Business RCS messaging: Will it ever be a workable solution for marketers?

Mobile Marketing

Business rich communication services (RCS) messaging has been waiting for its turn in the spotlight for well over a decade now. 

The long-awaited replacement to short message service (SMS) was first conceived back in 2008 but the progress of the new messaging platform has been stuttering at best. Many would call it an utter shambles.

For consumers at least, RCS is now available to all android users in the U.S. as Google rolled out the new messaging platform in December.

But where does this leave businesses and organizations that want to use RCS to market and communicate with their customers?

What is business RCS messaging?

RCS is the evolution of the clunky and outdated text message. SMS is over 25 years old and despite being an incredibly powerful and responsive channel, its replacement is well overdue.

With RCS you can send images, video and share files. The new protocol support read receipts and read notifications. Essentially it does everything that you’d want in a messaging app.

It doesn’t have any killer features to trump other apps but has the distinct advantage that it works in the same way that SMS does. As long as you have a mobile number, you’ll be able to send an RCS message.

At least, that’s the theory.

Business RCS faces multiple challenges

This leads us to the long list of problems that RCS faces before it can become a viable alternative to SMS.

Marketers are longing to get their hands on it. It could transform the way they communicate with their customers. But until all the issues are solved, RCS could be a spectacular failure.

On evaluating its chances of success, Tim Green from Mobile Ecosystem Forum said:

 “RCS is – for now at least – classic ‘vapourware’. It’s something that might take off… at some point in the future… we’re not sure when. “

– Tim Green

It’s highly unlikely that Apple will ever adopt RCS business messaging

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple is not going to adopt business RCS in the foreseeable future. It competes with its own iMessage and there is no reason why Apple would want its iPhone users moving away from it.

In a recent interview, Nick Lane from the UK-based research company Mobilesquared, said:

“In terms of supporting RCS business messaging, that won’t happen. Why would they want to do that?”

Nick Lane

As an alternative to RCS, marketers will need to deliver a text message to iPhone users containing a link to a mobile-optimized landing page that replicates the content of the RCS message.

It’s going to be highly complex and expensive to implement. For most, the benefits will not outweigh these additional hurdles.

Business RCS pricing is still unresolved

Industry insiders have been demanding some sort of resolution on pricing for the past three or four years and yet, we’re still waiting for clarity on what sending a business RCS is going to cost.

Nick Lane at Mobilesquared referred to the lack of progress as “groundhog day.”

A few pricing models have been suggested but these have all been complex or unrealistic.

RCS is different from SMS in that it encourages ongoing communication, rather than a simple one-way push of information. An RCS message flow might include multiple messages and interactions.

So unlike SMS, you need to have a pricing model that allows for multiple RCS but without the costs spiraling out of control.

One suggestion is to have a “cost per session.” Once an RCS conversation has begun, you simply pay a flat fee for a set period, probably 24 hours.

Another more outlandish idea is to set the price of RCS based on the profit that results from the RCS exchange. Thankfully this idea seems to have quietly disappeared. It would have been unworkable and impossible to regulate.

RCS tokens

Mobilesquared appears to be taking the lead on pricing with its token-based proposal.

Their suggestion is that you would purchase a block of RCS tokens from your RCS provider. Different types of RCS messages would use different numbers of tokens.

If you were sending a simple image then you might use one token but if you had a scrollable element or button options, then you would use two.

How this would work in reality is unclear, as there will be almost infinite numbers of ways that an RCS message could be presented.

The whole pricing of business RCS is still in utter chaos and without a universally agreed approach, RCS simply can’t be used.

RCS messaging is not encrypted and can lead to hacking

Surprisingly RCS, unlike most other messaging apps, is not end-to-end encrypted. It uses the same rules and protocols as SMS.

Network providers can keep records of all RCS messages in a fully readable format and these could be accessible to anyone with legitimate legal access.

More recently there have been troubling security concerns when German security company SRLabs demonstrated that RCS could allow hackers to access SMS and voice data. Sloppy implantation of RCS by both Google and carriers could allow messages and calls to be intercepted or altered at will.

SRLabs founder Karsten Nohl argues that:

“RCS gives us the capability to read your text messages and listen to your calls. You’re going to be more vulnerable to hackers because your network decided to activate RCS. If you put out a new technology for a billion people, you should define the whole security concept.”

– Karsten Nohl

10 years on and we’re still in case study mode

As the years drift past, we still haven’t seen any examples where companies are using RCS as an integrated part of their customer communications.

There have been some very eye-catching case studies, notably Subway who achieved a 140% uplift in sales with their RCS campaign in early 2019. 

The latest RCS campaign from Papa Johns in the UK achieved a 23% uplift compared to SMS.

But these campaigns are all one-off marketing tactics. You send an RCS message and then measure the sales and compare it to your usual response rates. Then you dash off a press release, trumpeting your success which is then gleefully published in the world’s marketing press.

But this is all a bit thin. We don’t see any companies who have taken RCS to the next stage of its development.

Until we see examples where a company has integrated RCS into all their other communications and tackled the complexity of having a solution for iPhone users, RCS will remain on the fringes, with promising potential but never quite delivering.

Unsustainable response rates

The fast food RCS case studies have produced impressive response rates. But it’s unlikely that these sky-high results will be sustainable.

As users become accustomed to the new messaging, then response rates are likely to settle down to levels that are similar to SMS.

Unless you believe that RCS messaging can increase the amount of pizza sold globally, then we’re bound to witness a readjustment to the high levels of engagement that the early case studies delivered.

A long and uncertain road ahead for RCS

With the catalog of issues facing RCS business messaging, it’s hard to predict when and even if it will become a credible option for marketers.

Just one of the problems would be challenging enough but with so many forces working against it, RCS may never emerge as a fully formed communication platform.

Optimism, goodwill and great case studies will only get the new channel so far. If RCS is to become a success, we need to see wide adoption in the next 12 months or it may sink without trace.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Henry is a two-time entrepreneur, founder and director of The SMS Works, a low cost and robust SMS API for developers. He’s been involved in SMS and mobile marketing since 1999 and helps companies of all sizes develop integrated mobile strategies. Henry also writes on a range of topics from mobile marketing to entrepreneurship.

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