Play: Use text messaging to reach people during social distancing

In this play:

This play was written by Alluma, with contributions from Civilla, Code for America, mRelief, and One Degree, all partners in the Social Tech Collaborative.

Text messaging can be a fast, low cost, and high impact way to strengthen communications, which is especially needed during a crisis. When done well, it can supplement existing communications, get information out to many recipients quickly, and help resolve questions and issues far faster and with less frustration.

96% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind and most people are familiar with and may even prefer communicating via text message. This approach can maximize the number of people reached compared to other methods (e.g. email, regular mail, web sites, apps, etc.) because almost everyone has a phone. Even cellphone users with more basic devices (e.g. not smartphones) support text messaging. It is important to note that some users are on limited usage plans and need to conserve calling minutes or smartphone data - your approach needs to take that into account.

Best practices for this play

What can be done quickly

For those who already have the ability to text message their clients, consider using the following tips as soon as possible:

  • Messages themselves should:
    • Be short (140 characters or less) so that they are not broken up over multiple text messages.
    • Use plain text instead of rich text or HTML.
    • Use a warm, affirming, and professional tone.
    • Use plain language free of jargon.
    • Indicate who it is from, to avoid suspicion that the message is spam.
    • Use the recipient’s first name, which can improve response rates.
    • Be clear what the request or request is, if there is one.
    • Include easy-to-answer questions - try asking only simple yes/no questions.
    • Have short web links (try that are tested on mobile devices in advance.
    • Include other means to connect for follow-up questions.
    • Be proofread and tested before sending, especially if going out to many people.
A few more points to consider
  • Show respect for users by:
    • Making it easy to opt in and out of text message communication.
    • Ensuring that text messaging protects users’ privacy and security, and be sure to let users know this as well.
  • Create a plan for how text messaging will be used. Create an electronic communications policy within your organization or agency outlining who, how, when, why, and for what text messaging will be used.
  • Remember that not everyone will be able to communicate by text message, and others simply do not like using it for certain situations, or at all. Text messaging can be just one of many communication methods you use.
What to aim for long term

If your organization or agency does not already have text messaging capability, explore your options. Depending on your situation, you may be able to quickly get text messaging capabilities up and running, or you may need more time. No matter which case, consider which approach below will best meet the needs of your organization and your clients: one-way text messaging, two-way text messaging, or a mix of both.

  • One-way text messaging is effective for short messages giving clients critical information or notifying them that basic action is required.
  • Two-way messaging is effective for anything in which back-and-forth communication is needed or would be helpful. It can be used for a variety of communication needs, including:
    • Gathering information,
    • Scheduling and confirming appointments, or
    • Resolving questions or issues.

Always respond - your clients need to hear from you! No matter which approach is used, respond to your clients. If staff are not able to reply quickly, send an automated response ensuring the sender that their message was received and that tells them what to expect next.


Related categories

Text messaging Interviews Remote User experience


We encourage feedback, comments, and contributions to the Social Tech Playbook. Do you have experience with this play that you can share with your colleagues in the social services sector? We’d love to hear from you.

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