their phones and text the word GRACE to 94000. That's easy. Opposed to a guest coming in and trying to text GRACE to 917-825-5293. That is much more complicated. It is going to be much harder for people to pull out their phones, text the right Keyword, and text the correct 10-digit number. Short codes fix this issue by keeping things simple.
If short codes are so great, what's the use case for long codes?
Long codes are great for allowing people to send a quick one-off interaction. Long codes are great for letting people text in prayer requests and ask questions during live Q&As.
So how does this work?
Because long codes are not tied to a keyword, anyone can text anything they want to the long code connected to your Clearstream account. When someone sends a text message to your long code that message will go directly into your account's inbox. So, whatever questions people text in, or prayer requests that they have, all the messages will go directly into your inbox.
You can put on the footer of your website, or on-screen on a Sunday morning: "If you have any prayer requests throughout the week text 917-825-5293". There is no need for people to text a keyword to your short code, then wait for an auto-response, and then text in their question. Long codes allow you to cut through all of the extra steps.
Long codes maximize message delivery
At Clearstream, we use long codes in an additional way. Whenever you're sending a message in Clearstream, your message will be sent via short code. Short codes are the carrier-approved way to send mass texts. So if you send a mass text message to 1,000 people it will be sent through your short code.
Let's say out of the 1,000 people on your list 3 people have short code messaging disabled on their carrier. That is a rare scenario, but that can happen. In this situation, we receive an error message from the carrier, within a fraction of a second, stating that the message failed and the reason for the failure. We will then automatically reroute the failed messages through the long code within your account.
Long codes are highly beneficial to your account and carry a lot of great features. You will primarily be using your short code, but long codes play an important role in the success of your texting strategy.
How to ensure text message delivery
We've been talking a lot about the benefits and use cases of short codes and long codes. In this section, we are going to discuss message delivery and what we do at Clearstream to ensure the highest level of message delivery.
At Clearstream, we deliver most messages (almost all messages) through a short code. That could be a shared short code or a dedicated short code.
Shared Short Code: One short code shared by multiple churches using Clearstream.
Dedicated Short Code: Your own personal short code only used by your church.
We offer a number of shared short codes at Clearstream, 94000 is one of our main short codes. Our short code messages deliver at a minimum of 300 messages per second. That means if you send a message to a list of 1,000 people in your church that message will be completely delivered in a couple of seconds. Not only are short codes fast, but they are the only carrier approved way to send mass text messages in the U.S..
Now we are going to talk through a few examples of how we make sure that your message is being delivered and, if for some reason it is not being delivered, how we handle that situation. Because we are sending messages through a short code, not a long code, we receive delivery receipts from carriers.
When you send out a message to 1,000 people we are going to receive 1,000 delivery receipts into our database within a fraction of a second. The message states, "This message was successfully delivered on Verizon (AT&T, Sprint, etc...)."
It is important to note that if you are using an application and sending messages through a long code you actually can't guarantee message delivery. You will never know if a message has been delivered or not because you cannot get delivery receipts on long codes. At Clearstream, we don't get delivery receipts from long codes. No texting provider can get delivery receipts for long codes. Carriers classify short codes as commercial products and long codes as peer to peer numbers. Long codes are not commercial products so they do not receive delivery receipts.
So at Clearstream, we receive delivery receipts on all 1,000 numbers that the message was sent to using your short code. But that's not all. We take things a step further.
Example 1: Let's say that all 1,000 people on the list texted into a Keyword to opt-in to your list. They texted GRACE to 94000. When an individual texts GRACE to 94000 their mobile number is tied to the number they texted into (94000). So now all communication that takes place between that individual and your church will take place on that number. This is great for the user experience because now they don't have two different conversations taking place between multiple numbers from your church.
Example 2: One of our largest integrations is with Planning Center. Let's say you integrate with Planning Center or you import a list from your church database. So you import a list or sync with Planning Center and you have 1,000 people now brought into your Clearstream account. So out of the 1,000 people, you might have 980 that successfully import into Clearstream. Often times when you are syncing into Clearstream you will have fewer contacts import than the original list due to a few variables. Perhaps the phone number was improperly formated or there was no number in the correct field. So the contact is not added to your Clearstream account.
When you go to send a message to the 980 people there may be a number of people who do not have short code texting enabled on their wireless carrier. So they will be unable to receive messages or send messages via short code texting. They would have to call their carrier to get short code messaging enabled. Out of 980 let's say 8 have short code messaging disabled. When the message is sent out 972 people received the message and we received a "message success" delivery receipt back within a fraction of a second. But 8 of those numbers received a failure message due to disabled short code messaging.
In that case, we are going to reroute/retry that message through the long code within your account. We are using your long code as a fallback number to make sure your delivery is as high as possible. Out of a list of 1,000 people, we have a fraction that is unable to receive the message so we reroute the message via long code. This ensures high message success rates.
We are going to expound on this a little bit more. Right now we have a few messages that were undeliverable, so we retried them on the long code. But sometimes there could be 20 people out of the 980 people that have landline numbers. Their landline numbers were synced into Clearstream and we sent out a message. The message was sent to 20 landline numbers unable to receive texting. When those 20 numbers fail we are going to show you those metrics. We believe we are the only provider that offers this level of transparency with our delivery metrics.
So when you send out a message with Clearstream it is going to show you how many people are in a list, when it was sent, how many people opted out, and how many messages failed. If you send a message to 1,000 people and 20 of those messages fail we are going to show you that data. From there we can help you troubleshoot why those 20 messages failed.
Back to our example of the landline numbers. If 20 landline numbers fail they are going to stay on the list. When you text the list again we are going to try to send it to the number again. It fails again. You text again, and it will fail a third time. If it fails three times we are going to automatically remove that number from your list. If the list is synced with Planning Center, it will not remove them from your Planning Center list. It will only remove them from the list in your Clearstream account.
Should churches use shared or dedicated short codes?
Shared short codes are a budget-friendly option for churches interested in using mass texting. Multiple churches will share one short code with a variety of other churches. Dedicated short codes are used by one church. It is their own short code leased from the Short Code Administration and can be provisioned by a texting service.
At Clearstream, we offer shared and dedicated short codes. We are going to discuss how they are different, who uses each one, and which is best for your church.
Recap: Short codes are 5-digit numbers for two-way communication, such as 94000 or 97000. They are the carrier-approved way to send mass text messages and they are easier to remember than a 10-digit long code.
Shared short codes are used by most churches. The cost is very low because a church is sharing that specific number with a variety of other churches. If you are a part of Clearstream you may be using 97000 or 94000. The downside to using a shared short code is that you are required to share the number. Because of this, you have to create unique keywords.
Let's say you want to create a keyword for your first-time guests. Your church is First Baptist and you want to use the word FIRST, but that keyword may not be available. So you may have to create a unique keyword such as FIRSTBAPTIST or NEW2FB.
Sidenote: if you really want a specific keyword that is not available on your short code you can use keywords on your long code. However, we do not recommend this technique.
All of the plans on our Pricing page are reflective of using a shared short code.
Dedicated Short Codes: The cost is much higher for a dedicated short code. The average cost for a dedicated short code is around $1000 - $2000 per month. The benefit of using a dedicated short code is that you are the only church or organization using that number. You have unlimited keywords. We handle the provisioning, setup, and carrier connections for that short code. So we will host it for you, but it is your dedicated short code.
Most churches use shared short codes as they are the most economical option for texting in your church. Dedicated short codes are typically used by only very large churches.
If you have further questions regarding the laws and guidelines of mass texting or you want to get started with Clearstream reach out to us, we are happy to help!