It's wildly hit-and-miss -- much like email spam -- but marketers are increasingly using bulk text messaging to penetrate the armor cladding of physician offices. And it's a wide open opportunity; physician office phone numbers are openly published, unlike email addresses. Fax numbers are available too (CarePrecise provider data includes both phone and fax numbers, up to four numbers per record, and we know that it is widely used for marketing to physicians), but "faxpam" doesn't have the same high-tech glamor. Unlike a fax broadcast, text messaging allows marketers to embed a live link to a web landing page, as well as an instantly accessible means for recipients to opt out, making bulk SMS marketing just a little bit more respectable. (Ever tried to get a faxpammer to stop? Ha!)
So what's the difference between bulk SMS cold-calling and plain old spam? Not much, except that it's newer and less fraught with sleaze. And here's something more: It's not free, so spammers can't just set up a computer and start sending 100 million spam messages a day at essentially no cost. Text messaging to phones requires that you have an SMS gateway, or an account with a service provider who has one. These are available to bulk senders, but at a price. Okay, it's not exactly postage, but it's at least a price.
Among the numerous offerings for bulk SMS gateway and software services are Mobomix and TXTwire. Both offer essentially unlimited sending with premium accounts, but both enforce opt-in requirements. That is, you can't just upload a database of phone numbers, such as the 5 million or so in the CarePrecise database, and start texting. Instead, these services require that you are sending only to your own customers or others who have explicitly said, "Yeah, okay, text me spam."
Of course, there's always a workaround. Another company, SMScountry, offers an Excel plug in that lets you send personalized text messages. While they have a similar anti-spam policy, the way the system works would make it difficult to police. As with all bulk SMS systems, it isn't particularly easy for a recipient to contact the carrier to complain. The carrier backbone for SMS is a bit primitive compared with that of email, and there are fewer hooks for filtering messages by the carriers, should they ever want to do what ISPs are doing about email spam. It's pretty much up to the owner of the gateway.
In the war between marketers and physicians, both sides escalate as new weapons or defenses arise. A fax isn't likely to ever see a doctor's spectacles, but that same unreachable physician isn't really that unreachable if you can get his email address or phone number. Naturally, it helps to have her mobile number rather than just the office phone, for obvious reasons. But if you've got a product to sell to docs, any opening is a huge gaping hole, and, even if the text message gets converted to a computer-voiced voice mail message, and, even if only the smallest percentage reach a bona fide phyz, maybe paying $60 a month for a bulk gateway account with few limits sounds good to you. And a good many of those published numbers are cell phones, some portion of them presumably reaching right into a doctor's pocket.
Bulk SMS has its Whitehat side, of course. Services that allow you to enter your customers' account info and send text billing notices, patient appointment reminders, among a host of other applications, are opening up the commercial use of phone messaging. I opted in for a J.C. Penney's coupon texting service, and I use it.
But let's say you've got a nice big customer list, folks who freely gave you their phone numbers (long before the advent of SMSpam, but still...). Can you send em all a coupon, or a new product announcement, or an offer of a free EHR assessment? I want to say no, but we send these same customers more-or-less "unsolicited" email, at least in the sense that they never explicitely said "Send me your coupons," but something more like "Send me product update notices via your monthly newsletter." That phone number was optional, right? Houston, we have achieved opt-in.
Certain advantages of smartphones, such as the ability to blacklist messagers, are a helpful control. The barriers to entry are currently very high for an SMSpammer who wants to set up his own unrestricted gateway, so he'll be using these third party services and, perhaps, have to behave himself. But look for text marketing to grow wildly in the near future.
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